Betty and Barney Hill’s Interrupted Journey

The “Hill Abduction” remains one of the most famous UFO cases in the US.

In September 1961, Betty and Barney Hill were returning home from a vacation trip to Canada. Barney, an African-American, worked for the Post Office, and Betty, who was White, was a child-welfare social worker. This was in an era when the civil rights battle was still raging—legal recognition of biracial marriages by the Supreme Court would not happen for another six years, and, while the couple’s friends didn’t seem to have any issues, even in the liberal northeast the Hills faced uncomfortable social pressures because of their mixed-race marriage.

At about ten pm on September 19, the pair left a diner in Vermont, hoping to make it to their home in Portsmouth NH in four or five hours. But as they drove down the highway past the little town of Lancaster NH, they noticed a bright light in the sky that seemed to be following them. After a while, they pulled over into a picnic area and looked at it through binoculars, and saw a spinning object. Betty later reported: “It was a beautiful night. The moon was very bright, and we were calm and relaxed, and the radio was playing, when I saw the strange light in the sky. It came out over the highway and stopped directly in front of us.”

When they drove on, the object got closer, until it was just 100 feet above their car. Now, on Highway 3 just outside Lincoln, Barney stopped in the middle of the road, put a pistol into his pocket, and stepped out. The object was hovering just in front of him, and he could now see that it was a spaceship, and through a row of windows he could see figures looking out at him. Betty recalled: “And at this point, Barney got out with the binoculars in an attempt to identify the craft. And as he looked up, he could see a row of men standing in the windows, looking down at him. The craft began to descend, and he had the feeling they were trying to abduct him.”

Barney tried to reach for the gun in his pocket, but found himself unable to move. But after a few seconds he was able to break away and get into the car. Seconds later, both Barney and Betty heard what sounded like a loud buzzing sound, and lost consciousness.

When they came to, it was two hours later and they were in the car about 35 miles further along the highway. Mystified, they drove the rest of the way home. The next morning, they were puzzled to find signs of a struggle: Barney’s shoes had been scuffed, the strap on his binoculars was broken, and Betty’s dress had been torn. And they were unable to recall anything that had happened during the two-hour stretch after they had seen the mysterious object.

They reported their UFO sighting to the Air Force, describing the bright light that had followed them but leaving out the details of the “missing time”. The Air Force concluded that they had seen the bright light of Jupiter in the night sky. (It is, the Air Force investigators knew, a common optical illusion that a stationary light in an empty sky often appears to be moving or following the observer, and also appears much closer than it is.) Betty also wrote to prominent UFOlogist Donald Keyhoe (author of Flying Saucers Are Real). 

Then, over the next few years both Barney and Betty were plagued by vague nightmares. Thinking that maybe they had repressed memories, they finally decided to go to psychiatrist Dr Benjamin Simon, a practitioner of “hypnotherapy”. In this controversial process, patients are hypnotized and their subconscious mind is probed for memories or experiences which may have been suppressed by the conscious.

The idea of “hypnosis” dates back to the 18th century, when a European doctor named Maximilian Hell began claiming he could cure diseases through the use of magnets. At this point in time there was no “germ theory of disease”, and “medicine” consisted mostly of all sorts of ideas that we would today recognize as quackery and silliness. Back then, of course, nobody knew better, and Hell’s “magnetic therapy” seemed to work at least some of the time.

By 1740, a doctor in Austria named Franz Mesmer had taken up the idea and improved upon it. He decided that magnetism was itself some sort of fluid, and that living bodies produced an “animal magnetism” that functioned even without artificial metal magnets. So, Mesmer claimed, by putting his patients into a deep state of relaxation he was able to manipulate and control this magnetic fluid—a process that came to be referred to as being “mesmerized”. Dr Mesmer became a sensation, with even the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, becoming a patient.

In 1784, however, King Louis XVI appointed a Royal Commission to investigate Mesmer’s claims. This commission included Benjamin Franklin, who was then staying in Paris as American Ambassador, and the famed chemist Antoine Lavoisier. They concluded that there was no such thing as “animal magnetism” or “magnetic fluid”, and that Mesmer’s effects were due to the patient’s imagination.

There the matter rested until 1841, when a Scottish eye surgeon named James Braid took an interest in Mesmer’s ideas and began to study them. Like Franklin and Lavoisier before him, he concluded that most of Mesmer’s patter was baloney, but Braid did find a deep kernel of truth to it. When certain patients were in a deeply relaxed state, he discovered, it put them into a state of extreme suggestibility, and an adept practitioner of what he called “hypnosis” could often use this power of suggestion to cure psychosomatic diseases, or perhaps even to “turn off” the pain of medical procedures or surgery.

Over the years, others took up Braid’s study, and hypnosis became a recognized phenomenon. It was found that only certain people (particularly those who were highly suggestible and easily manipulated) were subject to being hypnotized and that the process didn’t work in others. The state of hypnosis was also found to be an odd sort of agreement between practitioner and subject: even in their heightened state of suggestibility, subjects could not be induced to do anything they did not implicitly agree to, and could not be coerced into doing or saying things they did not want to.

But within those boundaries, patients were often willing to adopt even the strangest of suggestions—something which was quick to be exploited by stage magicians who learned how to induce hypnosis. By selecting people in the audience who were both highly-suggestible and who were willing to be the center of attention, “hypnotists” found that they could induce people to do all sorts of silly but harmless things, such as dance like a chicken or bark like a dog or whatever else. It became a staple of many stage acts. In a more serious vein, medical doctors sometimes use hypnosis as a method of inducing patients to quit smoking, or as a way of reducing chronic pain.

The seeming ability of hypnotism to bypass the conscious mind and plant suggestions straight into the unconscious, however, attracted the attention of psychiatrists, and even Sigmund Freud experimented with using the process to have patients recall forgotten or repressed memories. That in turn interested people like police investigators, who thought that perhaps eyewitnesses to crimes could be hypnotized by professionals to enhance their ability to recall forgotten details of what they had seen. By 1960 there was widespread interest in this technique.

So, when Betty and Barney Hill approached Dr Benjamin Simon, he decided upon a series of hypnotherapy sessions in which he tried to retrieve whatever lost or suppressed memories they had. And what he found was startling.

Under hypnosis, both Betty and Barney recalled that they had been abducted by the space aliens. The ship was hovering just in front of the car: it was about 200 feet wide, and had two protruding struts that flashed a red light. A number of aliens emerged from a ramp and escorted the couple inside. Betty recalled under hypnosis: “Well, they had a grey tone to the skin, smaller nose, and thin slit for a mouth. They had larger eyes than ours.” Barney recalled that they wore shiny black uniforms and caps. The aliens they described have since then become the classic and iconic image of the “space alien”.

The Hills recalled that they were separated inside the spacecraft and were each taken to some sort of examination room, with curved walls, a large light in the ceiling, and a metal table. Here they were given medical inspections, which involved taking hair, skin, and fingernail samples, and various needles. The aliens were able to communicate with the couple through some sort of thought-projection process. At one point, one of the aliens showed a three-dimensional star map to Betty: when she later reconstructed drawings of it, UFOlogists were able to match it to the Zeta Reticula star system. Betty also reported that the aliens were fascinated by Barney’s removable dentures, which they asked her about.

In 1965, a Boston area reporter who had learned about the report contacted Betty and Barney for an interview. The story caused a sensation. An author named John Fuller interviewed them extensively and his book, The Interrupted Journey, became an international best-seller. In 1975 the made-for-TV movie The UFO Incident was released, based on the book and starring James Earl Jones, and when the Hollywood blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in 1977, the movie’s special-effects space aliens, with the now-classic large heads, skinny grey bodies and black almond-shaped eyes, were based on the descriptions given by Barney and Betty Hill.

But by this time, though, serious doubts had already been raised among both psychiatrists and police investigators about the reliability of “memories” that were recalled under hypnosis. In many instances it was found that these “recollections” were not true. It was not uncommon for subjects to “remember” fragments from movies they had seen or stories they had heard, and to present these as actual events. In other cases, the improper use of leading questions by the interrogator led to the highly-suggestible and eager-to-please witnesses simply telling the questioner whatever they wanted to hear, whether it was factually true or not.

Studies also showed that an interrogator could, intentionally or not, plant “false memories” under hypnosis that would subsequently be treated by the subject as real even though they had never happened. (One famous study was able to falsely implant childhood memories of being lost in a shopping mall, even though the subject had never actually had any such experience.)

A number of criminal courts began rejecting the admissibility of witness statements that were made under hypnosis. Today, although the Supreme Court has never ruled definitively on the issue and hypnosis is still legally admissible under at least some circumstances, most prosecutors and police no longer use the technique.

The hypnosis method used in the case of Betty and Barney Hill came under immediate fire. It was noted that even before their sighting Betty Hill’s sister had told her that she had once seen a UFO, and during the period before her hypnosis sessions Betty had herself read a large number of books about the flying saucer phenomenon and began to have dreams about alien encounters, which she assiduously wrote down in the morning. Even Dr Benjamin Simon, who had conducted the hypnosis sessions with the Hills, concluded that she was probably recalling details from those readings and her dreams and remembering them as actual experiences, and Barney may have picked them up through his conversations with her. The description they both gave of the UFO occupants also matches closely the space aliens depicted in a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits titled “The Bellero Shield”, which had aired just a few weeks before the couple drew their sketches under hypnosis.

Betty’s deep interest in flying saucers was confirmed by the fact that after Barney died in 1969 she became a prominent figure in UFO circles, spoke often at conventions and conferences, and would claim dozens of subsequent flying saucer sightings, photographs, and alien contacts. Eventually even UFOlogist John Oswald, who knew her, had to admit: “She is not really seeing UFOs, but she is calling them that.”

So, critics have pointed out, while the Hills may have sincerely believed what they reported and were not intentionally lying, the state of hypnotic suggestion may well have been causing them to falsely remember bits and pieces of things they had read or heard about as being real experiences, even though they were not.

And this conclusion may well be reinforced by cultural considerations. Up until the Hill story became a global sensation, most “contact” reports with UFO occupants were variations of the “Little Green Men” archetype which was largely established by the Hopkinsville Aliens incident in 1955. Space aliens tended to be depicted as short, usually in a silvery spacesuit (reminiscent of the flight suits worn by Air Force pilots and Mercury astronauts), and often with green skin.

After the Hill story, however—and especially after the visual depictions in Close Encounters based on their statements—the image of the “extraterrestrial” changed abruptly and almost completely. Now, virtually every alien abduction story since that time has centered around the short, grey-skinned big-eyed space aliens described by the Hills and featured in the movie. And the fact that the witness descriptions of space aliens tended to change in parallel with the visual depictions of aliens in popular culture, seems to indicate that space alien encounters are a cultural phenomenon, and not a biological one.

2 thoughts on “Betty and Barney Hill’s Interrupted Journey”

  1. “When they drove on, the object got closer, until it was just 100 feet above their car….”

    Something I discovered during idle experiments with letting bits of downy feather or dandelion seeds float off into the air: as soon as the object is sufficiently far away that you can no longer make out any details, and particularly in bright sunlight, it begins to look for all the world like a shiny disk floating in the air. The wind will often also push around in all manner of unexpected ways.

    Nothing strange when you know it’s just a piece of fluff. But if you think it is a large object far away, it will seem to be performing “impossible maneuvers.”

    And I realized: if you do not know what you are looking at, there is actually no way to tell whether you are seeing a small object close by, or a large one far away. I suspect a great many UFO sightings consist of people mistaking small pieces of floating fluff or windblown plastic bags etc. for larger objects further away. As I recall, even “trained observers” like astronauts have been fooled into thinking flecks of paint floating past the window of their spacecraft were much larger objects further away. I’d be curious to know how the Hills could tell that an unknown object of unknown size was “100 feet above them.”

    As for hypnosis, during the “Satanic abuse” panic of the 1980s and 1990s, several people were imprisoned for absolutely heinous crimes revealed under regression hypnosis of “victims.” Virtually all of these were absolutely bogus; a gross miscarriage of justice – we should all be a bit more skeptical of “experts” and “trained observers”. Humans’ capacity for self-deception is limitless.

    This does not, of course, mean that some UFOs aren’t in fact alien spacecraft. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. 🙂

    1. My conversations with UFO fans usually go the same way as my conversations with Q-Anons or creationists: I ask for evidence, they give me all sorts of reasons why they don’t have to give me any evidence then accuse me of being part of the vast conspiracy against them, and I then stop listening to their arm-waving. Conspiracy fans of all sorts are much more alike than any of them would like to admit.

      Given the basic facts of chemistry, it seems logical to me that there is “life” throughout the universe. That does not mean that any of it has ever visited HERE, however. And given the vastness of the universe, it may never.

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