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How the Area 51 Raid Meme Became the Biggest Joke in the Galaxy

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

People organize events on Facebook all the time. But rarely do 1.5 million RSVP to attend. Yet that’s what happened when three pseudonymous users created an event to “storm Area 51,” the secretive military base in southern Nevada that has long been associated in the pop culture imagination with extraterrestrial activity. Now, the Area 51 raid has become a meme, inspired stars like Lil Nas X to jump on the bandwagon and galvanized the Air Force itself to share a response. The instigator of it all, a college student named Matty Roberts, has even recently suggested they might turn the event into a music festival. Here’s how the Area 51 meme all happened and the latest developments.

The Facebook event

Back on June 27, the public event “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” appeared on Facebook. It’s hosted by three users: one a meme account, one a “gaming video creator” and one an event planning account. As of July 22, 1.9 million people RSVPed to “attend,” with another 1.4 million responding as “interested.”

The plan is simple: on Sept. 20 at 3:00 a.m., the group will arrive. “We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry,” the event explains. “If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens [sic].” (“Naruto” running is a style of running popularized by the Japanese anime character of the same name, in which the arms are held behind the body while in motion.)

Since then, a conversation of tens of thousands of comments has developed, with more intricate maps and planning. The most popular comment with a plan of attack, however, has an important disclaimer: “P.S. Hello US government, this is a joke, and I do not actually intend to go ahead with this plan,” the commenter wrote. “I just thought it would be funny and get me some thumbsy uppies on the internet.” It’s gotten 112,000 likes, so that was a success.

The #StormArea51 memes

Inevitably, the plan became a meme with a (extraterrestrial) life of its own over the following few weeks. The internet began sharing animations and illustrations of all kinds of scenes with added aliens — or plans on how to care for and live with said aliens. These memes picked up speed in the second week of July.

The Air Force response

Thanks to the widespread popularity of the plan, the Air Force itself went so far as to clarify that any prospective attendees should definitely stay away. “Any attempt to illegally access military installations or military training areas is dangerous,” a spokesperson shared in a statement to various news outlets on July 16, noting that Area 51 — also called the Nellis Test and Training Range — is technically just “an area where the Air Force tests and trains combat aircraft.”

Hotels preparing for visitors

Most people seem in on the farcical nature of the joke. But at least two small hotels in the area are booked solid for Sept. 20: one alien-themed establishment and the Alamo Inn on Highway 93, as TIME confirmed. At the same time, there’s still plenty of availability in local AirBnBs and other lodgings, like Timbers Lodging, which has been expecting more reservations because of the event but hasn’t yet noticed any difference. On Wednesday, the hotels nearest the Area 51 Alien Center, the official starting point identified on the Facebook event, all told TIME that it’s business as usual for their reservations in September.

That said, local officials are preparing for an uptick — because even if a tiny fraction of the event’s attendees actually do show up, it’s still much more than the rural area is used to, as local news is reporting.

The Lil Nas X video

On July 16, viral rapper Lil Nas X blew things up even further by releasing an animated music video for a remix of his record-breaking chart hit “Old Town Road” with country star Billy Ray Cyrus, rapper Young Thug and famous Walmart yodeling kid Mason Ramsey. In a Family Guy-esque style, the video imagines a scenario in which Area 51 security is forced to respond to the threat of the four artists arriving on horseback (and, well, snake-back in the case of Young Thug), with the assistance of none other than meme favorite Keanu Reeves. (Reeves, naturally, is pictured “Naruto running.”) They befriend the aliens within and ride off into the sunset. The video is number five on YouTube’s trending chart as of July 17, with over 3 million views. It also has spawned its own sort of meta-memes.

The “Storm Area 51” website

The organizing group has also launched a website to go with their plan, noting that “something big is coming.” But as of publish, the site is mostly a place for them to sell merch associated with the proposed Area 51 raid.

An animal shelter asks to be “stormed”

One Oklahoma animal shelter jumped on the “storm Area 51” bandwagon with an ask of its own: instead of heading to the Nevada desert, people should get themselves to the animal shelter and “raid” their ranks, taking home new pets in need of homes. “Come storm our shelter,” the invited in a Facebook post. “We have great animals ready to protect you from the Area 51 aliens. Adoption isn’t that far out of this world!” Hard to resist that logic.

The organizer is unveiled

It turns out that the main account behind the Facebook event that kicked everything off is a student named Matty Roberts, who’s studying petroleum engineering at Bakersfield College in California. Over the weekend, Roberts was interviewed for local news — and admitted that, yes, the event was a joke, and people should take the warnings seriously.

“I don’t want anyone to actually get hurt with this,” he told KERO-TV. “It started out as just from a pure stroke of imagination. It was meant to be funny. I want to do something cool out there, now that we have a bunch of people, but I don’t want anybody to get hurt.” He added that so far the government has not contacted him directly about his plans. “I figured the FBI would be knocking on my door right about now, but nobody has shown up, nobody’s tried to contact me, nobody’s messaged the page. It’s interesting, for sure,” he told the channel.

An Area 51 music festival plan is floated

But Roberts had more to say: he’s interested in turning the event’s popularity into a real gathering, even if it’s not about storming Area 51 after all. “I want to make it like a festival of sorts,” Roberts told the same station. He expressed an interest in bringing together artists ranging from EDM to indie rock and smaller acts. “I’ve had a lot of people DM’ing the page saying their bands want to play there, which would be super cool,” Roberts said.

While the raid itself may be a big joke, it has developed a life of its own that will live on in internet lore — at least on this planet.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com