121

As I show below, typical alien depictions include an elongated, pale face, two dark elliptical eyes, and a small mouth. Who first used this design for an alien? Where does this design come from?

A sample image

  • 39
    I have a newborn right now. Looks pretty damn similar to me. – James Sheridan Nov 13 '14 at 8:04
  • 10
    @JamesSheridan Mulder and Scully will be around shortly. Make sure you check their ID before you let them into the house. – David Richerby Nov 13 '14 at 11:45
  • 35
    From real aliens, obviously. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 13 '14 at 17:22
  • 8
    It's worth noting that the behavior of the aliens as described by abductees pretty closely follows the behavior of the Fey Folk as described by traditional tales, with a think veneer of science slapped on it. Which I'm sure convinces the believers that that the elves were aliens, but which convinces most of us that aliens are just the modern version of blaming everything on the unseelie. – keshlam Nov 14 '14 at 2:07
  • 8
    Grey? I was brought up knowing them as green. – IQAndreas Nov 14 '14 at 6:51
150
+200

Arguably it all started with the Outer Limits episode "The Berrello Shield" from october 1964.

According to wikipedia, the grey aliens, also known as "Zeta Reticulans" rose to fame following the alleged abduction of Barney and Betty Hill in New Hampshire in 1961. The couple underwent hypnosis in 1964 to retrieve memories of the abduction and it was from these sessions that the following sketches were produced:

enter image description here

The topmost sketch is Barney's own, while the lower two were performed by David Baker based on Barney's description. In 1990, abduction-debunker Martin Kottmeyer remarked on the resemblance between the alien described in the 1964 hypnosis session and the alien in the Outer Limits episode that had aired two weeks before the session:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

The Barney and Betty Hill abduction received great publicity and is acknowledged as the start of the grey alien trope, but it was probably this character from a TV show that was the original inspiration.

We can see how artists, from the very first second-hand sketch, have made free associations from the descriptions, bringing in their own visual memories. The David Baker sketches for instance, lack the completely black eyes, thin body and oversized heads that later foetus-inspired artists would use. Note that not even the abductee himself drew eyes like that! The artist David Baker instead seems to lean toward the face of a burn-victim.

enter image description here

Lasse Gustavsson, former firefighter and present motivational speaker, is probably fine with illustrating "face of burn-victim". Note how the nose resembles just two slits, like in the modern grey alien.

  • 13
    The idea that future humans--and thus perhaps, advanced aliens--would have big bald heads and spindly short bodies had been around for a while in science fiction, see here, so that may have been a general influence on the Barney Hill, or a sort of influence-by-proxy on the Outer Limits episode which inspired Hill's hypnotic imaginings (the eyes do suggest he was influenced by that episode in particular). – Hypnosifl Nov 13 '14 at 22:22
  • 6
    Some more good stuff on precursors to gray aliens in this article, and two very long blog posts on the early history of big bald-headed aliens in science fiction can be found here, with part 3 (detailing earlier alien encounter stories predating the Hills') here. – Hypnosifl Nov 14 '14 at 0:58
  • 1
    Firefighter... burn-victim face... rescue... abductions... during the night... Maybe firefighters became Greys? – Izkata Nov 14 '14 at 5:42
  • 3
    Great stuff. For the record 'The Bellero Shield' is not the only appearance of the Grey archetype in The Outer Limits. The episode 'Wolf 359' (first broadcast in November 1964) featured an alien creature that sported the exact same face of what was to become the classic modern Grey, many years before the almond-eye shaped alien became the gold standard of alien abduction. – user72188 Sep 29 '16 at 15:37
37

While @Abulafia's is wonderful, the Outer Limits was not the origin of the archetypal "grey alien". The Outer Limits simply helped to proliferate a pre-existing image.

Grey aliens in The Unknown Danger (1933)

The first description of such extraterrestrials appeared three decades earlier in Swedish author Gustav Sandgren's novel Den okända faran: En framtidssyn (The Unknown Danger: A Vision of the Future). It was written under Sandgren's pen name "Gabriel Linde".

In Sandgren's novel, we find the following familiar description of a race of extraterrestrials:

"...the creatures did not resemble any race of humans. They were short, shorter than the average Japanese, and their heads were big and bald, with strong, square foreheads, and very small noses and mouths, and weak chins. What was most extraordinary about them were the eyes — large, dark, gleaming, with a sharp gaze. They wore clothes made of soft grey fabric, and their limbs seemed to be similar to those of humans."

(Source: "Grey Alien")

The novel was accompanied by illustrations of the aliens. Unfortunately, I can't track down the illustrations, but Sandgren's written description is clearly the prototype for the modern "grey alien".

Authors and illustrators — Sandgren included — may have been influenced by an even earlier (non-fiction) article by H.G. Wells. In 1893, Wells wrote "Man of the Year Million", in which he projected that humanity would evolve into a race of short, grey-skinned beings with enlarged heads and eyes.

                                                        enter image description here

Wells reinforced this with the Morlocks in The Time Machine (1895), through which this image became synonymous with "highly evolved". However, since it was Sandgren who made the leap of applying this to extraterrestrials, I contend that the credit for introducing the "grey alien" should lie with Sandgren.

  • 3
    He used the pseudonym "Gabriel Linde" for that book. This search term throws up a 1953 cover, which while being drawn 20 years later, hint at the standard big eyes and corroborates your claim: bokstugan.se/bokbilder/11839.jpg Notice how the extraterrestrial is here a green man, following the "little green men" trope that has been in use about extraterrestrials since 1908 and supernatural beings since the 11-hundreds [1] [1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_green_men – Abulafia Jul 7 '15 at 11:46
1

It's hard to pin down. Wikipedia's article on Grey Aliens states that

The origin of the idea of the Grey is commonly associated with the Barney and Betty Hill abduction claim which took place in 1961, although skeptics see precursors in science fiction and earlier paranormal claims. The Grey aliens are also famous from earlier depictions of the Roswell UFO incident from 1947.

In other answers and comments on this page you can find a number of possible earlier references, including this from keshlam:

It's worth noting that the behavior of the aliens as described by abductees pretty closely follows the behavior of the Fey Folk as described by traditional tales, with a think veneer of science slapped on it. Which I'm sure convinces the believers that that the elves were aliens, but which convinces most of us that aliens are just the modern version of blaming everything on the unseelie.

Given how far back these kind of sightings go, and how common the grey alien is among current UFO sightings, it's at least possible that this appearance is not something that some sci-fi author came up with, but instead the actual appearance of actual aliens. Or fey-folk. Or extra-dimensional visitors. Or future humans come back in a time machine to fulfill a cylical paradox requiring their presence. Or something.

0

Check out Mekon from Dan Dare. He first appeared in the comic in 1950 enter image description here

  • 3
    Welcome to Sci Fi and Fantast SE, do you have any evidence to suggest this is the first time an alien was designed like this? Or a source link to the history of this image? – Edlothiad Jan 16 '17 at 20:04
  • 2
    Also, this looks more green than grey to me... – user58 Jan 16 '17 at 20:13

protected by Skooba Oct 5 '17 at 15:02

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.