The call to raid an Air Force base for aliens was a joke, drawing on decades of conspiracy theories.
Then 2 million people signed on to the Facebook event.
Authorities warned against an actual attempt to enter the base. And now, unless plans go awry, hordes of strangers will, indeed, gather in the Nevada desert next month near a secretive government facility called Area 51.
The man who created the internet sensation, "Storm Area 51 - They Can't Stop All of Us," is planning a real-life festival called Alien Stock near the remote base within the Nevada Test and Training Range, a couple hours' drive northwest of Las Vegas. The three-day festival set to start Sept. 20, a celebration of aliens that promises surprise performances, art installations and camping, is expected to pack a tiny town already overrun by media attention and a spike in extraterrestrial enthusiasm.
With just over a month left to plan and some residents reportedly less than thrilled about the attention, the organizers are focused on the logistics of bringing thousands to a town of just 54 people, as counted in the last Census. They're fending off suggestions they could be planning the next Fyre Festival, the 2017 event that fell apart spectacularly and led to fraud charges.
And the internet frenzy over "Storm Area 51" has thrust Rachel, Nevada, into a new limelight and tested residents' patience.
"Of course it's scary," said Connie West, whose alien-themed inn declares on its website that it is "BOOKED SOLID FOR ALIEN-STOCK." "But I'm excited," she told The Washington Post. "How can I not be?"
The U.S. government denied Area 51's existence for decades before a public records request in 2013 showed it to be real. Government documents make no mention of aliens, describing the site as an aircraft testing area. But revelations two years ago of a $22 million Defense Department program on "anomalous aerospace threats," commonly known as UFOs, have helped keep speculation about the Nevada facility alive.
Rachel has long embraced the rumors of hidden aliens and their spacecraft. A town welcome sign notes an extraterrestrial population as well as a human one - there's no head count, just a question mark - and visitors drive down the Extraterrestrial Highway. A questions-and-answers page linked on Rachel's official website tackles inquiries like "Are there UFOs at Area 51?" (no) and "Is there an Area 52?" (yes, about 65 miles away).
But not everyone is happy about the prospect of so many visitors in September, West said.
An owner of what Rachel's website calls the town's only remaining business, West has been flooded with media requests since Area 51 blew up online. She says she stopped counting the interviews at 153.
"We live in a quiet little place because we like it quiet," she said.
Brock Daily, an Arkansas college student and one of the organizers of the festival, told The Washington Post he's expecting 5,000 to 30,000 people to show up for Alien Stock, which Daily said he pitched to "Storm Area 51" creator Mathew Roberts last month. The 20-year-old said it's hard to share precise interest numbers because they just started publicizing.
But any total in the thousands will pose logistical challenges in a place as small and rural as Rachel. A prominent notice on the town's website warns festivalgoers of the limited infrastructure. "There is no gas and no store. . . . We expect cell service and the internet to be offline," the note reads. "Credit card [processing] will not work, so bring enough cash."
Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said his office is working with local, state and federal law enforcement to prepare for a "very large but unknown number of visitors."
Daily said he and Roberts are worked to make sure that people who show up will have access to basics like water, bathrooms and space. He dismissed comparisons to the disastrous Fyre Festival, saying Alien Stock is not looking to make a profit: It isn't charging entrance fees, though attendees will have to rent a parking spot or campsite from West for $60 to $140. The organizers ask that people donate any amount toward the festivities.
Alien Stock bills itself as "a meeting place for all the believers" - people at least intrigued by the possibility of extraterrestrial life - Daily explained, though he guesses some will come just to witness an online phenomenon come to life. Most details on the entertainment have yet to be released; the only planned guest publicized online is a rock-and-roll group called Wily Savage.
"With a normal festival, you have a business structure that's already lined out," Daily said. "You have a theme and an idea that you're going to try to market to the public. Whereas with us we had this monster on our hands."
Roberts, who did not respond to an inquiry from The Post, told a California news station that he wants the event to be a "positive, enjoyable, safe and profitable for the rural area of Nevada."
Joking discussion beneath a Friday post announcing the festival on the "Storm Area 51" Facebook page took a more conspiratorial view of the event's motives.
"Distraction . . . well played government," one person commented.
This article was written by Hannah Knowles, a reporter for The Washington Post.