Abductions and Folklore

Peter Rogerson
Northern Echoes, Magonia 35, January 1990

Much of what could be said about Tom Bullard's and 'Daryl Collins's' replies in the last issue of Magonia has been said many times before; the fact that the published information on many abductees conflicts with the image of psychological stability which they seek to promote, is often overlooked. Thus Charles Hickson is presented as a 'non-fantasy-prone' individual, and as the model of the abduction story which is revealed without the use of hypnosis.

However, Bullard does not mention Hickson's subsequent career as a contactee. It is Daryl Collins whom is the exception, not Whitley Strieber. Nor does Bullard really get to grips with the fact that only a few individual investigators 'uncover' most abduction stories. (Something British ufologists could enlighten him about, were it not for this country's absurdly strict libel laws.)
If we are being expected to take these abduction stories seriously, then are we expected to take Adamski, Fry, Bethurum, and Buck Nelson at face value? Are we to take stories of witches sabbats seriously, where the same arguments were presented: "How could all these people know of. the same small details" which impressed magistrates of the period. Bullard raises a number of points. He argues that abduction stories are too stereotyped to be "just folklore", and lack individualistic touches. The idea of "individualistic flourishes and artistic touches" of course harmonises with the individualistic culture of American capitalism. Yet it is deeply at odds with the folkloric tradition, where there is indeed a set formula to the story or song and any deviation from it is sharply put down by the audience with cries of "that's not how it goes". Similarly dramatic nonTyrellian ghost stories are dismissed by psychical researchers and the increasingly ideosyncratic abduction reports will be rejected by the investigators because they do not conform to the received format of the narratives: it is quite clear that there was much less conformity in the early stories.
Bullard's arguments that modern abduction stories do not show the same divergences as traditional folk tales is based on a false analogy. The UFO abduction stories are, for a start. not the population of abduction stories, but a modern western cultural version of traditional abduction stories, manty of which incorporate the 'hunt for the victim' by relatives, the finding of the latter in a dazed condition which Collins lists: to say nothing of the fairly child motif. Secondly, one cannot compare stories transmitted orally around the fireplace in the inn for generations, with those spread in the space of twenty years through the mass media, and the printed media of a subculture.
In any case, Bullard is to some extent shooting at a straw dummy. British and European ufologists are not arguing that these stories are not underlain by some kind of experience. Like many ghost stories they are experiential folklore, in which folklore influences the content of experiences encountered in dreams, altered states of consciousness or false memory. These experiences will be structured not only by storytelling conventions, but by the nature of altered state experience itself, which will indeed have transcultural aspects, and by real experiences (especially real medical examinations) which act as the building blocks of the imagination.

Indeed, we can see how certain motifs occur in different contexts: for example the motif of watching ones body from an external viewpoint whilst undergoing a medical or quasi-medical ordeal occurs in UFO abduction stories, near-death experiences, shamanic ritual, etc. Nor, given the fact that the medical man occupies a role in our society analogous to the priest as the curer of such souls and the guardian of the liminal zones of birth and death, should we be surprised that dramas of spiritual ordeal which a couple of generations ago would have been presented in theological terms, are now expressed in secular, scientific and medical terms. It seems to me totally obvious that the ufonauts do not represent aliens, but are perceived as non human (or at least non humane) aspects of ourselves and our society. The 'greys' are surely personifications of 'little grey men' that stock term of abuse for petty, colourless, hidebound bureaucrats and apt image of 'only doing my job' cosmic social workers. I would go further, and say that there is being made here an identification between the impersonal forces of mass society and the impersonal forces of wild nature.
A living folklore, a living myth, must speak in the language of contemporary culture. Traditional fairy lore has been appropriated by the nursery and Walt Disney and has lost its power. It is quaint and harmless, so a new, powerful folklore of the machine age is required. As with all such stories, where they articulate only the private fantasies of little power over us, but when they articulate total human concerns their power is vast.