Living Laboratories

Peter Rogerson
'Northern Echoes', Magonia 47, October 1993

In a rather more serious 'Northern Echoes' than usual I intend to continue the themes of my article in this issue (Fairyland’s Hunters), and look at a range of recent publications which span a variety of ideological positions reflecting the increased splintering of the American abduction scene.

New Age journalist Keith Thompson [1] takes the broadest sweep in his historical and mythological overview of the UFO topic. He argues that whether or not individual UFO experiences are misidentifications of Venus, or Martian spaceships “they are profoundly important gateways to provocative mythic horizons and imaginal realms… symbolic worlds [which] are real, vital and filled with significance. The UFO stories hint at realms of ambiguity to which the neat little box reality of believers and sceptics alike does scant justice.”

Ufology, argues Thompson, has many of the hallmarks of a modern mythology – complete with its creation story – Kenneth Arnold’s encounter – which like all dreamtime history remains part of the present past. Arnold himself is often evoked as a foundation hero, with comments such as “if Kenneth Arnold himself were to come to our conference, what would he make of our proceedings?” Revisionist critiques such as Martin Kottmeyer’s can be seen as a parallel to the ‘search for the historical Jesus’ of the rationalist theologians. Vigorous ripostes from traditional believers can be expected.

As an outsider, Thompson takes us through a whistle-stop history of American ufology, with interviews with well-known participants. The problem is that, while Thompson can often view the Byzantine politics of American ufology with a detached, but sometime jaundiced, eye, his actual grasp of this extremely complex subject seems often to be sketchy.

In this sketch Thompson sees reflected figures from mythology: Proteus, who changed shape to avoid being trapped into prophecy; Hermes, the tricky messenger, Trickster himself; Dionysius, the wildness which disrupts ordinary society. Thompson shows himself to be well aware of the connectedness of anomalous experience, and of ufology’s links into a general belief in the power of The Other to intrude and control our lives. He highlights the debate within American ufology as to whether these parallels are coincidental or fundamental.

Pontolillo [2] is equally aware of these parallels, and is equally clear that they are fundamental, concentrating on a much narrower spectrum of events: the abduction reports. Pontolillo is able to demonstrate that these parallels go much beyond superficial outlines. There are often close correspondences between the description of the sexual experiences of abductees and, for example, those who claimed encounters with the incubi’s cold sexual member.

It is in tone that Thompson and Pontolillo contrast most starkly. For the latter, abductions are a mirror of the abuse of women in society, and their message is “women cannot have control of their own bodies, either in this world or an imaginary one”. The abduction experience, for Pontolillo, grows out of an increasingly repressive climate, with attacks on sex education, abortion, and contraception. Perhaps even more relevant is the perceived mechanisation and dehumanisation of conception, pregnancy and childbirth, as documented by Robyn Rowland [3] who sees women being relegated to the status of living laboratories or walking life-support systems for their foetuses, by doctors who employ the rhetoric of agriculture and even industry.

For Thompson however, the encounter, even the abduction, is the start of the grand adventure, the Heroic Quest “venturing forth from the world of common day into a realm of supernatural wonder [...] a fateful realm of treasure and danger” – the journey from secular habitat to sacred wilderness, which journey is a rite of passage. (I was pleased to see that Thompson understands the importance of the ideas of Victor Turner.)

These divisions run across American ufology. Pontolillo’s critique is directed at the ‘standard story’ of Hopkins and Jacobs, which he finds evidentially vacant, a product of the age of anxieties, which reflect what we might think of as the implosion of habitat. The wild and dangerous Other is not just in the street outside the apartment, it comes in through the walls, dragging us out with it. Women in particular are not safe anywhere. In pursuit of this standard story Pontolillo ignores, as do his targets Hopkins and Jacobs, the religious dimension of many of these stories.

Thompson, for whom the Other may be angels or archetypes, symbols of transcendence, skirts over the darkness implicit in the narratives, reflecting the New Age’s inability to confront evil. There is within such stories a connection between abuse and initiation. A study of the initiation rituals of many cultures points to this too intimate connection – scarification, circumcision, clitorectomy. We should also perhaps note the role of masks in initiation rituals, where the neophyte is confronted by his culture’s fearsome demons, then note the similarity between the slit mouth and wrap-round eyes of the Grays with the human face seen through a balaclava helmet – the savage mask of our culture’s demons – the terrorist, bank robber, mugger, the universal outlaw on the fringes of society.

We should perhaps bear in mind the etymological common origin of 
‘rapture’ and ‘rape’, of being seized
and possessed by the Other

The books of personal accounts also highlight this ambiguity. Bryant and Seebach [4] present themselves as ‘healers of shattered reality’, adding the language of the social worker to that of the contactee and channeler. For those who can plough through the pages of channelled gunge there is an important theme: the identification of their encounter with the unknown as simultaneously religious revelation and a species of rape. We should perhaps bear in mind the etymological common origin of ‘rapture’ and ‘rape’, of being seized and possessed by the Other.

Traumatic events not only have the obvious shock effect, but can also lead to a shattering of the most profound sense of self and reality, which can be more disturbing than the original event. Our reactions to trauma can also be traumatic. Take an example from Bryant and Seebach’s book, in which an abductee/contactee denounces as a ‘screen memory’ what obviously happened in reality, because it offended her sense of self: while out driving one night a speeding car nearly collides with her, going off the road and overturning. Instead of stopping, she speeds away and rather than feeling shocked and shaken as she believed she should, she is exhilarated by the sense of survival. She stops in the middle of nowhere to phone her family and tell them she loves them and remembers the experience as incredibly positive. This euphoria of survival she finds unacceptable; she should have stopped to help. She cannot accept her feelings, so begins to reconstruct reality to fit in with her image of herself. The UFO abduction scenario helps her do this.

Bryant and Seebach clearly belong on the Mack and Fowler wing of abduction research, and implicitly accuse Hopkins and Jacobs of fostering a`victim mentality’. Yet a number of ‘contactees’ discussed by Seebach and Bryant show much more severe psychiatric problems than is generally conceded in the literature, including hospitalisation and drug or alcohol abuse, representing a range of behavioural backgrounds similar to those of many of the self proclaimed ‘adult-survivors’ of Satanic abuse. This considerably blurs the distinctions made by Bill Ellis in Magonia 40.

The response to this traumatic collapse of the given world can be anomie, but another possible response is the reforging of a new sense of reality and identity. Hypomanic responses may include not just the elation of survival, but a sense of power. ‘Victims’ may become public personalities and the tendency of abductees or contactecs to join the lecture circuit should not be taken to imply that they are ‘in it for the publicity’, as parallels can be drawn from many `normal’ traumas.

This does not mean that the trauma producer was anomalous in any trans-personal sense. One only has to read Hendry’s UFO Handbook (as far too few ufologists do today) to see how traumatic a misrepresentation of Venus can be. Abductees are not fonts of wisdom: their revelations are recycled from popular occult and New Age culture, often simply parroting the beliefs of the first investigator they meet.

Pontolillo points out the continuity between the scars of the abductee and witches’ marks and stigmata, as they bear no relationship to known medical procedures. Perhaps one should note the resonances with the scarification of the initiate, or the ‘mental scars’ of the trauma victim. Such scars form a central theme of the second personal narrative reviewed her, that of Karla Turner [5]. Assuming this is not a case of a novel presented as fact, it demonstrates both how abduction beliefs originate and spread, and just how complex the pre-standard abduction narrative was.

It is a haunting reminder of the fragility of the world of daylight reason. During a period of tension in the lives of her and her husband, Karla Turner sets her students a term paper on UFOs and similar topics as an exercise in logic. In the course of this she reads the books of Strieber and Hopkins. After this, dreams in which she sees her husband and friends as vampires take on a new significance. Soon her husband presents her with an abduction narrative, and her teenage son, his girlfriend and disturbed, attention-seeking best-friend are swapping every dream, anomaly and hypnagogic hallucination they experience. Between them they produce an incredible melange of ufological, paranormal and shamanic imagery. There are nightly abductions, sometime the participants examine their bodies two or three times a day for possible scars. There are poltergeist effects, and encounters with ‘The Ancestors’ and the ‘Old Ones’. There are regular hypnotic sessions with a local ufologist.

Reading through this one can sense that in the end all this provides a welcome sense of drama. Furthermore, it diverts attention from their real problems and gives the family a new sense of unity.

For Bryant and Seebach, and even ultimately for Thompson, the abduction experience is the encounter with the wholly other. Only Pontolillo, correctly in my view, locates the source of abduction motifs within human culture, tracing their origin to Classical times. Yet Pontolillo never seems to unify the point: why did people believe in abductions by gods and fairies or intercourse with demons? They seem to represent humanity’s encounter with wild anti-society, the idea that one can be enticed out of the human circle by the forces of the wild bush.
Pontolillo’s interpretation of the abduction narrative as a contemporary form of the misogyny which led to the witchcraft trials, like Dennis Stacy’s abortion trauma hypothesis, relies on the very high proportion of abduction narratives involving women. However, my own count of pre-1980 cases shows 40 involved females only, 24 mixed, and 119 men only – nearly two-thirds. There is a subjective impression that the situation has changed and Jacobs reported a 56% female sample, but in the absence of a comprehensive catalogue for post-1987 cases, judgment is best reserved.

This should not detract from Pontolillo’s case against naive literalism, for he most effectively demolishes the claims of abductionists, pointing out the weakness of their techniques, their misuse of hypnosis and manipulation of data. Perhaps it is most curious of all that we should need to argue against people who claim that abductees can be physically carried through solid walls into invisible spaceships!

Can we present a working model of the abduction experience and what might generate it. Some pointers:
  • The central theme of helplessness. In an article in the Observer Magazine last autumn Dr John Collee noted that surgery is the most radical experience of helplessness that adults are likely to undergo in Western culture. It is precisely this sense of helplessness which has been identified as a major component of post-traumatic stress. Children are also highly vulnerable to hospital trauma, this being especially so in the less enlightened days of restricted visiting. We can imagine the trauma of a small child who has never been away from their parents for more than an hour, abandoned in a strange place where bizarrely dressed figures perform painful procedures. Fantasies about these procedures, often involving ideas of punishment, may be more traumatic than what actually happens. Is it significant that the genito-urological, nose and throat, and eye examinations which tend to predominate in abduction medical accounts are the sort of medical procedures most likely to be carried out on small children.
  • The proximate origin of many abduction experiences is a variety of altered states: sleep paralysis, fugue, hypnogogic hallucinations. Sleep paralysis, combined with hypnogogic hallucinations – The Hag – is an especially traumatic experience, evoking sexual assault and a sense of absolute helplessness. The origin of the image of the bedroom visitor are obscure, but at a guess I would suggest it represents the ‘demonic parent’, and contains echoes of the infant’s helplessness before parental wrath. It is hard to resist the notion that hagging may contain imagery of sexual assault, either real or fantasies based on parental sexual activity. Abductors who ‘have the right’ to treat us like property certainly seem to be negative parental images.
  • There is a pervasive sense of threat in all abduction narratives: the theme that nowhere is safe, not the walls, not the door, not even our own skin can keep out the pervasive Other. The hybrid baby and the implants represent ultimate threats to our physical and psychological integrity. The Other wants to own and use our bodies and our minds. The imagery of foetus and implant show clear evidence of cultural influence, the implants deriving from the publicity surrounding the experiments on mood-control conducted by Jose Delgardo, while the gynaecological procedures show clear cultural tracking to public discussion of high-tech fertility treatment and related techniques.
  • Part of this threat is the loss of our world. Whether from external forces which range from bombs to rape to military defeat and rapid social change, or from internal forces such as physical or psychological disease, our given world can be torn down. Then we may experience the implosion of traumatic despair, or the explosive collapse of all structures. We might for a moment or two see that we could be something other than units of production and consumption, living laboratories, being violated by the gods and angels of our own making.


THOMPSON, Keith. Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination. Adison-Wesley, 1991.
PONTOLILLO, James. Demons, Doctors, and Aliens. INFO Occasional paper no. 2.
ROWLAND, Robyn. Living Laboratories: Women and Reproductive Technologies. Lime Tree Books, 1992.
BRYANT, Alice and SEEBACH, Linda. Healing Shattered Reality: Understanding Contactee Trauma. Wildflower Press, 1991.
TURNER, Karla. Into the Fringe: A True Story of Alien Abduction. Berkley Books, 1992.