Flying Saucers From Hell: Alien Abductions and Satanic Cult Abductions

Bill Ellis
Magonia 40, August 1991
There are unquestionably, as John Rimmer states, ‘disturbing parallels’ between UFO abduction research and Satan-hunting. And folklorists are good at finding parallels among widely separated stories and traditions. We can suggest ways in which these coherences represent common human responses to stresses or represent revivals of motifs from the past. We should also be aware of why we are looking for such continuities. By discussing such stories as folklore, are we explaining, or explaining away?

The late 1980s brought many Americans’ attention to two similar claims: people were being abducted and abused by extraterrestrials, and ‘cult survivors’ had been abducted and abused as children by devil-worshippers. Budd Hopkins (1) uncovered and detailed several puzzling cases in which witnesses reported a close encounter with a glowing light, then found they could not account for a period of ‘missing time’. Regressive hypnosis often filled in this gap with experiences in which the witnesses were levitated inside some kind of craft, given medical examinations, then returned to where they had been.

Michelle Smith reconstructed an influential cult abuse story with the help of her psychiatrist (and husband-to-be) Lawrence Pazder. (2] She described in detail how she had been taken by her devil-worshipping mother to many gruesome rituals during which babies were murdered, animal blood drunk, and children forced to lie in graves with dead animals. She was followed by several other dramatic ‘survivors’ who claimed to have been the victims of similar cults. This claim, in fact, has become accepted as standard among many fully accredited psychiatrists treating patients with multiple-personality disorder, now widely assumed to be caused by satanic ritual abuse during childhood. (3)

These scenarios share many motifs with older Anglo-American beliefs and legends focusing on abductions, and they can be historically linked to each other and to older folk traditions. But are they identical claims? If the dynamics and the content of alien abductions and satanic survivor stories are structurally identical, isn’t it reasonable to assume that they are reflections of a similar cultural process that produces or encourages delusions? I believe that the differences between the two types of claim are more important than the parallels: one is empirical, the other is mythological. And this distinction, in social and political terms, is hardly trivial.

Satanic abuse and UFO abductions do have much in common, particularly the contexts out of which they arise. Generally speaking, both kinds of abductees do not initially recall any unusual event. Most UFO abductees recall only seeing a bright light, followed by disorientating nightmares and flashbacks. Likewise, cult survivors ‘present’ with generalised feelings of anxiety and recurring dreams, like Michelle Smith’s vision (familiar to urban legend scholars) of an itchy boil that, when lanced, proves to be full of little spiders. (4) In both cases, the abduction or ritual abuse is reconstructed with the help of a therapist, often using regressive hypnosis. And in many instances, the moment of ‘recall’ is marked by a cathartic moment of screaming – as in the case of Michelle Smith and Whitley Strieber. (5) And in both instances, follow-up therapy sessions recall these stories in increasing detail. The internal consistency and sincerity of such accounts lend both kinds of accounts credibility, and in both fine details from one victim’s story are apparently corroborated by others interviewed independently. (6)

But we must also admit significant contrasts. UFO abductees generally focus attention, at least initially, on a recent puzzling encounter that can be to some extent corroborated by others present: the glowing light and other puzzling sounds or traces do apparently point to some specific event that occurred in some specific place. By contrast. satanic abuses are more frequently placed in a distant past, and survivors frequently concede that they have no direct witnesses or physical proof that would link their experiences to any specific time or place. This need not be taken as proof that UFOs landed in Whitley Strieber’s backyard: only that the apparent abduction was linked to some identifiable incident in his and his acquaintances’ immediate past; by contrast, Michelle Smith’s ritual abuse took place more than twenty years before she sought medical help and was corroborated in no way by her friends and relatives.

Despite elaborate efforts to connect their stories to abnormal psychological patterns, UFO abductees stubbornly test in the normal range. Experienced psychologists like Rima Laibow and John P. Wilson have noted that such patients do often show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, but this seems a reaction to the apparent abduction rather than a cause of it. (6) And integration into a support group of fellow ‘abductees’ and sympathetic researchers seems to have been therapeutic rather than destructive: the detailed survey conducted by Kenneth Ring and Christopher J. Rosing among UFO abductees shows that ‘on the whole it has made a positive difference in their lives’. (7)
Satanic cult abductees arrive at their ritual abuse memories only after a long string of previous extravagant claims have been tried and found wanting. By contrast, satanic cult survivors normally appear with long histories of psychosis: substance abuse, self-mutilation, previous fantasies, and so on. ‘Lauren Stratford’, or Laurel Rose Willson, one of the most visible American ‘survivors’, arrived at her story of being a cult ‘breeder’ after impressing a series of pastors and church members with detailed stories of abuse and personal illness. Her acquaintances recalled numerous times when she faked suicide attempts, making superficial cuts on her arms, to provoke sympathy. In fact, before she was adopted by the anti-Satanist network, she was living on total state disability benefit due to her mental problems. (8) Alien abductees, in short, construct their experiences as the explanation of a recent, intense state of disorientation; satanic cult abductees, on the other hand, arrive at their ritual abuse memories only after a long string of previous extravagant claims have been tried and found wanting.

Likewise, the contents of these ‘experiences’ show interesting but superficial parallels. Both show victims incapacitated in same way – a drug, a strange ray, perhaps even brainwashing – that reduces their will to resist. They are removed to another place: Michelle recalls being put on a bed and ‘flying’; other witnesses recall ‘mystery planes’ or ‘tunnels’ that took them into some mysterious place, where some kind of symbolic or actual rape took place. Strieber, like many others, recalls being levitated into a small room, where, among other discomforts, he was subjected to some kind of anal probe. Both victims return, frequently with some mysterious mark on their bodies, besides which there is no physical sign of the abductors’ presence. Among cult survivors, the killing of a baby seems the most common climax to such events; a growing number of UFO abductees sense that sperm or ova – even a developing foetus – had been removed by aliens as a personal sacrifice to some scientific purpose. We could say that the one is a technological transformation of the other.

These parallels noted, the obvious difference remains: alien abductions are caused by superhumans; cult abuse is carried out by humans. True, satanists show nearly superhuman powers in the way they can carry out the most gruesome ceremonies without leaving any physical evidence. And since many of the survivors’ accounts include demonic manifestations caused by the cultists, we could say that the difference is academic. But is it? I think not, if we put the two phenomena in full historical perspective.

Since space aliens by definition do not inhabit the same world as humans, abductees must deal with them as part of a mythical other-world. The main problem, as expressed by many victims, is not merely how to avoid further contacts, but to accept them as genuine but unbelievable experiences. Such a process obviously puts pressure on abduction victims to reduce their experiences to good form. By forming networks to exchange ideas or perceptions of the aliens, abductees follow a pattern of group therapy similar to that studied by folklorists as women’s ‘rap groups’. (9) Whether the trauma of the abduction is empirical or imagined, the folk process that it initiates is essentially one that integrates members into a self-supportive group.

Alien abduction, as many commentators have noted, is a modern cognate to earlier supernatural attack traditions, most notably fairy kidnaps. These bodies of lore also focused on queer experiences in which individuals were ‘taken away’ into another plane of existence in which normal time was disordered. But they were self-regulating, including also a broad range of ritualistic activities intended to keep away these unwelcome guests or limit their power over humans: carrying cold iron, whistling, turning pockets inside out, a broom placed in the chimney upside down. (10) As I noted in an earlier essay on UFO abductions, the common Old Hag or ‘bedroom visitor’ experience has much in common with abductions, (11) and indeed Budd Hopkins took on a person who had had such a ‘hagging’, repeatedly regressing him until the witness eventually produced a suitable abduction memory. [12) But while the Old Hag generally could be kept at bay by sleeping with a sharp knife under the pillow, I expressed fears that abduction researchers might not provide any proper 'superstitions' to dispel fears of aliens.

But now it appears that the network is generating these new folk beliefs. Fetishistic or ritualistic ways are emerging to control the threat of abduction. In Transformation, Strieber describes a series of personal and communal rituals that he participated in as part of his acceptance of 'the visitors': these ranged from refraining from certain foods (chocolate in particular) to holding a group invocation in a Wiccan or neo-pagan sanctuary. (13)

Another 'new age' channeler has circulated the useful knowledge that, if aliens are really after our 'glandular secretions', then we can defeat them by eating things that they don't like, specifically 'sugar, sweet foods, and spinach and rhubarb, hot spicy foods, such as chili peppers'. (14) Even Philip Klass ends his debunking of abduction research by telling readers that ufonauts will never abduct a 'True UFO-Skeptic': 'To assure that you are a TUFOS, and thereby completely protected against ufonaut abduction, it is suggested that you read my earlier book[s])…’ (15) Though a jest, Klass’s remark points to an insight shared by several folklorists examining cultural responses to the paranormal – that the sceptical response frequently mirrors the uncritical reasoning of believers.

Supernatural attack traditions are responses to a specific, directly remembered psychological crisis. Certainly the details of this crisis, as reconstructed in memory and shared with others rely on acceptable cultural models. But are abductions simply subsets of of popular culture antecedents like alien invasion movies and comic strips?

The direction taken by most abductees, as with those who have experienced near-death experiences, has been to challenge and move outside of mainstream institutions like organised sciences and religions. To that extent, UFO abductions marginalise victims, but living in the margins also impels many of them to create novel myths and rituals to reorder their world views. These alternative world views may offend mainstreamers, but the fact remains: abductees form their own alternative networks and resist being subsumed by mass-culture movements.

Satanic cult survivors, by contrast, assume that the actions they have witnessed have occurred in real time and in the real world, not in some otherworldly fairy hill. This is why police and vigilantes have, on several occasions, gone so far as to excavate sites named by survivors, looking for graves or signs of secret tunnels. (15) The agents of ritual abuse, even if they have superhuman powers given them by the devil, are still mortals who live in the same community as we do. This point is made quite clear by the Satan hunters: ‘A coven … is set up so that no one knows more than one or two members involved at the next level of its hierarchy … And because many of the people involved hold respectable positions in the community, few are willing to believe what often are considered ravings from a troubled mind.’

Witches could not hide when they were pointed
out by afflicted girls or professional
witch-finders executing the will of God almighty

Alien abductees may report real-time contacts with strange ‘men in black’. but these characters often betray their extrahuman natures by their odd appearance and tendency to vanish. The cult members who harass survivors, on the other hand, are assumed by therapists to be real people who can be identified and arrested. In fact, the Satanists cannot vanish; however secretive they may be, they can and must be disarmed by decisive social action. And the actions projected by the two groups’ beliefs point in quite different directions. At worst, the UFO abduction camp demands respect for non-standard myths and beliefs; the satanic abduction camp, on the other hand, wants to hurt the people responsible for their experiences. By its nature, the cult mythology is reactionary and aggressive. It exorcises a generalised, poorly defined fear by projecting it outward on to other members of the community.

Its proper cognate is not fairy lore but witch-hunting. Witches, too, had superhuman abilities given them by the devil: they could enter people’s dreams, afflict their bodies, kill their children and cattle. But they could not hide when they were pointed out by afflicted girls or professional witch-finders, executing the will of God almighty. Susanna Martin, one of the accused witches in the Salem, Massachusetts, panic of 1692, took one farmer, Joseph Ring, from his bed, flew him to a nearby field, and forced him to take part in black sabbats. Before returning, she would ‘strike him dumb’ so that he could not tell of what he had seen. This continued for more than two years, but by the grace of God he recovered his memories in time to participate in the testimony that put Goody Martin’s head in the noose. (16)
Alien abductees seek to create a marginal
 world view; satanic cult abductees
seek to eliminate marginality

In many cultures and times, witch-hunts have led to acts of violence against marginal classes – women, Jews, Gypsies, African Americans, Socialists, any group who can serve as ready targets for the generalised fears of the mainstream. In short, alien abductees seek to create a marginal world view; satanic cult abductees seek to eliminate marginality.

Is it surprising that the two bodies of information share motifs? Both grew organically out of the cattle mutilation panics of the 1970s, which were widely linked to devil-worship ceremonies. The abduction scenario received an infusion of new blood from two simultaneous abduction mutilation experiences elicited by ufologist Leo Sprinkle through hypnotic regression. These recollections, helpfully reprinted in extenso by Linda Moulton Howe, include a number of motifs common to satanic cult lore, including aliens in cult lore, including aliens in black hooded robes and with eyes ‘red, like the devil’, who bathe in tubs of blood and excised organs. (17) It should also be noted that Michelle Remembers was published at the height of Canada’s own cattle mutilation panic of 1979-80, which the Royal Canadian Mounted Police openly attributed to a sinister cult called ‘Sons in the Service of Satan’ or ‘S.I.S.S.’ (18)

The ‘missing children’ moral crusade likewise took hold in the early 1980s, while psychopathic mass murderers, according to the media, haunted neighbourhoods and roamed the Interstates. (19) And this crusade has hardly been confined to Americans but affected the Communist Bloc: while cattle mutilators roamed Colorado in the 1970s, strangers in a mysterious black car prowled Russia and Poland, abducting children to drain out their blood or pluck out their eyeballs and vital organs. (20) This kind of story is a universal cultural myth, found in some form in nearly every continent, especially when Europeans were perceived as a threat to Africans, Asians, or Latin Americans. (21) Overall, such patterns indicate broad bodies of cultural language, that would affect any anomalous claim.

Is one simply a more sophisticated form of the other? Michael Goss implies this when he notes that ‘The Georgians, and the Victorians after them, were too sophisticated to fear that their children might be kidnapped by fairies. But as they had nomadic gypsy bands the loss was not felt’. This comment seems close in spirit to Jan Harold Brunvand’s confident explanation that when ballads containing references to fairies, ghosts and the like where brought over from England to the US, Americans dropped out the supernatural elements, ‘presumably because they (Americans) are hard-headed and practical’. (22)

A close reading of Hilary Evans’s Intrusions (23) would show that the Victorian period was an extraordinarily active period for supernatural beliefs and research at the most sophisticated scientific levels. Spiritualism, table-tapping, and ESP were seriously entertained by figures of no less import than William James, Sir William Crookes, and Sir Arthur Coma Doyle (whose arguments for the existence of fairies continue to mystify the hard-headed American fans of Sherlock Holmes). In fact, sociologists have recently noted, the outbreak of the witchcraft hysterics in Europe matched precisely the emergence of modern scientific methods that removed fairies as a ‘sensible’ explanation for phenomena later used to burn witches. (24)


In our own time alien abductions and
satanic cult abductions emerge,
both equally drawing on contemporary
beliefs and concepts to refurbish
equally ancient structures
Supernatural attack claims and witch-hunts have coexisted at every cultural period, however ‘sophisticated’ it might have been. Romans believed in lamia that might snatch children’s spirits to the underworld, and they also believed in Christians that kidnapped babies and ate them during their love feasts. They appeased the former and burned the latter. The medieval English believed in fairies that might abduct children or adults into underground neverlands; they also could be convinced that Jews were using Christian babies as a Passover sacrifice. Bowls of milk were left out for the fairies; the Jews were dispossessed and burned.

And in our own time alien abductions and satanic cult abductions emerge, both equally drawing on contemporary beliefs and concepts to refurbish equally ancient structures. ‘But doesn’t it scare you that abductees are forming these networks?’ one popular press reporter demanded during a phone interview. No, I responded: the marginality of ufology in general and doubly marginal place abductionology holds even there, it seems unlikely that it will ever have the clout to appeal to more than a minority of New Age seekers. True, Edith Fiore blatantly uses hypnosis to cure Californians’ anxieties by helping them construct satisfying ‘abduction experiences’ and gives the reader helpful hints on building your own UFO experience by dangling a crystal over your wrist while asking it leading questions. (25) But like past-life therapy (in which Fiore also dabbles), such tactics may offend sceptics’ sense of logic, but they do produce cures (like shamanism) when the therapist and patient share similar world views and when the patient expects the therapy to make him better. (26)

The question is: how much social damage can abductee networks cause? Anecdotal accounts circulate about victims who consider suicide and murders to keep themselves and children from being abducted by extraterrestrials. These ‘horror stories’, however, have not yet been accompanied by names and dates. On the other hand, the satanic abduction network has the desire to damage individuals and institutions and possesses the clout of academic and political institutions. Consider the coalition as we have experienced it in the United States: the producers of ABC-TV’s 20-20 News programme, the members of the American Psychiatric Association who organised and participated in the international conferences on Multiple Personality/Dissociative States; at least three archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church; the District Attorney of Los Angeles, who pursued the McMartin Preschool satanic abuse case despite a lack of objective evidence, even, for several years, the US Government’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And to what positive end? The MPD/satanism therapy, like others, works when therapist and patient agree on the reality of cults. Many ‘survivors’ find relief from their psychoses in becoming widely demanded ‘experts’ on ritual abuse. But the benefit of the patient must be balanced against the staggering cost of careers and reputations damaged by innuendo, And, as Mulhern has pointed out, many patients diagnosed as victims of ritual abuse, are further traumatised by being convinced that they are in continual danger from real-life Satanists. Given the role that Michelle Remembers played in initiating the McMartin prosecution in Los Angeles (the model for Rochdale), Michelle Smith could have done a lot worse than contact Budd Hopkins. And, ironically, the saddest toll must be numbered in real child victims, which can be documented by name and date.

Angela Palmer, 4, burned to death in an oven in Lewiston, Maine, 27 October 1984: Her mother’s boyfriend was trying to exorcise a demonic image from the mother, put there by her father who had abused her as a child. The exorcism went awry when Lucifer manifested himself in the child. (27)

Kimberly Jackson, 4, died of starvation in Milton, Florida, 8 February 1987: her mother, concerned about her daughter’s ‘defiance’, had consulted an evangelist, who ordered her to punish her child by beating and starving her, and forcing her to sleep under black blankets representing the death of the soul. (28)

Eric Cottam, 14, died of starvation near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 4 January 1989: their parents, afraid that the children were being subjected to satanic abuse in a local Seventh-Day Adventist school, took their children to psychiatrists at a Pittsburgh children’s hospital, who elicited detailed accounts of animal sacrifices and sexual abuse. After the specialists determined that it was ‘reasonably realistic that those acts did occur’, the Cottams fled into seclusion and, lacking money, waited for God to save them from the satanists. (29)

Folklorists can’t decide if extraterrestrials exist or if any given accusation of ritual abuse is valid or not, but they can and should help people keep phenomena like this in perspective. History repeats for those unwilling to learn it.

  1. See his Intruders, Ballantine, 1987, and Missing Time, Ballantine 1988
  2. Michelle Remembers, Pocket Books, 1981.
  3. Particularly influential among these has been; Stratford, Lauren; Satan’s Underground, Harvest House, 1988. For further background see: Mulhern, Sherrill, ‘Satanism and psychotherapy: a Rumor in Search of an Inquisition’, in The Satanism Scare.
  4. Smith and Padzer, p.9. See Brunvand, Jan Harold, The Mexican Pet, Norton, 1986, pp. 76-77. ‘The spider bite’, he notes has been a popular urban legend in North America and Europe since the mid-1960s
  5. Smith and Padzer, pp. 22-23, Communion, p. 54.
  6. For this claim on ritual abuse see: Mulhern and victor; for a similar claim for abductions see: Bullard, Thomas E., ‘Hypnosis and UFO Abductions; a troubled relationship’, in Journal of UFO Studies, 1, 1989, pp 3-40.
  7. Laibow, quoted in Conroy, Ed., Report on Communion, Morrow 1989; Wilson, ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Experience Anomalous Trauma (EAT): similarities in reported UFO abductions and exposure to invisible toxix contaminants’, Journal of UFO Studies, 2, 1990, pp.1-18; Ring, Kenneth and Rosing, Christopher, ‘The Omega Project: a psychological survey of people reporting abductions and other UFO encounters’, Journal of UFO Studies, 2, 1990, p.82. Ring and Rosing, while admitting that their data cannot resolve the empirical status of abduction experiences suggest that a psychosocial explanation is the most likely.
  8. Passantino, Gretchen and bob, and Trott, John, ‘Satan’s Sideshow’, Cornerstone, 18: 90, 8 December 1989, pp.24-28.
  9. See particularly Kalcik, Susan, “…like Ann’s gynaeocologist or the time I was almost raped”, personal narratives in ‘Women’s Rape Groups’ Journal of American Folklore 88, 1975, pp3-11. About twice as many women as men are willing to admit an abduction experience, although hard data on this are lacking. See Ring and Rosing, p.65.
  10. See my ‘Abduction’, in Hand, Wayland, The Encyclopedia of American Folk Beliefs and Superstition, University of California Press.
  11. ‘The Varieties of Alien Experience’, The Skeptical Inquirer, 12,3, Spring 1988, pp. 263-269. See also, Hufford, David, The Terror That Comes in the Night, University of Pennsylvania, 1982.
  12. Missing Time, pp. 145-175
  13. Streiber, Transformation, Avon, 1988, pp.242-244
  14. Nevada Aerial Research group, The Leading Edge, November 1990, p.26. One suspects that garlic too might be effective.
  15. Klass, p. UFO Abductions, a Dangersour Game, Prometheus Books, 1988, p.194
  16. Starkey, Marlon, L. The Devil in Massechusetts, Anchor, 1969.
  17. An Alien Harvest, Linda Moulton Howe prods., 1989, pp247, 371
  18. See: Adams, Thomas A., ‘The Cult Connection’, Stigmata, 11, 1980, pp10-13, and Kagan, David and Summers, Ian, Mute Evidence, Bantam 1983.
  19. A useful introduction to this crusade is: Best, Joel, Threatened Children, University of Chicago press, 1990.
  20. Czubala, Dionizjusz, ‘The Black Volga’. Foaftale News, 21. 1991. See also: Stilo, Guiseppi, and Toselli, Paolo. ‘Gli Arcchiappa-bambini e l’Ambulanza Nera’, Tutte Storia, 1,1, March 1991, pp 9-11. The same story was circulating in Southern Italy in November 1990.
  21. See: Campion-Vincente, Véronique, ‘The Baby-Parts Story’, Western Folklore, 49, 1990, pp.9-25; and Stevens, Phillip,’The demonology of Satanism’, The Satanism scare.
  22. The Study of American folklore, 3rd. edition, Norton, 1986, p.258
  23. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.
  24. Ankarloo, Bengt, and Henningson, Gustav (eds.). Early Modern European Witchcraft, Centres and Peripheries, Clarendon Press, 1990.
  25. Encounters, Macmillan, 1989.
  26. See: Rogo, D. Scott, The Search for Yesterday, Prentice-Hall, 1985.
  27. UPI release, October 1984; Portoland (ME) Press-Herald, 27 November 1985. These cuttings were made available to me by the kindness of CHILD Inc., Sioux City, IA., America’s leading advocates of childrens’ right in the face of genuine religious abuse, mainly committed in the name of recognised religions.
  28. FOAFtale News, no. 17, p.12.
  29. FOAFtale News, no. 15, p.7