I had no idea, until I turned up at what is billed as the first-ever convention dedicated entirely to alien culture, that the original Star Trek was most likely a sophisticated CIA-backed operation.

I did not know that Shirley MacLaine had once reportedly witnessed little creatures flitting around her feet while scouting a ranch property, and I did not know that meteors are the most pressing threat to our existence on earth, and I did not know that aliens abhor colonics or that Johnny Cash reportedly had a flying saucer encounter in Nashville or that the 10th planet in our solar system may in fact be an artificial Death-Star like construct inhabited by extraterrestrials.

There are many things I did not know before I set foot in an otherwise drab convention center in Santa Clara, California, last weekend, for the event known as Alien Con, and there are many things about which I still don’t really have a fucking clue. But I can say this for certain: There are people who believe such things to be fundamental truths, and believe in them vehemently.

These are heady days for conspiracy theorists of all kinds, but particularly for alien enthusiasts, who now believe that we are on the verge of uncovering the truth that Mulder and Scully spent the ’90s trolling for.

Many of them are the same people who regularly watch a program called Ancient Aliens on the History Channel, which explores the notion of extraterrestrials having visited earth for millions of years, and which served as the primary sponsor and facilitator of this convention. Many of them also devour articles and books and reports written by investigative journalists like Linda Moulton Howe, who served as the primary speaker during a panel discussion so popular with Alien Con attendees that they wound up moving it to a standing-room only space to accommodate the crowd.

It was Howe who brought up the Star Trek hypothesis, which posits that Trek creator Gene Rodenberry was regularly fed information by the CIA in order to help ease Americans into the notion that intelligent life existed outside of earth. It was Howe’s fellow panelist, journalist Jim Marrs, who then clarified that Rodenberry was likely not part of any nefarious plot—he was merely being given details about classified reports so he could infuse the show with heightened realism.

And it was Marrs who also grounded us in this moment by noting that the original Trek cast essentially communicated via flip phone, and that we now exist in a whole new paradigm, in an era that has advanced even beyond what Rodenberry and the CIA could conjure, and that we should “be thankful we live in these times.”

These are heady days for conspiracy theorists of all kinds, but particularly for alien enthusiasts, who now believe that we are on the verge of uncovering the truth that Mulder and Scully spent the ’90s trolling for. The Internet, and particularly WikiLeaks, has provided new fodder for investigators and theorists like Howe and Marrs, to the point that they no longer feel like they’re working from the fringe. Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta was revealed in Wikileaks’ hacked e-mails to be taking these questions seriously (never mind that some of those e-mails were sent by the guitarist from Blink-182), and Clinton herself, in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel earlier this year, said that she would like to declassify as much of the government files on “unexplained aerial phenomena” as she possibly could. “If there’s nothing there,” Clinton told Kimmel, “let’s tell people there’s nothing there.”

“What if there is something there?” Kimmel responded.

This was the entire subtextual premise of Alien Con: Of course there’s something there. There may be thousands of somethings there. The possibilities, as Alien Con showed, are as endless as the permutations of the human imagination. And if only we keep digging, if only we keep angling, if only we keep pushing, we’re closer than ever to finding out exactly what it is.

Ancient Aliens host Giorgio Tsoukalos was mobbed by fans, some of whom were so starstruck that I actually worried they might faint face-first onto the convention center’s dingy carpet.

Until then, of course, we have no goddamned clue which of these somethings might be real and which might be bullshit. Until then, everything and anything is possible, which means the extraterrestrial-enthusiast realm operates under a pretty massive umbrella. That’s what made Alien Con such an eclectic confluence—it took in everyone under that umbrella, blending science and pseudo-science and speculative fiction and conspiracy theory into a bizarre mash-up with the tagline, “Science Fact. Science Fiction. Science Future.”

In one massive ballroom, you could find an extended line of people awaiting the opportunity to have a book signed by David H. Childress, a regular on Ancient Aliens and the author of such tomes as The Free Energy Device Handbook and Extraterrestrial Archaeology; you could find stars of science-fiction programs such as Lost In Space and Battlestar Galactica, signing autographs and taking pictures for cash; you could browse amongst vendors selling graphic novels and T-shirts and action figures and anime while Alien star Tom Skerritt read a newspaper; and you could engage with independent theorists like Michael Brumfield, who sat at an exhibitors’ table eating a salad not far from where Ancient Aliens host Giorgio Tsoukalos was mobbed by fans, some of whom were so starstruck that I actually worried they might faint face-first onto the convention center’s dingy carpet.

There was a bit of divide at Alien Con, it would seem, between those who viewed all of this with a wink and a nudge, those who were more into the universe of light saber duels and R2-D2 builders and speculative science-fiction, and the questers who were actively seeking answers in the real world. (And those somewhere in between, like the Scientologist who gave me a long hard sell of L. Ron Hubbard’s novel Battlefield Earth.) But many, like Brumfield, were firmly in the latter camp.

All around Brumfield, people were offering books and posters and nifty little handbags for purchase; best as I could tell Brumfield, a Nashville songwriter who told me the Johnny Cash UFO story, had nothing to sell. He said he’d sold out of his book, which is titled Reality: Escape from Planet Earth. The rest of his table was adorned with hand-typed signs and fliers (“Philanthropist/Investment Opportunity 50% of Mike’s Books $50,000 Proceeds go to stop Meteors”), including smoking-gun evidence about Easter Island and the “Owl Man of Peru,” as well as several warnings of the danger of a meteor destroying the earth. Brumfield thinks Ancient Aliens is largely bunk; he believes that aliens would not inhabit earth, because planets are finite and space is infinite (or something like that). He also told me he’s devised a new theory of evolution, because “Darwin’s theory is vague,” and to be honest that’s where he started to lose me a little bit, but at the very least it’s clear he’s got this logic straight in his own head.

I’m not going to lie: I am somewhat skeptical about the theoretical basis for Brumfield’s hypothesis, just as I was skeptical listening to Childress explain his notions about ancient mummies and time travel while signing autographs and wearing a T-shirt that read, “Science.” But nevertheless, there’s something powerful about being in a place where people believe in their own theories so strongly that they’re willing to tolerate your skepticism. I don’t think most of these people were simply paranoid conspiracy theorists like, say, the toxic radio host Alex Jones. They were more narrowly focused, less hostile, less inherently political. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something kind of weird about hearing sentences like I’ve been resesarching freemasons for a long time delivered with a complete lack of irony. But there was an underlying faith driving the believers at Alien Con that felt like a religion of its own: There are a million different permutations of this story, but they were united by the conviction that something was out there.

“I was driving with some friends in Wisconsin in 1976, and we saw a man in a cornfield,” a woman named Cindy Papp told me. Papp was here selling products like aura-cleansing soap and Earth Energy Squishies comprised of crystals that she insists helped her recover from several serious diseases. When I asked her about aliens, she started telling me about the people—respectable professionals who work as lawyers and accounts—who come into her holistic health office and speak of being abducted. Something must be going on, Papp said, and she referred me to the work of a Harvard professor named John Mack, who studied alien abductions. And then she told me that story about the cornfield in Wisconsin, and how they saw the man in the cornfield, and her friend began to drive into the field, and the next thing they knew they woke up eight hours later, with no idea what the hell happened.

“After that,” she said, “we never spoke of it again. But then a few years ago I saw a TV show with a woman running through a cornfield. And it all came back to me.”

They lost me at times, like when they delved into alleged UFO cover-ups in Texas in 1897 and one involving Franklin Delano Roosevelt and 37-degree masons, but on the fundamental notion behind Alien Con—on the notion of life existing outside of earth—science and speculation are beginning to converge.

People see things and experience things like this all the time, Linda Fleschtner told me, and they want to share it with someone who isn’t going to dismiss them out of hand. Fleschtner was ringing up purchases at a table sponsored by MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, a research and investigation organization that’s been around since 1969. MUFON has no ties to the government, but does employ hundreds of “field investigators” who look into reported UFO sightings; they maintain a database of sightings and attempt to verify whether the sightings are due to explicable or inexplicable phenomenon. Roughly 20 percent, Fleschtner told me, can’t be attributed to natural earthly things. Of those, Fleschtner estimates maybe half—or 10 percent of all sightings—are “alien” of some kind.

Fleschtner referred me to Ben Mezrich’s book The 37th Parallel, about a computer programmer who investigates the unexplained. She told me her brother is MUFON’s “cattle mutilation expert,” and that her sister is involved with MUFON, as well, and when I asked her why her entire family gravitated toward the unexplained, she says that they “saw stuff” in Arizona when they were kids and never really spoke about it until they were grown up. When I asked her what kind of stuff she saw, she demurs.

“I can’t tell you,” she said, “because it involves part of my family.”

MUFON’s site, when I click on it, links to a recent Esquire story headlined, “Cracking the Crackpot Vote,” which is about Clinton and Trump’s attempts to win over true UFO believers. Among the people quoted is MUFON’s communications director, who expresses skepticism that either Clinton or Trump would actually allow the truth to be revealed. “The carrot has been dangled too many times in the past,” he told Esquire.

And yet not everyone is so skeptical, particularly not the participants in that panel discussion anchored by Linda Moulton Howe. They saw this as a potential tipping point, as the moment when their theories graduate from tin-foil hat pseudoscientific absurdity into the realm of rationality. Again, they lost me at times, like when they delved into alleged UFO cover-ups in Texas in 1897 and one involving Franklin Delano Roosevelt and 37-degree masons, but on the fundamental notion behind Alien Con—on the notion of life existing outside of earth—science and speculation are beginning to converge.

“There’s a feeling that some of these things people call myths are actually realities,” said Nick Pope, a former employee at the British Ministry of Defense who joined the panel with Howe and Marrs, and who resembles John Oliver’s slightly batty uncle. The thinking, Pope says, is that the increasing rise of corporations–the involvement of tech billionaires like Elon Musk in the space program, and the notion forwarded by Musk and others that we are actually living in a computer simulation—may lead to a freer flow of information about extraterrestrial life than what the government could (and would) provide. In some ways, Pope told the crowd, the battle had already been won.

“You don’t shock people,” Pope said, “by telling them something they already believe.”

After that, Howe launched into a tangent about the lifespan of praying mantises, and I wandered out of the room and through the crowded hallway. Eventually, I came across a man named Jack Heart, who was selling a book called The Tek-Gnostics Heresies. I’m not going to pretend as if I understood Heart’s theories about the universe, but he seemed at least as interested in why we subscribe to stories like these as he did in the stories themselves. The imagery changes over time, he told me (while invoking Jung and Daoism, among other things), but the basic premise does not.

“Our ace in the hole, our best trick we’ve got, is storytelling,” Heart said. “And I don’t believe all of this”—he gestured at this ballroom, packed with convention-goers—“to be frivolous. I think it’s very meaningful. A lot of us would not resonate with the tale if it didn’t mean something to us.”

And so we keep searching, and we keep asking questions, and we keep buying books, and we keep forming theories, and we keep combing through Wikileaks dumps and dispatches from government officials, searching for whatever something might be out there. But that’s the thing: If we discover some definitive truth, will we really be any happier? Isn’t there contentment to be found in the speculation?

“Everybody here believes in aliens, right?” said Jim Marrs, the white-haired, white-bearded investigative journalist, to the crowd at his panel discussion, and then he made a frank admission, which is that when the truth is revealed, our bills aren’t going to stop coming.

Even once we know for certain that something’s out there, it’s very possible our lives will go on exactly as they had before.

Photos by Jason Doiy