The Moment the Myth of Alien Abduction Was Born
Betty and Barney Hill Took an Interesting Trip to the Doctor's Office
At about 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, December 14th, 1963, a New Hampshire couple named Betty and Barney Hill arrived at the office of Boston psychiatrist Benjamin Simon for their first scheduled appointment. They’d come for treatment of Betty’s nightmares, apprehension, persistent anxiety and of Barney’s anxiety and insomnia, ulcers and high blood pressure. Along with these worrisome symptoms, Barney had one other that was trivial but distinctly weird. A ring of warts had appeared in a perfect circle around his groin and needed to be surgically removed.
In all but two respects, the Hills were ordinary middle-class New Englanders in early middle age. Betty was a social worker for the State of New Hampshire. Barney worked night shift in a Boston post office; these hours, and a 60-mile commute, took a further toll on his already shaky health. The couple was active in their Unitarian Universalist church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They were also active in the civil rights movement, at a time when Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was in the very recent past and civil rights were less than respectable in many quarters. Their life together was an embodiment of King’s dream. Betty was white; Barney was black.
That was one unusual thing about the Hills. The other was that they came into Simon’s office with a vague but emphatic sense that their troubles were rooted in an encounter with a UFO on a lonely mountain road more than two years earlier. What they remembered of the encounter was dramatic enough. But for the past two years Betty, in particular, had had the nagging conviction there was more to it than could be recalled, which surfaced only in strange dreams.
That amnesia, they suspected, was at the root of all their other symptoms. They’d been told that hypnosis could help retrieve lost memories. Dr. Benjamin Simon was an acknowledged expert in therapeutic hypnosis; he’d used it extensively to treat military psychiatric disorders during World War II, when he was chief of neuropsychiatry and executive officer at Mason General Hospital on Long Island. That was why the Hills turned to him.
Dr. Benjamin Simon didn’t believe in UFOs, didn’t care about UFOs. He had only one commitment: to help his patients. He must at some time or other have read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, where the principle is laid down that “in analyzing a dream I insist that the whole scale of estimates of certainty shall be abandoned and that the faintest possibility that something of this or that sort may have occurred in the dream shall be treated as complete certainty.” For the therapist, doubt is the enemy, the agent of resistance. Doubt must be cast aside.
Simon spent his first few sessions with the Hills bringing them in and out of trance, familiarizing them with the process. Then, on February 22nd, 1964, he brought Barney into his office while Betty stayed in the waiting room. He loaded the tape cartridges into his recording machine, and he and Barney set to work.
It’s not often in the study of mythology that you can pinpoint a specific date when this or that mythic theme sprang into existence. Still more rarely can you name the person or persons who brought it into being. Normally myth is an anonymous, collective creation. By the time it’s noticed, it’s been part of people’s awareness so long it seems to have been around forever. It becomes what in the collective unconscious it’s always been: timeless, ahistorical.
The UFO mythology breaks this mold. Again and again, the birthing of a mythic theme related to UFOs can be traced back to a specific time, a specific place, a specific person. The theme spreads, diffuses, hidden and silent at first like the mustard seed of the parable. The creation of one person’s psyche—or of two or three persons, acting in unwitting collusion—it evokes resonances in thousands, then millions of others.
Decades after its initial emergence, the theme has become a common cultural property. Allusions to it are instantly intelligible, even to people who know little or nothing of its details. Alien abduction is one of those UFO mythic themes—and in Dr. Simon’s office on Bay State Road in Boston, on that Saturday morning in February 1964, it was about to be born.
Over two years earlier, in mid-September 1961, the Hills had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take a short driving vacation. They’d see Niagara Falls, circle through Canada to Montreal, and then head back home to Portsmouth. In their spontaneous enthusiasm they didn’t plan as carefully as they might. By September 19th, the last day of their trip, money had run low. They couldn’t afford one more night in a motel. They decided to drive all night until they reached home.
Sometime in the middle of that night, as they drove south from Colebrook through the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the nearly deserted Route 3, they became aware of a light in the sky that seemed to be following them.
It couldn’t be a star; it couldn’t be a planet. It was moving against the background of the heavenly bodies. Barney insisted it had to be a plane, even though it made no sound that they could hear. Betty thought it was something more unusual.
“We stopped our car and got out to observe it more closely with our binoculars,” Betty wrote a week later to Major Donald E. Keyhoe. Retired from the Marine Corps, Keyhoe was director of a private organization called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), which was at the time the gold standard for “objective” UFOlogy. For a while the Hills drove and stopped, drove and stopped, Betty wrote Keyhoe. Then the object seemed to approach their car.
We stopped again. As it hovered in the air in front of us, it appeared to be pancake in shape, ringed with windows in the front through which we could see bright blue-white lights. Suddenly, two red lights appeared on each side. By this time my husband was standing in the road, watching closely. He saw wings protrude on each side and the red lights were on the wing tips.
As it glided closer he was able to see inside the object, but not too closely. [Barney was using his binoculars at the time.] He did see several figures scurrying about as though they were making some hurried type of preparation. One figure was observing us from the windows. From the distance this was seen, the figures appeared to be about the size of a pencil, and seemed to be dressed in some type of shiny black uniform.
At this point, my husband became shocked and got back in the car, in a hysterical condition, laughing and repeating they were going to capture us. He started driving the car—the motor had been left running. As we started to move, we heard several buzzing or beeping sounds which seemed to be striking the trunk of our car.
The Hills remembered little of what happened next. There was a second series of beeps and a vague impression of something like the moon sitting in the road. They reached their home a little after 5:00 a.m., a couple of hours later than anticipated. Peculiar shiny circles, which Betty was convinced were radioactive, had appeared on the trunk of their car. Ten days later Betty began having strange dreams in which she and Barney were stopped at a roadblock and taken aboard an alien craft. The dreams went on for five nights, then stopped.From the distance this was seen, the figures appeared to be about the size of a pencil.
Barney pooh-poohed it all. There were no such things as flying saucers; end of discussion. Yet as 1961 passed into 1962, he went along with Betty on a string of compulsive, futile trips back to Route 3, hunting for the site of their experience, hoping somehow to find the key to whatever was troubling them. His ulcers worsened; the warts appeared in his groin. Conventional psychotherapy didn’t help. At last they turned to Benjamin Simon.
DOCTOR: I want you to tell me in full detail all your experiences, all of your thoughts, and all of your feelings, beginning with the time you left your hotel.
This was Dr. Simon’s charge to Barney on the morning of February 22nd, 1964. Transcripts of the tape-recorded hypnotic sessions were published two years later by John G. Fuller in his book The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours “Aboard a Flying Saucer” and in a two-part article in the October 4th and 18th, 1966, issues of Look magazine. Those two issues set new sales records for the magazine.
BARNEY: We arrived at night [September 18th, the night before the sighting] at this motel, and I did not notice any name in the motel. The thoughts that were going through my mind were: Would they accept me? Because they might say they were filled up, and I wondered if they were going to do this, because I was prejudiced. . . .
DOCTOR: Because you were prejudiced?
BARNEY: . . . because they were prejudiced.
DOCTOR: Because you were a Negro?
BARNEY: Because I am a Negro.
Again and again Barney returns to his fear of prejudice, of rejection, and we’re reminded that for Barney and Betty daily life was a continual exercise in courage. The motel, in any event, did not turn them away. They spent the night there and drove all the next day, crossing from Canada into the United States. Late that night, they stopped at a restaurant in Colebrook, near the northern border of New Hampshire.
I park—and we go in. There is a dark-skinned woman in there, I think, dark by Caucasian standards, and I wonder—is she a light-skinned Negro, or is she Indian, or is she white?—and she waits on us, and she is not very friendly, and I notice this, and others are there and they are looking at me and Betty, and they seem to be friendly or pleased, but this dark-skinned woman doesn’t. I wonder then more so—is she Negro and wonder if I—if she is wondering if I know she is Negro and is passing for white.
It’s now 10:05 p.m. on September 19th; the Hills are about to begin their drive south down Route 3. But before he continues his story, Barney’s thoughts go back to a restaurant they’d earlier visited in Canada. As he and Betty walk to it, “everybody on the street passing us by is looking. And we go in to this restaurant, and all eyes are upon us. And I see what I call the stereotype of the ‘hoodlum.’ The ducktail haircut. And I immediately go on guard against any hostility.”
Barney begins to rebuke himself: “I should get hold of myself, and not think everyone was hostile, or rather suspect hostility, when there was no hostility there. . . . The people were friendly . . . why was I ready to be defensive—just because these boys were wearing this style of haircut.” He holds himself to very high standards not just of conduct but of thought. Why was he so ready to be defensive?
In August 1955, a little over six years before the Hills took their drive into Canada, a black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till had been lynched in Mississippi for supposedly making suggestive remarks to a white woman. Granted, New Hampshire was not Mississippi. But the message of what this country still could do to a black man who took his liberty too seriously had been delivered.
Excerpted from Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO by David J. Halperin, published by Stanford University Press. © 2020 by David J. Halperin. All Rights Reserved.