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Alien Abduction Stories and UFOs

Alien Abduction Stories and UFOs

In the latter half of the twentieth century a complex folklore of alien (or extraterrestrial) abduction stories developed in American popular culture. These elaborate tales of abduction, medical experimentation, spiritual transformation, and government conspiracy grew from post–World War II accounts of contact with UFOs (unidentified flying objects). Alien abduction stories share many themes with traditional legends of fantastic journeys to other worlds and mythic tales of encounters with supernatural beings. However, in most alien abduction scenarios, the more fantastic elements of these encounters and the journeys associated with them are reinterpreted through modern cultural and technological themes, such as interplanetary space travel, advanced technology, and medical research.
Since the earliest days of widespread UFO sightings in the 1940s, speculation centered on their extraterrestrial origin and on the U.S. government’s supposed effort to suppress knowledge of these phenomena. In the early 1970s, widespread media coverage of alien abductions helped shape the common visual and narrative structure shared by most abduction accounts. By the 1980s and 1990s, abduction and UFO stories had developed into a genre of popular entertainment represented in numerous best-selling books, blockbuster films, and highly rated television programs. Simultaneously, a rich body of conspiracy theories circulated in alternative press outlets, through the Internet, and via a loose network of “ufologists.” The theories purported to explain the origin of UFOs, the significance of abductions, and the failure of cultural and governmental elites to officially acknowledge the UFO and abduction phenomenon.

Before Abduction: UFOs in a Cold War Context
Alien abduction stories have their roots in the epidemic of UFO sightings that became a media sensation in post–World War II American culture. Stories of unidentified lights and aerial phenomena long predate the twentieth century and are a significant part of many folk traditions and sacred literary corpora. Tales of unexplained ghostly, angelic, demonic, and otherwise extraterrestrial aerial sightings have been common in many religious, historical, and scientific discourses for millennia. With the invention of manned buoyant flight in the eighteenth century and of airships in the nineteenth century, reports of unidentified aerial phenomena became more commonly attributed to human or human-like agencies. Speculation on the origins of these aerial phenomena variously drew on religious, occult, or scientific theories in an effort to explain their significance.
With the invention of aerodynamic flight in the twentieth century, reports of unidentified aerial phenomena increased dramatically. Notably, pilots of airplanes often reported encountering unidentified crafts, with some of the most famous cases involving Allied military pilots seeing mysterious aerial phenomena (dubbed “foo fighters”) during World War II. Widespread reports, however, did not begin until after the war.

On June 24, 1947, while flying near Mt. Rainier in Washington State, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine shiny objects flying erratically at supersonic speeds. When Arnold recounted his sighting to the press, he described the objects as being “saucer-like” and “flat like a pie pan.” Arnold’s description of the objects attracted national media coverage and the term “flying saucer” became a common descriptor for similar aerial phenomena.

Following Arnold’s sighting, reports of flying saucers proliferated in the United States, prompting the U.S. Air Force to investigate. In 1951, Edward J. Ruppelt took over the Air Force’s investigations of various sightings and officially adopted the phrase “unidentified flying object,” abbreviated first as UFOB and later simplified to UFO, to replace phrases like “flying saucer,” which he regarded as misleading. The program, eventually known as Project Blue Book, investigated more than 12,000 UFO sightings before closing in 1970. Many of the sightings could be accounted for naturally—clouds, the planet Venus, meteors, ball lightning—while others were attributable to the increase of commercial aircraft and the militarization of U.S. airspace during the Cold War. Although Air Force investigators explained most sightings as natural phenomena or misidentified private or military aircraft, about 700 sightings remained unexplained and classified.

Following close on the heels of Arnold’s account, a July 8, 1947, press release reported that the U.S. Army had recovered the wreckage of a flying saucer after it crashed on a ranch near Roswell Army Air Field in Roswell, New Mexico. Early conflicting reports of the “Roswell Incident” noted that the crashed vessel was made of unusual material with incredible, unearthly properties, while other accounts described the object as a mere weather balloon. In the years following the 1947 press release, new interpretations of the incident popularized the idea that the unidentified craft was piloted by living beings, most likely of an extraterrestrial origin.

The contradictory messages from military sources prompted speculation about what really happened at Roswell and increased skepticism about other official attempts to scientifically explain UFO sightings. A series of popular books, such as Frank Scully’s Behind the Flying Saucers (1950) and Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucer Conspiracy (1955), alleged that the U.S. government was covering up the truth about UFOs for nefarious national security reasons. As conspiracy theories proliferated, wild speculation in this book and similar works focused on everything from the foreign (i.e., Soviet) origin of UFOs to claims that UFOs were top-secret military weapons.

As reports of flying saucers spread in the popular press and conspiracy theories abounded, accounts of contact between humans and the pilots of these crafts emerged. Such tales of contact became commonplace in the early 1950s after Arnold and other UFO enthusiasts hypothesized that UFOs—because of their seemingly advanced technological properties—might be the product of intelligent extraterrestrial life forms. George Adamski, for example, reported finding a flying saucer and its pilot in the California desert. On November 20, 1952, Adamski claimed, he and some friends conversed with a human-like alien being who lectured them on the dangers of nuclear weapons and atomic radiation. Religion scholar J. Gordon Melton has identified Adamski as a paradigmatic figure in UFO lore who fused the “fantastic voyage” literary tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—most clearly represented in the spiritual cosmological wanderings of Emanuel Swedenborg and the astral travels to Mars of Helene Smith—with the technological anxieties of the post–World War II nuclear age. Adamski and other contactees (as messengers who shared wisdom gleaned from UFO contact came to be known) started many new religious movements—derisively dubbed “UFO cults”—during the latter half of the twentieth century, including groups such as George King’s Aetherius Society and Claude Vorilhon’s Raëlian movement.

Alongside both military and popular interest in UFOs, a loose network of academics, scientists, and the generally curious pioneered the field of “ufology,” often derided as pseudoscience by critics, to investigate sightings and contact with UFOs. Ufologists insisted on using popular folk conceptions of scientific methodology to classify and investigate UFO sightings. Prominent ufologists included J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astronomer who worked with the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. Hynek developed the “close encounters” classification of UFO contact. Although initially skeptical of UFO sightings, Hynek eventually argued that such events might be explained as being extraterrestrial or extradimensional in origin. In his book The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (1972), Hynek described close encounters of the first to the third kinds: encounters of the first kind include visual sightings; those of the second kind leave traces of physical evidence of UFO descent; and the third kind involve the presence of animated creatures in or near the UFOs. Hynek founded the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in 1973 to work with other groups, such as the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), to investigate UFO sightings. MUFON volunteers use the classification systems developed by Hynek and refined by others to investigate sightings and abduction claims and distribute their findings through alternative scientific journals and conferences.

When taken together, these factors—Cold War–era militarization of airspace, widespread interest in contact with otherworldly beings, and the democratization of scientific investigative techniques—form the cultural milieu behind the explosion of alien abduction reports in the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1960s, popular interest in UFOs shifted away from interpretations that viewed these crafts and their inhabitants as benevolent human-like purveyors of antinuclear New Age wisdom to stories that emphasized their monstrous, alien otherness. Simultaneously, many ufologists began to outline conspiracy theories to explain the U.S. government’s failure to acknowledge the truth of these visits. These conspiracy theories became more and more complex in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. As popular concerns shifted away from the threat of foreign communism to domestic issues associated with civil rights, the anti–Vietnam War protest movement, and government corruption in the wake of the Nixon presidency, conspiracy theories generally, and those associated with UFOs specifically, grew to focus more and more on the manipulation of human agency and mutilation of the human body.

From Contact to Abduction
Scholars generally trace the origin of contemporary alien abduction stories to the experiences of Betty and Barney Hill. On September 19, 1961, while driving through the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the couple saw a light flying in the sky. The disc-like craft followed them, shone a light on them, and then disappeared. When the Hills arrived home, they realized the trip had taken two hours longer than they had thought. In the days that followed, the Hills experienced extreme anxiety and nightmares. In 1964, Barney Hill underwent hypnotic therapy with his psychiatrist and recovered repressed memories of alien beings taking him and Betty aboard the UFO and experimenting on them. Under hypnosis, Betty recalled similar traumatic procedures. When asked to describe the beings who kidnapped them, Barney said the beings had “rather odd-shaped heads, with a large cranium. … And the eyes continued around to the sides of their heads. … [T]he mouth itself … was much like when you draw one horizontal line with a short perpendicular line on each end. … The texture of the skin … was grayish, almost metallic looking” (Fuller 1966, 260).

The Hills’ account, retrieved in part through hypnosis and the recovery of repressed memories, coincided with a number of controversies in the American psychiatry medical establishment. Concerns over the malleability of the human brain peaked with the “brainwashing” scares of the Cold War while public interest in repressed memories contributed to a number of controversies, including the so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Memories of sexual abuse, especially impregnation, abortion, and DNA experimentation in the form of hybrid alien-human children became increasingly popular components of abduction accounts in the wake of the Hills’ revelations.

The Hills’ experience and their description of their abductors were recounted in the best-selling 1966 paperback, The Interrupted Journey, and later in NBC’s 1975 made-for-TV movie The UFO Incident. The film helped establish the Hills’ account as the prototypical alien abduction experience. Following the broadcast of the film, reports of contact with UFOs dramatically increased from approximately two a year (from 1947 to 1975) to more than fifty per year by 1976. Hynek’s close encounters classification system relied on the Hills’ abduction incident and became increasingly popular and well known, eventually inspiring Steven Spielberg’s iconic blockbuster film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). By the 1990s, the relationship among UFOs, alien abduction, and government conspiracies developed into a cottage industry on many Internet websites and message boards, while popular television programs such as The X-Files reinforced the linkages among the three phenomena.
With the spread of abduction stories through multiple media, the popular folklore surrounding UFOs and abductions expanded to include a host of other phenomena including animal mutilations, accounts of contact with “men in black” trickster figures, crop circles, and ever more elaborate conspiracy theories implicating governments both earthly and alien. UFO and abduction accounts often promiscuously commingle with other forms of alternative knowledge related to ESP, racial conspiracy theories, the existence of Bigfoot, and any number of other paranormal themes. Such elaborate tales have been grist for numerous Hollywood movies, network television programs, a vast bibliography of fictional and (purportedly) nonfictional accounts of contact with UFOs, and a similar-sized market of skeptical literature designed to debunk UFO stories.

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