Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Barney and Betty Hill Story – Case study in parasociology (Part 3)

This post is the third and last of this case study on the Barney and Betty Hill “alien abduction” story. The model used to understand the psychological and sociological dimensions of PEMIEs is assessed.

The concept of PEMIE

This concept has been useful in many ways. In the context of the case study, the empirical evidence on the material portion of the story fits well with the built-in notion that the UFO experience has a fleeting material basis. The evidence provided by the witnesses point towards a ball of light combined with either or both hallucinations and psi effects. Hence, by “bracketing” the issue of a possible spacecraft involvement, one can start looking seriously into the human and symbolic dimensions of the events. However, such bracketing needs to be resolved, as its content was part of the witnesses’ accounts. In looking in greater depth into the evidence, distorted perceptions due to altered state of consciousness, possible false memory created after the event, and psi effect can actually account for what was put in bracket. The concept of PEMIE can therefore neutralize some ETH preconceptions.

The individual psi effect level

It is not possible to prove that there was psi effects involved, but it is possible to show that the known enabling conditions for psi effects to occur where present during the events described by the witnesses. In this regards, Heath’s (2003) book and concepts were quite useful, and should be fully integrated into a more detailed sub-component of the model. There is little doubt that both Barney and Betty were in a deep altered state of consciousness (ASC) during the events of 21 September 1961. As well, it is clear that Betty had from the onset a very open attitude towards what we call nowadays the ETH. The combination of both deep ASC and beliefs constitute important factors in producing psi effects. Barney’s internal struggle about the interpretation to give to the events is more interesting, and this type of inner struggles has not received a lot of attention from parapsychology in term of how it influences the production psi effects. One clear outcome of this case study is that more research on internal clash of belief systems in the context of producing psi effects is required.

The shared psi effect level

With the evidence available, the possibility of telepathic sharing of images could not be verified. The conditions for such verification appear to be relatively narrow. It requires two or more witnesses who were in deep altered state of consciousness, and who reported the same highly improbable event, but who would not have been in any contact with each others afterward. As well, it would require at least a third observer who had witnessed the same event, but reported something different, and who had no contact with the two other ones. These conditions were not present in the Hill case, and thus it is not possible to determine how useful this element of the model is.

The use of von Lucadou’s concepts has been very effective to understand how the strange events of September 1961 became the archetype “Gray abduction” story. Even if there might not have been any psi effect after the events of 21 September 1961 (although Betty found her lost earrings on their kitchen table surrounded by leafs – a possible poltergeist-like event. These after the fact PK events have been documented in parapsychology as a form of lingering PK effects after the main PK event is over). Mapping the psycho-social dynamics of paranormal events remains of great importance, as the meaning attached to the events is usually developed or firmed up afterward. The main limitation of von Lucadou’s concepts is that it was developed to study recurring psi effects (i.e., RSPKs), while the Hill case was a construed as a single event. Hence, it is not possible to assess if the psycho-social dynamics contributed to the production of any psi effect. Von Lucadou’s concept might be used more extensively in the case of repeat “abduction” scenarios.

The social psi level

It is probably impossible to make any direct inference between a paranormal event and the social conditions that may enable it. This is an inherent limitation of parasociology. However, it is possible to make indirect inferences. In the Hill case, there are a number of symbolic elements that have a strong internal coherence. The conjunction of dates with two major social events (the Berlin crisis and the Freedom ride first victory), the symbolic dimension of the “ship” looking like a bus, the “alien” appearance, and the “alien” behavior in the light of the racial tensions of 1961, the direct involvement of the witnesses with the Civil Rights movement, and Barney’s internal psychological tensions about these social issues, provide a strong case for an event with a socially-based source for the event. Furthermore, the conjunction of psi enabling factors at the individual level, as discussed above, with social level enabling events reinforces the hypothesis that the Hill experience might have a psi event with more than one sources. The proof for this last statement cannot be established just yet, of course, but it can be said that the key hypothesis of parasociology has survived its first test by not being contradicted.

The concept of plausibility structure has been also a useful extension of von Loucadou’s concepts into the sociological realm. It also illustrates what Leledakis and Castoriadis wrote about the non-deterministic nature of social change because charge emerges, first, into the collective unconscious. If this analysis of the Hill story is by and large correct, then it means that a very unusual (or paranormal) event, originally fueled by the racial tensions at a specific time in a specific country, mutated into a new, lasting and now worldwide narrative about alleged alien presence on Earth. No one, no model, and no grand theory could have predicted such an outcome. Ultimately, it can represent another interesting illustration of the “trickster” archetype in action.


The parasociological model to study UFO events and developed based on a review of the literature surveyed so far has survived its first test. However, it is clear that it remains a model with inherent limitations. One of them is that psi effects cannot be measured directly, and can only be inferred by assessing the nature and extent of psi enabling factors linked to a particular event. This limitation would certain be very problematic for those who espouse a positivist epistemological approach, but would be quite acceptable for those who study single events after the fact like historians and political scientists, as a case for a strong internal validity can still be made (if the evidence support it). Given the ontological nature of non-recurrent and spontaneous psi events, espousing a positivist approach is simply inappropriate as determinism in human affairs is relatively limited.

The next step will be to try the model on a UFO wave to assess if it can be useful in such context as well.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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