A two-stage psychological model that explains alien abduction stories

The truth may be out there — but it’s not in these close encounters of the third kind.

The Big Think/March 19, 2024

By Chris French

The first alien abduction case to really grab the public’s attention was that of Betty and Barney Hill. On the night of September 19, 1961, the Hills were driving back from a short holiday in Canada to their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when, at around 10:30 p.m., Betty spotted a bright light near the moon. When it appeared to get bigger and brighter, they stopped the car and observed the light through binoculars. Betty thought she saw a huge, oddly shaped craft that might be a UFO. Barney initially thought that it was an aircraft. However, he quickly changed his mind.

A little farther into their journey, they stopped again, and Barney got out of the car to observe the craft through the binoculars. He walked toward the craft until he was only 50 feet from it as it hovered at about tree height. He later reported that he saw a huge, pancake-shaped craft with a row of windows behind which were at least a dozen occupants in dark, Nazi-like uniforms. Barney panicked, got back into the car, and drove home.

The Hills heard two sets of beeping sounds that appeared to cause their car to vibrate as they drove home, eventually arriving home in daylight at 5:15 a.m. The last 200 miles of their journey had taken seven hours, much longer than it should have done. They did recall leaving the highway onto a dirt road and coming across a roadblock of some kind, as well as seeing some sort of glowing orb. When he arrived at home, Barney noticed that his shoes had scuff marks and the leather strap on his binoculars was torn. He felt an urge to examine his groin in the bathroom but noted nothing unusual upon doing so. Betty noticed an odd pink powder on her torn dress. They found strange polished patches on their car that seemed to affect a compass needle. They also found that they could recall very little of what had happened between hearing the first set of beeping sounds and the second.

Ten days later, Betty began having a series of dreams, lasting over five nights, that seemed to fill in some of the gaps in memory. In her dreams, she and Barney were stopped by a group of humanoids at the roadblock and then taken aboard the alien vessel. The aliens were about five feet tall with large eyes, mouths like thin slits, and no protruding ears. They communicated via a mixture of telepathy and broken English. Similar aliens, now often simply referred to as greys, were described in many subsequent reports of alien abduction.

On board the craft, the Hills were separated and each was medically examined. This involved the collection of skin, nail, and hair samples and, in Betty’s case, the insertion of a long needle into her navel, causing excruciating pain. Also, Betty was shown a star map allegedly showing the major trade routes used by the aliens.

A few months later, Barney was referred for psychiatric treatment. He was suffering from stress and exhaustion and had developed a ring of warts around his groin. After one year of treatment, he requested to undergo hypnotic regression in the hope that this would reveal what had really happened on that fateful journey from Canada to New Hampshire. He had his first hypnotic regression session with Dr. Benjamin Simon in December 1963, and not long after that Dr. Simon also hypnotically regressed Betty.

The memories “recovered” during hypnotic regression were very similar to the narrative revealed in Betty’s dreams. One additional detail was that Barney recalled a cuplike device being placed over his genitals, which he believed had been used to extract sperm. Also, as a result of a posthypnotic suggestion by Dr. Simon, Betty was able to draw a copy of the star map that she had been shown. School teacher and amateur astronomer Marjorie Fish subsequently analyzed the map and claimed that it could only match stars seen from the vantage point of the Zeta Reticuli system, suggesting that this was where the aliens called home.

The Hills’ story was told by writer John G. Fuller in his bestselling book, The Interrupted Journey, published in 1966 and then in the TV movie The UFO Incident in 1975. Many of the elements that featured in this classic case were to be commonly reported in subsequent claims of alien abduction, including the sighting of a UFO, missing time, dreaming of aliens, and the use of hypnotic regression to “recover” memories.

As you might expect, the story was subjected to detailed critical analysis by skeptics. Evidence suggests that the bright light that initially caught their attention and then appeared to follow them was probably the planet Jupiter. The “missing time” was not noticed until weeks after the incident, following questioning by ufologists. In fact, the Hills had taken an indirect route home, leaving the main highway for part of the journey.

Many of the details were not recalled immediately afterward but instead first appeared in Betty’s dreams. These details were then included in the accounts given during hypnotic regression sessions. It should be noted that although the Hills believed their accounts of being taken on board an alien spaceship were accurate, Dr. Simon believed them to be a fantasy based on Betty’s dreams, the content of which would have been known to Barney. Fuller’s account conveniently omits the psychiatrist’s skepticism on this point.

[Then in 1987], two bestselling books were published that brought the phenomenon of alien abduction to an even wider audience. The first was by Whitley Strieber. Communion was allegedly a true account of the author’s own bizarre and horrifying interactions with alien beings, including having needles inserted into his head and anus. It topped the nonfiction bestseller lists of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Publishers Weekly.

The other alien abduction bestseller published in 1987 was Intruders by Budd Hopkins (this was Hopkins’s second book on the topic, the first being Missing Time, published in 1981).

Despite having no relevant formal training, Hopkins routinely used hypnotic regression to “recover” the traumatic abduction memories. Some abductees claimed during these sessions that the aliens had implanted tiny devices into their unwilling victims. The purpose of these implants was unclear, but it was speculated that aliens might use them for tracking their victims or for mind control. Unexplained scars and bruises were taken by Hopkins as further evidence of alien abduction.

There is absolutely no doubt that some claims of human-alien contact are nothing more than deliberate hoaxes. However, most serious investigators of UFO-related claims, whether sympathetic toward or skeptical of the ET hypothesis, accept that most claimants are sincere. Supporters of the ET hypothesis claim that there is strong independent evidence to support the claims of contact. Skeptics are unimpressed, pointing out that all such evidence can be explained in more plausible prosaic terms.

As with other ostensibly paranormal experiences, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for claims of alien contact and abduction. Having said that, [a two-stage model] does provide a plausible explanation for most, if not all, sincere claims of this type.

In the first stage, various types of unusual experience, such as seeing a UFO, “missing time,” dreams featuring aliens, finding unexplained marks on their body, or episodes of sleep paralysis, may lead an individual to suspect that they have been the victim of alien abduction. This provides the motivation to “recover” the full memory of the alien encounter either by repeatedly imagining what such an encounter may have been like, based on reports from others, or by the use of hypnotic regression.

Those with the appropriate psychological profile may well end up with detailed false memories of alien visitations that never actually happened.

Adapted from The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal by Chris French. Published by The MIT Press.

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