Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Barney and Betty Hill Story: Case study in parasociology (Part 2)

This post continues the analysis of the Barney and Betty Hill alleged abduction in September 1961. The remaining dimensions of the analytical model are tested for fitness. The general evaluation of the model and conclusion will be presented in the third and last part of this case study.

Shared psi effect, nurturing the phenomenon, and telepathic sharing

One of the key conclusions of Dr. Benjamin in June 1964 was that the part of the Hill’s story onboard the “spaceship” was most likely a fantasy born out of Betty’s dream and absorbed through osmosis by Barney.[27] A number of elements could be presented to support this thesis. Betty had her dreams a few weeks after the events in the fall of 1961 and wrote them down. The Hill consulted for the first time Dr. Benjamin in December 1963. So there was over two years between these two events, a lot of time for absorption. ETH ufologists claimed that the Hill never discussed her dreams, and that Barney never read her written account of her dreams. It is in fact incorrect. Many details were discussed among them.[28] As well, Betty recounted publicly the content of her dreams before 1964 during a meeting where Barney was in the attendance.

Another possibility is that there was some telepathic sharing of themes and images between them, as Schwartz suggested explaining a number of close encounters. Such telepathy could have occurred during and/or after the events of 1961. However, there is not enough evidence to assess if this could have been the case, and therefore the telepathic sharing is in this case not a useful element.

What has occurred, however, was an active nurturing of the phenomenon. Irrespective of what happen in September 1961, it is clear that the Hill were engaged into a psycho-social dynamics reinforcing the ETH interpretation of their experience. It is important to note that after the events, both Barney and Betty were not sure what to make of what happen to them. In a process similar to Marian apparitions where a beautiful lady becomes the Virgin Mary when other people get involved with the witnesses, the Hill were quickly absorbed by the ETH community and their belief system. From that point of view the Hill story is interesting as it fits the Model of Pragmatic Information (MPI) developed by the German parapsychologist Walter von Lucadou to study Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) or poltergeists.[29]

In the light of Benjamin Simon’s analysis of the Hill’s experience, Barney seems to be the “focus person.” In RSPKs, the focus person tends to be someone with a lot of unresolved inner conflicts with deep roots into the unconscious part of their mind. The events has clearly illustrated that Barney was the one who had the most serious challenges about his own identity, as an African-American man married to a White women in the 1960s. The hypnotic regression showed that issue was a constant preoccupation for him. For instance, when they were driving through Montreal in the afternoon prior to the event, he was worried about how the French-Canadians would react towards him, and was relief to see other Blacks walking in the city streets.[30] He had the same apprehension in the restaurant where they stopped before crossing the borders.[31] When he was looking into the binoculars towards the “spaceship”, his first reaction was that he saw an “Irishman friendly to Blacks”, which was described as a rare thing by Barney.[32] Then the image changed and he saw a Nazi officer, which upset him greatly.[33] If it was clear for Dr. Simon that there was no particular signs of tensions in the couple given the different background [34], being an African-American in White dominated world was affecting Barney. In the 1960s, it was not a rare thing as shown by the famous studies conducted by the psychiatrist Franz Fanon.[35]

Betty, on the other hand could be considered as the key person in what von Lucadou calls the “environment”. Not only she provided an ETH meaning to the events to Barney, but she actively engaged the wider environment in such interpretation of events. The first call Betty made was to her sister who saw a UFO, and her sister provided Betty with information as to how to report their sighting.[36] Betty told the story to their tenants the same day,{37] and some of her friends and co-workers later on.[38] Betty called the local Air Force base to report her sightings. [39] Finally, Betty borrowed Major Keyhoe’s famous book on UFO (an ETH book) at the local library, read it in one sitting, and wrote to the National Investigations of Committee of Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), on 26 September 1961 to report the sighting.[40] All these actions were taken while Barney was reluctant at every turn.

Then, the “naive observers” arrive (to use von Lucadou’s terminology). On 21 October 1961, the Hill agree to meet NICAP’s investigator Walter Webb[41]. After a discussion with Major Keyhoe about the Hill case, Robert Hohman and C.D Jackson decide to interview the Hill as well, which occurred on 25 November 1961. A friend of the Hill, Major MacDonald joins them as well, and it is at that time that they realized there was a missing time period for which they could not account for during the early hours of 20 September 1961[42]. Later on, the Hill presented their story to a few public meetings. In a few months, what was a very odd and bizarre event became an encounter construed as a prime ETH event.

In the Hill case, there were very few critical observers. On 25 March 1962, as Barney’s physical and mental health was deteriorating, the Hill met Dr. Quirke for an interview who suggested a cool off period in the hope that things will get back to normal.[43] Yet, the Hill actually pursued the issue even further by continuing making frequent trips to Indian Head where they thought the event took place.[44] The second critical observer was Dr. Benjamin who considered the “aliens in spaceship” part of the event as a fantasy. It was clear that Betty completely rejected Dr. Benjamin’s assessment. She even said that there were no symbols to interpret in what happened to them.[45]

Finally, society (the last component of von Lucadou’s model) got involved when a Boston journalist published their story after attending a meeting where the Hill told their story, which prompted them to work with Fuller to get the record straight, which eventually led to the publication of Interrupted Journey in October 1966. In the Hill case, the naive observers were able to shield the Hill from the critical observers and from society for quite a long time. This allowed the ETH interpretation to stick, as shown by Betty while being under hypnosis during the 7 March 1964 session. She said that “And I kept wondering why they were following us. And as I would figure that, I was wondering if they were as curious about me as I was about them.” Then Dr. Simon asked “you speak of ‘they’?” Betty replied “ I mean, well, I figured there must be somebody inside of the object, you know, someone directing its flight. And so, whoever was inside, this is ‘they’.”[46] Given the unfolding of events described above between September 1961 and March 1964, such a statement from Betty could be seen as equivocal. Either she was not truthful when she said she had no particular preconceptions about UFOs, or her statement under hypnosis is the product of psycho-social process that occurred after the actual events took place. It appears that both issues were at play, i.e., an original openness about the ETH which was reinforced later on by interacting with the ETH ufological community.

Although the possibility of a shared psi event could not have been confirmed with the existing information, it is clear that the psycho-social dynamics surrounding the event and the witnesses played an important role in defining it. This is an important issue, and the proposed model is fit enough to remove at least some of the ETH noise out of the evidence. This also reinforces the notion that whether psi effects are involved or not, UFO sightings and closer encounters cannot be separated from the large psycho-social context from which they emerged and are interpreted. Focussing solely on the PEMIE and one’s individual mental balance, like most ETH ufologists do, leads to a very limited understanding of the UFO experience.

Social psi, plausibility structure, and tension in the collective unconscious

This part of the proposed analytical model is the most innovative, but also the riskiest one. A more deliberate analysis is therefore proposed.

Plausibility structures

It is incorrect to think that the “Grey” aliens and abductors first appeared with the Hill’s story. There were already pre-existing plausibility structures leaning towards the “new alien narrative.” Hairy and small creatures were reported in 1954 in France and in Venezuela.[47] Dwarf like creatures with big ears and long arms were reported in the American press, in August 1955, in what is now called the Kelly-Hopkinsville story[48]. Then, there is also the famous Brazilian case of Antonio Villas-Boas who was allegedly abducted by alien creatures in October 1957, although the story was only made public in Brazil in the spring of 1962.[49] However, the publication of Behind Flying Saucers by Frank Scully in 1950 is probably the story that had the most impact. Scully told a story that dwarf like creatures were recovered from crash sites in Arizona and New Mexico. He was eventually discredited by the press, but with the publication of the Roswell story in 1980, Scully’s story was resurrected and stuck ever since in the ETH ufological milieus. As Paul Meehan notes in his extensive cinematographic study of alien movies, “Scully’s book help establish the notions of little humanoid aliens and UFOs over the Southwestern desert in the public mind. These themes were to reappear in many of the films of the 50s science fiction cycle.”[50]

In spite of many ETH ufologists rejection of cultural explanations for the UFO phenomenon, by 1961 there were plenty of collective representations of dwarf-like aliens, widely available across the United States. But it is also important to underline that by 1961, the saucer movies and their imagery were less prominent. As Meehan wrote, “by the end of the decade the first wave of the invasion had stalled. After numerous saucer movies releases in 1958 and 1959, the cycle had run its course in Hollywood. It would be many years before the UFOnauts return to invade the celluloid skies above New York and Washington.”[51] It is an important observation, as it is indicative that in 1961 saucer stories and images were leaving the collective consciousness to settle into the collective unconscious.

It is also clear that the Hill story not only benefited from prior plausibility structures, but was also instrumental in creating new ones. For instance, the next “Gray abduction” story that emerged in the United States was the so-called Andreasson affair, described in Raymond Fowler’s book The Andreasson Affair published in the 1970s. Yet, the story took place in January 1967, just a few months after the publication of The Interrupted Journey in October 1966. In the same vein, the television film based on the Hill story, The UFO Incident, was first aired on NBC on 20 October 1975. Two weeks later, the famous “Gray abduction” of Travis Walton occurred (5 November 1975). The sincerity of these witnesses is not in doubt here. What one needs to consider is rather that the introduction in the public realm through the mass media of new plausibility structures can enact new forms of PEMIEs.

Tensions in the collective unconscious

It is always fascinating to see ETH ufologists studying sightings in a complete social and political vacuum, as if nothing important happens around a sighting. The Hill story is certainly one of the most patent cases. In the third week of September 1961, there was a lot of going on in the United States that relates to Hill story. At least two major releases of emotional energy were occurring around the same dates.

As found by Kottmeyer and Viéroudy[52], important ufological events in the United States appear to be linked to national security concerns. In September 1961, the world was in the midst of the Berlin crisis, which brought the world to a very serious confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The then secret National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 21 September 1961, the day after the Hill’s event, was circulated among senior decision-makers showing that the Soviet Union was bluffing and that they could not back up their claim on West Berlin with a large ICBM force.[53] The preparations for an eventual pre-emptive nuclear strike were not necessary anymore, to the great relief of President Kennedy. This also indicated that America was no more in a catching up mode (perceived as such since the launch of Sputnik in 1957), and in fact America was clearly ahead in the Cold War contest.

Second, the Civil Rights movement was actively engaged into the “Freedom Rides” during the summer and fall of 1961 (which finds its roots in the famous Rosa Parkes incident of 1955), where both White and Black activists were riding coach buses across the southern United States, purposefully transgressing segregation laws in bus seating arrangements. This led to several violent incidents where buses were burnt by racist demonstrators. Many Civil Rights activists were seriously beaten and arrested by the police in states where segregation was enforced. On 22 September 1961 (two days after the Hill’s incident), the Freedom Rides Civil Right activists won their first victory by a ruling of the Federal Interstate Commerce Commission interdicting segregation in trains, buses and transportation terminals across the country.[54] Given the Hill active involvement in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), these “interrupted journeys” at the border of segregationist states in the southern United States were certainly known to them.

What is important to remember here is that these key events occurred one and two days after the Hill’s event. This could be seen as a liminal events where the content of the NIE and the decision about ending segregation where certainly known to those who wrote them, but were not public yet. In both cases, such information was certainly known to have a major impact on America’s self identity. On one hand America was no more the underdog in the Cold War competition, and the Civil Rights activists were successful in changing American society. To use Anderson’s analysis,[55] it is clear that deeply shared myths and their unconscious underpinnings about what America is were affected.

Social psi effect

The question whether such liminal event could produce social psi effect remains to be answered and it is one of the central tasks of parasociology. Without proposing what could be considered a proof, it is at least possible to show some indications that may be some social psi effects were in action in the Hill case by looking at the symbolic content of what has been reported by them.

The first interesting link can be made is about the appearance of the “spacecraft” and the Freedom Riders. In a previous post about the Fatima story, it was said that a ladder was seen. But what was really meant was a horizontal series of windows looking like a ladder, as commonly found in buses and trains. Then, could it be possible that what Hill saw was a mixture of flying saucer and coach bus, or a flying bus? The famous drawings made by the Hill looks as follow:

It is interesting to note that they also underlined that there were red lights at each ends of the object. Now let’s consider these coach buses contemporary to the Hill event, and note that they have red lights on top at each ends:

Now take a picture of a similar coach bus taken from the side, print it, take both top ends and join them to make something like a cone, and compare it to Barney’s drawing. The similarity is striking.

Another set of symbolic representations are the eyes of the “aliens” which could be linked to the nuclear war that did not occur given the winding down of the Berlin crisis. If one has a look at contemporary mask and military protective suits, like these ones and then compare it to the typical “Gray” seen by the Hill, interesting similarities can be found.

However, it is possible to have a different set of “eyes”, which in the Hill context of 1961 could have been terrifying, and yet very meaningful. Once the alien is seen upside down, as if he would look over someone lying down, the comparison is striking.

In the part of the Hill event that emerged during the hypnosis regression, the issue of sexual reproduction was clearly at the centre stage. There was the barney’s semen collected issue, and Betty’s pregnancy test through the navel using a technology just about to be discovered, but that is low tech our present-day standards.[56] Then there was the skin test performed on Betty [57], and the “Grey” aliens (and let’s remember that grey is a color produced out of a mixture of black and white). Although Betty could not have children due to a medical condition,[58] the issue of mixed children in the United States of the 1960s was not a light one.

The issue of inter-racial marriages was not just a contested social convention in the United States at the time. This was against the law in many states, and as Civil Right activists, there is no reason to believe the Hill were not aware of this. Furthermore, these laws were in place to avoid producing mixed offspring (known in the racist literature as miscegenation). It was only in 1967 with the landmark judgement of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Loving vs. Virginia case that laws prohibiting inter-racial marriages were formally declared unconstitutional. Although it was not enforced, it was only in 2000 that the last state, Alabama, formal struck down their anti inter-racial marriage law. [59]

The last symbolic element addressed here is the famous map that was first described as a 1960s paper technology (i.e. a regular map)[60]. But was later re-described by Betty as being digital under hypnosis by niece (an ETH ufologist) and after such technology became available on Earth.[61] There are a number of problem with the Zeta Reticuli hypothesis that are well-known: it is based on memory and Betty’s drawing could only be approximate, there are an almost infinite number of possibilities if one expand the possible stars beyond 100 light years, etc. Instead, if one reverses the “stellar” map and compare it with a map showing the Freedom Ride action published in 1962, another set of striking similarities can be found.


[27] Fuller p. 319.

[28] Fuller, p. 232.

[29] Lucadou, W. and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”.

[30] Fuller p. 94.

[31] Fuller p. 97.

[32] Fuller, p. 114.

[33] Fuller, p. 115.

[34] See the “ Introduction,” written in 1966 by Dr. Benjamin Simon, in John Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey (New York: Berkeley Publishing), p. 5.

[35] See in particular his famous book originally published in 1952: Black Skin, White Masks.

[36] Fuller p. 39.

[37] Fuller, p. 39.

[38] Fuller, pp. 49 and 71.

[39] Fuller, p. 41.

[40] Fuller, p. 46.

[41] Fuller p. 50.

[42] Fuller, p. 62-65.

[43] Fuller p. 72.

[44] Fuller, p. 69.

[45] Fuller, p. 335.

[46] Fuller, p. 178.

[47] For more information, please refer to Jacques Vallée. (1969) Passport to Magonia.

[48] Please refer to J. Allen Hynek. (1972). The UFO Experience.

[49] Also reported in Vallée’s Passport to Magonia.

[50] Paul Meehan. (1998). Saucer Movies, p. 34.

[51] Idem., p. 104.

[52] See Kottmeyer, Martin. (1996). “UFO Flaps”. The Anomalist 3 (1995-1996): 64-89; and Viéroudy, Pierre. (1977). Ces ovnis qui annoncent le surhomme. Paris: Tchou.

[53] NIE 11-8/1-61 -- Strength and Deployment of Soviet Long Range Ballistic Missile Forces, 21 September 1961 (29 pages), access on Internet at on 22 December 2008. For more information, please refer to Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan. (1978) Force Without War. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

[54] For more information on the Freedom Ride please refer to Raymond Arsenault (2006) Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[55] See Anderson, Benedict. (1983). Imagined Communities—Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

[56] See Fuller, p. 196.

[57] See Fuller, pp. 316-317.

[58] Fuller, p. 317-318.

[59] For more information, please see on Internet

[60] Fuller, p. 208-209.

[61] In Friedman and Marden, Captured!.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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