Fear and Loathing in New Hampshire

Peter Rogerson
Magonia 96, October 2007.

In September 2000 Karl Pflock and Peter Brookesmith organised a symposium for those interested in the Betty and Barney Hill case, at the Indian Head Inn, New Hampshire, near to the site of alleged abduction. Present were the organisers, Robert Sheaffer, Dennis Stacey, Eddie Bullard, Hilary Evans, Greg Sandow, moderator Marcello Truzzi, sponsor Joe Firmage and a guest appearance by Betty herself, along with her niece Kathy Marden.

The proceedings of the symposium have now been published under the title Encounter at Indian Head: The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Abduction Revisited. [1] The book also includes written contributions by Martin Kottmeyer and Walter N Webb, though it omits Sandow’s contribution.

This was probably the first detailed reinvestigation of the Hill’s story in years, and the various contributors present their own take on the case. Dennis Stacey has trawled the literature to come up with what might be the best consolidated version of the story, there being numerous contradictions in the originals. Right from this early paper there is a surprise. At a crucial point in Barney’s first encounter, where the public accounts have him grabbing a car jack for protection, it is now revealed that he got out a .22 pistol which he had hidden in the trunk (importing guns into Canada is illegal) That’s an important point and one which though commented on briefly is never really taken up by the contributors.

Marcello Truzzi reviews the arguments pro and con the story, and the kinds of inferences which can be made as to what makes a claim remarkable. He makes a very interesting point that if UFO encounters were normal and commonplace, so you could time your watch by the 6:15 from Zeta Reticulli, would the evidence in this case lead to any action (i.e. a demand for extradition from the ZR authorities)? More to the point would anyone prosecute an ordinary criminal where the evidence was as weak as this. Truzzi argues that ufologists are prepared to accept the Hill’s claims because of, not in spite of its radically anomalous nature. This seems to be true. If you argue with ufologists as to whether they would accept a claim by a stranger that they were, for example, the simultaneous lover of Princess Diana and Hillary Clinton and knew all sorts of secrets, would they accept it? On the evidence, they would answer no, but that the UFOs are different. In other words the more extraordinary the claim, the weaker the evidence required.

The papers clearly divide between the psychosocial approaches of Hilary Evans, Peter Brookesmith and Martin Kottemeyer, the sceptical approach of Sheaffer and the more believing approach of Bullard, Pflock and Webb. To some degree the writers appear to write past each other, though Brookesmith and Pflock have clearly spent hours pouring over maps and have both driven the route several times themselves. Even after that they still could not agree as to whether or not there was missing time. Hilary Evans shows, through a variety of stories, how people can have a variety of imaginary or virtual experiences, some a good deal stranger than the Hill’s. Brookesmith searches for the mythic meaning of the story in the encounter with the ‘other’, and Kottmeyer continues his hunt for cultural sources.

Bullard reprises his old ‘entirely unpredisposed’ arguments, which were refuted years ago. He now tries to wriggle out of the embarrassing fact that the post 1987 abduction stories contain the central motif of the hybrid baby, which barely rates a mention in his own survey, by arguing that there were hybrid baby/sexual abduction themes in the early literature. Sure there were but these were fictional stories in tabloids. The space alien motif in ufology does not come from abductees but from contactees Cynthia Appleton and Elizabeth Klarer.

This might be a moot point because much of the abduction scenario had already been presented in John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, filmed in 1960. Here we have such motifs as missing time, the freezing of whole communities, the alien babies, the hive like mind(s) of the alien children and their strange hypnotic eyes.

If Sheaffer’s skeptical argument contains weaknesses, which Pflock can exploit. Pflock’s contribution is very weak. and I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t just going through the motions because it was part of the contract. Pflock argues that a literal reading of the Hill story leads to the conclusion that they really were kidnapped by folk from Zeta Reticulli. The problem that he has is quite simple, it just doesn’t. The Hill’s aliens are very poor aliens indeed, they are just far too human. They look more or less like us, except for a few minor anatomical differences, far less than the differences between humans and their very close cousins the chimpanzees. They act like people, they have books, and maps, and mutinous crews, they wear uniforms. Their technology was getting old fashioned in 1960, its levers and wall-map positively antiquated by now. Their conversations are self-contradictory. Pflock argues that the aliens translation machine and memory erasers might be working badly, but if the aliens really had a translation machine and a memory eraser then they already know far more about human physiology and psychology than we ourselves do, so why go round abducting people?

Of course someone might try and rescue the ETH by arguing that the real aliens are so alien and what happens to the abductees on board so incomprehensible that their brains can’t process it at all, and substitute more mundane imagery. Of course if you go down that road then you have to use psychosocial reasoning to account for the precise nature of the screen imagery, which makes the aliens redundant. The Hill story reads like a product of the human imagination, replete with human imagery and human concerns, and that is what it almost certainly is. Its story line must be derived from the lives, hopes and fears of the Hills.

There are clues here, some more obvious than others. Right on the surface is the fact that Betty and Barney Hill were not Mr and Mrs Average, they were very unusual people indeed. Even today ‘interracial’ marriage is far less common in the US than in the UK. In 1960, when the Hills got married, they were very rare indeed. The black population of New Hampshire was small, the Hills may well have been the only black/white couple in the whole state. That took a lot of guts, and a lot of risk taking.

Betty was a professional woman with a higher status job than her husband, again rare. She had been divorced, and her first husband had also been married before. Was she the cause of his first divorce? We don’t know, nobody has asked. We do know that Barney’s divorce was bitter and that the first Mrs Hill loathed Betty and would not let her children meet her. To have lost her husband to a white woman would, one imagines, have been a very humiliating and enraging experience for a black woman of her time. One can perhaps imagine the insults that were thrown and the suggestions made, for example that Betty and her white liberal friends were using Barney as a token ‘negro’ to show how progressive and enlightened they were.

Unfair no doubt, but such things hurt. Barney is clearly under huge stress: he has the long commute job, the bitter rows with his ex, and Betty, one suspects, was nor the easiest person to live with. There is clearly some extra tension at this time. Betty’s niece remembers Barney becoming withdrawn at around this period. She, who was a child at the time, connects this with the abduction story, but there are hints that the real trigger had occurred earlier.

There were pre-existing problems in Barney’s life. He had had a drink problem which reappeared after the encounter. Heavy drinking is often a sign of stress and distress; was this stress and distress in the past? Then there is the gun. It’s hard to know how much of a clue that is, without knowing how common handgun ownership was in 1961 New Hampshire. My first thought is that I would suspect it was uncommon, compared say with the ownership of hunting rifles. This was not a high crime area. If this is the case, then this might well suggest that Barney felt under special threat. The Hill’s marriage, political activity and her job as a child welfare officer could all have lead to threats. The gun, and its deliberate hiding suggests that Barney felt like a man being hunted.

When the trip starts Barney (and Betty) are already tired out, and the journey was poorly planned, and appears to have been increasingly stressful. Barney feels more and more exposed. We might never know exactly what happened on that night, but stress, exhaustion, sensory deprivation and episodes of micro-sleep and micro-REM seem to have all played a part.

Note also that Barney’s reaction to the light in the sky gives lie to the ‘entirely unpredisposed’ kind of argument. He is clearly in a state of near hysteria and total panic, so much so he cannot clearly remember what happened. If indeed his later withdrawal, return to drinking etc., stem from that night, we need look no further. Far from being the he-man who protected the little woman, he bricked it. The motifs of ‘semen extraction’ and anal probe which occur in his hypnotic regression may have a more mundane cause in that he wet and soiled himself in panic, a very traumatic and shaming experience.

To rub it in, Betty in her dreams becomes the heroine who stands up to the grey meanies, tells them off (after all she is a Barrett of New Hampshire). Don’t these dreams emphasises who wears the trousers and has the balls in this family?

What is Barney afraid of, but which Betty Barrett of New Hampshire can stand up to? Look at the pictures of the aliens with their caps and jackets and trousers, remember those charts and that mutinous crew. Charts aren’t much use in space ships hopping between stars through wormholes, using space warp or the Z-process which no human mind could ever understand. These are images of ships and the sea. These are sailors. What kind of sailors steal people? Slavers of course. We have all overlooked this because we are not Black. This is the central fear which grips Barney, the terrible others who are both us and not us and are going to take him back into slavery. Betty comes from the dominant white culture, she cannot feel the fear of being turned back into a slave. She can stand up to the crew. In her vision the sailors are more like a chaotic pirate crew.

Brookesmith quotes several commentators who hint at this, but not making it explicit. Of course, in a sense slavery has become a motif of the abduction encounter, the idea that they will take away our humanity. The alien motif points to the distinctive character of Anglo-American slavery, traditional societies, which did not pay lip service to human equality could treat slaves as subordinate groups of human beings with their own status, allied to that of serfs for example. However, ‘liberal’ individualistic Anglo-American society, with its Christian belief and its lip service to ‘all men being created equal’ could only gets its conscience around slavery by reducing the slaves to a subhuman status.

The ‘medical examination’ and the symbolism for the ‘fertility test’ for Barney are images of the farmyard, the prodding and probing on the auction block. For Betty they are perhaps medical procedures to test for the presence of radioactivity following the resumed nuclear tests. Betty has incorporated Barney’s fear of capture into her dreams but she cannot really understand what it is about. Her aliens let them go, and Barney takes this on board, because it means that he has escaped; these aren’t slavers after all.

Yet is he going to be really free? What for Barney was an event of unadulterated horror, becomes for Betty a grand adventure, one which will take her far from the shores of planet reality. As just about all the participants of this symposium agree, Betty later went into some very strange places indeed, seeing flying saucers all over the place and recounting many an unlikely adventure, becoming a sort of cult leader. To put no finer point on it, she was becoming a contactee.
Several of the writers gloss this as a reaction to the grief following Barney’s untimely death, however Jacques Vallee in his diaries shows that Betty was into this mode as early as 1966, three years before Barney died. Though it was always put about that the Hills were reluctant to come forward with their adventure, it is now conceded otherwise, they gave several lectures, or rather Betty did; it was Betty who called the Air Force; Betty who contacted NICAP and so on. As the stories change the aliens become friends and begin to develop supernatural powers, such as putting leaves in a neighbours apartment and appearing over another’s house in answer to Betty’s prayers. The iron wall that some ufologists believe exists between the contactees and the abductees looks more like a paper curtain.

Of course there is much about the story we will probably never resolve, though we could probably learn more by checking the local papers of the period to get a deeper feel of the community in which they lived and how they interacted with it. It would be interesting to know what Barney’s children made of the story, and there is always the possibly that some old diary or letters could send us in another direction.

[1] Karl Pflock and Peter Brookesmith (editors). Encounters at Indian Head: The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Abduction Revisited. Anomalist Books, 2007