In one of the most unusual developments to ever come to the attention of psychologists, tens of thousands of Americans currently believe they have been kidnapped by alien creatures from outer space. Furthermore, most report similar experiences. Common features of the experience include capture by the aliens, usually from bed in the middle of the night; transportation to a spaceship, usually through the air, and frequently through solid walls or windows; a brief tour of the spaceship; a medical examination; and not infrequently, a sexual assault of some sort. Many victims also claim to have been examined internally, and to have had some sort of device implanted, either under the skin or internally—most commonly in the nose or rectum. Many victims further claim to have been involved in human-alien hybrid breeding programs and to have seen either embryos or live children resulting from these experiments. Abduction accounts are also typically marked by a complete absence of both physical evidence and other witnesses to the incident.
Many of the classic features of the alien abduction experience date back to the ﬁrst widely publicized modern abduction claim, the alleged 1961 abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. A married couple traveling through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, they saw a bright light in the sky that seemed to be following them. They assumed it was a helicopter or other aircraft until it appeared to come much closer and descend very rapidly. Barney got out of the car to get a better look. He came to believe it was a spacecraft, and glimpsed occupants behind its windows. After this, the couple drove home, seeming to have lost about an hour of time that they couldn’t account for. After Betty had a series of nightmares involving alien creatures, she and Barney saw a psychiatrist, who hypnotized them both. Following repeated hypnotic sessions, they both came to remember having been taken aboard a spacecraft and given medical examinations by strange aliens with “wraparound” eyes (a description that doesn’t match that given by the majority of abductees).
Apart from a few isolated incidents in the intervening years, aliens appear to have left humanity alone until the early 1980s, when a huge upsurge in reports of alien abduction occurred, coinciding with the publication of a book called Missing Time by Budd Hopkins. According to Hopkins, a virtual epidemic of alien abductions was occurring, but the victims were unaware of what had happened to them. Under hypnosis, by a therapist who knew the experience was real, they could be helped to recover the memory of their experiences and confront the reality of what had happened.
The bulk of the book is devoted to describing several cases in great depth, along with the signs that could let a person know that he or she is a possible abductee. Chief among these signs is missing time; that is, the sense of having lost several hours without being able to account for them. This, along with various types of anxiety, mysterious scars, and the experience of having woken up and been unable to move, with a sense of foreboding and a mysterious presence in the room, are all believed by Hopkins to be signs that a person may have been abducted. On the ﬁnal page of the book, the following sentence appears: “If you believe you may have had the kind of experience dealt with in this book, you may wish to write your recollections in detail to:” followed by a contact address for Hopkins; and then: “As time permits, an investigator will be in touch with you. All letters will be kept strictly conﬁdential.”
After an abductee contacted Hopkins, he began hypnotic sessions, and after a series of these, Hopkins reported that most of his subjects report very similar experiences, a fact Hopkins insists conﬁrms the reality of the phenomenon. This is neither surprising nor convincing evidence of anything save the fact that they were all hypnotized by someone who believes in alien abduction. As the primary deﬁning feature of hypnosis is a heightened susceptibility to suggestion, attempts to “recover” memories via hypnosis are notorious as a source of vivid false memories. Unfortunately, memories created through suggestion under hypnosis are indistinguishable from real ones to the person experiencing them. Indeed, as they are so vivid, the person experiencing them may actually feel more conﬁdent about them than about things that actually happened. This effect is even more likely when the hypnotist lacks training in either the proper use of hypnosis or the working of human memory, so Hopkins’s training is relevant: not a therapist of any sort, his background is in sculpture.
To really bring Hopkins’s message to the masses required a far more gifted writer. Whitley Streiber, a successful author of horror and fantasy novels, was among the readers who recognized himself in the experiences described by Hopkins. Following hypnosis, Streiber published his so-called recollections in Communion: A True Story, a nonﬁction volume marketed very much like his novels. Like his earlier books, Communion sold quite well and was adapted for a ﬁlm. In the wake of Communion and its sequels, many more people came forward believing they may have been abducted. Streiber and Hopkins also got the attention of John Mack.
Mack, a Harvard-afﬁliated psychiatrist, had several patients referred to him by Hopkins for further evaluation. After examining them thoroughly, and apparently engaging in further hypnotic sessions, he eventually came to what struck him as a logical conclusion: it’s really happening. His book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, followed the path blazed by Hopkins and Streiber and became a major best seller. Unlike Hopkins and Streiber, however, Mack was already a highly respected scholarly author (his biography of T. E. Lawrence won a Pulitzer Prize) with a connection to a prestigious university, and thus his equally outlandish claims were accorded a far more respectful reception by the press. His reception by the scientiﬁc community was far less positive, however, and the dean of the Harvard Medical School went so far as to form a committee to investigate Mack’s methods, resulting in a report sharply critical of Mack’s research.
This negative reception did not stop Mack. He collaborated with other abduction researchers (including Hopkins) on a sixty-four-page report mailed to nearly 100,000 psychotherapists, encouraging them to keep watch for signs of alien abduction in their patients. The report further estimated that nearly 4 million Americans have been abducted, a number that was subsequently reported widely by the media. This estimate demands further explanation. In 1991, the Roper organization conducted a survey of less than 6,000 people, in which they were asked whether they had undergone any of the following experiences:
- Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something else in the room. (Author’s italics)
- Experiencing a period of time of an hour or more, in which you were apparently lost, but you could not remember why, or where you had been.
- Seeing unusual lights or balls of light without knowing what was causing them or where they came from.
- Finding puzzling scars on your body and not remembering how you received them or where you got them.
- Feeling that you were actually ﬂying through the air although you didn’t know why or how.
Most reasonably healthy and honest adults will answer “yes” to at least some of these. The authors, however, regarded as probable abductees all respondents who answered yes to at least four of these ﬁve symptoms. Only 119 people in the original sample ﬁt this criterion, but the survey authors simply extrapolated that proportion to the adult population represented by the sample (about 185 million at the time) to arrive at the 3.7 million estimate. Although this estimate sounds incredible, the statistical procedures involved are actually fairly legitimate. The real problem lies in the assumption that the experiences listed are so extraordinary that they must be signs of alien abduction.
The set of experiences associated by these writers with abduction isn’t as special as their readers have come to believe—it just involves phenomena that most people, including most psychologists who don’t study sleep, don’t know about. Sleep paralysis, for example, is experienced by all of us on a nightly basis. As we are usually asleep at the time, however, we are not generally frightened by it. When the body is in REM sleep, the brain actively prevents the body from acting on the content of dreams. In an occurrence that, while unusual, is not especially rare, sleep paralysis does not always go away immediately upon waking up.
Two other phenomena combine with sleep paralysis to produce the portion of the abduction experience that is usually remembered prior to hypnosis: hypnagogic hallucinations and hypnopompic hallucinations. A hallucination is any sensory experience unaccompanied by an actual sensory stimulus—hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, or feeling something that isn’t actually there. A hypnagogic hallucination is simply a hallucination which occurs while a person is in the process of falling asleep—if you’ve ever been startled back awake because you thought you were suddenly falling, you’ve experienced a hypnagogic hallucination.
Hypnopompic hallucinations are a more crucial part of the abduction experience, as they occur at the moment of waking up from a sound sleep and are sometimes accompanied by sleep paralysis. Most hypnopompic hallucinations involve a familiar person or other strange presence in the room, and the person having the hallucination typically goes back to sleep afterward. As sleep paralysis often includes a feeling of tightness in the chest, it is not unusual for hypnopompic hallucinations to include the feeling that the strange presence is either holding down the sleeper or actually sitting on his or her chest. This sort of experience has been well known in previous centuries, in which it was interpreted in terms of then-current beliefs.
The old European stories of demons that would assault people in the night (incubi and succubi), or of an old hag who would enter people’s bedrooms and steal the breath from their lungs, have at their core the experience of waking up paralyzed with a strange presence in the room. In modern America, demons and hags are almost never reported, but in a culture in which some of the most lucrative movies ever made center on alien visitors, it comes as no great surprise that these sleep experiences are now primarily interpreted in those terms instead.
Consider again the case of Betty and Barney Hill. Their description of the aliens they saw differs from almost every other abductee account, because of their mention of “wraparound eyes.” Several different authors have now pointed out that an episode of The Outer Limits, a science-ﬁction television show that often depicted alien visitors, titled “The Bellero Shield,” featuring an abduction by aliens ﬁtting that description perfectly, aired twelve days prior to their experience. The show was very popular and highly publicized. As for the experience of missing time, which the Hill case also helped establish as central to abductions, it is also rather commonplace and has probably been experienced by everyone reading this. It is not unusual on a long trip by road or airplane, or during periods of deep concentration or fatigue, for a person to discover that far more time has passed than it seemed. Like the other experiences that convinced John Mack to warn the nation’s psychotherapists of a large-scale invasion, missing time is an ordinary, if somewhat intriguing, phenomenon. Nonetheless, some people have taken the report seriously, as exempliﬁed by a whole new area of publishing: self-help books on how to avoid getting abducted by aliens (see also Memory).
- Baker, R. “The Aliens Among Us: Hypnotic Regression Revisited.” The Skeptical Inquirer (Winter 1987–88);
- Druffel, A. How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998;
- Klass, Philip J. UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988.