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"Kidnapped by UFOs?"

PBS Airdate: April 1, 1997
Go to the companion Web site

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, on NOVA—

BUDD HOPKINS: Have you seen him?

CHILD: Yeah.

BUDD HOPKINS: Where do you see him?

CHILD: Outside.

ANNOUNCER: Alien abductions.

ABDUCTION SUPPORT GROUP MEMBER: I'd be floated outside and then, in a beam of light, lifted up in to a ship.

ABDUCTION SUPPORT GROUP MEMBER: My legs were being spread apart.

ABDUCTION SUPPORT GROUP MEMBER: You can't breathe. You can't move.

BUDD HOPKINS: You're dealing with a phenomenon that has an absolute core of reality.

ANNOUNCER: But how real is it?

CARL SAGAN: Whether what's going on is in outer space or inner space, that's the question.

ANNOUNCER: "Kidnapped by UFOs?"

NOVA is funded by Prudential.

Prudential. Insurance, health care, real estate, and financial services. For more than a century, bringing strength and stability to America's families.

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The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And viewers like you.

JOE MORTON: In the early morning hours of September 19, 1961, Betty and Barney Hill were traveling a deserted New Hampshire highway, when an event occurred that would forever change the course of their lives.

BETTY HILL: It was a beautiful night. The moon was very bright, and we were calm and relaxed, and the radio was playing, when I saw the strange light in the sky. It came out over the highway and stopped directly in front of us.

JOE MORTON: What Betty thought she saw was a flying saucer.

BETTY HILL: And at this point, Barney got out with the binoculars in an attempt to identify the craft. And as he looked up, he could see a row of men standing in the windows, looking down at him. The craft began to descend, and he had the feeling they were trying to abduct him.

JOE MORTON: At first, Betty and Barney Hill recalled only shadowy fragments of what happened that night. But much later, under hypnosis, their memories came into sharper focus.

BARNEY HILL: The leader is telling me something. I can see it in his face.

JOE MORTON: These tapes were recorded during hypnosis with the late Barney Hill.

BARNEY HILL: Run! God, give me strength! I've got to get away! Oh! Oh!

JOE MORTON: According to the Hills' extraordinary tale, they were forced to board a flying saucer by creatures from outer space.

BETTY HILL: As far as we know, we are probably, at least in modern-day life, the first ones to have face-to-face contact with astronauts from another solar system.

JOE MORTON: Betty and Barney may; have been the first, but are certainly not the last to report an alien abduction. Since that night on a lonely highway thirty years ago, thousands have come forward, charging that they, too, are the victims of UFO kidnapping. And a recent poll suggests that millions of Americans believe them, including author Budd Hopkins.

BUDD HOPKINS: In 1966, when the Betty and Barney Hill case became public, we found out that they're dealing with us. They're taking human beings and doing some kinds of tests. Practically all the major themes that have emerged later on in our investigations replicate elements that turned up in that very first case.

JOHN: They removed my eye completely. They allowed it to hang off on the right side of my face like this, and there's this probe that they had that came from the ceiling. And they inserted the probe just—

JOE MORTON: Budd Hopkins conducts support groups for people who believe they have been abducted. Here, they come together to share their stories.

JOHN: I was taken to some underwater facility. This thing is a huge dome, underwater dome. It's like a bubble. There's no girders, no beams, nothing holding this up. It's just this huge bubble. You could probably fit ten football fields into this thing.

JOE MORTON: Hopkins has devoted much of the last two decades to finding and writing books about cases of alien kidnapping.

BUDD HOPKINS: I would assume the high moment we talked about was when you were a little child.

SHERRY: Something other-worldly had happened to me. I mean, it was—I was five years old, and I was lying in bed. And you know, it was nice and quiet, and then all of a sudden, what I remember is this incredible—I can't think of any of the words to describe it except to say it was a light show. It was more like a laser show. I mean, it's just the most incredible patterns and colors that—I mean, I see them in my mind, but I have no words for them.

BUDD HOPKINS: You started to say how your thing, Sherry, when you were a kid, how you felt the outsider, different.

JOE MORTON: Although Budd Hopkins has no formal psychological training, he provides therapeutic services for dozens of so-called "abductees" each year. His New York loft, once exclusively a studio for his successful career as an artist, is increasingly overrun with calls, letters, and drawings from people describing their own strange encounters with creatures like these.

BUDD HOPKINS: These are very small, frail-looking figures. And all of the power or energy or force, or whatever they seem to have, really resides in the eyes. Because the body is something that has no tensile strength at all. But the eyes are very powerful and controlling.

DENISE: The most striking physical feature are the eyes, I think. They're frightening, they're black, almost liquidy. That's the first thing that I've noticed. And then, the skin's white. They look very frail to me, like you could hurt them if you were able to, but you're not able to.

BUDD HOPKINS: Essentially, what always happens—virtually always happens—the person is paralyzed. They cannot move. They can be in bed at night.

JOHN: I was taken from my bedroom one night. And I was being carried out of the house. And these beings have the ability to literally walk through walls, doors, solid objects.

BUDD HOPKINS: They are approached by small figures. This is the most terrifying moment in the whole experience for them.

DIANE: Seeing a figure standing at the foot of the bed, and then feeling like my skin was moving, as if in a G-force, back.

BUDD HOPKINS: They're usually lifted up through some kind of light beam. I know this sounds absolutely peculiar, but that's what you get, again and again and again.

PETER: I'd be floated outside, and then, in a beam of light, lifted up into a ship. And the most striking thing, or the things I remember the most, we what I'd consider the examination room, where the floor was like a jet black, like an obsidian black. And then it appeared to be kind of a stainless steel table, very cold, very metallic.

CARRIE: They probed me anally. They have stuck needles up my nose. They have stuck needles in my eyes. They have probed my ears.

JOHN: I remember being subjected to a procedure that involves taking semen, placed on an operating table, immobilized. I was induced to have an erection. Mind you, there are no sexual feelings or any passion connected with this. It's a very cold procedure.

CARRIE: I suddenly began to feel something moving inside of me, and then I felt this thing dropping out of me. And I reached down, and I had caught this thing in my hand. And it was this fetus of what would seem to be an alien baby, and it had come out of me.

BUDD HOPKINS: The basic goal seems to be an effort to create a hybrid species, a mix of alien and human genetic structures, or whatever one wants to call it. I know this sounds crazy, and there are all sorts of biological reasons why this seems either impossible or highly unlikely, and yet we get this again and again and again.

JOE MORTON: Most abductees initially describe their experiences as vague or dream-like recollections of a night-time presence.

JOHN: And they took me out of the house.

JOE MORTON: That is, until they undergo hypnosis.

BUDD HOPKINS: Feel my hand on your shoulder. You're with me. It's OK. Lie down. You're OK, John. Lie down. Close your eyes. Close your eyes. Lie down.

JOE MORTON: According to Bud Hopkins, hypnosis therapy is often needed to unlock alien-induced amnesia.

BUDD HOPKINS: Take a deep breath. You're here with me. What just happened?

JOHN: Someone came in the room.

BUDD HOPKINS: Uh huh.

JOE MORTON: John, a forty-six year old graphic artist, has undergone more than a dozen hours of this therapy.

BUDD HOPKINS: What's happening, John?

JOHN: He's doing something in my nose. I can't move. He's doing something in my nose, and I can't move. Oh!

BUDD HOPKINS: What is it?

JOHN: It's that recording thing, that tracking thing that they have to put in there.

BUDD HOPKINS: Uh huh. Did he tell you that's what it is?

JOE MORTON: John recalls aliens implanting a tracking device in his nose. But like other physical evidence, it is never recovered. Instead, the proof offered for abductions is the stories themselves.

BUDD HOPKINS: As the case material mounted up, and case after case after case replicated the cases before, and these were totally believable people from all walks of life. And even down to tiny details in their descriptions of what happened to them, these tiny details were replicated again and again. You have to feel you're dealing with a phenomenon that has an absolute core of reality about it.

DR. JOHN MACK: There are a number of psychological and psychiatric studies that have been done of these individuals, and none of them has shown any consistent personality pattern. None has shown any consistent psychopathology. A number of the people have been traumatized by their experiences, but that is as a result of the experiences.

JOE MORTON: Harvard University psychiatrist John Mack seems an unlikely proponent of alien abduction.

DR. JOHN MACK: I first got into this field, really without knowing I was getting into it. I had a psychologist colleague who asked me, did I want to meet Budd Hopkins, and I said, "Who's he?" This was the fall of 1989. And she explained that he was an artist in New York who took seriously the stories of people who reported being taken by alien beings into spacecraft. And my reaction to her was that he must be quite mad if he believes such stories, and he must be dealing with some contemporary sort of psychosis.

BUDD HOPKINS: So, he came to me, and I began showing him the material. One of the interesting things that I did was, I handed him twenty unopened letters that I had not looked at myself, had not read them, had not opened them, that I had received in this box of ongoing mail from people who obviously were writing in because they felt they'd had experiences. And I said, "John, you open these letters. You read them. You tell me, are these some—Is this some sort of range of strange psychological problems or are these people describing a real experience?" And he called me the next day to say he was quite astonished by this.

DR. JOHN MACK: In case after case after case, I've been impressed with the consistency of the story, the sincerity with which people tell their stories, the power of the feelings connected with this, the self-doubt. All of appropriate responses that these people have.

JOE MORTON: When John Mack threw his reputation and the name of Harvard behind this strange phenomenon, abduction stories gained credibility. This caused many scientists to sit up and take notice. Astronomer Carl Sagan.

CARL SAGAN: I personally have been captured by the notion of extraterrestrial life, and especially extraterrestrial intelligence, from childhood. It swept me up. And I've been involved in sending spacecraft to nearby planets to look for life, and in the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

JOE MORTON: Carl Sagan has long scanned the cosmos searching for radio signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. So far, the search has been unsuccessful. But whether or not there is intelligent life somewhere, out there in the vastness of the universe, is a very different question from whether or not aliens have arrived on planet Earth.

CARL SAGAN: I'm frequently written to, saying how could I search for extraterrestrial intelligence and disbelieve that we're being visited? I don't see any contradiction at all. It's a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence.

JOE MORTON: Sagan and others charge that the stories from abductees are not sufficient proof, given a lack of physical evidence and the scientific implausibility. Physicist Paul Horowitz.

PAUL HOROWITZ: People think of us scientists as being grouchy old folks who insist on the right kind of evidence and probably have our minds all made up. If a rocket ship landed, if an alien saucer landed in my front yard tomorrow morning, I would be more delighted than anyone else around. And quite independent of the fact that I've said that they probably wouldn't do it, I would think it's terrific that they actually did. The whole problem of this business is that they haven't done it, that there's no credible evidence that they ever have. And most of us believe they never will.

DR. JOHN MACK: It's often said that I'm a believer, and sort of a gone—lost my objectivity. And I really object to that, because this is not about believing anything. I didn't believe anything when I started, and I don't really believe anything now. I've come to what I've come to, clinically. In other words, I worked with people over hundreds and hundreds of hours, and have done as careful a job as I could to listen, to sift out, to consider alternative explanations. And none have come forward. No one has found an alternative explanation in a single abduction case.

JOE MORTON: But are there really no other explanations for the reports of alien abduction, as John Mack and Budd Hopkins insist? As Hopkins embarks on a brand new case, NOVA goes along to investigate whether or not there might more earthbound explanations for the stories of extraterrestrial encounters.

BUDD HOPKINS: I'm willing to just start absolutely ground zero or whatever, and just start an investigation, do the interviews that I would ordinarily do, so the process can be made available to other investigators, scientists, mental health people, or whatever. I have absolutely nothing to hide. I'm going to Florida in this particular case to look into it because it has so many really fascinating dimensions, especially the fact that there are two children involved.

JODY: I am a mother. I do not want to believe that my kids are being abducted. I'd rather believe that there's something wrong with my mind than to believe actually my kids are abducted.

JOE MORTON: Jody first began to fear for her son and daughter three years ago, after she read Hopkins' best-selling book, Intruders.

JODY: I was in the grocery store, and there was a pile of books on sale, and Intruders was one of them. So I figured, "Oh, why not? We'll take it home and read it." I could not believe how many similarities there were between the book and what happened in my life. And I always knew that something had happened, and that there was a presence in my room, and there were these little men. But I had no way of categorizing it until I read the book. Hi.

BUDD HOPKINS: Hi, there. How are you?

JODY: Fine. So nice to meet you.

BUDD HOPKINS: Well, nice to meet you.

JODY: I'm so glad you're here. Come on in. Hi, you guys want to come in and meet Mr. Hopkins?

BUDD HOPKINS: I'm curious what's the first time that you noticed something coming. I guess it would have been from Ryan.

JODY: I was out with the kids once in the car, and Ryan said, "You know, Mommy, I saw the shadows again last night."

JOE MORTON: Jody and her husband, Mike, tell Hopkins a tale of shadows, monsters, and their son's other night-time fears. Next, Hopkins turns his attention to the children.

BUDD HOPKINS: What I intend to do is to work with the children. And I will play with them and fool around. I don't want them to think that this is a big, scary game. I want to see what the children are saying and what we can learn, especially from the older boy.

JOE MORTON: Hopkins shows four year old Ryan familiar characters, like Santa Claus and Batman.

RYAN: A policeman.

BUDD HOPKINS: A policeman.

JOE MORTON: Among them is this drawing, of an alien.

BUDD HOPKINS: Ever seen anything like that before?

JOE MORTON: Hopkins next asks Ryan to make up a story about this picture.

BUDD HOPKINS: Then, what does he say?

RYAN: He comes upstairs and sees a person sleeping, with his eyes closed. And he walks them down the stairs.

BUDD HOPKINS: He walks them down the stairs? Uh huh? Why does he do that? That's a good story. Why does he do that?

RYAN: Then he usually brings them up, but he never stops. Then he makes them land. And then he woke up and he said, "Hey! What am I doing down here if I'm supposed to be up there? I bet someone took me!"

BUDD HOPKINS: He said something very interesting. I'll play this.

RYAN: I bet someone took me!"

BUDD HOPKINS: "I bet somebody took me." That's right. Saying something like that, putting the reaction to that particular picture in the light of somebody taking somebody down some stairs and up into something, and dropping them, and then saying, "Somebody took me," it may be a coincidence, of course. It may not mean anything, but also it may mean, if there is some abduction events going on in his life, that there's a kind of an unconscious memory coming through. It's hard to tell.

JOE MORTON: Hopkins also questions toddler, Paula.

PAULA: Yeah. Eyes.

BUDD HOPKINS: Have you ever seen him?

PAULA: Yeah.

BUDD HOPKINS: Yeah? You've seen him?

PAULA: Where do you see him?

PAULA: Outside.

BUDD HOPKINS: Right now, what I want you to do is to feel yourself relaxing even more deeply.

JOE MORTON: Encouraged by his investigation, Hopkins begins a lengthy hypnosis session with Jody, to probe her experiences more deeply.

BUDD HOPKINS: What are your feelings right now?

JODY: I'm just thinking, OK, I don't mind this. This is OK. As long as it doesn't go further. I—

BUDD HOPKINS: What are you afraid would happen if it went further? What would that mean?

JODY: I don't know. I'm feeling down one of their operations again or something.

BUDD HOPKINS: So moving up systematically to your female parts. Well, why do you think the thighs are clamped?

JODY: I hate to say this. I just feel like they want them open.

BUDD HOPKINS: Um hmm.

JODY: And so they're moved apart. I think I had an exam.

BUDD HOPKINS: Um hmm.

JODY: Oh!

BUDD HOPKINS: Just tell me what you feel. You're here with me. It's OK.

JODY: They really don't have the right.

BUDD HOPKINS: They don't have the right, do they?

JODY: No.

JOE MORTON: Jody's recollection of this alien sexual encounter ends her hour-long session.

JODY: Someone tried to hypnotize me just a couple times. And it didn't work. And I just felt I couldn't remember anything past a certain point. But I just—He pushed. He pushed, and then I felt I remembered. But then, I fought it, because I didn't want it to be true.

BUDD HOPKINS: I think it's a very, very good case. One of the interesting things is, there are four different people in this family, different ages and different situations, each one talking about experiences which suggest abductions from very different points of view. The fact that they're a very together family is very important, because there's nothing that would suggest hysteria or plotting or lying, or any of those things.

JOE MORTON: To Budd Hopkins, this is compelling evidence. Children who pause at drawings of aliens, dreams of strange events that feel real, and images of traumatic sexual assault remember only under hypnosis. Now, Hopkins is about unearth more stories of midnight abduction.

BUDD HOPKINS: I'm going to go next door to one of the neighbors of the family I've been visiting, because I've found that there seem to be abduction experiences taking place in the life of the residents of this particular house. And as we often find, when we look into these cases, they're much more widespread. And we're going to go over and see—I'm at least going to do an interview, and see what might surface. Because I suspect this is an abduction case, too.

JOE MORTON: How solid is the case Budd Hopkins has found here? If two families in a suburban neighborhood tell similar abduction tales, is the only possible interpretation that they are indeed being kidnapped by aliens? Or are there more prosaic, earthbound explanations for the stories, so sincerely recounted? Carl Sagan.

CARL SAGAN: Humans have a well-documented capacity for self-deception. There's something interesting going on here, no question. This is not trivial and not instantly dismissible. But whether what's going on is in outer space or inner space, that's the question.

JOE MORTON: This is not the first time creatures from outer space have fed our inner fears.

RADIO ACTOR: Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.

JOE MORTON: In 1938, with a world war looming, thousands confused a cleverly crafted radio drama with a real-life report of an advancing alien army. In the era of the cold war, even the government investigated sightings of unidentified flying objects. They explained away most as hoaxes, aircraft or celestial bodies. Still, many Americans remained suspicious and asked if UFOs were visiting our planet, who was flying them? Hollywood provided a fictitious answer.

ALIEN: We have come to visit you in peace, and with good will.

JOE MORTON: People avidly watched the skies, and some gathered to celebrate their alien encounters.

WOMAN: I have made telepathic contact for the past eight years with many space people from many areas of space, both inside and outside of this solar system.

JOE MORTON: In 1964, this cult hit featured an alien with telepathic powers, very much like those Barney and Betty Hill described just days after this broadcast.

BETTY HILL: Well, they had a gray tone to the skin, smaller nose, and thin slit for a mouth. They had larger eyes than ours.

JOE MORTON: And in the weeks following this television movie of the Hills' own story, many reported similar abductions. By 1977, tales of close encounters of the third kind captivated the nation. In this wildly successful film, big-headed creatures visited Earth to communicate with humans. In the year following its release, UFO encounter reports surged.

E.T.: I'll be right here.

JOE MORTON: When the most famous extraterrestrial of all time phoned home, E.T. earthling contact became a central theme of sci-fi mythology. And when Budd Hopkins' book, Intruders, was broadcast as a TV miniseries, abduction reports hit a new high.

ACTRESS MARE WINNINGHAM: She's mine.

JOE MORTON: Intruders told what has now become a familiar story, a story of humanoid beings with dark, telepathic eyes, of elaborate reproductive procedures, and of a new race of human-alien hybrids. For many, this creature from the blockbuster movie and book, Communion, has become the prototypical alien. Robert Baker.

ROBERT BAKER: Well, very few people in the country are not familiar with the face on the cover of Whitley Streiber's Communion. It's like an urban legend. Everybody has heard it. We've seen the science fiction movies. We've seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We've seen E.T. and all of these other movies. So, the result is it's part of our culture now, the idea of people going outside, looking up, seeing an alien spaceship, of being lifted up to that spaceship on a blue beam of light, and then being laid on a platform and examined. These are cultural themes.

JOE MORTON: Four years after the release of Communion, a member of Budd Hopkins' group made drawings of his experiences.

JOHN: This guy is about three feet, three and a half feet tall. There's the large black eyes, the pear-shaped head. And then these are the little guys. And these guys are blue. Their skin is very blue. Usually, it's the grays that are involved with us during the abduction experiences. These guys appear to be helpers. That wand he's holding is a human cattle prod. It's a very effective little toy at gaining your cooperation.

JOE MORTON: The script for abductions is widely known. But does it reflect the reality of peoples' experiences? Or does it fuel them?

CARL SAGAN: There's two stories. One is, we're being sexually abducted by beings from other worlds. And the other is that there is a pervasive common hallucination that at least thousands of humans share. Now, these are both disquieting possibilities, and neither alternative makes anybody happy. But, if you ask me now which is more likely, it is absolutely clear that people hallucinate. There's no question about that.

JOE MORTON: Could this tendency to hallucinate be a seed for tales of abduction? Before aliens, other midnight interlopers vanquished and raped. In medieval days, when goblins and demons invaded the popular mythology, it was they who stalked the night chambers of hapless victims.

ROBERT BAKER: During the Middle Ages, many people reported that they would go to sleep, and they would wake up in the middle of the night, and there would be a devil, a little devil or demon sitting on their chest. In many of the nunneries, the nuns would say that they were raped during the night by this evil demon that came and sat on their chest and raped them. And they would say, "That explains my pregnancy," and so on. These little devils were called incubus, or the incubi.

JOE MORTON: Like these ancient visitations, most contemporary abduction stories begin in the bedroom, late at night, in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep.

CHRIS: There is a spotlight shining in the room, with somebody walking towards me very quickly.

PETER: I woke up in the middle of the night, and there were two beings, one to the side of my bed and one to the foot of my bed. And I found myself trying to wake up my wife, trying to scream or make a noise, and I couldn't. And again, I felt myself paralyzed.

JOHN: Panic set in. And it's so intense that it takes your breath away. You can't breathe. You can't move.

CARRIE: I laid there, and after I had opened my eyes to look at the clock radio, my legs were being spread apart and when that began to happen, it became much more frightening. I was just like, "Oh, God."

CHRIS: As I fall into a sleep—a sleep I call it, but it's a shift in consciousness—I feel a weight start on the legs and move on up to the chest area.

ROBERT BAKER: One of the most fascinating aspects of this young man who was talking about his alien abduction, he described having partial paralysis, not being able to move, having all kinds of strange sensations, and hearing clocks ticking, and the same things like this. And all of these are classic examples of what the symptoms that go along with hypnogogia and hypnopompic dreams and sleep paralysis.

JOE MORTON: For millions of people, paralysis and hypnogogic hallucinations, frightening and vivid dreams just before sleep, are common experiences, and usually benign. Unless they are misinterpreted.

ROBERT BAKER: Unfortunately, there are therapists like Mack and like Budd Hopkins, and they are offering a haven for the people that claim they were abducted by aliens, because they are telling them, "You were a victim, and I'm here to help you." And the only problem with that is that people getting that kind of therapeutic help are not being really helped. They are not being told that it was all a dream, and that it was all imaginary, and it will probably never happen again. They're only left vulnerable to the possibility of an additional abduction, rape, and so on. This is not doing them, therapeutically, any good.

JOE MORTON: In a Canadian laboratory, neuroscientist Michael Persinger searches for other factors that might make certain people susceptible to abduction stories.

MICHAEL PERSINGER: These are the individuals who are more creative. They are individuals who have a problem with thinking that somehow they're different, or something unusual has occurred to them. They are usually the musicians, the writers, the journalists, the creative individual, the creative scientists. And fundamentally, they're normal, except they have an unusual creativity that also means suggestibility.

JOE MORTON: In this experiment, a volunteer is blindfolded. Sensory deprivation enhances suggestibility.

RESEARCHER: Comfortable? Feels OK?

VOLUNTEER: Yes.

RESEARCHER: OK. We're going to start, then.

JOE MORTON: Next, a complicated pattern of electromagnetic waves bombard the brain's temporal lobes, causing a sense of movement, motion, and presence.

MICHAEL PERSINGER: The temporal lobes are showing increased patterns which are typical of apprehension or fear.

VOLUNTEER: I'm feeling a sensation of going counter-clockwise. A light, or feeling on the left side. The feeling that I felt was that I was moving to my left.

MICHAEL PERSINGER: A feeling? Can you describe that feeling?

VOLUNTEER: A feeling. It was a heaviness that was pulling me towards my left side. And it was controlling me.

MICHAEL PERSINGER: OK. The relationship between these experiences and some types of alien abductions is that a similar portion of the brain is involved. We know that the person feels vibrations. They feel leaving their body. They may feel a sense of presence. They may feel visual sensations and tremendous meaningfulness, and sometimes fear.

JOE MORTON: Persinger believes that these sensations can occur spontaneously in some people, and can be mistaken for an alien presence if the context is right.

MICHAEL PERSINGER: One thing we did some years ago, and it shows how powerful subtle context is, was we would put normal people into a chamber, deprive them of sensory information except for a cross in the upper left-hand corner, and a few sequences from Gregorian chants. Then, we would listen to free narratives. And the themes of these narratives were primarily religious. By just changing the cross to a picture of the Earth and playing a few bars from the Close Encounters of the Third Kind movie, suddenly the themes changed to spaceships and alien encounters. We have looked at individuals who have claimed abduction experiences. It's actually a tremendous spectrum of experiences that take place. What makes the experiences often very rigid and formulated is when they go to a particular therapist who has a particular idea of what the alien is.

JOHN: Jesus Christ.

JOE MORTON: But the neurological and cultural explanations for abduction stories do not satisfy Budd Hopkins.

JOHN: I've got to get out of here.

BUDD HOPKINS: One of the issues about, of course, hypnogogic states and these other theories is that they're usually not accompanied by an enormous amount of emotion. The issue about these abduction experiences is, of course, immediately the enormously powerful and appropriate emotions that go with the experiences as they're recalled.

JOHN: I don't want to see these things.

JOE MORTON: Hallucinations and dreams can engender real emotions, and critics say that hypnosis and therapeutic suggestion can transform these emotions into traumatic abduction memories. After five hypnosis sessions, John recalls seeing his son, James, naked on an alien operating table.

BUDD HOPKINS: What's he look like? Does he look like a little boy? A young boy?

JOHN: He's asleep, but he's got no clothes. What is he doing to him?

BUDD HOPKINS: You're sure it was, or you just think?

JOHN: It was James.

BUDD HOPKINS: It was James.

JOE MORTON: Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: If you convince someone falsely that they were victims, or that they had some horrible experience, and they now believe in this false experience, they can feel very emotional about it.

JOHN: It's my boy!

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: And they may cry. They may scream. They may tremble. They may feel terrible. But it's feeling terrible about a false memory that they've now adopted for themselves.

JOE MORTON: To investigate just how malleable and unreliable memory can be, Loftus conducted a well-known experiment, "Lost in the Shopping Mall." She and her researchers attempted to implant a memory of a traumatic event that never took place.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: The latest work that I've been doing involves trying to get people to believe and remember that when they were children, they were lost in a shopping mall. They were lost for an extended period of time, that they were frightened. They were crying. And they were ultimately rescued by an elderly person and then brought back together with their family.

RESEARCHER: You actually were lost from your parents for a little while.

JOE MORTON: As her family confirmed, the subject was not lost. But the researcher plants the suggestion and prompts her to remember the scene.

RESEARCHER: Do you remember an older woman might have taken you to security?

RESEARCH SUBJECT: Unh-unh.

RESEARCHER: OK. Do you ever remember hearing your name on the P.A. system?

RESEARCH SUBJECT: Yeah. I do remember that.

RESEARCHER: Could it have been this time when you were five?

RESEARCH SUBJECT: It could have been. It could have been.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: Once a memory has been implanted through suggestion, it can seem very, very real to the person. A person can elaborate on it, describe it in greater detail, feel it and experience with a lot of confidence, even though it's false. In our shopping mall paradigm, we've gotten people to remember all kinds of details about the elderly person who supposedly rescued them.

RESEARCHER: There was an elderly lady who came up to you and asked you your name. Do you remember anything about her?

RESEARCH SUBJECT: I almost remember her like, wearing a long skirt and a sweater.

JOE MORTON: One week later, the subject has constructed a detailed memory of an event that never took place.

RESEARCHER: Do you remember her asking you? The sound of her voice?

RESEARCH SUBJECT: I do remember her asking me if I was lost, and then asking my name, and then saying something about taking me to security.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: Through suggestion, we're finding that maybe as many as a quarter of our subjects will develop a complete or a partial memory of this experience that never really happened to them.

ROBERT BAKER: Now, you're on a train, taking a trip back in time. We're going slowly down through the years.

JOE MORTON: According to psychologist Robert Baker, hypnosis enhances this natural suggestibility.

ROBERT BAKER: Hypnosis is nothing except the turning on of the human imagination, and that can be turned on best by having someone relaxed, get the mental relaxed state, and then provide them with suggestions. If the person getting them to relax is a respected, charismatic figure, somebody that is looked up to, then the person will more than likely comply with a request made by the so-called hypnotist. Concentrate on those muscles and let them go soft and loose and limp, just like a knife going through hot butter. If the hypnotist says, "Go back in the past and remember when you were a soldier in the Civil War," the individual being hypnotized will make a maximum effort to do exactly that with his memory. He will rake his memory to see if he can remember having read The Red Badge of Courage or some other Civil War novel. And then he will identify with that character that is suggested to him, and he will do his damndest to create a credible, believable story.

JOE MORTON: To demonstrate his point, Baker takes his subject backwards in time.

ROBERT BAKER: You're not in the United States, North America anymore. You're somewhere else. I want you to open your eyes, look around, and tell me where you are.

KAREN: I seem to be involved with a team of horses that are going much too fast. I was kind of enjoying riding so quickly, but I can see the horses' manes sort of flying back.

ROBERT BAKER: Are you controlling them now?

KAREN: Yeah, I think so.

ROBERT BAKER: Where was this happening?

KAREN: I don't know.

ROBERT BAKER: I want you to focus on it, what's going on.

JOE MORTON: After this session, Baker will debrief his subject, but for now, she imagines she is back in the days of the Roman Empire.

ROBERT BAKER: Are you small, a very small little girl, or a big person, grown up?

KAREN: No, I was a man. A young man.

ROBERT BAKER: A young man? What was that young man's name? What's your name?

KAREN: It ends in I-U-S. It seems sort of Latinate, like Aurelius or something I-U-S.

ROBERT BAKER: What kind of clothes were you wearing?

KAREN: A short, leather, sort of tunic-y—I seem to have long, high boots, laced up.

BUDD HOPKINS: What are your feelings right now?

JODY: I just know that they're there. I don't even know if I see them that well.

JOE MORTON: Psychologist Loftus sees the power of suggestion at work in Budd Hopkins' hypnosis sessions.

BUDD HOPKINS: Let's go back to the very first moment. I want you to tell me just how your body feels. Your body has its own memories. And they're almost separate from the memories of your mind. The body remembers how it feels.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: One of these obvious things is that he's pressing her for more details. He's pressing her with "You can remember more," and "Your body remembers, you can remember more." And it's an encouragement to elaborate, to imagine. Later on, he's going to help her interpret these mental products as if they are actual experiences.

BUDD HOPKINS: So you sit on this thing, and there are three around you, you say? Then what happens?

JODY: Oh, I don't know why this is coming to me, but they have to take off my shirt.

BUDD HOPKINS: Um hmm. They take off your shirt. Let's just go right through this. Your body remembers an experience.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: There's a belief out there that memories get stored in our body. But even if the mind doesn't remember, that the body somehow does. And the expression body memories is bandied about quite a bit. But in actuality, there is no good scientific support for the idea that our bodies are remembering things that our mind does not remember.

JODY: And that's all I can remember.

BUDD HOPKINS: No, you can remember more. You can remember more. The ones you like and the good guys, let's put over here. And the ones you don't like, you put over here.

JOE MORTON: Loftus identifies subtle but powerful suggestive cues in Hopkins' interactions with Jody's children.

BUDD HOPKINS: That man's a bad guy?

RYAN: Yeah.

BUDD HOPKINS: OK.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: When I watched Budd Hopkins do the tests with the four year old boy, it was amazing to me, because you could sort of see a UFO abduction memory in the making.

BUDD HOPKINS: I want you to tell me why they're bad.

RYAN: Yeah.

BUDD HOPKINS: How about him? Why is he bad?

RYAN: Because he doesn't really know anybody.

BUDD HOPKINS: He doesn't know anybody?

RYAN: Yeah. That's why he's so bad.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: It was a step-by-step process where he started with "Do you recognize this? Now let's put it in the good pile or the bad pile," "What is it that this creature did that made you put it in the bad pile?"

BUDD HOPKINS: Is he a big, tall guy? Is he this big? Is he way up there? How big is he?

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: So, there is a generation of ideas, and a generation of a story, and you could just see it. It's the first few steps down that royal road to the creation of a false memory of being abducted.

BUDD HOPKINS: You see him where?

PAULA: Outside.

BUDD HOPKINS: Outside? Uh huh.

PAULA: Yeah. At the pool.

BUDD HOPKINS: Um hmm. At the pool?

PAULA: Yeah.

BUDD HOPKINS: Uh huh. Is he a nice guy or a bad guy?

PAULA: Bad guy.

BUDD HOPKINS: Do you like him?

PAULA: Yeah.

BUDD HOPKINS: You do? You said he was a bad guy.

PAULA: Yeah.

BUDD HOPKINS: Do you like bad guys?

PAULA: Yeah.

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: It seems to me that if you do this to a child, particularly a young child, and that child is living with this belief, and we don't know what the consequences of those beliefs and those memories are going to be for that child, it seems risky. It seems risky.

BUDD HOPKINS: Does it seem to you that your hesitancies in that area may be connected with UFO experiences?

DENISE: Without a doubt.

BUDD HOPKINS: Without a doubt?

DENISE: Without a doubt.

JOE MORTON: Could suggestive influence also be at work in Budd Hopkins' support groups? Social psychologist Richard Ofshe considers this a likely environment for the creation of false beliefs.

RICHARD OFSHE: Well, what I saw on that tape was someone, first taking on the role of an authority figure and therapist.

BUDD HOPKINS: Let's say—Let's just take the issue of relationships with other people. I mean, everybody in the world has relationship problems.

JOHN: Up until I was about eighteen years old, I was almost asexual.

RICHARD OFSHE: Next, people are revealing things about themselves that they clearly find embarrassing, defects in their lives, and he's helping them explain these things away as the product of the aliens coming to see them.

BUDD HOPKINS: The worst was the implantations.

CARRIE: Um hmm. That was the implantations. That was the most degrading experience.

BUDD HOPKINS: Based on—degrading. Yeah.

CARRIE: Yeah.

DENISE: I don't remember, you know, that stuff with the implants, the fetal implants, or them taking something away. And like I told you before, I think that's my own defenses, because I don't know if I'd be able to really handle that very well.

RICHARD OFSHE: I thought it was interesting, the way in which the woman who commented about how she didn't quite have the memories that somebody else had, because they must be blocked. Well, it makes it very clear where that's going. The person who has imagined it thinks that what they've done is access a memory. So they accept that image as a memory. They now genuinely believe it's real. And when they offer it to the group and are rewarded for having found what was expected, it all makes sense.

JOE MORTON: Like Hopkins, John Mack leads regular support groups. One former member has come forward with an insider's view of the making of an alien abduction. When Donna Bassett heard about the Harvard professor, she says she decided to infiltrate Mack's organization. Bassett sent him a letter describing a family history of abductions. Mack agreed to meet, and beforehand, sent a package of articles, which gave Bassett the impression he believed her story.

DONNA BASSETT: He actually sent me material in advance of the first meeting, to review. So he had already made up his mind that I was an abductee, based on a letter without any prior contact. These documents went into such detail about what was expected of an abductee, including sound effects, body movement, descriptions. And you know, had I—It was impossible not to be prepared for the meeting.

JOE MORTON: They met at a Cambridge Hotel. Later, at Mack's house, he taped three hypnosis sessions which Bassetts claims she faked. Her husband and Mack's assistant were present.

DONNA BASSETT: Oh!

DR. JOHN MACK: That's it. Just be calm. Just—You're fine. You're doing just great.

DONNA BASSETT: Here you are in a bedroom, with this strange man looming over you, and the darkness, and it makes you uncomfortable, especially since the technique he's using makes you very aware of your own body.

DR. JOHN MACK: Your body is very sensitive.

DONNA BASSETT: Yes.

DR. JOHN MACK: What is the worst part of the treatment?

DONNA BASSETT: This cold thing.

DR. JOHN MACK: The cold thing? Where do they put it?

DONNA BASSETT: Inside of me.

DR. JOHN MACK: Where? In your belly? In your vagina? Where?

DONNA BASSETT: Yes.

JOE MORTON: To appeal to peace activist Mack, Bassett says she cooked up a story of aliens trying to save our planet by bringing together long-time political adversaries.

DONNA BASSETT: It had been the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. I got to the point where I was saying there was this bald man in the space ship.

DR. JOHN MACK: Can you say anything more about this bald man? Try and remember. Go inside and tell me what you can. How old was he, maybe?

DONNA BASSETT: He kept saying, "Well, what language is he speaking?"

DR. JOHN MACK: Try to tell me who he looks like from Donna.

DONNA BASSETT: He looks like that guy with the shoe at the U.N.

DR. JOHN MACK: Um hmm. Right, right.

DONNA BASSETT: That's what he looks like.

DR. JOHN MACK: OK.

DONNA BASSETT: He looks like Khrushchev. That can't be. That can't be.

DR. JOHN MACK: Was he Khrushchev?

DONNA BASSETT: I can't—It's stupid.

DR. JOHN MACK: Drop Donna's thirty-five year old critical mind for a moment. Did he look like Khrushchev?

DONNA BASSETT: Yes.

DR. JOHN MACK: OK. Was there anyone else?

DONNA BASSETT: There are other people there.

DR. JOHN MACK: Anyone else with responsibility like Khrushchev there?

DONNA BASSETT: Yes. And he was ecstatic. He was like this just made his whole millennium.

DR. JOHN MACK: Don't worry about how foolish or crazy or impossible it seems. Just notice. Who's there?

DONNA BASSETT: She's got—You're happy, you're not arguing?

DR. JOHN MACK: And who's the other one? What's the other one's name?

DONNA BASSETT: What's the other one? It's Kennedy. It can't be Kennedy.

DR. JOHN MACK: Do you see him?

DONNA BASSETT: Yes.

JOE MORTON: Even after the session, Mack pressed for details.

DR. JOHN MACK: And I'd like to know more of who they were. Was McNamara—Did you see him?

DONNA BASSETT: McNamara, yes. And Rusk. I thought Rusk was also there.

DR. JOHN MACK: Well, we certainly needed some kind of intervention in 1962.

DONNA BASSETT: There was no skepticism. He would believe the most far-fetched things. Or at least, he seemed to. The only time he got critical was when I tried to find alternate explanations for some of these experiences myself.

JOE MORTON: After a year with Mack's group, Bassett gave her story, unpaid, to Time Magazine.

DR. JOHN MACK: I don't know what really is motivating Donna Bassett. She's in contrast to virtually everyone else I've worked with. She set out to make a name for herself as my nemesis and attacker and critic, and was able to get a damaging story into Time Magazine. I don't know. I mean, for me—I mean, I worked with Donna in good faith and she claims she was all a hoax. And people I know in the experienced community think that she did not hoax, that she's an experiencer who never came to terms with her experience.

RICHARD OFSHE: The ease with which Mack accepts either deliberate, misleading, or hypnotic fantasies as real is very frightening for someone who's in a position of authority, for someone who's in a position of telling people this stuff is real. There's nothing tentative about that.

DR. JOHN MACK: We're dealing with a phenomenon which violates our sense of reality, and which operates in this gray area between the physical world and the subjective or mythic or other-realm world. We're being asked to prove this by the methods of the physical sciences alone. But those methods, in my view, will not yield the—This will not yield its secrets.

JOE MORTON: In 1994, concerned by mounting scientific criticism of John Mack and his research, Harvard University launched a lengthy internal review. In the end, with academic freedom at issue, the university took no adverse action. Today, John Mack, Budd Hopkins, and dozens more therapists around the country conduct abductee support groups and protracted hypnosis sessions. Hopkins is also at work on a new book, another installment in the popular culture of UFO kidnapping, perhaps paving the way for more and more people to come forward, as Betty and Barney Hill did in the 1960's, with their own shadowy memories of alien intruders. For many prefer these fantastical stories to the more prosaic explanations offered by science.

CARL SAGAN: As a scientist, what worries me the most is the absence of skeptical thinking, not just on the so-called abductees, but on the part of the therapists. Because I believe that the method of science is tried and true. It is not perfect. It's just the best we have. And to abandon it, with its skeptical protocols, is the pathway to a dark age.

Explore the alien abduction phenomenon with NOVA online. Whether you're a skeptic or a believer. Connect to pbs.org.

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ANNOUNCER: Next time on NOVA, a revolutionary strategy in heart surgery. But will it save lives? "Cut to the Heart."

 

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