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Betty and Barney Hill: A Study in Madness

"In fact, if you have a crime committed against you, and you go to have hypnosis, you can't testify. Because there's no way to test what is real, what's fact, what's fantasy."
~ Betty Hill

In 2005 I wrote an article on the supposed abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. This incident was one of the first stories of modern alien abduction folklore; it ushered in the era of abductees claiming to have been kidnapped against their wills by space aliens, having terrible medical experiments performed on them, and so on. The Hills' story is a golden icon of the UFO enthusiast community; metaphorically, one could say that it is at the center of their pantheon of higher powers. At the time I was writing for my university newspaper, which had a length limit of 1200 words; therefore, the article was certainly not a long or involved one.

The response I got was startling. E-mails poured in from every country on the globe, most of them spending quite an amount of time on detailed descriptions of my mother's birth canal and what the author had done to it the previous evening. On The Triangle's website itself, comments decrying my idiocy were posted by numerous sources, many of whom I would later find out were well-known names in the field of arguing about Betty and Barney Hill.

The effect of this excoriating literary flood was like the opposite of what the authors had intended; I dug in. Three years later I am still writing articles for something that was originally a hobby to liven up bland evenings. I think the main reasons that I recieved such blind fury as a response to my article was two-fold; first, it wasn't very long. The debate about the Hill case goes on, and on, and on, and on. Even the tinest variables in the case have been dissected and written up in long, long articles. Yet, only one group seemed to get the idea that I was going for: a short review. Most took the view that if it's not 300 pages long, it's not worth writing. Well.

The second reason is that the argument I chose to look at was Martin Kottmeyer's idea that the alien Barney reported seeing was similar to the one from an episode of The Outer Limits. I think my detractors were more furious that I was discussing this idea than they were that I was doing a very abbreviated view of the Hill case. And I can see why: Kottmeyer's argument is spot-on. People have tried to pick it apart, and it seems that there is always a reasonable response to any criticism. If I'd spent long years futilely arguing against an idea and I saw some guy in a college newspaper revive it (even just temporarily) I guess I'd be pissed too.

Also, copy editors added some mistakes to the article, such as the phrase "an loving couple." Hell, even I sent myself an angry email about that.

Their story is the basic plot to all modern abduction stories; a couple on a lonely road at night waylaid by a mysterious object; tiny gray aliens with lightbulb-shaped heads, bizarre medical procedures, missing time, and memories only recoverable through hypnosis. There is no doubt in my mind that their story is hogwash. Betty was already a UFO enthusiast, having read at least one book by the famous UFO frontiersman Maj. Donald Keyhoe, when the abduction supposedly ocurred and later made claims such as her cat possessed the power of flight. Some have argued that her later, insane claims of cat-flight and invisible saucers were the product of a mind addled by years of media overexposure. But the question remains: what if it wasn't? What if the problem that created such beliefs was already present before the supposed encounter? Here's some expanded information on the case; it's been dissected all to death, so these are just the main points.

It all began as they were driving home from a visit to America's mysterious neighbor to the north, Canada. As they drove through the lonely forest roads, they spotted a strange object in the sky, by which they were fascinated enough for Barney to pull the car over and try and get a view of the thing through some binoculars. And then something happened. What it is depends on your view: some say that Barney spotted a spacecraft through the binoculars, tried to run away, and space aliens kidnapped him and his wife. Others suspect that after the incident with the binoculars, Barney just got back in the car and drove home. No aliens required. Anyway, after whatever happened, they both forgot about it. Betty then read a book on the subject of UFOs by Maj. Donald Keyhoe's and started having vivid dreams about her "alien abduction". Mind you, of course, that dreams don't really work that way: they pick and poke at unimportant details from the dreamer's daily life, and they rarely just replay an entire event over again accurately. These dreams were what convinced Betty to find a hypnotist and drag the story out of her and her husband's memories.

While in their car, the Hills became aware of a beeping sound; they suspected that the first time they heard it, it was the trigger that put them into a trance and led them to the ship, and the second time they heard it, it was the equivalent of a hypnotist snapping his fingers to take them out of their trance. That beeping would be used to put a person in a hypnotic state is of itself fairly strange; Earthly hypnotists usually use some sort of visual stimulus, but, on the other hand, the (at the time) recent and surprising delivery of Sputnik I into space involved beeping. In the minds of the people of the time, beeping and outer space were closely linked. It was later claimed that because Barney resisted more, he was put into a deeper trance and his memories were a little groggier; this is, in my humble opinion, and excellent way of explaning why he wasn't as enthusiastic about telling stories involving space monsters from beyond the moon as his wife was.

Anyway, the beeping sound was supposed to have come from the trunk area of the car. Later, Betty discovered some shiny spots each about the size of a coin on the trunk, which most investigators assumed were the natural products of wear and tear. Not so Betty; to her, they were physical evidence that space aliens had somehow manhandled the car, and I feel bad for treating her story so roughly when I read the account of her rushing terrified into the pouring rain with a compass to check the car for radiation. When placed on the spots, the needle flickered briefly; Barney, called out to assist, thought this to be the product of the compass being in such close proximity to a large mass of metal (the car) but Betty was convinced: they had been exposed to radiation. They had become somehow contaminated, dirtied, befouled by the encounter with the spacecraft. A later investigator pointed out that his own car had such marks, and as he had not been abducted by space monsters, it was probably the result of wear and tear.

That Betty was worried about contamination is evident. Upon arriving home the night of the abduction, the Hills realized that it was 5 am, that is to say, they had lost 2 hours of time. Barney starts hauling in their luggage, but for some reason Betty argues that it shouldn't be brought into the house, and they leave it on the porch for a few days. The first thing that Betty does is take a number of long showers with plenty of scrubbing, because she felt somehow "dirty." It is the next day that she discovers the spots on the car, calls her sister, and does the thing with the compass. This tidbit could go two ways: it either was or was not an isolated incident. If it was a one-time, isolated incident the argument could be made that even at that point she knew something was wrong and was subconciously trying to repair whatever the UFO did to her. On the other hand, if she did things like this frequently, it shows a sort of muted hypochondriac tendancy that implies she was deeply worried about her health. And for people that are worried about their health to have dreams involving medical procedures... well, that's not so strange. Certainly no space men need be involved.

The "missing time" part of the story was looked at in a paper by Peter Brookesmith. He points out that the Hills assumed that they were missing two hours of their life because the trip home took two hours more than usual. One important fact generally goes unmentioned: the trip is usually made at daytime. The Hills had gotten up that morning "bright and early" but didn't cross over into the US until well after dark. Barney should have been pretty tired, and to assume that an exhausted man driving along twisting, turning, backwoods forest roads is gonig to travel the same speed as he would if he were wide awake and it was daytime is insane. The two missing hours could easily be explained as simply as the fact that Barney was exhausted, travelled a little bit slower than normal, and since there wasn't anything to keep his mind on the time (radio, sun in the sky, etc.) he just lost track of what was going on.

On a personal note, I can relate to this. I once got up at 6 AM and rode with some friends from Philadelphia to Niagra Falls to see a concert. After the concert ended around 11 PM, I was nominated to start the drive home. I was relieved around 6AM the next day, right as we got onto the Pennsylvania turnpike. The point is, I remember absolutely nothing of that night. It's a total blur. Driving for long periods of time along featureless backwoods roads in the dark, while extremely tired, just flat-out puts you into a trance.

Barney Hill resisted attempts to recover his "memories" through hypnosis for many months and apparently based his description of his abductors on an episode of a TV show he had seen. This is Kottmeyer's theory that I mentioned above: an episode of The Outer Limits that aired a mere fortnight before Barney's hypnosis session seems surprisingly similar to the story that Barney eventually tells. Two canards are usually thrown against this theory: that Barney worked nights and therefore couldn't have seen the show (in fact, his shift started well after the show would have ended, so he could have seen it before going to work) and that the Hills didn't like science fiction and therefore would not have watched it (but that doesn't mean that Barney never saw a commercial for it, a few minutes at a friend's house while waiting to go to supper, a few minutes through the window of a TV repair shop, whatever.) That Betty's memories seem strangely similar to cinematic features of the film Invaders from Mars is another thing Kottmeyer brought up; but he makes the argument better than I, so if you're interested, search him out. Anyway.

Even when they first spotted the object from the car, Barney thought the object was an airplane or helicopter and felt that his wife was pressuring him into thinking it was a spaceship from beyond the stars. I think a good indicator of Barney's unwillingness to change a totally terrestrial, albiet perhaps a bit strange and a little scary, incident into something involving space monsters can be seen in the fact that his story changes over and over again. Initially, he's looking at a perfectly human man, wearing a leather jacket, a black scarf, and a nice little hat, and later, he's looking at some sort of bald big-eyed naked space gorilla.

One thing that Barney mentions in early reports is that the UFO had short, stubby little wings on either side. Through the binoculars, he was able to see a grinning man pull a lever that made the wings extend outwards, as though this would help the ship land or some such. Wings rarely figure in today's UFO lore; at the time, retractable wings were a cutting edge advance in avionics that would have been very hip to the times. And the idea that these wings were controlled by a giant lever in the cockpit seems similarly dated; it would have seemed normal in light of the technology at the time, but in hindsight today, it is hilariously non-modern. It's the technology equivalent of spotting an 8-Track tape player. The lights bring up another point: the aliens state a number of times that they do not want people to know they're visiting the earth. Yet, I submit to you, dear reader, that one way to ensure people on earth know you are here is if you put giant glowing lights on your spacecraft. Anyway, Betty and Barney couldn't even agree on this point: Betty doesn't mention the wings, and speculates that there is a rim around the outside of the craft that would spin during flight. That the front of the spacecraft is made up of (more or less) a giant window seems especially strange: there's no real reason that people inside would need that much windshield to fly safely. On the other hand, if there's a more earthly explanation for the whole thing, maybe the point isn't for them to see out. It's for the Hills to see in. What's the point of having a nightmare if you can't see the monster you're supposed to be afraid of? I mean a flying saucer, that's creepy, but a flying saucer containing a bunch of dudes that are out to get you, now that's creepy deluxe.

The Hills continue to disagree with each other on almost every point of the story. Betty initially describes her captors as having big honkin' noses, like Jimmy Durante. Barney (eventually) says that he sees no noses at all, just little holes where the nostrils ought to be. Betty later explains this by theorizing that the noseless creatures were so weird looking that, in her dream, she tried to humanize them a little by adding the ol' honkin' schnozzes. That's right - in making her argument that her dreams are accurate memories of events that really happened, she admitted that the dreams may have, at least partially, been the product of her imagination. Sweet.

For Betty, the creatures initially had jet black hair and peircing eyes - but the eyes were fairly normal people eyes. The pupils were a bit odd, and she said that they were a bit "catlike," but other than that she seemed not too much impressed by them. Yet eyes figure immensely in today's abduction literature: David Jacobs in particular claims that they are the manner by which space aliens can hypnotize people. Yet Betty saw nothing particularly strange about them. That's odd.

Here's another point that seems a bit odd: the aliens are helpless idiots. During the medical procedure, the captain of the spaceship tells Betty that jamming an enormous needle into her belly button won't hurt. The surgeon-space monster then jabs her with it and, of course, it hurts like blazes. The captain looks startled, waves her hands over her eyes, and the pain stops. Later he apologizes and says that if he'd known it was going to hurt, he wouldn't have dont it. Wait. What? If he didn't know it was going to hurt, how did he know just the right way to make the hurting stop? How would he think that it wouldn't hurt in the first place? He claims this isn't the first time he's done this sort of thing, but you'd have to be a spectacular doofus not to think jabbing up someone's guts wouldn't hurt. And how did the hand waving remove the pain, anyway? Seems more like the logic you'd find in just a run of the mill dream. For instance, I have a repetitive dream where I'm walking along the ocean floor underwater, but I can breath. Why can I breath? BECAUSE IT'S A DREAM. Logic doesn't need to hold.

And then there's the matter of the book. Betty asks the captain for some proof that the whole even occured, and he gives her a big book to take. Later, he takes the book away from her, claiming that the crew doesn't think it's a good idea. This is totally at odds with Barney's description of the captain as a business-like, no-nonsense leader. He doesn't realize that giving her tangible proof that the abduction occured would counteract his "you must never remember this" order? And what sort of hardcore space soldier would take shit from his crew like that? There are officers in the 101st ROTC Mess Kit Repair Battalion that wouldn't let their subordinates question their orders. Seems like more dream logic to me... suspiciously convenient dream logic.

Betty also later reproduced a star map she claimed was shown to her by the captain. Marjorie Fish later analyzed it and claimed that all the little dots lined up perfectly with stars in the Zeta Reticuli system. But only if the viewing point of the star map is from somewhere other than Earth, and only if it's rotated and finagled a bit. This is one of the hardest points to refute, but Kottmeyer again draws similarities to a star map shown in Invaders from Mars. One thing strikes me as odd: Betty claims that the map shows numerous stars as well as planets; Fish's interpretation only works if you assume that all of the dots represent stars. Fish's interpretation demands that you ignore Betty's statement that some of the little dots are planets. I'm not going to argue that Betty got the map from one source or another: I argue that if you throw some dots down on a peice of paper, and are liberal in your interpretation as to which ones are stars, planets, asteroids, or whatever other junk is floating around in outer space, you are very likely to eventually match it up with something, somewhere.

Let's just suffice it to say that the story changed frequently, that the two of them could hardly agree on much of anything about it, and that it is riddled with problems in the form of just plain out common sense.

I mentioned before that Betty had, perhaps, a not entirely sufficient grip on reality. This occured even before her life had been radically altered by media attention. She was convinced that she had discovered a number of landing sites for UFOs and, when she took investigators to those sites, she consistently refused to believe that things seen in the sky (some of which, it was pointed out by her companions, were airplanes, stars, lights, or what have you) were anything other than spaceships. Utter unwillingness to even consider that some of the dozens of things she saw in the night sky on any given evening were of terrestrial origin certainly does not speak well as to her status as a reasonable, unbaised observer. To mangle the lyrics of a song popular with the young people, stupid people do stupid things, smart people outsmart each other, and people that want to see spaceships in the sky no matter what are going to see spaceships in the sky no matter what.

Barney was certainly a more sober individual, though he seems to have had his share of problems. Before the abduction he and his wife stopped in a restaurant, and he felt that the other diners in the place were watching them. He eventually realizes that, in fact, no one is watching them, and the others are acting in a totally normal manner. He scolds himself and says he needs to get a grip on himself, but this raises a strange question: when a guy who has the occasional paranoid thought that he's being watched by others describes an encounter (under hypnosis) where creatures with huge, mesmerizing eyes are watching him, do we really need to drag space monsters into the conversation? In the past, I'd given Barney a lot of credit. It turns out he wasn't on the most stable psychological foundation in the world when this whole thing went down. To start with, he (a black man) was married to a white woman in 1960s rural New England. I wasn't around back then, but I'm told that the 1960s were not particularly easy times for mixed race couples. Further, Barney's previous wife had won custody of their children, and wasn't terribly enthusiastic about either Betty or Barney ever seeing them. That must have hurt. Finally, Barney had to drive to Boston every day for work. Hardly mentally grueling, but it must still have been a pain in the ass. Suffice it to say that he was one stressed out dude. Perhaps he bought into his wife's tales more enthusiastically than I'd thought before. Perhaps, if we consider the paranoiac incident in the restaurant, he created some of his own.

Everyone has their pet explanation for UFOs in general and this case in particular. Perhaps it really occured the way that they claimed and the many variations, contradictions, and flat out insane claims made by the Hills are just unlikely coincidences or the product of space aliens monkeying about with their memories. Perhaps it truly was a case of Folie a deux. Perhaps it was a product of Betty's worries about her medical condition; perhaps it was a product of decades of bad space alien horror flicks coupled with the hysterical predictions of the UFO literature at the time (they're coming!) Perhaps this story is simply the product of a mind in the grips of paranoid fantasies, which (I speculate without having looked deeper into it) could explain the hypocondriac fears of Betty, the whispers and thoughts of conspiracies and shadowy dealings, the feelings of persecution, and Betty's later grandiose claims.

For me, it all boils down fairly simply: Betty was a loon and, with the aid of a hypnotist, convinced her husband that something which did not occur had really taken place. He fought against it, knowing this was crazy, and though he finally broke, his account is more riddled with contraditions and less fiercely accurate simply because he was unable to convince himself of a fantasy as thoroughly as his wife could. It is my opinion, and an opinion that I espouse as frequently as I can, that there are many explanations for cases of UFO abductions, but all are grounded in the flaws of the human mind. After seeing something in the sky, Betty believed what she wanted to believe (that it was a ship) and her neuroses (a need to believe, paranoid, fears for her health, etc.) combined with this to create a fantasy world in which she lived.

The original article I wrote receives by far more hits than anything else on this site. Looking at the list of what people have put into search engines to find this site, 95% of them are some combination of "Betty and Barney Hill." I could go on and on and on adding more and more of the argument and counterargument that have popped up as regards this case, but others have done it before me, to say nothing of better, than I could. I have included some links should you care to pursue the matter further, and to everyone else, I give up.


Links to The Iron Skeptic's Articles:

The Betty and Barney Hill Abductions (link)
The original article that spawned a flood, torrent, deluge of hatemail

What Did Barney See? A Chronology (link)
Barney's story changed more often than a chameleon in a laundry machine.


Links to materials outside this site:

The Eyes That Spoke (off-site link)
Martin Kottmeyer's flabbergasting article on Barney Hill's description of the aliens

Betty Hill's Medical Nightmare (off-site link)
Martin Kottmeyer serves up another tasty plate of logic and reason