On the night of Sept. 19, 1961, Barney and Betty Hill were driving on a rural highway to their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. By all accounts, the Hills were an exemplary couple: he a postman, she a social worker, active in their community and in the civil rights movement. On an isolated road snaking through the White Mountains, the couple later recounted, they saw a bright object that appeared to be following their car. They arrived home around 5 a.m., unable to account for two hours of the night but feeling that something terrible had happened to them.
It took a while, but the Hills eventually remembered the life-altering event that befell them on that lonely stretch of highway: They’d been abducted by aliens.
The Hills’ claim was the first publicized account of alien abduction. Their story—which they told first to a psychiatrist, then in a book and TV movie—formed the template for countless abduction stories to follow. Details vary, but the typical alien abductee hews to the basic script of the Hills’ self-reported encounter: They are taken by otherworldly beings, subjected to various experiments, and returned, never to be the same.
Today, some 2.5% of the US population reports having some personal experience with alien abduction. (Coincidentally, the same percentage reports having voted illegally.) Studies by sober-minded, non-ufologist psychologists have identified two truths that apply to most people in this unique cohort, including the Hills. They’re not lying, at least not consciously—most people who say they were kidnapped by aliens really believe they were kidnapped by aliens, even if the evidence doesn’t support their claim. And they’re not crazy, at least not in the way we think of when we talk about crazy people, though they tend to differ from the rest of the population on some key psychological traits.
These self-reported abductees are participants in a cultural myth that can be directly traced to Barney and Betty Hill, whose own story came about only after aliens started kidnapping people in movie and TV plot lines in the late 1950s. Reports of flying saucers surfaced in the late 1940s; aliens were fixtures of science fiction by the dawn of the 20th century. But the trope of real people actually being spirited away by such beings is only as old as the Hills.
“We in the late 20th century may well be in the exciting position of being able to observe and study a myth in the process of being created,” wrote English professor Terry Matheson in his 1998 book Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon. An annual meeting of alien abductees convenes in Rhode Island; support groups for abductees—or “experiencers,” as many prefer to be called—thrive online. In honor of World UFO Day (July 2), it’s worth taking a look back at the point where all their stories began.
The night was cloudless and starry. The Hills stopped for coffee at a roadside diner around 10 p.m. and figured they’d get home around 3 a.m., the couple recounted in The Interrupted Journey, a 1966 book about their experience co-written with John G. Fuller. They got back in the car and continued home. Sometime later, Betty looked out the passenger-side window and saw a bright object following them. At her insistence Barney parked the car, got out, and looked at the object through a pair of binoculars.
The object was a spacecraft with a set of double windows through which Barney could clearly see “at least half a dozen living beings.” They were wearing uniforms and looking straight at him.
Barney was terrified. He raced back to the car and pulled off the highway onto a winding side road to lose the craft. The couple heard a series of loud beeps, and then each felt “an odd tingling drowsiness come over them,” Fuller wrote, followed by “a sort of haze.” When they next regained consciousness, they were 35 miles down the highway. Groggily, they continued home.
At first there were only a few oddities. Both of them were a little rumpled—Barney’s shoes were scuffed and his binocular strap had broken. He had a feeling that something had happened to his body and went into the bathroom to examine himself. They tried to shake it off, but a few days later, Betty began having nightmares. Barney told a friend that his feeling was “one of a person who saw something he doesn’t want to remember.”
Two years later, the couple visited a psychiatrist. There, under hypnosis, they both recounted what had occurred that night: short, gray aliens with big, wraparound eyes took them aboard their saucer-shaped craft and probed them with needles.
The psychiatrist didn’t believe their story, though he could see that the Hills did. Barney in particular was terrified at the recollection. Betty was more comfortable sharing the story with friends and others, even giving lectures about the experience at schools and to local groups. Journalists started sniffing around, and the Hills agreed to the book deal. In 1975, NBC aired The UFO Incident, a made-for-TV movie based on the Hills. In the two years after it aired, reports of alien abductions—a thing never recorded in human history before Betty and Barney Hill—rose 2,500%.
The Hills were unlike many of the thousands of abductees to follow, in that they remembered—or believed they remembered—the experience. Many people who believe they were abducted don’t actually recall the particulars. They just have a strong sense that it happened.
“About a month ago, I got out of the shower and looked at my back and saw bruises,” a pleasant 22-year-old New Hampshire man named Tom told psychologist Susan Clancy in her 2005 book Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. “Then I talked to my Mom about it, and she looked at my back and said, ‘Well, maybe aliens.'”
In this way, Tom is a typical abductee. Something unusual occurs, and while other possibilities are considered—a friend suggested Tom might have gotten bruised at his job on a demolition site—something about aliens just feels right.
When hearing abductees’ stories, “there is a tendency to either be totally uncritical or label them as all crazy. That’s very unfair and not actually supported by the evidence,” says Christopher French, a psychology professor and head of anomalistic psychology at Goldsmith (he explains: “essentially, the psychology of weird shit”).
Yes, some people who claim to have been abducted are dishonest hoaxers. And yes, some are what might colloquially be called “nut jobs,” like the woman who dropped to her knees during an interview with Clancy and insisted she had a message from the professor’s alien love child. But French notes that rates of psychopathy are not that different among abductees than among the general population.
“We want to believe there’s something bigger and better than us out there. And we want to believe that whatever it is cares about us, or at least is paying attention to us.” Psychological profiles of abductees differ in some important and consistent ways, he says. Abductees are more likely to dissociate. They are more prone to experiencing altered states of consciousness, such as out-of-body experiences or lost time. They are more fantasy-prone. These things in combination make a person more susceptible to false memories: recollections that feel completely real to the believer, but are nevertheless inaccurate.
Memory is imperfect, and all of us have distorted memories to some extent. People who believe they were kidnapped by aliens just tend to be particularly susceptible to them. One of Clancy’s studies at Harvard University found that people who recovered suppressed memories of alien abductions—like the Hills—were more likely to also have false recollections in a word-association exercise.
An alien abduction story helps people disposed to believe in such things make sense of an unexplained circumstance, like a few lost hours, sudden bruises, or a generalized feeling of anxiety. It can also help make sense of life. Being chosen by visitors from beyond gives the abductee a feeling of specialness, Clancy argues, of being a little less insignificant in a big, cold universe.
“We don’t want to be alone,” she wrote in Abducted. “We feel helpless and vulnerable much of the time. We want to believe there’s something bigger and better than us out there. And we want to believe that whatever it is cares about us, or at least is paying attention to us. That wants us (sexually or otherwise). That we’re special.”
Looking back at the Hills’ story today, a few key facts stand out.
At the moment when they saw the lights they later understood to be an alien spacecraft, Barney and Betty Hill were two thoroughly exhausted people. Barney had a 120-mile daily commute to his job in Boston, a stressful burden that aggravated his ulcer. Betty was a children’s welfare worker for the state of New Hampshire, tasked with managing as many as 120 cases at a time. Days before the alleged sighting, they’d left home at 4 a.m. for what was supposed to be a much-needed week’s vacation in Montreal. They ran out of cash—this was in the days before ATMs—so had to head home early, leaving Montreal late and driving through the night to make the most of their time and budget.
Upon arriving home the Hills were most disturbed that they couldn’t account for about two hours of the journey. That feeling of lost time, especially when traveling, is one of the primary signs that a person is too tired to drive. Sleep-deprived people are especially susceptible to false-memory formation.
There were in fact lights in the sky that night, exactly where the Hills noticed them. They were Jupiter and Saturn, both of which were particularly bright that evening and in locations matching the Hills’ description, paranormal skeptic Robert Sheaffer determined.
Another salient factor is that Betty was already an ardent believer in UFOs and a fan of science fiction. As soon as they got home she called her sister (also a believer) to report that they saw a flying saucer. Once her nightmares started, she became convinced that the couple had in fact been abducted by aliens, a conclusion Barney was initially reluctant to accept.
The technique the couple’s psychiatrist used to “recover” their abduction memories is also suspect. Hypnosis doesn’t automatically extract the truth from people, nor does it create false memories in itself. It’s a state in which the hypnotized person is relaxed, responsive, and, as Susan Clancy put it, “unusually susceptible to suggestions.”
Barney was initially wary of his wife’s alien story, but by the time they saw the psychiatrist, he had been listening to her tell it for two years. The description he gave under hypnosis of a bug-eyed alien—now the cultural standard for what an alien looks like—closely resembled an alien character that had appeared two weeks earlier in the popular sci-fi TV show The Outer Limits. Alien abduction had been a frequent plotline on the show in the years between the couple’s trip and their seeking therapy.
Aliens may have been easier to grapple with than the racism of 1960s America. There was another significant source of stress in the Hills’ life: Barney was black and Betty was white, at a time in US history when being in an interracial relationship could be dangerous. The Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state bans on interracial marriage, was still six years away. In their book, they noted that the waitress at the diner where they’d stopped before the sighting had a “reaction” to the sight of the interracial couple, though they did not say what it was.
Barney’s doctor had advised him to seek psychiatric help not because of aliens, but because of stress-induced high blood pressure and ulcers. Stress is also a factor in false-memory creation. Barney saw another psychiatrist before the one who put him under hypnosis; the earlier doctor concluded that his anxiety was in part linked to the stress of being a black American man married to a white woman, according to psychologist Philip J. Klass’s book Abductions: A Dangerous Game. Aliens may have been easier to grapple with than the racism of 1960s America.
Barney Hill died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1969. Betty died in 2004 at the age of 85. She was an enthusiastic believer in aliens all her life, leading UFO vigils and speaking at symposiums on extraterrestrials. She was photographed at one such event in 2000, wearing a shirt with the slogan, “I was abducted by aliens and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!” She was smiling.