The Barney and Betty Hill story is well documented elsewhere, so I’m just going to briefly cover the process that lead the Hills to hypnotic regression therapy, and a little about the form which that therapy took. Initially, the pair had no awareness of having experienced any amnesia regarding the events of the morning of September the 20th. Both were shaken by the experience, and felt a vague sense of apprehension. Barney wanted to forget the sighting altogether, but Betty, whose sister had also witnessed a UFO, was intrigued, and she insisted on reporting their experience to Pease Air Force base. Ten days after the event, she had a series of very vivid dreams that lasted over four consequence nights. These dreams would agree in most particulars with the abduction scenario that eventually emerged through their hypnotic regression sessions. Betty also read a book on UFOs by Major Donald Keyhoe, and promptly sent the author a letter describing her and her husband’s experience.
It was this letter which lead to the Hills being interviewed twice by members of NICAP, Keyhoe’s civilian UFO research group. It was the second group of these investigators, C.D. Jackson and Robert Hohman, who first noted that though the Hill’s journey should only have taken them about four hours, their arrival time suggested that it had actually taken seven. Two hours were unaccounted for. The lynchpin of the popular mythology slowly taking shape in these events had been discovered: missing time – those eerie gaps in the memory tape which would be found to contain all kinds of strange static and interference when “replayed” under hypnosis. (An interesting equivalent to the missing time of abduction lore which mainstream psychiatry accepts is the fugue state – a condition of temporary and reversible amnesia which can last for a period of hours to days or even months. Once the fugue period ends, the sufferer normally regains all their prior memories, but the fugue period itself is irretrievably lost. This is a very odd thing, where people can quite literally become someone else for a short period of time. Jane Roberts, a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune, went missing in 1985, only to be found 12 years later living in Sitka, Alaska under the name of “Jane Dee Williams”; it is now fairly widely accepted that she suffered from an unusually protracted fugue state. Try this one out for size: Agatha Christie went missing on the 3rd of December 1926, and reappeared 11 days later in a hotel in Harrogate, unable to remember what had happened to her during the ensuing period. When Agatha effing Christie disappears for 11 days, and washes up in some hotel with her memory wiped, that’s some mysterious shit.)
Though the Hills seem to have contemplated hypnosis from quite early on, it wasn’t until 1964 that they initiated the process with Dr Benjamin Simon, a distinguished Boston psychiatrist who had lectured in Harvard and Yale, and been a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in neurology. Simon was and remained sceptical of the UFO aspect of the case, viewing the issue entirely from the perspective of the couple’s general mental health. Simon later clarified this position in a letter he drafted when the Hills medical insurance providers were naturally nonplussed at paying out on a UFO-related health issue:
“I can hardly quarrel with your unwillingness in your letter of August 4 to accept a diagnosis of ‘emotional disturbance created by an experience with an Unidentified Flying Object’ with respect to the claim of Mr. and Mrs. Hill. This was not made as a diagnosis, but as a statement of the circumstances under which these two people had come to me for treatment – and with the expectation that you would send me forms for a medical statement.”
(Referring to the events of September 19/20th) “This was a harrowing experience for both of them and led to a very considerable anxiety for some time to come. Mr. Hill began to suffer from insomnia, apprehension and persistent anxiety. Mrs. Hill suffered from repeated nightmares, apprehension and anxiety. More recently, Mr. Hill has had symptoms of duodenal ulcer.” (The Interrupted Journey, John G. Fuller)
For Dr Simon, then, the UFO issue was opaque and dubious, but the consequences to the Hills’ health of believing something had happened to them in 1961 were very real, and required treatment. The case had a usual feature, however: the Hills mutual amnesia of precisely the same period was not at all common. With this in mind, Dr Hill separated Barney and Betty for their hypnotic regressions, and furthermore prevented them (by post-hypnotic suggestion) from remembering the contents of each regression as the therapy progressed. In a previous instalment, I discussed how Ewan Cameron’s psychic driving and Hubbard’s Dianetics derived from an understanding of the human mind as being akin to analogue tape recording technology. During the Hills hypnotic sessions with Dr Simon, the human mind, magnetic reel to reel tape recording, and hypnosis became conjoined in various interesting ways. While the Hills were hypnotically replaying the events of September the 20th, Dr Simon was naturally recording them, so that those human replays could subsequently be replayed with analogue technology. However, as the tapes would sometimes require changing during important parts of the therapeutic process, Dr Simon would “pause” Barney or Betty at the point where the tape stopped, effectively making them more like a pliable recording technology of their past experience:
For the tape recording of the sessions, Dr Simon used a Revere M-2 Automatic cartridge-loading recorder at 1 7/8 IPS. The cartridges were not only long-playing, but they could be tucked ahead of time so that there would be a minimum of interruption during the sessions. Where an interruption was necessary, the procedure was simple: the doctor would simply tap Barney on the head, tell him that he would hear no sound whatsoever during the intermission period, and then tap him on the head again to continue. (The Interrupted Journey, John G. Fuller)
(Interestingly, by the time the television movie, The UFO Incident, based on the Hills story was produced in 1975, the reel to reel tape recorder had become an iconic signifier of America’s post-Watergate paranoia, playing a vital role in the scandal itself, and appearing quite prominently in several paranoid cinematic classics of the period, including Pakula’s Klute 1971 and Coppola’s The Conversation 1974.) After the 5 month session was completed, and the Hills were given their first opportunity to listen to the tapes, an amusing thing happened: the Betty of the present moment responded to the hypnotic cues of the Dr Simon on the tape, and immediately fell into a deep trance. Tape recording bends time and space. (Watch part of The UFO Incident here.)
In separating the pair for their respective regressions, Dr Simon probably intended to discover flaws or inconsistencies with regard to the fantastic UFO elements of the incident. Although he remained sceptical, this would not transpire. With slight variations, the Hills told the same basic story, a narrative which corresponded very closely to Betty’s nightmares, and would much later become firmly lodged in the collective memory banks of popular culture: abduction by alien beings that seem to possess powers of telepathy and some form of hypnotic mind control, followed by a crude medical examination of sorts in the alien’s craft. Betty’s reactions to the procedure also set a kind of template: an initial period of anxiety and pain, followed by an abrupt, Stockholm Syndrome-like capitulation to the will of the abductors. The story very nearly never made it into the public eye at all. When the therapeutic process was completed, Barney rather poignantly suggested to Dr Simon that the tapes might be secreted away until such time as corroborating evidence to what the Hills believed had happened to then became available:
What do you think of the idea that these tapes that we have accumulated over the months be placed in some secure place so that in the event of our deaths, or yours, and if, say, twenty or thirty years from now it’s established that this experience is true and did happen, we would then have the tapes so at least we could protect ourselves from being considered eccentrics? (The Interrupted Journey, John G. Fuller)
In the end, the Hills hand was forced by a journalist for the Boston Traveller who had apparently gotten his hands on an audio tape of a lecture they had given back in ’63. Resolving to attempt to give their own version of events, the Hills went public. It was a great campfire story, a kind of modern folk tale of the exotic intruding into the ordinary on a lonely stretch of moonlit highway, and there was no stopping it: first a feature in Look, then a book (The Interrupted Journey) in 1966 by John G Fuller, and finally the television film in ‘75. Whether the alien abduction meme would have developed into precisely the form that it did had the Hill tapes remained in Dr Simon’s safe awaiting their corroborating evidence is one of the if’s of cultural history.
Alien abduction remained a minor, marginal, and largely hidden phenomenon in American life for a long time. In the late 1960s, a psychology professor at the University of Wyoming named Leo Sprinkle became the first academic to actively investigate alien abductions. (One of the putative abductees he studied, the policeman Herbert Schirmer, claimed under hypnosis that the Beings told him: “WE WANT YOU TO BELIEVE IN US, BUT NOT TOO MUCH.” However plausible Schirmer’s tale, it is a fairly apt summary of our relationship with these strange, flitting goblins at the edge of reality.) At some point in the seventies, an Abstract Expressionist artist, sculptor, and UFO investigator named Budd Hopkins began collecting stories that incorporated missing time and other elements from the Hills narrative; patterns seemed to abound in this particular dead letter office. In his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies, John Keel speaks about a growing subculture of individuals who are subject to missing time episodes and fleeting memories of strange surgical procedures; he calls them Silent Contactees as the term abductee does not yet exist.
The character of any particular era is a very complex gestalt of various elements working in tandem to produce that character; it is a colouring that suffuses everything and is itself suffused by all its constitute parts. Every era has a design sensibility, a fashion sensibility, a particular texture of film in photographs and movies; a particular set of sexual mores and a particular set of latent and explicit anxieties and dreads. Every era has its specific dreams and cultural fantasies which are both constructed by and contribute to the overall gestalt of that era. Every era has what might be called a horizon of possibility, or a set of shadowy forms at the edge of what is accepted as real which possess a kind of plausibility or special desirability to that particular era. To put it another way, cultural dreams have a very long shelf-life; in some respects, cultural dreams remain at their core homogenous throughout much of history, but they assume characteristic forms which have their vitality in specific eras. After that period of vitality wanes, the form of the culture dream persists, but it is an entity out of time, like an exotically dated film texture: the fugitive possibility of a prior era, awaiting a new form. For whatever myriad of reasons, the grey alien and the abduction narrative exploded into the popular consciousness in the 80s, and particularly in the strange millenarian and conspiratorial fantasies that characterized the last decade of the 20th century.
The abduction phenomenon hit the bestsellers list in Whitley Strieber’s 1987 classic Communion: A True Story. Its cover, painted by Ted Seth Jacobs, remains the most iconic and influential depiction of the Grey alien. The release of Communion must have snapped something in the time space continuum. A month later, in the second season finale of ABC’s Dynasty spin-off The Colbys, the show’s heroine Fallon Carrington Colby was abducted by aliens while stranded in the Mojave Desert. (Watch here.) Even by the standards of the commercial art-form which had raised Bobby Ewing from the dead, this was some kind of serious transgression of the laws of genre purity and soap opera physics, and the show was promptly cancelled. (Fallon Colby morphed seamlessly back into the continuity of Dynasty, perhaps carrying an alien implant or contagion from the unstable spin-off dimension of The Colbys.) The subculture of alien abductees and the publication of abductee literature were steadily gathering pace. It found a receptive audience in two burgeoning cultural tribes that were beginning to intermingle in the 80s: seekers of truth in the spiritual strip malls of the New Age and the paranoid labyrinth of right-wing conspiracy theory both found outré materials which their world-views could readily assimilate. The abduction phenomenon had its grim Old Testament in the form of Temple University historian David Jacobs, who took the whole thing as a very literal programme of colonisation and hybridisation by nefarious flesh and blood aliens. In the late eighties, it found its New Testament, and its Timothy Leary, in the form of Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard professor John E. Mack, whose writings posited the abduction experience as a more positive and spiritually enriching process. (Mack had started taking abduction seriously after seeking the advice of another intellectual renegade, the great philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn; he probably had a lot less fun than Leary, but managed to keep his job at Harvard, and stay out of jail.) Finally, in the 90s, the wildly successful and zeitgeist-defining X-Files fully canonized the Grey and abduction phenomenon as a global popular mythos.
The Grey alien had become the most virulent iconic image of the latter years of the twentieth century, but where had it come from? Even most sceptical appraisals of the abduction phenomenon acknowledge that a certain small percentage of abductees suffered from no discernible psychological impediment or illness, other than an apparent conviction that they were being abducted by aliens. Assuming that they actually weren’t, how do images originate in the realm of culture, and gradually spread out in an apparently viral fashion into the world of people’s lived subjective experience? A consideration of where the iconography of alien abduction originates can lead us into tricky, chicken and egg questions of causality, and into grey eras between cultural and individual memory, and cultural fantasies and lived experience. Early proponents of alien abduction argued that the experiences of the abductees were “entirely unpredisposed”, in the sense of having no cultural precedents or precursors. This, of course, was completely bogus; whatever alien abduction represents, culture is its operating system. Like a great many of the dreams of the second half of the 20th century, alien abduction was prefigured in the strange, unfettered realm of the sci-fi pulps. As a visual theme, abduction (particularly of females) is an extraordinarily prominent motif in the pulp landscape, and these abductees (both of foreign and extraterrestrial aliens) are often depicted under the immediate threat of various sinister and invasive procedures. We can be more specific than this, however. The June 1935 edition of Astounding Stories featured a story called The Invaders by Don A Stewart, a “gritty account of invasion by cannibalistic aliens, who take human specimens for grizzly scientific anatomy experiments.” The cover and illustration are a remarkable prefiguring of the Hills narrative, and the abduction scenario in general:
Now it’s possible, or indeed highly likely, that the Hills never saw this particular magazine, and if this were the case, it’s odd how closely the artwork parallels their highway fever dream decades later. If we resolve that our aliens come from popular culture, we then have to ask ourselves where that pop culture comes from to begin with. A logical answer might be: somewhere in our dreams that wants us to believe in it – but not too much.Continued shortly.
The Interrupted Journey, John G Fuller, Corgi Edition, 1981.