Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Barney and Betty Hill Story: Case study in parasociology (Part 1)

This post is a first attempt to evaluate the usefulness of the model that emerged from two previous posts: “The materiality of UFOs”, and the “The sociality of UFOs”. The Barney and Betty Hill alleged abduction by extraterrestrial entities (ETs) in the early hours of 20 September 1961 has been selected as a case study to try out the model. There are a number of reasons that justify such a choice. The key one is that large excerpts of the hypnotic regressions conducted by Dr. Benjamin Simon are publicly available through Fuller’s book The Interrupted Journey. Data about the inner state of being of the Hill are thus available, which is rarely the case for most close encounter reports studied by ufologists who espouse the extra-terrestrial hypothesis (ETH). Similarly, this case is quite well-known, and many other aspects have been reported on by a number of authors. Lastly, their story constitutes a landmark case from a sociological standpoint. Contacts with extraterrestrial entities were already reported in the 1950s, particularly during the so-called “contactees era” involving the benevolent “Space Brothers” (notion actively promoted by a number of people after the publication of George Adamski’s Flying Saucers Have Landed in 1953). What makes the Hill case significant is that it introduces innovations in the collective perceptions and narratives about the alleged ETs appearance and behaviour. In particular, the social representations of the ETs slowly started to show certain common physical features (big black eyes, no lips, gray skin, etc), and the ETs’ behaviour as told by witnesses contrasted from previous accounts: the ETs were not that friendly after all.

Analytical Framework

The analytical framework developed in the previous posts is used here to re-assess the events as reported by the Hill. The purpose is not to be predictive, but rather to show that some key variables were present in their experience, many of them completely ignored by the ETH ufologists. Hence, the key criterion is to see if the model can provide new lights to understand what happened to the Hill. As discussed previously, the model can be represented graphically as thus:


The Hill’s story has been studied by ETH ufologists, and they emphasised the few physical elements involved, in the hope of vindicating their belief. But like in most ufological accounts none of those physical traces can be verified through physical means. For instance, it was believed that there was radar tracking records of a UFO during the night of 19 to 20 September 1961 over central New Hampshire that could prove the Hill story. But after the investigations of David Webb and John Oswald in the 1970s, it became clear that there is no evidence of a link between the radar tracking and the Hill incident.[1]

The object itself was watch by both Barney and Betty while they were conscious with naked eyes and with binoculars, and it was described as something that “appeared to be flashing thin pencils of different colored lights, rotating around an object which at that time appeared cigar shaped. Just a moment before it had changed its speed from slow to fast, then slowed down again as it crossed the face of the moon. The lights were flashing persistently, red amber, green and blue.”[2] This description does not provide a lot of information, and in no way does it prove that the UFO was a manufactured craft. If anything, this description is more in tune with the behaviour of a ball of light made of plasma.[3] Also, it is important to note that at the end of the event, as told under regression, the “spaceship” was actually perceived as an orange ball of fire,[4] which is the hallmark of the most common form of ball of light.

Three other elements are also underlined in the ETH ufology literature[5], the first one being spots on the back of Hill car that appeared to be magnetised. The second one is about the marks on the top of Barney’s shoes. The last one is the issue of marks on Betty’s dress and damages to its zipper. These evidences are also equivocal. The magnetized marks on the car could be caused by the impact of smaller balls of light which could explain the “perfectly” round and magnetized marks. Smaller balls of light are known to accompany larger ones. For the shoes, as it appear that Hill stopped in a forested area, walking in the forest at night could create such effect, and there is no need of being dragged by someone else to produce such an effect. The broken zipper on Betty’s dress could have been damaged while waking in the forest by getting stuck on a branch and the other marks could have been caused by tree resin (which marks were found of being of Earthly biological origin[6]). As one can see, the physical evidences are equivocal at best. Furthermore, the only real evidences left are the accounts of Betty and Barney, both of which are based on recollection of events that occurred mostly while being in altered states of consciousness (either during the event, or after the event during the hypnotic regression sessions with Dr. Simon). With this kind of evidence, a simple materialistic explanation, as proposed by ETH ufologists, is simply impossible to maintain. So, as there is no physical evidence available for physical analysis, an indirect approach is required.

Individual psi effect, belief, and sensitivity to the paranormal

One of the very few approaches that meet that could provide new lights on the physical dimension of the Hill’s story is the one proposed by those who studied psychokinetic events. Pamela Heath, a parapsychologist specialized in the study of psychokinesis (PK), produced in 2003 a substantial compendium about what is known about PK: The PK Zone. Out of her findings, a number of elements about PK present striking similarities to the events told by Betty and Barney Hill.

One of the key findings in Heath’s research is that altered state of consciousness is a pervasive element. Heath found that the key elements of ASC and PK are (1) a feeling of being in another dimension or alternate reality; (2) awareness of discarnate entities, by accessing our spirit; (3) altered sense of time or of being “out” of the time; (4) a sense of vast complexity, difficult for the ordinary mind to understand; (5) a sense of flow, or being in the “zone”; (6) fusion between the conscious and the unconscious; (7) sense of meditation; and (8) subtle shift in the quality of the experience.[7] These elements, of course, cover a wide variety of PK experiences from lab tests on random number generators to poltergeist events. The elements (1) to (3), in particular, describe very well many UFO close encounters, and can be put in direct relations with Jenny Randles’ concept of the “Oz factor”.[8]

When one keeps in mind the factors identified above and links them to Randles’ description of the Oz factor, one can only be struck by the similarities. For instance, she states that "the Oz factor certainly points to consciousness as the focal point of the UFO encounter...Subjective data that override objective reality could be internal [from our subconscious], external [e.g., from some other intelligent agency], or both...The encounter has a visionary component. You might interpret that as meaning it is all in the imagination. But it really means that there is a direct feed, if you like, from the source of the encounter to the consciousness of the witness...Some witnesses report a strange sensation prior to the encounter -- a sort of mental tingling as if they are aware that something is about to happen. They just have to look up and see what is there, as if it had called to them silently...Then time seems to disappear and lose all meaning".[9]

If we use the constitutive elements of ASC found by Heath, the Hill’s experience has many commonalities. On the alternate reality aspect, under hypnosis Barney described during the 22 February 1964 session that he saw the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland disappearing, the eyes of the leader were in his face disconnected from the leader’s body, and that he was “just floating about”.[10] For Betty’s part, the entire episode is about entering into a very strange craft with very strange people.

Both have encountered strange entities that could access their mind directly, which is very similar to the notion of awareness of discarnate entities, by accessing our spirit. On the altered sense of time, it is well-known that the Hill couple was missing a few hours, for which they could not account for. The same occurred under hypnosis. During the 7 March 1964 session, Betty said “We’re driving along … I don’t know where we are … I don’t even know how we got here … Barney and I, we were driving, I don’t know how long…I don’t know how long…”.[11]

Heath found that there is a general sense of knowing among experiencers.[12] Knowing that the event will occur; knowing that the healing is working or not. The sense of knowing also manifests itself through ESP-like experiences. Barney and Betty, at numerous occasions state that they knew that the light in the sky is “interested” in them. For instance, Barney said during the 22 February 1964 session that “the object was still around us. I could feel it around us. I saw it when we passed by the object. When I got in the car, it had swung around so that it was out there. I—I know it was out there”.[13] As well, they knew what the alien entities are saying even when there are no sounds or spoken word uttered.

Other factors that are more commonly found in spontaneous PK are strong emotions and a strong sense of playfulness. Heath notes that “peak levels of emotion can trigger PK, especially for spontaneous events. This seemed to be true for a wide variety of strong emotions, including anger, frustration with others, sadness, excitement, and love”.[14] Heath also quotes an experiencer to illustrate the role of playfulness, “’play is very important in these sorts of’s entertainment at a certain has a thrilling quality”.[15] There are clear links with the UFO experience where emotions can run high, including fear mixed with curiosity, which in a way connects both aspects of emotions in PK, i.e., the strong emotions and the thrilling aspect. Both Barney and Betty showed high degrees of fear of about the aliens and the craft during the hypnosis sessions. But there was also a playful aspect. For instance Betty said during the 21 March 1964 session, “I was more curious and interested. And I had the feeling of being sort of helpless. That something was going to happen, and I didn’t have much control over it. But I wasn’t really afraid. I guess I was looking forward to it.”[16] During the 28 March 1964 session Barney said that he was fascinated while at the same time afraid.[17] It is also interesting to note Barney said that fascination “was being produced by something stronger than me, outside me, that I wasn’t creating this”.[18] Heath found that PK is also associated with what she calls a sense of energy which may be felt as if it is coming from a “higher source”.[19]

Heath describes openness as “both something of a personality style and a lack of rigid beliefs that might prohibit PK. It seems to indicate a flexible worldview, which might allow the performer not only to do PK, but also to recognize and accept their experiences. [But...] belief systems seemed to play far less of a role than the literature would suggest.”[20] This is an interesting distinction, but it can also cause quite a bit of confusion. For instance, studies[21] that identified the belief in the paranormal as an important element of the UFO experience used the concept of belief not meant to mean necessarily “belief system” but rather a positive attitude towards the paranormal in general. The word belief can therefore mean either “belief system” or “openness”.

In her summary, Heath reassesses somewhat her findings in stating that “in a way, openness to an experience is also a willingness to suspend disbelief, and to see what can happen without the interference of the intellect. It also suggests a lack of attachment to a rigid world view. Hence, it is possible that beliefs could act to modify PK performance either through encouraging the performer to be open to the possibility of PK, and/or willingness to open up to that state [...].”[22] The relationship between belief systems and openness can be therefore more subtle than previously understood by parapsychologists.

Betty, although she appears to have no conscious interest in UFOs prior to her September 1961 experience, it was clear that from the onset she established that the light in the sky was a UFO (read here: aliens in a spaceship). She immediately linked that experience with the one of her sister Janet, who saw a UFO during the 1950s. Indeed, Betty called Janet when she arrived home to discuss her UFO experience. As well, a fact rarely underlined by ufologists is that Betty engaged in informal telepathic experiments with Barney before their UFO event,[23] and her family has a history of dealing with paranormal events.[24] Lastly, she had other UFO sightings afterward in 1966-67.[25] Barney, on the other hand, was clearly struggling to not believe it was an “alien spaceship,” and this inner struggle was obviously perceptible in the debate he had with Betty in the car while watching the UFO in the sky in 1961. This struggle was also obvious while he was under hypnosis with Dr. Benjamin.[26] Such a struggle was clearly indicative that he unconsciously accepted the possibility of an “alien spaceships”, but consciously he was trying to resist such “irrational belief”. In the end, they had a different experience. Barney had a more rigid belief in “rationality” while Betty was quite open to have an extraordinary experience. Barney had no visual memories of being on “the ship”. It was Betty who provided the bulk of the story about the “Greys”, the medical experiment, the stellar map, etc. Hence, the Hill’s story also fits well Heath’s findings about openness.

Although it is not possible to prove according to the positivist epistemology that the Hill story was actually a spontaneous PK experience, it is clear that their story has a lot in common with what is known about the psycho-social dynamics of PK. A more in-depth analysis of all the material gathered under hypnosis (as Fuller only published a portion of the transcript in his book) submitted to all of the 14 elements proposed by Heath in her book would probably provide a more comprehensive look at the Hill story. Nevertheless, there are a number of indicators pointing towards something known (i.e., PK effects), which is more useful than trying to speculate about something that is not known (i.e., the ETH).


[1] Hall, Richard. (1979). “Hill Radar-UFO Connection Weak”. MUFON UFO Journal No. 140. Retrieved on Internet at on 2 January 2009.

[2] Fuller, p. 28.

[3] Heath, P.. (2003). The PK Zone, p. 100; Budden, A. Electric UFOs, pp. 165-196.

[4] Fuller, p. 213.

[5] In particular Freidman, S. and K. Marden. (2007). Captured!.

[6] Freidman, S. and K. Marden, p. 267.

[7] Heath, pp. 220-222.

[8] Randles, J. (1983). UFO Reality.

[9] Randles, J. (2004). “View from Britain”, pp. 18-19.

[10] Fuller, p. 125-127.

[11] Fuller, p. 184.

[12] Heath, pp. 316-320.

[13] Fuller, p. 121.

[14] Heath, p. 256.

[15] Heath, p. 258.

[16] Fuller, p. 253.

[17] Fuller, p. 283.

[18] Idem.

[19] Heath, p. 266.

[20] Heath, p. 307.

[21] See Philips 1993, Spanos et al. 1993, and Basterfield and Thalbourne 2001.

[22] Heath, p. 314.

[23] Fuller, pp. 243-244.

[24] Schwartz, pp. 273-281.

[25] Friedman & Marden, pp. 211-218.

[26] Fuller, pp. 33, 101, and 108.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet


Glenda said...

Excellent post I look forward to reading part 2. I also found your previous post, Essay on the Sociality of UFO'S intriguing. I hope others who visit appreciate the quality of your site.... Glenda

Eric Ouellet said...

Thanks Glenda. I hope you will like the second part too.