The McPherson Tape: The Strange Story of an Allegedly “Real” Alien Abduction Video

There are many strange tales that have made the rounds among UFO lore. Some are credible and have good evidence to support them, others are more nebulous, and others still lie somewhere in between. Back when the found footage style of filmmaking was pretty much non-existent,  a curious video began to make the rounds, which would launch itself into the lore of UFOs and would manage to remain held up as real even as those who made it actively tried to debunk it.

Back in 1989 a rather unique VHS video began making the rounds. Called simply UFO Abduction, it was presented as a home video taken at the home of the McPherson family, who were celebrating the 5th birthday of their young daughter Michelle at their remote country house in the mountains of Northwoods, Connecticut, in the United States. The video, which is stated to have been taken on the evening of October 8, 1983, and was filmed by Michelle’s uncle, starts out normally, and just shows a mundane, very normal birthday party, with banter and bickering among the family members. It is actually almost rather boring until things start to get strange when the power suddenly cuts out. After a brief bit of panic and chatter, the men go out to check the breaker and it is then that they see a UFO sitting out in the field, complete with grey-type aliens milling about it. The camera goes shaky as the one filming tries to fight off his panic while filming, and when the aliens turn to them, they run inside and tell everyone what has happened in a chaotic exchange of panic and fear.

Once indoors they lock the door and things get intense very quickly. There can be heard movement outside, and what sounds like someone walking up on the roof, causing the men to grab shotguns to protect themselves. At one point one of them fires upon one of the aliens through the roof and they can hear it fall off to the ground below. One of the men dares to go outside to retrieve the body, despite the pleading from his family to not go outside, and he then puts the body into another room, from which it is later found to have disappeared. The rest of the film then follows the family trying to get through the alien siege upon their home, and the video ends with the rather ominous shot of the videographer, Michael, putting down the camera, which is still running, in the corner of the room, after which three aliens can be seen to stealthily file into the room. As the picture begins to shake with static and interference, one of the aliens turns to look right at the camera. Cut to black. After this there are no credits, just a title card that says the family all vanished without a trace and contains a number to call if anyone has any information on the family’s whereabouts.

At the time this undoubtedly creepy video made the rounds, found footage films weren’t really a thing. This was a full decade before the Blair Witch Project, so to people seeing it for the first time it was all very convincing. The natural unscripted banter between the family members, amateurish framing, overlapping voices, the shaky camera, the low lighting and genuine sense of palpable fear and utter confusion when the alien menace makes itself known, the number for people to call at the end, and the fact that the 60-minute film is largely shot in one take, all had not been done in film before, and served to be extremely realistic and give the impression that this was an actual video. There is even a title card in the beginning of the film announcing that the footage is authentic, and at no point is there any disclaimer that what is being seen is fiction. Considering that found footage films were not a thing at the time, the film had not been officially distributed on a wide scale, showing up mostly as bootlegs, and the sheer, uncompromising realism of the footage, people had no reason to not believe it was a real home video, and so soon what was being called “The McPherson Tape” was soon making the rounds within the UFO community as an actual film of a family being abducted by aliens. Many were convinced of the tape’s authenticity, with much discussion and debate devoted to picking apart the movie frame by frame looking for clues.

The film would even show up on an episode of the paranormal TV show Encounters, during which various experts came forward to vouch for the credibility of the film, including an Air Force Colonel who was convinced it was not faked. In reality, the film was a no-budget project put together by director and film school dropout Dean Alioto, after having read Whitley Strieber’s book Communion. He had scrounged together $6,500 to make it, and says of this:

All my favorite directors had made their debuts by that age and I didn’t want to be left behind. By that point, I had dropped out of film school and was just eager to make films. I made a producer who said he wanted to invest $6,500 and I kind of laughed it off and said the only thing I could do for that money is a home video. At the time I had been reading this memoir called Communion by Whitley Strieber, who described his own abduction by aliens. So, I decided to take the abduction storyline and embed it into a home video. I wrote out a 10-page beat sheet with the description of every scene. Everything outside of that was improvised. I gave the actors short backstories, but they filled in the blanks themselves. I thought I could just cue people by screaming ‘Oh my God, what is that?’ and pan the camera over and everyone would know to go to the next scene.

A still from the footage

Alioto then basically got a bunch of friends together to act in his movie, with even himself playing a role, and with children playing the aliens. Ironically, it was this shoestring budget that contributes to the convincingly realistic feel of the film, with the shifty dark lighting and shaky camera lending it a certain macabre credibility. Other factors also helped to launch the video into talk of being real. Shortly after the film was completed, the warehouse holding all of the copies had a fire, destroying almost all of them, as well as the master print, to ensure that the video only got a very limited release, mostly just a handful of advance copies sent out to a few mom-and-pop video shops, and largely appearing as bootleg copies. On top of this, the video contains absolutely no credits, meaning that no one linked it to Alioto. All of this made sure that the McPherson Tape was achieving a status akin to the The War of the Worlds  broadcast, being taken as real, and Alioto was doing nothing to stop it. Indeed, he had no idea that rumors about his film were flying, and was just as surprised as anyone else when he learned that it was being taken as real within the UFO field. He would say of this:

I got a phone call for a guy saying that he just found this footage. I kid you not, he actually said that. Then he says that my name came up and describes the movie. I tell him that I didn’t find the movie, I made it. He tells me that he saw it at the International UFO Congress Convention, which is the biggest UFO convention in the world, and that the movie was presented with no credits. It gets better. The guy that told me all this then said that there are some TV shows that want to do a story on the movie, including Unsolved Mysteries, Hard Copy, and a FOX show called Encounters. I told him the first one was out because this mystery was pretty much solved. But we went with Encounters and they did this seven-minute segment that they did on ‘The world’s greatest UFO hoax’ for their program in the early ‘90s. I went on national TV and debunked my own movie.

He would essentially appear on Encounters again to debunk the original segment they did saying it was all real, and it is all rather bizarre. After his appearance on the show, he became an overnight celebrity, being given a larger budget to remake the original as a 1998 made-for-TV movie titled Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, which changes names and location, as well as certain beats and adds a lot of new elements such as alien ray guns and cattle mutilation, and which is additionally often mistaken with the original. Unbelievably, all of this only served to make the original more popular and mysterious, and for conspiracy theorists to double down on their belief that the McPherson Tape was actually real. For instance, it was pointed out that the aliens shown are too thin and willowy even for children, and that the actors’ reactions are too authentic to be faked. Not only were people insisting it was real, but that Alioto was being used as a puppet to discredit it. Alioto would say of this:

Things got blown out of proportion. News channels did exposés on the movie, and people started believing that the original VHS footage was real, and that the government had hired me to make the TV remake as part of a disinformation campaign to discredit the original.

Indeed, Alioto has spent much of his time raiding forums on the film that are still debating the footage to this day, in order to debunk his own film, mostly in vain. Indeed, to this day there is a large number of people who are convinced that the McPherson footage is real, and that Ariolo’s debunking is part of a misinformation campaign to cover it all up. Whether real or not, the film has become a sort of cultural phenomenon within the field of Ufology, only furthered when the remake’s Blu-ray released in 2019 lined up with famous alleged Area 51 insider Bob Lazar’s appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. Unfortunately, the original film has no surviving master copy, is extremely hard to find, and has been over the years tinkered with and interspersed with CGI clips. It has all gone on to take a life of its own, and it is at the very least the earliest found footage film to be taken as possibly real, cementing its place within the realm of weird stories within the UFO field.

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