On one tape, I heard Barney Hill relive his close-quarters encounter with the UFO. At the start of the interview, his voice was quite calm, but as he “approached” the UFO, hovering over a field near the highway, Barney screamed hysterically.
Dr. Simon told me that he had never had a patient become so excited under hypnosis. At one point, the doctor said, he feared that Barney might try to jump out of the office window. … As I listened to Barney reliving his UFO encounter, I could agree completely with the doctor that Barney had indeed seen “something,” and it had been a terrifying experience.
—Philip Klass, UFOs—Identified (1968)
BARNEY … (Quite abruptly.) I feel like a rabbit. I feel like a rabbit.
DOCTOR What do you mean by that?
BARNEY … I was hunting for rabbits in Virginia. And this cute little bunny went into a bush that was not very big. And my cousin Marge was on one side of the bush, and I was on the other—with a hat. And the poor little bunny thought he was safe. And it tickled me, because he was just hiding behind a little stalk, which meant security to him—when I pounced on him, and threw my hat on him, and captured the poor little bunny who thought he was safe.
—Transcript of hypnotic session with Barney Hill, Feb. 22, 1964
UFO abductions began on September 19-20, 1961. Or, alternatively, on February 22, 1964. Or—a third alternative—on October 4 and 18, 1966, when Look magazine published a two-part article by John G. Fuller entitled “Aboard a Flying Saucer,” describing the terrifying experience of a New Hampshire couple named Betty and Barney Hill. I recall reading that those two issues of Look outsold all issues before or since.
Now that we’re at the 51st anniversary of the date when the experience supposedly took place, it’s worth rethinking the question of what really happened that September night to Betty and Barney, both of them now deceased.
Their story, briefly, is this: They were coming home from a vacation in Canada, driving by night through the New Hampshire mountains when they noticed a light following them. The light seemed to move against the background of the starry sky, suggesting pretty strongly that it wasn’t itself a heavenly body. The standard “debunking” explanation, that the Hills were fooled by the planet Jupiter, runs into an obvious difficulty.
Their dog Delsey, riding in the back seat, seemed distressed, frightened.
Barney stopped the car, got out, and looked at the light through a pair of binoculars. He saw a glowing, flat, pancake-shaped object with what seemed to be rows of lighted windows around its edges. Behind the windows were human-like figures.
Terrified, Barney fled back to the car and they zoomed off down the highway. The rest of the trip was surreal, dreamlike. Twice the Hills heard, or thought they heard, a series of beeps. That was all they remembered of the UFO before they arrived in Portsmouth at dawn, hours later than they’d expected.
The story sounds familiar. We’ve heard it, or something like it, from dozens or hundreds of UFO abductees. But when the Hills had their encounter with something beyond their ken, the “abduction” template didn’t yet exist. It was they, and their experience—or their eventual memories of their experience—that created it.
With the help of a third person, Boston psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon.
Simon is also a familiar figure in abduction lore: the hypnotist whose guided regressions evoke the long-repressed details of the abduction. The abduction drama, actually, unspools upon two planes. First, inside the UFO. Then in the office of the therapist/hypnotist, the abductee sinking into his or her memories of the UFO, the hypnotist questioning, supporting, prodding. You can see this (very powerful) dramatic structure in the excellent TV movie about the Hill abduction, “The UFO Incident,” first aired in 1975. It recurs, intact, 34 years later in the forgettable 2009 wannabe thriller—“mockumentary,” Wikipedia calls it —“The Fourth Kind.”
But unlike the hypnotists who followed in his footsteps, Benjamin Simon didn’t believe in UFOs. He couldn’t have cared less about them. The idea of space visitors, he thought, was ridiculous. His sole interest was the treatment of the Hills—especially Barney. For when the couple first stepped into Simon’s office at the end of 1963, Barney Hill was not a healthy man.
He suffered from ulcers, high blood pressure, alcoholism. Not to mention minor but distinctly weird symptoms, like a ring of warts that appeared in a near-perfect circle around his groin. There were clues, Betty’s dreams among them, that his symptoms were somehow linked to his experience on that September night more than two years earlier.
And so, as a therapeutic approach to those hidden wounds, Simon began to hypnotize Betty and Barney.
The first substantive hypnotic session was on February 22, 1964. In this and subsequent sessions, the long-forgotten details of the abduction began to emerge. Not just a pancake-shaped UFO with windows and humanoid passengers. No; Barney and Betty were stopped mid-journey, taken aboard the craft, subjected to bizarre procedures by the beings within. These included a suction cup placed over Barney’s genitalia—obviously connected with the ring of warts that later appeared in that same spot.
I would say that it was on that date in 1964 that the UFO abduction tradition—shall we call it “mythos”?—had its beginnings. The original sighting of the light was of no significance, or significant only as a trigger. Because thanks to a second night journey, undertaken in 2007 along the same route as the Hills’, we know pretty clearly what that light was.
An electric light on an observation tower, on top of Cannon Mountain.
You can read all about this, and about the journey that Jim Macdonald and his family took in the Hills’ footsteps, in Macdonald’s fascinating blog post. As they traveled, the Macdonalds saw the light following them exactly as the Hills had, behaving precisely like the Hills’ light. Only, unlike the Hills, they knew what it was.
(Food for thought, for those who believe that unexplained UFO sightings is proof we have aliens in our skies: What if that observation tower had been torn down in the 46 years between the Hills’ journey and the Macdonalds’? Or if the light weren’t functioning when the Macdonalds took their trip? We’d still be baffled as to what Betty and Barney saw. Or forced to accept, faute de mieux, the wildly unconvincing claim it was the planet Jupiter.)
At the end of his post, Macdonald makes the bold assertion: “Finally, here’s your reward for sticking with me through this monster of a post: here’s an actual photo of the Flying Saucer that abducted Betty and Barney Hill. If you want to see it for yourself, you can drive down US 3 from Lancaster any clear night. It’s waiting for you.” The photo, of course, is of the tower light.
I don’t agree.
The tower light was the light the Hills saw. But it wasn’t the UFO. The UFO came from inside.
(Tower lights don’t produce warts in your groin.)
I’ll say more on this in my next post.