Devils Tower, located in Crook County, Wyoming, was the first natural formation in the United States to be declared a national monument in 1906. Part of the Black Hills mountain range, the monolith was formed from cooled magma exposed through erosion and stands at 1,267 feet tall.
The Tower features heavily in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film tells the story of several individuals’ experiences with extra-terrestrial phenomenon. Focusing on the experiences of Roy Neary, the story follows him from his initial encounter with a UFO to his growing obsession with visions of a mountain and desire to go there. After Neary’s actions grew more intense, his family leaves him. He decides to travel to Devils Tower with fellow UFO witness Jillian Guiler, whose son had been taken by the alien visitors. The Tower had been selected as the contact point, and the area was evacuated by the military under the guise of a chemical leak. Upon reaching the Tower and evading military capture, the two, along with a group from the United Nations and others who had encountered the aliens, witness the arrival of the extra-terrestrial mothership. After the aliens return previous abductees, Neary and others are chosen to go with the aliens to outer space.
Film production designer Joe Alves scouted the location, and filming began on May 17, 1976. The scenes at the Tower took place in the evening, which meant the crew could only film for a few hours every day to make use of the brief hours of dusk. Devils Tower features heavily throughout the film, even before it is identified as such. Neary’s visions and subsequent obsession with the shape, a silhouette at first then a full structure, are a key part of the film’s narrative. It begins with Neary forming small structures without concentrating, for example, absentmindedly shaping his mashed potatoes into the Tower’s shape. Later, this compulsion to understand the visions leads him to construct more extravagant structures out of clay and dirt. In the latter, Neary destroys large portions of his family’s house, and the neighbor’s garden, and causes his family to leave him out of fear. It is not until Neary sees Devils Tower on the news that he is able to make the connection to the apparent goal of these visions. It is these scenes of Neary’s obsession that solidify the image of Devils Tower as an integral part of the films visual and thematic atmosphere.