George Adamski was the first alien “contactee” to build a worldwide following in the 1950. The contactee movement was fairly amorphous until it gained a more solid, cultlike form in the Aetherians (a group founded by a British mystic who claimed to communicate with the Cosmic Master Aetherius) and later, Heaven’s Gate and the Raelians.
But Roswell enthusiasts are inevitably lumped together with predatory cults, according to Eugene Taylor, Ph.D., Harvard historian and author of Shadow Culture: Psychology and Spirituality in America. Typically formed around a single person, sects of alien believers peaked in popularity at the height of the New Age movement in the 1980s and most recently made the headlines in a sinister way.
Followers of the Heaven’s Gate sect committed suicide to join forces with a UFO heralded by the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997. A group known as the Order of the Solar Temple staged mass suicides in Europe and Canada during the 1990s; members planned to relocate to a satellite of the star Sirius.
This is not to say that all so-called UFO cults are self-destructive. Many have origins in benign gatherings of alien enthusiasts, so-called “client cults” in which individuals–many with New Age leanings–follow a charismatic figure, minus the indoctrination and brainwashing. The Raelian movement is thought to be among the last of a dozen or so left. “What they’ve done is melded together what is probably the single-best known religious mythology in the Western world, which is Christianity, with UFOs,” said Douglas Cowan, a religious studies professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.