I learned how strange abduction stories can be -- and how hard it is to think about them -- when I first talked to David Jacobs.
Jacobs, of course, is one of the leading
abduction investigators, by day a tenured history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. I was interviewing him for a piece in the rock magazine Spin
(which, in the end, was, never published), and I'd read much of the abduction literature, including what then was Jacobs' only book, Secret Life. 1 But I wasn't prepared for what happened when I asked him an obvious journalistic question, whether there was physical evidence that abductions are real
"Wanna see?" he replied. Then he trotted off to another room, and returned with plastic bags containing a t-shirt and a blue flowered bed sheet, both stained, he said, with a alien substance. Speaking purely as a reporter, I can
state that the stains were shocking pink (though Jacobs, with evident surprise, said they'd faded). They had no texture and no smell. I can add that they've been analyzed, Jacobs said, by a man he'd only identify as "a scientist at
a major Midwestern university." The analysis, he said, showed that the stains weren't any known substance.
When I asked where the stains came from, Jacobs told me that three members of a family had fallen asleep in
three difference places, the mother on a couch in the living room, the daughter upstairs in her parents' bed, the son at a friend's house down the street. All woke up the next morning with memories of having been abducted, and with
these stains on their clothes or their bedding -- as did a fourth, unrelated person, somewhere in the same neighborhood.
Jacobs, like a responsible man of science, added that the analysis didn't prove anything.
There are, he told me, so many known chemical compounds, that a new one doesn't have to come from space. Still -- and this is me talking now, not him -- it's clearly notable, not to say downright spooky, if the same new compound
really showed up on four people simultaneously…if, of course, such a thing really happened.
I add that last qualification because I can't prove that it did. I have less trouble with the anonymous scientist.,
because I've learned his name, and could ask those who know him to persuade him to talk to me. Besides, I've run into an anonymous scientist myself; I understand the pressures that would lead a researcher with mainstream
credentials to keep publicly clear of the taint of UFOs.
Still, a hardnosed journalist could be forgiven for doubting everything that Jacobs says. It's all hearsay, by the time it reaches me. The story of the family
and the stains is even double hearsay -- the people involved told Jacobs what they say happened, and he told me. I can't vouch for any of it.
But my personal, non-journalistic reaction might matter even more.
Privately, speaking simply as a human being, not as as an investigator, I believed what Jacobs told me. But I also got intensely skeptical. "Alien stains? Gedouddahere!" (My New York upbringing rears up at times like this.) I felt
like the American Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, in an anecdote the dean of abduction investigators, Budd Hopkins, relates in "A Note to the Reader" at the start of his book Intruders. 2 During World War II, Frankfurter met a Polish refugee, Jan Karski, who'd seen some of the horrors of the Holocaust, details of which
were just beginning to be known. Quoting Hopkins now (who in turn is quoting The Terrible Secret, a book on the Holocaust by Walter Laqueur):
Karski told Frankfurter of what he had seen and heard, but Frankfurter replied that "he did not believe him. When Karski protested, Frankfurter explained that he did not imply that Karski had in any way not told the truth,
he simply meant that he could not believe him -- there was a difference."
I could relate to that. I didn't doubt Jacobs' honesty, or, to be blunt about how far I've stretched my own credulity, his own readiness to believe the stories he hears. But I couldn't believe him. Or, more precisely, I didn't
want to believe him. It's one thing, I learned from all this, to read about abductions in books, the pages clean and dry, no pink goo anywhere in sight. But once the spoor of aliens is thrust under my nose, an urge to disbelieve
wells up, prompted as much by fear as by skepticism or good sense.
This urge to disbelieve is rampant, I think, in much of the abduction debate. (It's also endemic in skeptical discussion of UFOs in general, but
that's a larger story.) [See my essay on this site, Who's Afraid of UFOs?, which begins the same way this one does. When you have a good
idea…] But then it's also true that some people are just as quick to accept abduction tales, for equally emotional reasons which can range from a longing for alien salvation to the simple faith that abduction experiencers can't all
These emotions, on both sides, confuse the discussion. Abduction investigators ask us, in effect, to believe in their sincerity, and in the sincerity of the abduction experiencers they work with. But they
don't provide verifiable evidence. Skeptics, meanwhile, take swipes at abduction research, presenting unproved theories of their own -- that abduction tales are generated by the media, for instance, or that they're planted in
experiencers' minds by careless or unscrupulous researchers. These swipes get made with a force that seems excessive, since the skeptics don't have evidence themselves.
In the end, it's the truth that suffers. And
despite welcome bursts of objectivity -- Thomas E. Bullard's 1987 analytic tome for the Fund for UFO Research, 3 or the 1992 abduction conference at MIT, 4 or Stuart Appelle's summary of abduction theories and evidence in The Journal of UFO Studies 5 -- the debate still tends to generate more heat than light.
What, then, are some of the abduction arguments that need to removed from the emotional haze? I'll start with a skeptical chestnut: The assertion that hypnosis isn't a reliable way to
retrieve buried memories. Often this is stated in a tone that implies "Gotcha!" And, indeed, it's clear that when skeptics say hypnosis isn't reliable, they're accurately reporting the results of current psychology research.
It follows, then, that abduction investigators like Budd Hopkins, David Jacobs, and Raymond Fowler should be spanked for not acknowledging this research in their books.
Jacobs doesn't even do it when, in his second book, The Threat, he devotes an entire chapter to false memory syndrome, hypnotic confabulation, and other clear and present dangers that
lead skeptics to question his research. Instead, he talks as if hypnosis has no inherent problems. "The reliability of memories recalled during hypnosis," he writes, "rests not with the subject but with the hypnotist" 6 -- as if saying hypnosis has any reliability weren't a minority opinion these days. John Mack, to
his credit, does address the negative results of current hypnosis research, as he'd damn well better, since he's a psychiatrist, and ought to know what's published in his field. Less to his credit, he
saved this examination -- and his defense of hypnosis -- for the second, paperback edition of his book Abduction, 7
which, as he himself notes, was revised to address objections to his work. 8 And he tosses his discussion into an appendix, making no
mention of these problems in his main text, where he transcribes hypnotic sessions as freely as Hopkins, Jacobs, or Fowler.
But let's take a closer look at this hypnosis research. I don't
claim to be a psychologist, but what I read in psychology journals is both clear, and not as simple as the skeptics like to think. It's true, of course, that for more than ten years,
psychologists have taken no prisoners where hypnosis is concerned. As I perused a database of papers in psychology journals, it was easy for me to learn that (quoting from two
abstracts) "controlled laboratory studies have consistently failed to demonstrate any hypnotic memory improvement," 9 and,
even worse, that hypnotically prompted recollections "appear to be less reliable than nonhypnotic recall." 10
And yet I also couldn't help noticing that all this research was conducted in sanitized lab environments, far from the vivid -- but scientifically inconvenient -- passions of everyday life. Nor had
psychologists failed to notice this, since one of the authors I've just quoted, summarizing what's in the literature, also notes that "the relevancy of these laboratory studies may be questioned
because they used verbal, frequently nonmeaningful stimuli in a low arousal environment." 11
In plain English, I might put the problem this way. These experimenters, good academics all of them -- and, let's note, experimental rather than clinical psychologists, which means they
wouldn't do much work with the messy functioning of memory in normal life -- recruit experimental subjects, typically undergraduates at their universities. They ask these people to
memorize data that no one possibly could care about. A week or so later, they interview their subjects, hypnotizing half of them, and declare that even under hypnosis nobody remembers
much. Certainly the hypnotized subjects don't remember any more than a control group that hasn't been hypnotized.
But what does this prove? That hypnosis can't retrieve
memory, or just that nobody remembers meaningless nonsense under any circumstances? Some psychologists -- spurred, I'd like to think, by common sense -- wonder whether highly
emotional memories might behave differently. It's not hard to find literature saying that they do, though the scholar who raised the question I quoted earlier -- Marilyn C. Smith, of the
Scarborough College Life Sciences Division of the University of Toronto -- notes that she thinks research indicates otherwise, at least in circumstances involving hypnosis: "Several recent studies
that have used more forensically relevant, arousal-provoking stimuli persist in showing no hypnosis advantage." 12 (She
stresses forensic relevance because her overall subject is the hypnotic memory enhancement of witnesses in court.)
What, though, might those those "arousal-provoking" stimuli
be? There's a classic, frightening experiment in which subjects were asked to push a button that, they were told, would shoot painful jolts of electricity into someone seated, helpless and
writhing, in a wired chair on the other side of pane of one-way glass. The whole thing was a setup, of course, and nobody really got any electrical shocks. The idea was to see whether the
subjects would follow orders, and, unhappily, they did.
Researchers who study hypnosis and memory haven't quite have the courage -- if that's the word -- to set up real traumatic
situations. (Though Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who conducts her own kind of memory experiments, once got children to falsely believe that they'd been lost in a mall. 13 ) Instead, they're likely to show their subjects films of simulated crimes, which, one can suspect, aren't involving in any personal
way. In another study, two unintentionally comical psychologists used words instead. These were Robert A. Baker (yes, the implacable UFO skeptic, who also holds the belief, extreme
though not unknown in mainstream psychology, that hypnosis isn't a distinct mental state) and Bonnie S. Parker, both at the University of Kentucky. 14 They showed 34 undergraduates
what they describe as "a visual display made up of common objects and eight nonsense syllables," along with an "emotionally arousing" message. Two days later, the kids were hypnotized,
and, predictably enough, couldn't remember any more of the nonsense than could a control group who'd been a shown a message that was "neutral and innocuous."
The experimenters then concluded that "emotional arousal" has no effect on hypnotic recall. But just how aroused should we imagine these undergraduates might have been during this
experiment? As aroused as they might be if they fell in love, learned their best friend died, or were truly abducted by aliens? Call me shallow, call me unscientific, but somehow I doubt it.
Nor do I doubt it any less when I read, in a paper on memory and emotional states, that the relevance of lab experiments to real-life memories is (at least in the authors' opinion) at best "uncertain." 15
So now let's ask how hypnosis would fare if the tiny details to be memorized were linked to something genuinely traumatic.
The answer is that nobody knows. And if we ask about trauma so serious that it leads to loss of memory -- the kind of trauma most directly relevant to abductions -- the answer is the same.
As Stuart Appelle (himself a university psychologist) writes in his critical review of the abduction evidence: "There are no systematic investigations of the accuracy or efficacy of hypnotic recall in trauma-induced amnesia." 16
As for non-traumatic real-life memory, here are four papers that have studied its relation to hypnosis, all concluding that
hypnosis does improve recall (or at least did in the cases they studied). William S. Kroger and Richard Douce of UCLA, for instnace, studied how police departments used hypnosis. They
declared: "Hypnosis was of value in providing investigative direction, and, in the  cases described, has led to the solutions of major crimes." 17 Likewise, a team from the
University of Arizona showed how hypnosis had restored the memory of a man suffering amnesia after he'd been raped. 18 More generally, Helmut Relinger of the Veteran's Administration
Medical Center in Martinez, California reviewed the scientific literature on hypnosis and memory enhancement, concluding that "hypnosis consistently enhances recall of meaningful material
when recall is measured in a free narrative format." 19 And, out on what seems like a treacherous investigative limb, David
Chamberlain hypnotized children and their mothers to retrieve memories of the children's birth. The children had no conscious birth memories, but their accounts were close enough to what
their mothers reported for Chamberlain to write -- hard as this is to believe -- that "children's birth memories appeared to be real rather than fantasy." 20 (Someone, I think, should try to replicate this finding, especially since psychologists generally believe that none of us, children or adults, remember anything that happened before we were two years old. Peter
Brookesmith, the most balanced of all abduction skeptics, who saw an earlier, unpublished version of this essay, objects to Chamberlain because, as he says in his book Alien Abductions,
"experience tells us that most children have heard an account of their birth at some time in their lives." Maybe, but why is Brookesmith silent on the other three papers? 21 )
What can we conclude? We know that hypnosis isn't infallible, and that abduction researchers ought to stress that.
(I've heard Budd Hopkins say as much to abductees he works with, but he needs to say it in print as well.) It's also well known that hypnosis can be misused, something I haven't mentioned
here, but which has become clear in recent years when irresponsible therapists have hypnotized anxious patients, and evoked false memories of sexual abuse. Because of these people, the American Psychiatric Association has strongly
cautioned that recovered memories are "of uncertain authenticity [and] should be subject to external verification." This verification is, to put it mildly, a tricky business when we're dealing with
abductions, since -- obviously -- we don't know whether anything about abductions is real. More on that below.
But here's the moral I want to draw. No matter who attacks
hypnosis or how strong their attacks, nobody has yet proved that it can't retrieve lost memories.
Moreover, the hypnosis debate sidesteps something well known about abductions: Many abduction memories surface with no hypnosis at all. Some experiencers consciously remember a full
abduction scenario, some remember part, and virtually all of them remember something -- if they didn't, why would they visit an abduction investigator in the first place?
All this is plainly set forth in the abduction literature (In Bullard's 1987 study, 22 for instance, in a paper by David F. Webb 23 on abduction reports up to 1980, and in Bullard's recent report on a 1992 survey of abduction investigators.24) All sorts of questions still need to be answered -- are there, for instance, some parts of the standard abduction narrative that
only hypnotized abductees report? But anyone who meets abduction experiencers can easily verify that the overall abduction story, along with key details like the appearance of the aliens, often emerge without hypnosis.
For some time, I should say, I've been observing Budd Hopkins's work. I began by interviewing him for an article in Spin magazine (which was never published). I began to sit in on
some of his sessions with abductees, and, for a study in International UFO Reporter (the publication of the Center for
UFO Studies) reviewed the evidence, much of it unpublished, that documents his controversial "Linda Cortile" case (in which an abduction from a New York city highrise apartment was
supposedly witnessed by several people, including an internationally known political figure; Hopkins describes it all in his book Witnessed. ) 25
Naturally, I've met many of the abduction experiencers Hopkins works with. One of them, a 29 year-old insurance executive who asked me to call her just "Renee," told me she'd
encountered the familiar gray aliens all her life. ("Renee" isn't even her real first name; like most abductees, she doesn't want her real identity revealed.) She'd never told anyone about these
beings. Who'd believe her? Clearly no one else knew the beings existed, because no one talked or wrote about them. One day, she said, she came across one of Hopkins's books at an airport,
with one of those creatures on the cover. She told me this calmly, but it's clear she was shocked. It took her a year, she said, to get up the courage to call Hopkins and arrange a visit,
and even then she brought a friend along, in case he turned out to be crazy.
"Bill" (another abductee I've met) says he remembers being taken, with his family, into a craft he describes as "a
merry-go-round with lights.'' "Christine" says that throughout her childhood she encountered a small gray creature that she called "skeleton man." John Velez, one of the few experiencers
willing to let his full name be printed, remembers lying on a table, surrounded by beings that stuck needles into him.
These memories, it's important to stress, didn't surface during
sessions of any kind with Hopkins, in private conversations, say, or in meetings of his abductee support group. If we're to believe the people I've quoted, they've carried conscious abduction
memories for most of their lives. What Hopkins did, more than anything else, was give them a context in which, for the first time, their memories made sense.
So -- pending some future proof (unlikely, in my opinion) that these people and others like them are lying -- even skeptics need to acknowledge that abduction accounts don't need
hypnosis to emerge. And if classic details like the abductors' huge black eyes can be documented entirely from conscious memories, then haven't hypnotic accounts of those eyes been (at
least in some preliminary sense) corroborated? No, we don't know if they're true. But we can't dismiss them, either -- especially since, in many other details (including, we're told,
some that were never published) the hypnotic accounts corroborate each other.
So here's my second moral: The whole debate about hypnosis is fundamentally irrelevant. If one hypnotized person told the
standard story, we could challenge it, and in fact we should. But if 50 or 5000 people tell it (as in fact is the case), and if others who don't need to be hypnotized say they have the same
memories, then we have no business assuming a priori that their accounts are unreliable.
And here's a fascinating, speculative, and no doubt controversial footnote. Has any other puzzling situation --
something that might be real, or again might not -- been subjected to such detailed hypnotic examination? I doubt it. So isn't it at least remotely possible that abductions might turn out
to be a test case for hypnosis? Suppose we grant even a tiny possibility that abductions might be real. Don't we therefore grant the possibility that hypnosis really does retrieve abduction
memories? And if that were true, then abductions would have told us more about hypnosis than hypnosis research ever did -- and certainly more than hypnosis research ever revealed about abductions.
On now to other skeptical objections. Do abduction investigators plant abduction stories in experiencers' minds? That's the most common accusation, and we must understand
that it's a hypothesis, one that hasn't yet been proved. In fact, there isn't even evidence for it, except for fragmentary excerpts from abduction books or brief film clips on TV, which might (or,
in fuller context, might not) show investigators asking leading questions. (Besides, if one investigator asks leading questions, does that mean they all do?)
Worse, this hypothesis is linked to the assumption -- which, as we've seen, is false -- that abduction stories always emerge through hypnosis. Experiencers, according to this view, are
helpless once they're hypnotized. They're ready to be victimized by leading questions, if, that is, they're not simply commanded to remember an abduction scenario, or at the very least are so
awed by the investigator's expectations that they manufacture the story on their own, drawing on books, TV, and what they've heard from other experiencers at support groups.
My experience, for what it's worth, indicates that this might not be so. The experiencers I've met (admittedly a small and hardly random sample) all told me that they hoped it wasn't true,
that they desperately resisted any belief that their abductions were real.
But then the ugly supposition we're discussing -- that abduction researchers are puppeteers, at the very least naive,
though more likely out to promote themselves and their nonsensical beliefs -- has deeper problems. It ignores the early history of abduction research, when investigators were as
surprised as anyone else to hear abduction tales. It ignores Betty and Barney Hill, who 30 years ago unveiled the first standard-issue abduction story, to a psychiatrist who'd never heard anything like it before.
This theory of investigator influence ignores abductees who've told me they were wary under hypnosis, because they were afraid Budd Hopkins would do exactly what the skeptics claim.
(He didn't, they say.) It ignores transcripts, videotapes, and audio tapes of interviews with abductees (some of them published, others not, but available, I'd think, to anyone doing
serious research), which don't show investigators prompting or leading anyone.
It ignores what I've observed when I've watched Budd Hopkins work, and also, maybe more to the point, observations
by Gibbs Williams, a New York psychoanalytic psychotherapist, whom I've interviewed, and who by no means is convinced that abductions are physically real. Williams, too, has watched Hopkins work. Neither of us has seen Hopkins
encouraging people to believe they'd been abducted, or feeding them details of what he thinks has happened to them.
And here's a comment from the French journalist
Marie-Thérèse de Brosses, whose very thorough study 26 was published in France in 1995, and ought to be translated into
English: "I have been able to observe several of [Budd Hopkins'] regressions, and I remember being favorably impressed by the extreme prudence with which he conducts them, so as not to influence his subjects." De Brosses, we
should note, doesn't accept the standard Hopkins-Jacobs scenario, and doesn't believe that the abductors are space aliens, though she does conclude that abductions seem to be real
events. Unlike most of Hopkins's critics, thought, she took the time to study what he does. How many skeptics -- especially the ones who say he guides abductees to accept his views -- have ever watched him work?
It's true, of course, that anyone who comes to him knows what he believes, and that in his support groups it's taken for granted that abductions are real. So clearly he's at least a little
ingenuous when he says he'll never tell anyone that they've really been abducted. He might not say the words, but the very fact of a relationship with him implies what isn't spoken.
Still, that doesn't mean he's forcing anyone -- and abductees, I'll say again, will both tell you that he doesn't and insist that even for them their abductions aren't easy to believe. His
support groups, which skeptics never visit, strike me as gatherings of independent thinkers. There isn't any cult-like atmosphere, no catechism of acceptable beliefs, and no rush to contradict anyone who expresses any doubt.
Finally, I might mention the letters Hopkins gets from abductees, before he ever talks to them. Both Gibbs Williams and I have seen these; in my case, Hopkins simply handed me a
box of unopened mail, and invited me to browse. Williams and I were struck by how consistent the letters are, both in the experiences they report -- unexplainable lights in the writers'
bedrooms, beings by their beds, missing time when they were children -- and, as Williams stresses, by their consistent psychology. Williams says he can't conclude that the experiences described are real. But he's certain that the
letter-writers manifest something, if only a unique psychological syndrome, one that Hopkins isn't creating.
But maybe abduction stories are created by the media. That's another common skeptical assumption.
Well, by now abduction tales are clearly spread by media,
since they've been published in books, shown in the movies, and splashed all over TV. I sat in on Hopkins's first meeting with an experiencer who'd read no end of abduction books. As it
happens, this man was careful to explain, with no prompting, how his recollections differed from what he'd read. (He also worried that hypnosis would create false memories.) But media influence can't be ruled out.
"Spread by the media," however, doesn't mean "created by the media." How would the media have created the very first abduction tales? Here the trail of influence -- so wide and
brightly lit for contemporary abduction accounts -- gets lost in shadows.
Back in 1992, for instance, Robert Sheaffer was the token skeptic at the now-famous abduction conference at M.I.T. The
Betty and Barney Hill affair, said he, was taken in large part from the lovable 1953 science fiction movie, Invaders from Mars. "Going back still further," Sheaffer then declared, "we
can find all the major elements of contemporary UFO abductions in a 1930 comic adventure [he means "comic strip adventure"],Buck Rogers in the 25th Century." 27
Cut to Sheaffer's illustrations. "Help, Buck!" screams lovely
Wilma, as she's scooped into a circular craft by giant metal claws. "Help, Buck!"
Note that those giant claws aren't exactly abundant in abduction literature. But what we then get, says Sheaffer, are
two events familiar from nearly any abduction book, a medical examination on a table, and an alien mindscan. Wilma, enticingly semi-clad, is kept in an "electro-hypnotic trance" for days on
end, while aliens examine her. "She lacks…feline traits," says an alien. "Is it possible earth people are not evolved from the cat species?"
How could this comic strip have influenced abductions? What
mechanism is supposed to be operating? This Buck Rogers strip appeared in 1930. How many people remembered it when abduction stories first surfaced, in the '60s and the '70s?
But Sheaffer, as it happens, isn't reporting his own research. The feline Buck Rogers aliens were excavated by Martin Kottmeyer, who catalogued his findings in one of the zaniest essays 28 ever written on UFOs, published nearly ten years ago in Magonia, the British journal of psychosocial ufology.
Sheaffer, I have to say, misrepresents his source both in his MIT remarks and when he exposes poor Wilma once again in the abduction chapter of his recent book, UFO Sightings: The Evidence. 29 (Or "lack of evidence," as you'd expect the title of a Sheaffer book to read.) Kottmeyer, you see, is sane enough
to grant that "a long-forgotten cartoon is not a credible influence on present-day abductions." But Sheaffer doesn't mention that. Instead he lets us think that Kottmeyer believes the opposite.
But what else does Kottmeyer say? His essay is the source for his other much-quoted discovery, the Outer Limits episode which showed aliens with wraparound eyes, telecast just 12
days before one of the first two prominent abductees, Barney Hill, described similar eyes under hypnosis. Gotcha! Especially since, as Kottmeyer stresses, wraparound eyes are otherwise unknown in science fiction.
Here, of course, we have a certain difficulty, a small factual matter that Kottmeyer didn't check. Did Barney Hill watch the Outer Limits episode? He's been dead since 1969, but his wife
Betty (who shared the alleged abduction) survives. And according to Jerome Clark, who spoke to her when he wrote an entry on the Hill case in his UFO Encyclopedia, she'd never heard of Outer Limits. 30 In any case, she added, neither she nor Barney would have watched that kind of show. Besides, she
said, he worked nights, and did community work instead of watching TV when he had an evening off.
But Kottmeyer might be too busy watching old movies and
TV shows to do any real research. Does Budd Hopkins insist that the abduction story can't be found in science fiction? Hah! Maybe aliens leave marks on his abductees' bodies, but that's in a 1954 epic, Killers from Space.
Do abductee women mysteriously get pregnant? That's in Village of the Damned. Do the aliens have big eyes? Invasion of the Saucer Men. Do they read our thoughts? Earth versus the Flying Saucers.
And so on, with Kottmeyer completely unaware of how silly he sounds. He reaches his all-time high in yet another essay, 31
where he nails Barney Hill for saying, under hypnosis, that the aliens' eyes spoke to him. But "eyes that speak" were in the Outer Limits episode! And also in a thousand poems, not to
mention romance novels. Kottmeyer should read some books that aren't science fiction.
The truth, of course, is that any of us, with too much time on our hands, could cherry-pick old issues of Amazing Stories,
and emerge with elements of the abduction scenario. But could we find the core of it? I read science fiction incessantly when I was younger. Aliens came in many guises. Sometimes they
showed up with rayguns blazing. Sometimes (in a Murray Leinster story, "First Contact") they told dirty jokes. They smuggled jewels, by dematerializing them with mental trickery.
They snuck down to earth to peddle photos, pornographic elsewhere, of one-celled beings reproducing.
But I don't believe I ever found a story in which shadowy aliens entered bedrooms at night, abducting some of us
throughout our lives and using us sexually, without ever making themselves known or explaining their designs. Kottmeyer, to put it mildly, can't see the forest for the trees. He writes as if
abductees combine details at random, never noticing that their stories have an underlying theme, and that the theme -- the glue that holds abduction stories together -- is what needs to be
explained. This theme has never been a major science fictional motif, so anyone who thinks that science fiction spawned abduction tales needs to explain something much more
complicated, why meaningless ornamental details were sucked from old magazines and movies, to adorn a more serious narrative that appears to be autonomous.
And that's not all. When Betty Hill says her husband didn't watch The Outer Limits, skeptics can easily retort that she's lying, or that she doesn't remember correctly, or that her
husband didn't have to watch the show to pick up on its imagery. "Barney," writes Peter Brookesmith, "could easily have picked up details as striking as the new-fangled alien
wraparound eyes that spoke from friends or colleagues who had seen the show." 32
Which is to say that Kottmeyer can never be disproved. There's no way to falsify the media-influence hypothesis. Or, at the very least, Kottmeyer and others haven't framed it
scientifically. They engage in vulgar thinking, never moving a step past "gotcha." Kottmeyer doesn't make predictions from his theory, doesn't give us any way to separate abduction tales that
might be influenced by media from those that wouldn't be.
Besides, for all we know, the science fiction details could be veiled abduction memories. And why haven't other science
fiction motifs been implanted in ufology? Even before the abduction era, when people said they saw beings in UFOs, the beings were almost always small humanoids. (Yes, there other
kinds of entities, but small humanoids predominated.) Why -- if these sightings were all fantasies -- didn't people report an equal number of the robots, blobs, and giant bugs they'd seen in
movies? In a little while, we'll meet Leon S. Newman and Roy H. Baumeister, academic psychologists who wrote a paper on abductions. They're not believers, but they can't buy the media
hypothesis. Why, they ask -- if science fiction is causing abduction reports -- don't abductees tell us they were taken to alien planets, and given superpowers to fight evil?
Kottmeyer's amateur theorizing isn't based on any model of how delusions spread, why some take root and others don't. Where are the studies by social scientists? If we think
abductions are media-generated, don't we need to understand why some -- but hardly all -- of the nightmares floating in our culture burrow into us so deeply that some people think they're
real? What other beliefs, besides abductions, have spread by a hysterical contagion that's actually been documented?
As it happens, there really is a study of the second question, by sociologist Robert Hall, 33 who measured abduction reports against cases of mass psychogenic illness and mass delusion,
which he says are the only documented phenomena that spread by irrational contagion. He found "crucial" differences, and concludes -- with an explosion of rhetorical fireworks -- that
"attributing these reports to mass psychology leaves us just as much an anomaly as attributing them to extraterrestrial visitors." He's overstating his case, but if skeptics want to contradict him,
their research had better be just as detailed.
But suppose abductions aren't media creations. Could they be a new kind of folklore? You hear this, too, these days, and it leads me to confess that -- in the best (or worst) tradition of people
doing UFO research without proper credentials, and instead coming into it from unlikely, unrelated fields -- I am by profession a composer and music critic. Once, when I was a
graduate student at the Yale School of Music, I took a course in "Aural Analysis," in which we'd listen to music we knew nothing about, and attempt to describe what was going on. In particular,
we chose a lot of music from other cultures, which we absorbed with worshipful but blind respect. One afternoon all of us, professor and students alike, marveled at a recording of folk
music from eastern Europe. We'd never heard rhythms like this before. They were blindingly intricate, we thought, incomprehensible to our impoverished Western rhythmic palette.
But then a student who knew a lot about eastern European folk music made a belated appearance, and told us that these folk musicians were only playing badly. Their apparent rhythmic complexities were simply mistakes.
Sometimes I wonder whether something similar -- an uncritical respect for foreign folk traditions -- isn't at work when we're told that abduction tales are just another kind of folklore.
Somehow these other traditions (whose cosmology, let's say, wouldn't convince us much) acquire a glittering prestige as soon as we talk of anything paranormal. Many cultures, we're told,
report contact with unearthly beings. Sometimes these beings transport people to unearthly realms. In Newfoundland, people think they're visited at night by unpleasant entities they call "old hags," which means…but what does
it mean? What's being alleged here?
From the skeptical side, this folklore theory would be a way to prove abductions aren't real. Other cultures have their
folklore, we have ours; case closed. Except we haven't exactly proved abductions and old hag experiences are the same, have we? For that matter, we haven't even proved that the other
cultures' experiences aren't real. The skeptical version of the folklore theory is weak from the start; it collapses if you don't assume that all reported paranormal experiences are purely
psychological. The skeptics, once again, are reasoning in circles
But there's also a believer's version of the folklore theory, where you assume that other cultures' entity experiences are
real, and that therefore abductions are real, too. But they're not extraterrestrial. Instead, they're part of the universal saga of humanity.
This notion, I'd suggest, has a psychological payoff. It takes
away the threat (to borrow the title of David Jacobs' recent book), If aliens are here -- if pink stains really show up on abductees' pajamas -- humanity is headed for the unknown,
possibly faster than most of us would like. But if abductions are just our own variant of humanity's perpetual encounter with The Beyond…well, we think we see spaceships, and the Irish think
they see fairies. Let's have another margarita, and ponder the human condition.
But how do we know what other cultures really see? Have we investigated their experiences? On alternate Thursdays, I'm
struck by an irony here. People like Jacques Vallée 34 or Marie Thèrese de Brosses (who buys into the folklore theory bigtime)
won't accept, reports of hybrid babies, made by abductees we can talk to, whose accounts might corroborate each other. But they're willing to believe stories told hundreds of years ago, which can't possibly be checked.
De Brosses, for instance, writes:
Abductions insert themselves in the very ancient tradition of man's relationship with the invisible. [There you have it; the human condition.] This phenomenon did not begin
with the UFO era; stores of humans captured by entities can be found just as well among the ancient Greeks, the Celtic peoples or the Polynesians, and also in Asia Minor and all the Near East. The first abductee was Elijah… 35
Amazing. In the earlier part of her book she's much more cautious, careful most of the time to distinguish what she knows from what she can only guess. And now this! De Brosses runs
through example after example -- Ezekial in the Bible, Vedic encounters with glowing entities, Islamic djinns, medieval incubus attacks, women carried off by demons, shamanic transports, a Chinese farmer's 19th century report of a
multicolored object that carried him away. All I can do is shrug. If there are similarities, there are differences as well, so many of them that, with the same facts and a different tone of voice, de
Brosses could just as well have argued that none of her examples are related to the others, or to abductions.
How, I could also ask, does she know that some or all of her
examles aren't wholly mythical? How can she distinguish medieval hallucinations from real events? And if the experiences really were similar, how does she know there isn't some
psychological archetype that creates them all? If the experiences are real, how does she know that other cultures don't really meet our familiar aliens, which they imagine to be fairies, djinns,
or demons? Why can't we decide that we're the only ones who see the beings clearly, because we're the only scientific culture?
This notion might sound arrogant, but there's data in abduction
lore to support it. If you've read abduction books, you know that the aliens supposedly can cloud our minds. Or maybe we ourselves veil our recollection, because we're in shock. Who
knows? But either way, abduction experiencers are said to have their thoughts befogged by what investigators (borrowing a Freudian phrase) call "screen memories," which most commonly
are images of animals. Question an experiencer closely, says the lore, and these animals evaporate, to be replaced by -- eeek! -- the grays.
Here's a typical example, from Budd Hopkins's book Witnessed.
An experiencer Hopkins calls "Marilyn Kilmer" is telling him of her abduction:
As she floats upward toward the skylight she sees two small figures levitating behind her, creatures she describes as "white cats." I ask if they are long-haired or
short-haired cats. "They don't have any hair," she replies, and adds that they are very big. 36
How could the cats be cats, Hopkins wonders, if they were hairless and gigantic? [In the interest of full disclosure, I'll note that "Kilmer" has reportedly recanted her abduction belief. I
called her, as part of my investigation of the "Linda" case, but she wouldn't speak to me. I don't doubt Hopkins' report of her hypnotic session, though, and the anecdote still illustrates these
alleged "screen memories," which, Hopkins says, have popped up repeatedly.)
In another case, one Hopkins cherishes for its absurdity, a woman told him that she was driving late at night and found the
road blocked by an owl which stood in front of the car, its eyes level with the windshield. This woman never stopped to think that owls aren't big enough to do that -- not, that is, until
Hopkins asked her how tall she thought the owl was.
Now, if we form these screen memories, why wouldn't people from cultures do the same? And, since other cultures are more
open to paranormal experience, why shouldn't their screen memories be codified, so that everyone generates the same socially sanctioned image? Of course, as a very clear UFO
thinker, Jean-Luc Rivera, pointed out to me, there's no way to be absolutely certain our grays aren't some deeper kind of screen memory. 37 But the folklore theory -- little more, really,
than an arbitrary assertion -- still evaporates when it's closely looked at.