Why People Make — And Are Fascinated By — Crop Circles

Published July 6, 2017
Updated May 2, 2024

Mysterious circles have "appeared" on farms since the mid-1970s. But the most interesting thing about crop circles is our reaction to them.

Crop Circles

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock PhotoA crop circle in Chipping Norton, Oxfordhire, United Kingdom.

In the world of the paranormal, perhaps no term is more commonly associated with UFOs and extraterrestrial visitation than “crop circles.” Crop circles, as the name suggests, are massive indentations in fields of crops — typically wheat or corn — that depict seemingly intentional shapes and images when seen from above.

Somewhat similar to the Nazca Lines, crop circles are often baffling both in terms of scale and depiction, with one major stipulation: they are incredibly easy to hoax.

Some of the more mysterious and famous examples of crop circles over the years have led to speculation about alien craft landing, the indentation marking where the ship rested. Others have theorized that, like in the films Signs and Arrival, extraterrestrial beings are in some way using these signs pressed into the earth as a way of communication.

But in the early 1990s, as crop circle fever was reaching its boiling point, two drunk Englishmen proved to the world that it didn’t take an advanced civilization or technology beyond humanity’s comprehension.

In fact, all it required was a bit of liquid courage and two pairs of decently heavy boots. Today, crop circles are a far less common “phenomenon,” and have evolved into more of a pop culture motif than anything else. Spotify even conducted a viral campaign to promote country artists by creating “crop circles” of their likenesses.

Still, that’s not to discredit all instances of crop circles as hoaxes. There are certainly more than a few compelling cases in recent history; the evidence just isn’t as conclusive as some paranormal fanatics might hope.

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The Earliest Examples Of Crop Circles

Somewhat surprisingly, the earliest historical mention of a crop circle — albeit not by that name — comes from 1678, well before the creation of science fiction or a fascination with worlds beyond our own. It appeared in the form of a woodcut pamphlet from England entitled "The Mowing Devil, or Strange News Out of Hartford-Shire."

The Mowing Devil 1678

The British Library / Public Domain"The Mowinv Devil" woodcut pamphlet from 1678.

According to the text, a disgruntled farmer was engaged in an argument with one of his hired help. During the argument, the farmer told a worker that he would rather the Devil mow his corn than pay the worker to do it. The next, night, the pamphlet continued:

"[T]he Crop of Oats ſhew'd as if it had been all of a Flame, but next Morning appear'd ſo neatly Mow'd by the Devil, or ſome Infernal Spirit, that no Mortal Man was able to do the like. Alſo, How the ſaid Oats ly now in the Field, and the Owner has not Power to fetch them away."

The farmer's crops had been flattened in a spiraling circular pattern overnight, with the stalks somewhat mounded toward the center and the surrounding vegetation seemingly undisturbed. This was the first recorded crop circle, and it left the people of 17th-century Hartfordshire as baffled then as they would be 300 years later, when it happened again.

The Tully UFO "Nests," Australia's First Encounter With Crop Circles

In 1966, an Australian banana farmer by the name of George Pedley noticed something strange in his field. A large, circular area of crops had been flattened. But that wasn't all. Pedley had also observed what he described as a "vapor-like" saucer lifting off from that exact same spot.

Dubbed a "saucer nest," Pedley's experience was not an isolated one. All around the Tully region, locals had been reporting these so-called "saucer nests," each around 100 feet in diameter.

"Had anyone asked me five days ago if I believed in flying saucers, I'd have laughed and thought they were nuts," Pedley told a local news correspondant. "But now I know better. I have actually seen a spaceship."

Tully UFO Nests

Queensland State Archives / FlickrThe headline regarding the "Tully UFO Nests" that appeared in January 1966 in Tully, Queensland, Australia.

Pedley described that around 9:00 a.m., he watched a "spaceship" rise at "great speed" out of a swamp near his property known as the Horseshoe Lagoon. The craft allegedly rose into the air about 25 yards in front of Pedley, before flying off at "fantastic speed" in a "south-westerly direction."

Others, such as cane farmer Tom Warren and school teacher Hank Penning, reported similar experiences. In each case, the witness reported that crops within the circle were completely dead — but not scorched or burned, as if damaged by exhaust or fire.

While the words "crop circle" never came up, it's arguable that this phenomenon marked the first modern instance of crop circles appearing in fields on Earth. This case also makes it clear that, at least according to locals, the circles marked locations where UFOs had landed.

These "nests" were also rather simple — circles, nothing more. In the years that followed, however, increasingly complex — and controversial — crop circles would make their debuts.

Crop Circles Begin To Appear Across Southern England

More than a decade after the Tully UFO nests appeared in Australia, farmers across southern England began to notice similar, strange patterns in their own fields.

It started in Wiltshire, England in 1976. There had been much buzz about flying saucers in the region, with the town of Warminster gradually becoming a hub for "sky watches" — events dedicated to searching the skies for signs of UFO activity.

Naturally, rumors began circulating, and those who had heard about the UFO nests in Tully claimed the phenomenon had made its way to England. Curiously, no photographs of the alleged nests had been taken.

But the rumors found their way to a local pub, and to the ears of two men: Doug Bower and Dave Chorley.

Doug Bower

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock PhotoDoug Bower circa 1994, the famous crop circle hoaxer who started a phenomenon with his friend, Dave Chorley (not pictured).

Bower and Chorley were in their mid-to-late 40s, having a few pints at the pub when an idea dawned on them: they could create their own "saucer nests."

According to Smithsonian Magazine, it was as simple as that. One night in 1976, Bower turned to Chorley and said: "Let's go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed."

The two men did their work in the dead of night — after all, they wouldn't want to be caught stamping down a farmer's crops — and the next morning, news spread across southern England that strange, alien circles had appeared in a wheat field.

How Doug Bower And Dave Chorley Fooled The Nation

Bower and Chorley's earliest "works" were simple in their layout, but over time, the pranksters got more complex with their crop circles.

The patterns started to take on intricate shapes, all planned ahead of time by the Englishmen, leading to further speculation about the supposed meaning behind them. UFOlogists began to try and decipher the "alien language" that was being pressed into the fields, while others turned to even stranger explanations, suggesting that Mother Earth herself was trying to send messages to humanity through the crop circles.

All the while, Chorley and Bower were laughing it up. Each time a new crop circle was "discovered," Chorley and Bower would be among those in the crowd, marveling at their own handiwork and how they had fooled everyone around them.

It was rather simple how they did it, too. The men took planks of wood, tied ropes to them, and pressed their feet down on the wood while pulling up on the rope to flatten the crops without actually breaking the stems.

Doug Bower Making Crop Circles

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock PhotoDoug Bower demonstrating how he and Dave Chorley made their famous crop circles.

In due time, copycat crop circles had begun cropping up across the world.

They finally confessed to being the masterminds behind the phenomenon in 1991 — a full 15 years after they started — when they spoke to a reporter named Graham Brough.

"I spent a week getting them to show me how they had done it all, and I have never laughed as much in my life," Brough recalled to The New York Times. "The prevailing wisdom at the time was that aliens were about to land any day, but it had all been kicked off by these two blokes who'd have a couple of pints at their favorite pub and then head out into the night to have a bit of fun."

Bower and Chorley's confession came to an even greater shock to UFOlogists who had been writing about crop circles and their supposed meanings for years. Such was the case with author Pat Delgado, who had once claimed that crop circles were certainly created by a "higher intelligence" and "in no way could this be a hoax."

To Delgado's credit, when he was presented with the truth he admitted that he had in fact been fooled, and even recognized Bower and Chorley since they would always be among the first to arrive when a new crop circle was found.

That said, not everyone came around quite as easily as Delgado.

Why Some People Still Think Crop Circles Are From Aliens

Rob Irving, a fellow crop circle creator who began emulating Bower and Chorley in 1989, summed it up best: "The people who wanted to keep believing in aliens and everything else just ignored the evidence, no matter how obvious it was."

Some, like Delgado and his co-author Colin Andrews, had made quite a good living writing about crop circles over the years. Naturally, they would want the phenomenon to continue, as the admission of the whole thing being a hoax would be bad for business.

Colin Andrews

Colin Andrews / FacebookUFOlogist and author Colin Andrews.

Andrews has, in fact, gone on record as saying that people like Irving, Chorley, and Bower have caused harm to the reputation of crop circles with their antics. He went on to say that even if crop circles are mandmade, those who make them were "prompted by an independent nonhuman mind."

Andrews had also sold thousands of copies of his books and accepted hundreds of speaking engagements relating to crop circles, before such income streams "tailed off straight away" after Bower and Chorley's confession.

Meanwhile, across the pond, organizations like the Independent Crop Circle Researchers' Association in the United States and the Canadian Crop Circle Research Network were established to further investigate crop circles in North America (although the last in-person investigation in the US was in 2012).

The creation of crop circles seemed to slowly trickle off as the turn of the century approached, but some still argue to this day about their nature, with a newer theory appearing that connects crop circles to ley lines, though the efficacy of that argument largely depends on your belief in ley lines in the first place.

But even as recently as July 2023, the BBC has reported that a large number of crop circles are still appearing in Wiltshire — 380 since 2005, as a matter of fact.

Nowadays, believers acqueisce that some crop circles were definitely manmade, but they also contest, perhaps hopefully, that many are created by beings from another planet.

After this look at crop circles, check out some of the most famous hoaxes to ever fool the world. Then, see more of the world's coolest crop circles.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
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Cite This Article
Stockton, Richard. "Why People Make — And Are Fascinated By — Crop Circles." AllThatsInteresting.com, July 6, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/crop-circles. Accessed May 21, 2024.