Variation Enigmas

Thomas Bullard
Magonia 41, November 1991

Dennis Stillings writes (Magonia 39) that “concerns about variation … seem to me to have only peripheral significance when dealing with abduction accounts.” He adds that variation has no bearing on the central meaning of folklore, while personal, social and cultural modifications are irrelevant to the underlying experience. He objects that I have taken both variation and lack of variation in abduction reports to support a case for genuine aliens.
I regret that my remarks have been vague and confusing, because I consider the issue of variation has a great deal to do with our understanding of abduction reports. Let me try to explain again why:

Stillings says “it is the mysterious central meaning or experience that we are trying to get to”, and here we agree. Only the professional sceptics know what abductions are a priori, the rest of us have to rely on evidence. Most abduction evidence is anecdotal, the claim narrated by an alleged eyewitness. We outsiders have to evaluate that claim and decide if it is truth, fiction, fantasy, lie, error, or some mixture of these possibilities.

A test for authenticity often comes down to comparisons: is the abduction story unique, or suspiciously uniqueness-starved?

Martin Kottmeyer has demonstrated that science fiction parallels abduction on many counts. Other writers have demonstrated the likeness of these reports to folklore, religion and mythology. For example, the pattern of shamanic initiation experience compares step-by-step with abductions: The candidate separates from his usual environment (missing time), suffers symbolic death and rebirth at the hands of powerful unfriendly beings (examination by aliens), gains knowledge and powers from friendly beings (implant, conference), and returns with a magical vocation (psychic powers and a mission). An abduction story that is too much like cultural influences or psychological patterns more probably represents a fantasy based on those sources than a record of genuine alien kidnap.

Case closed and game over? Not quite. If abduction stories can be traced to the patterns and motifs of other stories, or to the psychological underpinning of all stories, these very ties identify abductions as folklore, pure and simple. There is no escape. As long as abduction reports are psycho-social phenomena such as fantasies, lies, errors, or whatever, with a basis in borrowed form and content, these stories share a likeness in kind with other folklore and should obey its rules.

Where folklorists’ methodologies apply, so must their cautions. Over 150 years of experience has made clear to folklorists how easy it is to misuse comparison, and they are no longer eager to charge into a search for origins or deep meanings on the basis of appearances alone. The same pattern of shamanic initiation is also broad enough to cover the student who leaves home for college, dies to old friends and gains new, loses cherished beliefs and learns higher truths from professors intimidating or nurturing, then emerges with a head full of implanted knowledge ready for a new life. No one would conclude that the college student is a fantasy because the initiation pattern fits, but many people would condemn abductions on no better evidence. Now, that’s cheating. We all know beforehand that college students exist, whereas abductions are very much in question and cannot be denied by such double standards for evidence.

Demonstration of the similarity of abduction to folklore in terms of form and content is necessary but far from sufficient to prove a relationship. If abductions are folklore, in the full sense of narratives based on other narratives or composed from belief, then abduction reports should act like other folk narratives. Herein lies the significance of variation. Folk narratives vary with exuberance, they adapt not only to locale and narrator, but interchange parts until every imaginable permutation of content appears in circulation. Whole new cycles of a given story evolve, with the pattern adapting different content, or the same content outfitting a different story framework. This rapid and vigorous change is the nature of real folklore.
Too many people are unaware of this central property of folk narratives, since most people are still victims of the ‘storybook fallacy’ – the misconception that the printed text of the narrative is the only ‘right’ version. Nothing could be further from the truth. That printed text represents the work of the folkloric taxidermist, who stuffs the narrative as it lived for one moment only and shoves a stale carcass in the reader’s face as if to say here is the alpha and the omega, the narrative as it was, is and will be.

Abductions contrast with the expected course of folk narratives by remaining relatively constant from narrator to narrator over decades. Yes, the stories differ here and there. The aliens are not always dwarf greys, or the ships of similar design, or the narratives of equal length. Yet these loosely constructed, complex and bizarre stories have potential for florid variation if they are indeed fantasies feeding off cultural influences. The media have taught us many possible space adventures: the episodes and the events of abductions could change places without harm to the story. It should change all the more if the narrators are gifted fantasizers. Instead, these people curb their imaginations and stay within narrow bounds, never realising the potential of their subject matter, seldom even forgetting or fumbling the narration as most ordinary storytellers do. Abduction reports violate the folklorists’ expectations even when such extenuating circumstances at hypnosis and media influence are taken into account.

The dramatic pattern common to many folk narratives would be served just as well with different content in the same dramatic roles, so this pattern cannot account for the peculiar stability of the reports. Something is clearly peculiar here.

Similarities are important in science, but so are differences. Anomalies signal that something is wrong with our conceptual paradigm, and abduction reports flash that signal to the folklorist by their stability. What I expect is variation; what I see is the opposite. Here at last is some unambiguous evidence. It tells me that these reports do not act like folklore. That may not sound like much of an answer, certainly not the answer I want, but I can hold on to it with confidence.

I too would like to reach into the heart of the mystery and know its meaning, but I must approach by steps and not by leaps. This step does not answer the question of meaning or the nature of the experience, but evidence must come before meaning, and at least now I know something important about the nature of the evidence available to me.

I know that abduction reports do not act like normal folk narratives. This finding weighs against the hypothesis that these reports are psychosocial products in the same class as other folklore. On the other hand, if abduction reports begin in experience and reflect a common experience with some accuracy, then the stability makes sense. So does a degree of difference. Two people seldom describe the same experience in exactly the same way, and abduction reports would only mystify us further if narrators broke this rule too. A modicum of variation reassures us on that account. This is what I mean by some variation being proper for real experience, but the more striking fact is that great potential for change goes unrealized. The narrow variations in abduction reports operate within a remarkable framework of unexpected stability.

Whether the source of folklore lies in
eternal psychological roots or some
other explanation, swarms of variants
are the living manifestation of folklore

The psychosocial solution for abductions requires that the reports be folklore in some sense. Advocates of this idea point for support to the parallels between abductions and other lore, but these advocates cannot play the game by half the rules. They must acknowledge the folklore process as well as the product. An artificial separation of the two equals self-delusion not evidence. In fact the personal, cultural and social modifications are essential parts of that process, integral to its reality and necessary to its understanding. Whether the source of folklore lies in eternal psychological roots or some other explanation, swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore. These variants are an empirical fact that theory must accommodate or die trying. Archetypal roots do not abolish the profusion of variety in folk narrative, nor the mystery of too little variety in abduction reports.

I do not claim to know the ultimate nature of the reports, whether the answer comes up aliens or something else. I admit that the consistency of the reports may be an artefact, a quirk of error in my study or the investigations-on which it was based. Maybe cultural influences or the media are to blame, maybe folklorists underestimate the capacity of some narratives to stabilise. I won’t deny these possibilities, but I will doubt them. So much of the abduction evidence is slippery, elusive and ambiguous that a firm anomaly, even indirect in its implication, makes a welcome addition to the argument. Variation – or rather the lack of it – offers one small foothold in a sea of spectacular maybes. I cannot ignore it; those who do are more determined to sink than swim.

After all, a platypus also looks like a duck here and there, but it doesn’t act like one. The original solution to this problem was to ram the reprobate into unsuitable categories, or dismiss it altogether. Are we ready to break with old tradition and learn at last from past mistakes.

Hilary Evans responded to this piece in Folklore Rules OK, in Magonia 42