Not quite as common these days, however, are stories of individuals claiming to have had contact with extraterrestrials. In his new documentary, Calling All Earthlings, filmmaker Jonathan Berman takes a look back at one of the most famous of these “contactees,” George Van Tassel. The film captures an aspect of UFO belief that often escapes skeptical outsiders—that it wasn’t so much anxiety about alien visitors as enthusiasm and hope that attracted believers to the idea of extraterrestrial contact.

Beginning in 1927 as an airplane mechanic right out of high school, Van Tassel had a long career in aviation, first with Douglas Aircraft, then with Hughes and Lockheed. At Hughes he was involved in flight testing near Barstow, California, where he was attracted to the “clean air, the intense quiet nights, and outdoor living in the desert.”

It was there that Van Tassel got to know an eccentric German-American by the name of Frank Critzer, who had carved out a “cave home” from a natural landmark known as Giant Rock in the Mojave Desert near Landers, California. Critzer came under government investigation in the early days of World War II for reasons that are not entirely clear, but most likely involved his use of dynamite. When local police came to Giant Rock to question him in July 1942, Critzer set off an explosion that resulted in his own death.

After the war Van Tassel purchased the land around Giant Rock and moved there with his wife Dorris and their three daughters. In addition to operating a small airport, he began to hold meditation readings for groups of 25 to 45 people—and for the first time reported hearing disembodied voices.

Buy Book An Evening with George Van Tassel

Then, beginning in 1952, Van Tassel claimed he started having encounters with spacemen. At first, he said, these beings issued warnings of looming destruction along with messages of universal peace. But soon, according to Van Tassel, they began instructing him on how to construct a building that could reverse the aging process. Dubbed the Integratron, the project would consume Van Tassel for years, although he never finished it.

He did, however, hold annual conventions at Giant Rock, where those interested in UFOs, alien contact, and the paranormal gathered to hear talks and exchange experiences. At its height, as many as 11,000 people attended these gatherings, by some accounts.

Calling All Earthlings covers these historic events, and updates the story by taking us to Giant Rock today. Berman introduces us to Van Tassel admirers and former friends who have carried on his legacy by partly reconstructing the Integratron.

Asked what drew him to the topic, the filmmaker says, “I came upon this subject as I was breezing through a great book of photos by Michael Rauner with text by Erik Davis—The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape. There was a picture of the Integratron in there that caught my eye.”

Van Tassel’s story had “all the things I love,” Berman says, “weird, geeky quasi-science, living longer and better, and, of course, the world of the Great American Roadside Attraction.” As a native of Long Island, the filmmaker was struck by the magical allure that California and the desert has for so many. In the end, he hopes the film captures some of the sense of adventure that brings people to places like Giant Rock, where, he says, “there are still no sidewalks and the mystery dome still sits there waiting to inspire the next person.”