Two teenage boys arrived out of breath, "distressed and agitated," at a police station in Chasetown, England, late one night in May 1995. They had just run from a field in nearby Staffordshire, where they reported that they had seen a spaceship land.
Haltingly, they told police that a "lemon shaped head" had appeared out from underneath the craft and tried to lure them near. "We want you, come with us," a voice said to them.
When police went out the next day to investigate, a farmer who had been out watering crops told them he'd seen nothing, and spoken to no one.
This account, found among some 4,000 pages of UFO files released this week by the National Archives, was just one of 117 sightings documented by the Ministry of Defense in 1995. The next year, the number of sightings skyrocketed to 609, the second-highest on record.
"The most likely explanation for the unusual spike in numbers during 1996 and 1997 was that public awareness of UFOs and aliens was at an all-time high," journalist and the National Archives' UFO consultant David Clarke wrote on his blog. "Those years were the culmination of a period in which images of UFOs and aliens had saturated popular culture."
It was the year of Independence Day – the summer blockbuster in which Will Smith battles hostile aliens – and X-Files mania. That year, too, UFO Magazine appeared on newsstands throughout the UK.
And in 1978 – the year that still holds the record for most UFO sightings in the UK – "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was a smash hit in theaters.
"I'm not saying people are imagining things," said Clarke. "When there's a film that raises public awareness, it gives people the impetus not to keep things to themselves, but to report them."
It was "Close Encounters" that first got Clarke interested in UFOs and alien sightings, at the age of 13. Since then, he has become an expert in the field. Part of his role as the UFO consultant for the National Archives was to read through all 4,000 pages of documents – which he did in three days – and pick out the highlights.
"I was looking out for anything with police involved, with aircraft being scrambled, where there was evidence at the scene," Clarke said.
He found a few, including one from 1996 in which a man reported seeing and being chased by a bright yellow light. The light then stopped and hovered over the cemetery and began emitting a high pitched sound and beams of light towards the ground. He and his father then went back to the area and found a hole burned into railway sleepers (ties) on the ground below where the beams of light had been.
"I have been to location with Ian and the sleepers have been burnt and there is a hole in one of the sleepers. There does not appear to be any trace of any accelerant. One of the sleepers is still smoldering it does look rather odd," wrote the officer who took the report. The man who reported the incident, he added, "appears to be a sensible sort of lad and genuine."
The report ends there.
The pages of the 14 new files released by the Ministry and the National Archives detail 800 sightings reported between 1981 and 1996. By lunchtime in England on Monday, more than 40,000 people had visited the site and downloaded the files.
The fact remains that most reported UFO sightings can be chalked up to mundane things like airplane lights, satellites, planets, lightning and balloons. But even from 1959-1973, when the Ministry of Defense was conducting thorough investigations into reported UFO sightings, Clarke said, they were still unable to explain about 10 percent of sightings. A Ministry study suggests that the majority of those that remain unexplained can likely be attributed to "atmospheric plasma," or unknown natural phenomena, rather than spacecraft.
But calling it atmospheric plasma, Clarke said, "is really just giving a name to something we don't understand."