Remember “The Fourth Kind,” the pseudo-documentary thriller about UFO abductions in Alaska that came out around the end of 2009? Filmed by Olatunde Osunsanmi? Starring Milla Jovovich as psychiatrist Abigail Tyler?
Actually, I don’t remember it all that well myself. Watching “The Fourth Kind” was not one of my great cinematic experiences; the disparaging review by Annalee Newitz, which I just read, pretty well sums up my reactions to the movie. But this I do remember, and consider important: the film is structured around an “abduction” action that takes place on two planes. First the psychiatrist’s office, where the abductee, hypnotized, gradually recovers the lost memories of his or her abduction. And second, the content of those memories: the abduction itself. Each of these parallel dramas keeps us riveted–or, at least, is intended to–as we’re led ever deeper toward the heart of the mystery.
The two-plane structure of the cinematic narrative reminds us that UFO abduction straddles two worlds. The more or less mundane, more or less familiar world of the therapist’s office or the hypnotist’s couch. And an alien world, wild and fantastic and indefinably dangerous, that lies beyond the borders of our understanding.
The same two-plane structure was used 34 years earlier, vastly more effectively, in the TV movie “The UFO Incident.” That film, starring Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones, was about the experience of the real-life abductees Betty and Barney Hill, and their hypnotic regressions at the hands of Boston psychiatrist Benjamin Simon. (Who, unlike “Abigail Tyler,” really existed.) It was aired in 1975; it played a major role in making UFO abductions part of the American consciousness. It also set the dramatic pattern that, more than a generation later, “The Fourth Kind” naturally slid into.
But long before “The Fourth Kind” and “The UFO Incident”–long before Betty and Barney Hill and the throngs of “abductees” who arose in their wake–before Budd Hopkins and John Mack, David Jacobs and Leo Sprinkle and the other UFOlogists who took it upon themselves to do hypnotic regressions with these abductees–there were the shamans.
Shamanism, the classical scholar E. R. Dodds wrote in 1966, “still exists in Siberia, and has left traces of its past existence over a very wide area, extending in a huge arc from Scandinavia across the Eurasian land-mass as far as Indonesia; the vast extent of its diffusion is evidence of its high antiquity. A shaman … undergoes a period of rigorous training, which commonly involves solitude and fasting, and may involve a psychological change of sex … he emerges with the power, real or assumed, of passing at will into a state of mental dissociation. In that condition … his own soul is thought to leave its body and travel to distant parts, most often to the spirit world. A shaman may in fact be seen simultaneously in different places; he has the power of bilocation.”
The shamanic journeys are typically witnessed by an audience from the shaman’s tribe. Of course they don’t go along on his travels. He’s the specialist, the pilot of the “traffic helicopter” who sends back reports on conditions in the unseen world. Anthropologist Knud Rasmussen described one such public seance from a tribe of the Inuit in northern Canada: the shaman produced “sounds like those of trickling water, the rushing of wind, a stormy sea, the snuffling of walrus, the growling of bear.” These were the sounds of the route he was exploring, in the form of the Great Bear, for his people’s benefit.
The shaman of another Inuit tribe went through the motions of wrestling with the “Sea Woman” in front of his audience while she spoke through his mouth, rebuking her listeners for taboo violations. Talk about “bilocation”: he was present with his audience, yet he was also in the “Sea Woman’s” watery home, able to report on what the furniture there looked like. When the “Sea Woman’s” lamp was once more turned the right way up, it was from him that people heard the news.
The ancient Jewish “descenders to the merkabah” (Ezekiel’s chariot), about whom I’ve been posting for the past few weeks, also might act like shamans–at least according to their accounts of themselves in the Hekhalot (“Palaces”) literature. Gershom Scholem summarizes one of these stories:
“R[abbi] Nehuniah is pictured as seated in the temple of Jerusalem, sunk in ecstasy, describing to his pupils, who are standing about and taking down his words, the visions he beholds of the secret chambers of the Merkabah. R[abbi] Nehuniah stands, as it were, before the throne of God. But a problem arises about the meaning of an expression he uses to describe the activities of the gate-keepers of the sixth heavenly palace. These gate-keepers are said to threaten the destruction … of ‘all those who do and do not go down to the Merkabah.’ The pupils, unable to understand this mystifying formula, turn to R[abbi] Ishmael saying, ‘See him, and bring him back, that he may return to us from the vision which he beholds of the Merkabah, that he may tell us who he is who does and does not go down to the Merkabah.'”
This does sound a lot like a shamanistic seance. Unlike the seances witnessed by Rasmussen, it’s a piece of fiction. It betrays itself by its fabricated setting–by Rabbi Ishmael’s time, the Jerusalem Temple had already been destroyed. Yet fiction often reflects reality: the author writes about what he or she knows, even if it is placed in a romanticized historical setting. In a later post I’ll tell you why I think the people who wrote the Hekhalot literature were in fact going into trances, or doing something that had the power to release material from their unconscious. Which sometimes scared the wits out of them.
Can we compare–the self-induced trances of the “descenders to the merkabah” on the one hand, the hypnotic trances of the UFO abductees on the other? Between them there’s a gulf of at least 15 centuries. And there are differences. Unlike the “descenders” and the shamans, the hypnotized abductees are reliving a past experience–yet one which seems, in trance, to be currently happening to them. And unlike the shaman or the “descender,” who actively seeks out the experience of psychic travel, the “abductee” is taken against his or her will. (At least so he or she believes.)
Yet there are also similarities. The two planes of the experience: the this-worldly setting of the trance, the other-worldly landscapes witnessed in the trance. The common theme of being transported, not in, but to an alien vehicle. (The merkabah is the goal of the “descenders'” journey; unlike Elijah, they don’t ride in it when they get there. Similarly, UFO abductees seldom if ever are given rides in the UFOs; the UFO is the destination.) Even the odd image of the “descent” to the merkabah has its parallels in UFO abductions. In C.D.B. Bryan’s fascinating transcripts of Budd Hopkins’ hypnotic regressions of two female abductees, there are repeated hints that the abductees are taken underground–rather to the dismay of Hopkins, one gathers, who expects they ought to be going the other way.
And I’ll have more to say in a later post about the extraordinary eyes of the alien (UFO, merkabah) beings.
So here’s what I think: something akin to the ancient practice of “descent to the merkabah” re-emerged in this country in the late 20th century. Only the merkabah took on, as was natural, a new technological shape.
Or, to put it a little differently: alien abduction is an ancient religious phenomenon in modern dress.
Does this contradict what I said in an earlier post, that the present-day abductions are rooted in a collective memory of African slavery, which erupted in the early 1960s from the unconscious of one African-American (Barney Hill)? I don’t think so. Rather, it provides a universal context for it.
by David Halperin
Learn more about David Halperin on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/davidjhalperin
Connect to Journal of a UFO Investigator on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator
and Find David Halperin on Google+