Seriously, what the f**k is going on here?
Let's start from the beginning ...
"What's the creepiest real story you've ever heard? After all, you've written what NPR called one of the 100 best horror novels of all time, and are often called the Executive Vice President of Modern Horror. So what scares you?" That is a great question, and it's kind of weird that no one has ever actually asked any part of it. I do have an answer, in case someone ever does.
The creepiest true story I've ever heard is the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. Not because of what happened that night, but because of what happened after ...
"Oh, those eyes. They're there in my brain ... I was told to close my eyes because I saw two eyes coming close to mine, and I felt like the eyes had pushed into my eyes ... All I see are these eyes ... I'm not even afraid that they're not connected to a body. They're just there."
-Barney Hill, under hypnosis.
First, I don't believe aliens have visited Earth, or that ghosts haunt houses, or that demons possess people. I think if psychics could actually predict the future, they'd drive nicer cars. I don't think ventriloquist dummies are really alive; I think it's something the guy is doing with his voice. What I'm saying is that I think of myself as a skeptic, but still find the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction story terrifying.
Everything that we now think of as standard for an alien abduction -- the short "grey" aliens with big black eyes, the anal probings, the "missing time" -- it all came from this one incident. The fact that there are two names involved is the key; one person's brain can s**t itself in any number of ways, but how does that happen simultaneously to two people with no history of mental illness or wild claims? If it was a hoax, why did they spend years resisting every chance to go public with it?
Seriously, what the f**k is going on here?
Let's start from the beginning ...
This all went down in 1961, but it wasn't the first alien abduction story ever. There was one that happened a few years earlier (but which wouldn't be publicized until after the Hill incident) involving a man in Brazil who said he was taken aboard a spacecraft, at which point a gorgeous blonde woman came in and had sex with him in order to breed a perfect human/alien hybrid. His reaction to this had been annoyance, that the otherworldly visitors merely saw him as a "good stallion" to breed with the hottest of their alien females. Experts say this is one of the few events in history in which the porn parody came first.
The point is that "alien abduction" just wasn't a thing that could happen to a person in 1961. All of those abduction tropes, the stuff you saw in X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day and parodied in shows like South Park, none of that existed at the time. This is where it all started.
The guy, Barney Hill, was a 39-year-old mailman with chronic ulcers. His wife Betty was a 41-year-old social worker. They lived in New Hampshire. On the night of September 19, they were on a long drive back home from a road trip in Canada, and at 10:30 p.m. they saw a light in the sky. Typical UFO stuff so far -- they described the object as bright, round, and silent, moving erratically. Thinking this looked more interesting than the moose rodeo or whatever they'd gone to see in Canada, they followed the object, stopping at various points to get a closer look through binoculars.
At some point, the object noticed them.
According to both Barney and Betty, the object swooped down and hovered over the car. Barney said he freaked the hell out and sped away ... at which point several weird things occurred (including a loud beeping and a strange vibration in the car), followed by the couple's memories becoming hazy and jumbled. They would resume their drive and arrive home at dawn, two to three hours later than they should have -- as if they'd simply lost a chunk of time at some point.
Betty claimed she discovered all sorts of physical evidence after they got home, like rips on her dress, which she said was also covered in a fine pink powder. Weird circular marks on the back of the car, like something had been attached.
Oh, and Barney found a ring of warts around his penis.
The couple didn't immediately run to the papers or try to parlay their experience into a movie deal. Instead, Betty Hill called the nearest Air Force base and reported what they saw. (The government was actually tracking UFO encounters at the time as part of the very real Project Blue Book. The official response was that she and her husband had gotten confused by the planet Jupiter.) Note that this is Betty doing all of this. Barney didn't seem to want to make a big deal out of the fact that a UFO gave him genital warts. If that was me, I'd be demanding to talk to the goddamned president, and only to find out how long it would take our nukes to reach Mars.
Anyway, Betty then went to the library and checked out a book about UFOs, trying to make some sense out of what had happened to them. A week after reading it, she would suddenly remember the "abduction."
Specifically, she started having a series of vivid dreams: walking through the woods with her husband, who seemed to be in a trance-like state, until they were led onto a spacecraft by short guys with greyish skin, dark eyes, and, uh, greasy black hair. Once onboard, they did the typical alien medical exam (no anal probe for her -- they instead used a sharp needle to stab her navel). They were then taken back to their car to resume their drive.
Barney still didn't remember anything and thought Betty's dreams were just dreams, and was largely dismissive of the whole abduction story. They did try driving back out to the site to see if anything would trigger more memories, or if they could find evidence, or ... anything at all to prove they weren't going crazy. Otherwise, aside from a couple of meetings with a local UFO study group, they simply kept the whole thing to themselves.
It was more than two years later that somebody convinced them hypnosis would help recall the memories, and in the process relieve some of their lingering anxiety. And here's where I'll say that if the Hills were just making this up to amuse themselves, then Barney was one hell of an actor. You can listen to some of his sessions below, if you're in a place where you can crank audio. Fast-forward to the 20-minute mark, when Barney relives seeing the aliens for the first time and starts f*****g screaming:
Oh, and he remembered not only an anal probing, but that a cup was placed around his genitals to collect a sperm sample -- right where the warts appeared. The hypnosis sessions occurred over several months, the two of them were done separately, so they couldn't hear each others' stories. Their accounts were similar but not identical, and neither were identical to Betty's dreams (as they repeated the story, the look of the aliens would evolve into the now-iconic "Greys"). Barney even did his session first. You know, the guy who prior to this had no memories of any kind of abduction?
Just to reiterate, I don't think either of these people were abducted by aliens, or abducted at all. I think that two years before that recording, they saw something strange in the sky and slowly fed each other's panic. But that means that in the intervening period, this incredibly detailed story of an intergalactic abduction was incepted fully into both of their minds.
Two separate people, remembering the same terrifying sequence of events, none of which actually occurred.
The implications of this are f*****g staggering.
It would be fully five years after the incident before the Hills would ever agree to go public with their story, and that was only after details had leaked (a reporter got their hands on one of those talks they'd given to the local UFO group) and they started to get mocked by skeptics. See, there was a reason they didn't seek the spotlight, something I haven't mentioned yet.
Betty and Barney Hill were an interracial couple -- Barney was black, Betty was white. This was the early-to-mid 1960s. There were still parts of the country where that could get you harassed, if not actually murdered. They were both active in the Civil Rights Movement (and members of the NAACP). Which is to say, they A) had every reason to avoid the spotlight and B) had every reason to avoid doing or saying anything that would discredit them.
It was apparently out of a desire to set the record straight that they cooperated with an author who would write a book about the case in 1966, under the terrible title The Interrupted Journey. That would cement their place in UFO lore, and the concept of the "UFO abduction" in the culture as a whole. There would be TV appearances, interviews, and a movie in 1975 (one Barney would never see, since he died suddenly in 1969 of a stroke, at only 46). After the movie -- and the Steven Spielberg blockbuster about alien contact two years later -- UFO abduction claims exploded.
Betty Hill would become more and more unhinged with time, eventually claiming hundreds more sightings (some attributed her increasingly erratic behavior to a brain tumor), becoming a staple in UFO enthusiast circles right up until the end. Today, if you research the case, you either get true believers insisting a spacecraft showed up on nearby radar (it didn't) or skeptics devoting 100 percent of their energy to proving that aliens aren't real, and otherwise dismissing the story entirely.
I think both groups are badly missing the point.
Longtime readers know I was raised in an evangelical Christian household. I now work in a godless industry and publish obscene horror. There are things I thought I knew about the creation of the universe and its moral underpinnings, confident that if you flipped it over you'd see a sticker outlining its Terms of Service, including strict rules about abortion, gay marriage, and Communism. "If these beliefs aren't true and moral, why do so many people adhere to them? Checkmate, motherfudgers!"
Well, let me answer my younger self this way: By 1987, there were over 300 UFO abduction cases on record, some of which involved up to seven people all reporting the same experience, many reporting seeing those same damned "Greys." There have been thousands since (as far as I can tell, no one is keeping a database now -- there are too many). In 1966, before the Hill case hit the mainstream, only 7 percent of Americans believed alien spacecraft had visited Earth. Today more than half believe it.
All of it, an entire belief system, due to one of these:
Writer Jim Macdonald carefully retraced Betty and Barney Hill's steps, and he points out that a common light atop an observation tower on Cannon Mountain appears in the exact spots the Hills describe their UFO. It even seems to weave around the sky as you wind through the (at the time, completely dark) mountain roads.
Don't be too hard on the Hills here. Their road trip had covered some 1,200 miles, and they'd been driving for something like 18 hours when they experienced their sighting (they'd skipped the hotel on the way back to save money). They were sleep-deprived, there was nothing on the radio, and, well, the road can mess with your mind. Ask a trucker, if you can get them to stop talking about the magical black dog they've all seen on the highway.
As for the mysterious "missing time," that's probably due to the couple badly overestimating how fast they could make it through those mountain roads at night, while failing to account for their frequent stops to try to find a place to get coffee, and then later to track a nonexistent UFO with binoculars.
As for the big-eyed alien "Greys" that captured the public imagination, it's very possible Barney got them from an episode of The Outer Limits which had aired just two weeks before his hypnosis session.
The rest of abduction scenario just ... got implanted into his brain by talking to his wife, I guess? Like, apparently you can hear a story enough that it takes shape in your mind as a thing that occurred to you, to the point where you can "remember" sights and sounds and smells so vividly that you'll melt down in panic when you relive them?
And then hundreds of other people around the world can then "remember" the exact same thing, just as vividly?
That is f*****g terrifying. A lamp, a sleepy couple, a few bad dreams, a low-budget Twilight Zone knockoff ... and from that is born a concept that infects hundreds of millions of people across dozens of countries and two generations, one that lives in their minds as truth.
And you can shrug and ask how is this any different from all of the other bullshit, the demons and ghosts and witches that people swear they've been seeing for millennia. The difference is that this is the era of universal literacy and mass media. A time when we don't need to believe in magic because our machines are magic, when we don't need to fantasize about spacecraft because we can build the damned things.
What haunts me is the realization that none of that matters, because some ideas survive specifically because they're outlandish and bizarre. The brain is somehow programmed to think something is true specifically because it's so unlikely. The vaccines and chemtrails are making us sick, the local pizza shop is a rape dungeon. It's true because it's weird.
I therefore imagine that a thousand years from now, people will still be claiming to have been abducted and tortured by big-eyed Greys -- creatures that never existed anywhere in the Universe -- because once compelling but wrong ideas enter our cultural bloodstream, we can't fight off the infection.
Which makes me wonder if we dug into some of our most surely-held cultural beliefs, and followed them all the way down to the roots, if what we'd find there is nothing at all.
David's latest novel is out in paperback right now -- look at the review scores! Jason "David Wong" Pargin is the Executive Editor at Cracked. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook or YouTube or Instagram.
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This should have resulted in years of therapy.
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