Betty and Barney Hill were an interracial couple who in the early sixties began to experience psychological problems characterized by an extreme anxiety. These appeared following an encounter with a Unidentified Flying Object on the night of Sep. 19, 1961, while driving from Montreal, Canada to Portsmouth, NH. They initially recalled nothing remarkable about the U.F.O. they saw, which they simply described as a light in the sky that followed them. They remembered nothing else about most of the trip -- i.e., they had amnesia about this period. They also noted that the trip took longer than expected as they arrived home later than expected. The latter circumstance is sometimes referred to as "missing time".
The Hills consulted a Boston psychoanalyst, Dr. Benjamin Simon, who was a pioneer in using hypnotic regression in therapy for what we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder today. He proposed hypnotic regression therapy to break through the Hills' amnesia since this seemed to be the focus of their anxiety. While under hypnosis the Hills reported substantially the same experience -- that on the night of their trip they were waylaid by gray aliens and examined in their ship. Dr. Simon did not conclude that the events reported by the Hills were objectively real. After learning the content of their hypnosis sessions the Hills refrained from seeking publicity as they did not wish to be thought eccentric nor to risk any distraction from their Civil Rights activity. The story was broken by a Boston reporter in spite of the fact that Dr. Simon and the Hills refused to be interviewed and without the permission of any of the three.
Curiously, nothing much seems to have happened in the period between the early 60's and 80's in the way of alien abductions. Except of course in fiction. In that most ubiquitous of media -- television -- there was a show that I remember seeing in the early 70's named UFO. Its premise was that space aliens were visiting earth for the purpose of abducting its human population. The alien abduction movie of 1977 was of course Steven Speilberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It portrayed several disappearance mysteries which had long had U.F.O. connections as abductions. It also single-handedly redefined our image of space alien's -- the fearful encounters of previous science fiction movies were replaced by anticipation and a sense of wonder. It also introduced millions of people to the now classic image of the gray alien. In the 2 years following Close Encounters alien abduction reports quadrupled.
Alien abduction reports in the 70's were characterized by 1) a U.F.O. sighting, followed by 2) a period of missing time and later 3) a recall (sometimes under hypnosis) of the abduction. Budd Hopkins, a New York artist with an interest in U.F.O.'s, became interested in abductions and expanded the scope of the subject by focusing on the phenomenon of missing time alone. According to him individuals who were unable to recall either a sighting or abduction were to be considered abductees by virtue of experiencing missing time or general anxiety. Hopkins used (some might say abused) hypnotic regression to "recover" memories of their abductions from such individuals who presented themselves to him. The full elaboration of Hopkins abduction mythology includes serial abduction of the same person for the purpose of studying humans and cross-breeding with aliens. His ideas sound like the plot of the television series The X-Files (at least producer Chris Carter has insisted his show is only fiction). He published a book on his "research" in 1981 entitled Missing Time (Richard Marek, 1981). Many people read it and thought they saw themselves in it (i.e., as abductees).
Whitley Strieber, a protégé of Budd Hopkins, set up his own cottage industry in abduction mythology in 1987 with the publication of his book Communion (William Morrow & Company, 1987) which became a best-seller. Strieber is a writer of horror novels with obvious credentials as a person fully capable of creating a good fantasy and a rip-roaring tale. In his book he describes recalling multiple abductions while sleeping in his isolated cabin in New York state. Apparently like so many characters in horror stories it did not occur to him not to go there again after the strange events began! His experiences include 1) paralysis, 2) the awareness of a presence in the room, 3) a feeling of motion, 4) a return to sleep after the "abduction", and 5) a deep feeling that the events later recalled were real.
Budd Hopkins and Whitley Strieber are not the whole story on alien abductions but their public reporting and encouragement of others make them definitive of the phenomenon in more ways than one. What they write has become a part of the public consciousness of abductions and no doubt most of the cause of continuing interest in and reports of abductions. Sometimes Hopkins will ask, "Why do these reports all sound alike?", the rhetorical answer being that they they do so because they are reports of real abductions by real aliens. It never occurs to him that the answer just might be, Because they read his book!
Whether you have read his book or not you probably would know an alien if you saw one. Popular culture has been fully informed about this thanks to movies and television. Alien abduction is not new to us either. The plot of the movie the Manchurian Candidate for instance is a tale of alien abduction (albeit not by space aliens), missing time and resulting emotional disturbance in the victims. Maybe the Cold War and alien abductions have more in common in the human psyche than we might think. Other components of the alien abduction myth as elaborated by Hopkins and Strieber appear in whole or part in other movies anyone is likely to have seen.
According to Bud Hopkins the number of people who have been abductees (based on the number who experience missing time) is in the millions. Can such an extraordinary claim be true? Hopkins seems to assume that our conscious awareness of the world is direct, continuous and seamless. This assumption is based on a naive and incorrect view of the way consciousness and the mind work. In fact our conscious awareness of the world is a construct that bridges gaps in our perception of which we cannot be aware. The evidence of this also suggests that consciousness may not be necessary for normal voluntary action. Therefore missing consciousness might be normal. Further our perception of time is event driven so that missing time is more likely to be a sign not that something significant occurred (like being abducted by aliens) but that nothing at all happened.
It is true that even if common loss of awareness -- or rather awareness of loss of awareness -- may be unusual and disturbing under many circumstances. It would certainly be less so if it occurred on a lazy summer's day while laying in a hammock on vacation than while driving a car on a busy expressway. There may also be a strong imperative to ignore missing personal time or confabulate events to fill in born of a fear of such loss tantamount to fear of loss of self. (The ultimate loss of self and object of fear being death.) Or it may be that we expect the mind to be able to record and replay our experience in a simple mechanical way and when it doesn't confusion and anxiety result. But the mind is not a camcorder -- while there is evidence that the mind stores a lot more than we are aware there is none that it is all veridical.
Memory confabulation voluntarily occurs to preserve the sense that we remember our own lives. But it is not necessary to fill blanks in our awareness if we become aware of them. It may be more helpful just to realize that, yes it can happen, but it does not necessarily indicate any abnormal or unusual event or events have transpired.
Hypnosis is not the key to resolving the "problem" of "missing" experience because it does not provide access to deeply hidden memories. Indeed, if they are not there it cannot. Nothing can. Like the mind hypnosis is a complicated and little understood phenomenon. Hypnosis to recover memory may lead to the need to create memories of events that never occurred or confabulate real events into something that never occurred to meet the expectations of all involved. We can never rely on a simple interpretation of events reported under hypnosis. In a therapeutic situation this is not an issue. But if you are seeking "what really happened" look elsewhere.
Whitley Strieber's accounts of his abduction encounters are interesting in their parallels two 2 previously reported phenomenon. The first is "waking dreams" and the second is incubi and succubi.
Waking dreams or hypnogogic (which occur while falling asleep) and hypnopompic (which occur while waking up) hallucinations sometimes occur in the twilight between waking and sleeping. During normal sleep the body's motor functions are inhibited. This both prevents the sleeper from reacting to any alarming or threatening events that occur in their dreams and it deepens relaxation. If the mind returns to awareness after the onset of motor function inhibition it will perceive that the body is paralyzed. Some individuals report out-of-body experiences instead of paralysis. Others may be aware of a heaviness on the chest. Unusual hallucinations usually occur involving a "presence" -- the sense that someone else is in the room. Since sexual arousal is common with some individuals in sleep they may give the event a sexual interpretation. The sleeper does not get up or otherwise react to this unusual experience but goes back to sleep when it is over.
Incubi and succubi are, respectively, male and female demons that according to folklore attack persons of the opposite sex in their sleep, pin them down and have sex with them. The stories of these demon visitors that occur in many cultures are most likely a mythological explanation for a physiological phenomenon -- waking dreams. We no longer believe in demons and so we substitute in our popular mythology a more up-to-date explanation -- little gray aliens from space who assault us in our sleep just the way incubi and succubi used to. There is a real underlying phenomenon in this case. But it is not the one either the old or the new mythology claims.
The "abductions" Whitley Strieber describes sound like waking dreams. Anyone who did not know about the possibility could be easily confused by the actual experience.
No doubt many are equally confused and unfortunately mislead by Hopkins and Strieber into believing that something has happened to them which did not -- an abduction by space aliens. Therapy (both psychological and sleep therapy) is a more appropriate way to deal with the anxiety and stress "abductees" typically report. "Abductee syndrone" victims are doubly victimized by mythological explanations (whether of the new or old kind) or abusive utilization of hypnosis. There is no comfort in leaving them believing they are subject to abduction from the safety of sleep and manipulation by mysterious, all-powerful beings. Such a powerful victimization scenario makes me wonder whether they are not victims of far more human abusers.
The story of Betty and Barney Hill is unique and remains a classic in the annals of U.F.O. history. Yet no one can say that their recollection of events on that September night is correct or tells what really happened. It could be. But there are a number of more likely explanations. The Hills were obviously victims of great emotional stress. But then they were an interracial couple in the late 50's and early 60's. In a way they were aliens in their own world and the subjects of much curiosity and animosity. Their life situation has interesting parallels to their reported experience -- abduction by aliens who were able to control and examine them. However Dr. Simon did not concluded that this alone could be the cause of their unusual story and related anxiety. And whatever event precipitated this stress there is no guarantee that their recollections under hypnosis accurately depict it. Dr. Simon and the Hill's reluctance to embrace an extraterrestrial explanation for their psychological problems remains a sane counterpoint to the wild speculations of Bud Hopkins, Whitley Strieber and other "true believers".
Overall it seems that there is insufficient credible evidence in these cases to conclude that any alien abduction has occurred. But there is a subculture that prompts and maintains the belief they have. Within it stories of abduction and descriptions of strange visitors are shared with little critical analysis of their content and sources.
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