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In recent times, the subject of UFO abductions has gained immense popularity, both with the public and with a small group of scholars and writers who have turned their attention to the UFO phenomenon. The number of people who claim to have been abducted by occupants of UFOs has been rising almost exponentially since the early 1970s, when the subject first gained attention from the media and the ufological community saw marked growth. Accounts of these abductions have a dreamlike quality, and some abductees have dreams that they claim derive from residual memories of their abduction experience.
With the publication in 1987 of Whitley Strieber’s Communion, interest in abductions and abductees exploded. Strieber’s account, written with skill by an accomplished author, presented the bizarre details of UFO abduction in an accessible way, spurring the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. In the wake of this success, talk shows on radio and television fed the public interest in the abduction phenomenon with a steady diet of reports of individuals who believed that they, too, had been abducted.
Contemporaneous with the rise in popularity of Strieber’s book was the work of UFO researchers who were dedicated to examining abductions. Individuals like Budd Hopkins, whose own book Intruders (1987) made it to the bestseller list, came to dominate the field of ufology. Hopkins and those who share his methodology believe that UFO abductions are a widespread phenomenon and that they are not always remembered by the victims. Hypnosis is considered a powerful and reliable tool for retrieving these memories, which Hopkins and others argue reveal a specific pattern of action on the part of UFO occupants.
In contrast to Strieber, who considers his own experiences to be mainly inexplicable, hypnosis-using researchers tend to have clearly defined theories about the nature and purpose of the abduction phenomenon. These theories have come to dominate the field of ufology. A quick examination of UFO books published in the last ten years reveals that books on abductions have outnumbered books on all other subjects related to UFOs combined by a substantial margin. Popular magazines devoted to UFOs have become almost exclusively concerned with abductions in recent years.
The popularity of abductions has led to a proliferation of first person accounts—both remembered consciously and retrieved through hypnosis—which are accessible to the researcher. These primary sources reveal a wealth of bizarre details that are not wholly amenable to the neat theories of many ufologists. A careful examination of abduction narratives indicates that the patterns alleged to have been discovered by abduction investigators often have religious overtones or similarities with more traditional types of religious experience. In addition, the abduction experience is often given a religious meaning by the percipient, and these interpretations are habitually overlooked or ignored by UFO investigators.
In coming to grips with the claims of abductees and researchers, the practice of hypnosis must first be considered. The use of hypnosis to investigate UFO abductions dates back to one of the earliest instances of the phenomenon, the story of the Betty and Barney Hill abduction in 1963. In the overwhelming majority of cases available for research, the memory of the abduction event was obtained or clarified through hypnosis. Typically, the abductee consciously recalls little or nothing about the experience. Certain telltale signs—unaccounted for spans of time, uneasy feelings associated with UFOs, or the sense of a presence in the bedroom before falling asleep—serve to clue the vigilant researcher into the possibility that an abduction has occurred. Hypnosis is then generally used to explore the abduction experience.
While the reliance on hypnosis is heavy among abduction researchers, most seem to be aware of the difficulties inherent in the process. Hypnosis apparently allows access to a subconscious level of an individual’s psyche, allowing him or her to recall repressed memories of actual events, but also making it possible to derive “memories” of things that have never happened. Hypnotism greatly increases a subject’s suggestibility, infusing him or her with a desire to please the questioner, making the subject very susceptible to leading questions. Although they recognize these limitations, researchers, with few exceptions, contend that hypnosis, when used competently, is an accurate tool for uncovering factual details of the abduction event. It would be premature, however, to dismiss the possibility that many, if not all abduction memories are confabulations of the subconscious, guided by the preconceptions of the hypnotist. Noted UFO debunker Philip Klass favors this view, and rather plausibly discounts some better known cases by applying this theory.
The nature of accounts obtained through hypnosis is important for understanding the religious characteristics of the abduction phenomenon. As Carl Jung has argued—specifically in relation to UFOs—the subconscious is a storehouse of religious ideas and symbols. Such symbols can become exteriorized through anxiety or stress. Thus, the religious imagery and interpretation brought out by hypnosis could be confabulations of the subject’s subconscious that are, perhaps, worked into a UFO narrative in an effort to please the hypnotist. In his research, Jung noted that certain complexes of religious symbols appeared time and time again in widely separated subjects. The prevalence of similar patterns in part gave rise to his theory of a collective unconscious, a pool of ideas and imagery shared by all people. This theory may also help to explain the similar patterns, filled with religious overtones, which abduction researchers claim to find among their subjects.
The applicability of a Jungian form of analysis to UFO abductions is further strengthened by the markedly dreamlike character of the experience. Dreams are the most common arena in which religious symbolism is encountered. One of the signs noted by abduction researchers as indicative of an abduction event is the prevalence of dreams containing UFO-or alien-related imagery.
In many of the cases in which the abduction is at least partially recalled prior to the use of hypnosis, it is recalled as a dream rather than as an objective event. For example, Kathy Davis, the main subject of Budd Hopkins’ bestseller Intruders, consistently believes that her experiences were a series of dreams about UFO abductions. In his investigation, Hopkins hypnotically examines the alleged abduction events by directing her towards these dreams and asking her to recount their details. Hopkins explains that Davis remembers these events as dreams in order to shield her psyche from the unsettling implications of their reality. Unless one is strongly committed to a theory of extraterrestrial genetic engineers, as is Hopkins, it is difficult to dismiss Kathy Davis’s contention that the events were in fact dreams.