Revisiting the Infamous Hill Case in an Era of (More) UFO News and Government Secrets
Nick Ripatrazone on the Reissue of John G. Fuller's The Interrupted Journey
“Skepticism is a healthy thing, especially when you get involved with whirling saucers that defy the laws of aerodynamics,” wrote John G. Fuller in the October 2, 1965, entry of “Trade Winds,” his regular column for The Saturday Review. “But curiosity is also a powerful force.” Fuller was curious about the recent rash of UFO reports in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, and Exeter, New Hampshire—where police officers, among others, saw objects in the sky.
Fuller sensed a bigger story than could fit in a short column. He wrote a longer version for Look magazine, and expanded his investigation into the book Incident at Exeter. During his work on the Exeter case, Fuller discovered an even more explosive New Hampshire incident, one that would become famous as the first widely publicized alien abduction case in America: the story of Barney and Betty Hill.
On September 19, 1961, the Hills were driving back from a trip to Canada, where they visited Niagara Falls and Montreal. Barney drove through the White Mountains toward Portsmouth while Betty admired the clear, cloudless night. She spotted a bright object in the sky near Lancaster. Betty couldn’t tell if the object was moving, but it remained in sight while they continued to drive. Barney, who conjectured it might be a military craft, thought it was playing games with them.
He finally stopped the car, got out, and headed into a field with his binoculars. Within 50 feet of the craft, Barney saw beings onboard. He rushed back into the car, sped down the road, but then heard a loud, vibrating, continuous beep. The couple became tired and blacked out. When they came to, they were confused and anxious—and 35 miles farther down the road.
The Hills were unlikely candidates for UFO fame. Barney, a 39-year-old Black Army veteran, served on the New Hampshire State Advisory Board of the United States Civil Rights Commission. He held a leadership role at the Portsmouth NAACP, and worked for a post office in Boston. Betty was a 42-year-old white social worker who also worked for the local NAACP. Their case is fascinating, and one that I have tried to avoid for most of my life.
Originally published in the same year as his Exeter book, The Interrupted Journey is now being reissued at a time when UFOs are again in the news—and when the government remains less than forthright about the extent of their investigations into the subject.
Back in 1965, Fuller wasn’t exactly keen on the supernatural, but he was prone to asking provocative questions. His September 18th column for The Saturday Review pondered “that throaty group known as the Beatles,” whose wild success in America was becoming impossible to ignore. Yet Fuller was befuddled: “Why should this bundle of metallic guitar strings and rag-mop hair command such fevered passion that reason drops its eyelids and decorum turns away? The music is often loud, screechy, and cacophonous. The lyrics are often thumpingly insipid.”
By the end of the column, the seemingly cantankerous Fuller is nearly converted, agreeing with fans that the Beatles were here to stay. Although he notes that the Beatles recently packed Shea Stadium, that crowd was dwarfed by the 70,000 who flocked to Central Park to listen to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “without one screamer among them.” The juxtaposition is trademark Fuller: the heart of an open-minded seeker, but with enough skepticism to remain objective.Although he wrote comedies for the theater, Fuller didn’t treat UFOs as a joke.
Fuller had originally worked in radio and television, and wrote two plays. The Pink Elephant, his 1953 comedy about a former reporter turned political speechwriter, starred Steve Allen on Broadway, but faltered from tepid reviews. He next wrote Love Me Little, a 1958 play based on a novel about boarding school girls by Amanda Vail (the pen name of Warren Miller: we should read his pseudonym as a man to veil). Joan Bennett starred in its short, forgettable run.
Although he wrote comedies for the theater, Fuller didn’t treat UFOs as a joke. In fact, The Interrupted Journey is all the more arresting because it is the measured work of a pun-wielding satirist: a playwright who was often jocular and sardonic. A good writer, Fuller certainly recognized the necessary tone for his material, which really wasn’t a scene out of science fiction. He was telling the story of a relationship.
My obsession with UFOs began with youthful forays into the paranormal. I drifted into blurry reruns of In Search Of, as Leonard Nimoy narrated claims about the Bermuda Triangle and Bigfoot. By high school I was taking independent study courses on the work of Charles Fort and UFO sightings near military installations. I didn’t tell a soul—certainly not my AAU basketball teammates—and rather enjoyed my dual life. It was a secret, much like the supernatural world.
Yet aliens frightened me. I preferred oscillating discs careening over Southwestern skies; not fleshy beings at arm’s length. I could not look at the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion. I avoided abduction reports. They were intimate, they were physical, they were kidnappings—and as a child of the 1980s, there was nothing we feared more than being taken.
I always knew that the Hill case was a formidable one, but I actively disbelieved it. If it could happen to them, then it could happen to me.
The Hills’ jarring incident wasn’t a secret for more than a few hours. Betty Hill noticed bright, shiny spots scattered across the trunk of their car. The spots appeared to make her compass spin wildly whenever she got close. Distraught, she drew the attention of her neighbors, and soon the incident was public. Betty spoke with a local former police chief, who directed her to contact the nearby Pease Air Force Base, where Major Paul W. Henderson investigated the case for Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s study of UFO reports.
The National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena and other organizations soon investigated, and a recently retired Air Force intelligence officer named Major James McDonald suggested they pursue medical hypnosis to make sense of their “missing time” during the incident.
Barney had recurring medical problems, including ulcers, high blood pressure, and anxiety, which led him to be referred to a psychiatrist, who in turn directed him to Boston psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Benjamin Simon for hypnosis. Simon had a formidable pedigree: a Stanford graduate who had served “as chief of neuropsychiatry and executive officer at Mason General Hospital, the Army’s chief psychiatric center in World War II.”
Fuller includes transcripts of the hypnosis sessions in The Interrupted Journey. Formatted like plays, the conversations between Dr. Simon and the Hills are appended with parenthetical notes from Fuller. The book’s shift from reported prose in paragraphs to frenetic, recursive dialogue feels like a transfiguration. The frequent white space of these pages is disarming, even blinding—if we follow the paths of our imaginations, we join the Hills on this craft. Disoriented, powerless, we refuse to believe, and we continue to turn the page.
The Hill case still frightens me.
Perhaps Dr. Simon is correct that it was a “fantasy”; that the Hills saw something in the sky, but that the actual abduction “was a dream.” Yet our lives are formed by dreams and nightmares. What stays with me now about the case—as a grown man who admittedly still wonders if we are alone in the universe—is not fear of interplanetary abduction.
What bothers me is that while Barney Hill underwent hypnosis at Dr. Simon’s office, Betty sat alone in the waiting room. Dr. Simon had “scheduled the Hills at a time when the offices were free of other people,” and although she was separated from them, she could hear Barney scream. She heard the person she loved in pain. And she wept. The Hill abduction remains terrifying because Barney and Betty were together and not during the lost time—and that powerless unknowing is deeply tragic.