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Kidnapped by an alien: tales of UFO abductions.

IN RECENT YEARS stories of alien abductions have increased enormously. "I Was Kidnapped by an Alien" headlines assault us from the pseudo newspapers at checkout stands, and television "unsolved mysteries" programs often feature UFO abduction stories. On a deep level, we have an eerie sense that the stories represent something quite familiar and ancient, similar to the feelings evoked when we read or hear an ancient tale or myth. Not surprisingly, UFO lore contains elements common to other forms of folklore, and a "fervent controversy" so characteristic of legends in general (1), but the folkloric aspects are most noticeable in tales of abduction.

Several folklorists have examined UFO lore in general, comparing it to traditional beliefs, but the most thorough comparative study of tales of alien abduction was carried out by Thomas E. Bullard, a folklorist at the University of Indiana, who in 1987 examined 300 such tales, both sincere accounts and hoaxes.(2) Because Mr. Bullard's analysis is long and quite detailed, I offer a summary of his observations, and unless otherwise noted, the details in this article are based on his research.

UFO abduction stories are becoming more and more bizarre (containing, however, naturalistic elements), and rival the strangest of the so-called "urban legends" that tell of black-widow spiders in wigs, threatening men with hook arms, or pieces of rodents in food. The UFO stories are particularly appealing not only because of their weird qualities, but also because people believe that the stories can be studied empirically, offering us a means of blending folklore and science.

We find two actual "folk groups" with an interest in alien abduction stories, two distinct "abduction folklores." The first group consists of UFOlogists and their alter egos, the skeptics, both of whom have fervent beliefs either in the absolute existence of UFOs, or in their absolute nonexistence. Most advocates believe that extraterrestrial beings are conducting a scientific survey of the earth, though they do not agree on the purpose of this undertaking. Other believers hold a more spiritual view and see the abductions as a manifestation of a cosmic intelligence, or a change to a higher consciousness, to richer living and thinking. Skeptics dismiss the stories as hoaxes, hypnotically induced fantasies influenced by science fiction, memories of birth or perinatal trauma, waking dreams or false awakenings, Jungian archetypes, radiation influence, or the work of demons.

The second "folk group" consists of the abductees themselves, who are much less certain about details: although they believe in the reality of their experience and know that something strange happened to them, they may not be able to agree on any one explanation. Sometimes they affirm and deny the experience almost at the same time, illustrating a principle observed in folklore that beliefs and traditional ideas may FOLLOW from experience, rather than precede or determine it.(3)

Most abduction reports come from residents of North America, with substantial numbers from South America, lesser counts from England and Australia, and only a few from Europe and the former Soviet Union. Apparently there are no known reports from Asia and black Africa. Reports of alien kidnappings have come from male and female alike, independent of educational level, occupation, income, or even state of psychological health. In 73 of the 300 cases, only one person was involved. But as many as seven have reported a shared abduction. Perhaps the earliest abduction story came from Brazil in 1957; Antonio Villas Boas, a farmer, claimed that a UFO had landed on his farm and its crew members had dragged him aboard, forcing him into a sexual act with an alien woman. Because of the sexual content, the story was suppressed until 1961 when a story, also with sexual elements, was reported from New England involving Barney and Betty Hill, a married couple.

In that year the Hills were driving through the White Mountains in New Hampshire when they encountered an approaching light which, when it came near, they saw as a disk-shaped craft. The craft emitted a series of beeps and then disappeared. The Hills returned home, and then realized they could not account for two hours of their trip; shortly thereafter they both began to suffer from extreme anxiety and nightmares. They eventually sought the help of a Boston psychiatrist who used hypnotic regression therapy to help them relive the lost two hours, and in the process uncovered a very bizarre story. Under hypnosis the Hills remembered having encountered a roadblock manned by short beings with large heads and eyes, small ears and mouths, and hairless ashen-colored skin. The aliens apparently controlled the Hills by hypnosis and took them into the saucer-shaped craft, whereupon the aliens performed a gruesome medical examination. After this event, the leader talked with Betty Hill by means of telepathy, and then released them.(4)

Like the Hills, many victims of abduction have temporary amnesia, and can recall their experiences only in dreams, or during hypnosis, which is the most common technique used in such cases. Some witnesses may remember the event consciously but use hypnosis to clarify details.

Bullard sees in the abduction phenomenon not just one but a plurality of beliefs related to a more or less stable experience claim. UFOlogists on the one hand seize upon the abduction stories to prove their theory, while skeptics, psychologists, and others interpret the stories according to their own sets of beliefs. Abductees who lack a belief system may accept the extraterrestrial explanation from the popular media, merely because it gives them a way to express the incredible happening. An important point is that abductees, like actors in legends, were hapless victims who were carrying out a very mundane activity at the time of the abduction.

Bullard found that the abduction story contains a maximum of eight episodes: capture, examination, conference, tour, otherworldly journey, theophany (encounter with a divine being), return, and aftermath. Not all stories contain every element, but capture and examination are the most common occurrences. When more episodes than just capture and return appear together, the sequence of events follow the order above in 163 of 193 cases. Stylistically, the abduction stories are first-person narratives with little artistry or sophistication, and often no logic.

The stories contain hundreds of occasional elements, but we find a core of similar descriptions about the craft, the beings, and the unusual feelings experienced by the abductees. The craft is generally described as disk-shaped, the examination room as circular and domed, with no sharp corners, and with lighting that is diffuse and uniform; an examination table is usually the only piece of furniture in the room. The air is heavy or misty, the temperature cold; doors open seemingly out of nowhere, then close without leaving any seam or crack.

In Bullard's study, he found the aliens most often described as humanoids three to five feet tall with large hairless heads and tapering chins, enormous eyes wrapping around the sides of the heads, the mouth only a slit, the nose practically nonexistent, and the ears tiny or absent. The skin is ashen or gray, often soft and fungus-like. Some beings are frail and slender, others more robust with large chests. Limbs are usually thin: arms may hang to the knees, hands sometimes have only three fingers; legs may be unusually short or oddly jointed. Some abductees regard the beings to be asexual or neuter, although others notice slight sexual differences. The beings almost always wear tight one-piece uniforms, with an occasional belt or hood fitting closely around the head. One being serves as leader or liaison, and communicates with abductees by telepathy; the rest of the crew seem unfriendly. Most of the time the beings show no emotion, but are capable of anger, surprise, excitement, and irritability.

Physical and mental effects give abduction stories a surreal quality. The alien beings have supernatural powers, being able to float above ground and pass through solid objects. Witnesses may report paralysis upon meeting the aliens or euphoria alternating with terror; a desire to look down or close the eyes is common among witnesses. Betty Hill reported that the pain she experienced during the strange examination was relieved immediately when the leader touched her forehead.

Witnesses may suffer such physical aftereffects as burning eyes, sunburned skin, puncture wounds, or gastrointestinal upset. Abductees often experience acute thirst, and many witnesses feel dirty or in need of a bath. After a few weeks, physical symptoms lessen and psychological effects occur in the form of nightmares, anxiety, or panic attacks. Personality changes for the better or worse may come about, with new interests or changes in habits. Commonly, abductees and witnesses have further paranormal experiences: extrasensory abilities may develop, and even poltergeist activity. Men in Black appear and, most ofte n, abductees report further encounters or kidnappings by alien beings.

Bullard found specific themes in abduction stories:

Focus on Reproduction

Males report that the aliens take sperm samples, and females say that they inserted a long needle into the navel or abdomen for a pregnancy test. Both sexes report having had some genital inspection: reproductive organs are considered of utmost importance to the extraterrestrials, while other important body organs are ignored.

The Dying Planet

A common theme in these stories is of an otherworld frequently devastated and desolate, where almost nothing grows and beings live in enclosed cities. The beings may say that they need new plants and animals from earth, that their species is no longer fertile, or that a catastrophe has overtaken them and they seek a new home. Sometimes the otherworld is green and lush but reached only after passing through a tunnel or barren area.

Prophecies and Warnings

During conferences and when saying farewell, the beings have a chance to give messages and prophecies to the abductees. The most communication is that human beings are heading toward moral, ecological, or nuclear destruction, and that a time of tribulation will soon come. Abductees are admonished to share the messages of the aliens with other human beings, to study religion, philosophy, or occult wisdom, and to become more loving.

Deceit and Indifference

Some abductees see the kidnap in a positive light, regarding the alien beings as kind, in spite of their abruptness; many abductees feel sad on saying goodbye to them. The beings are sometimes seen as polite, but often as coldly indifferent. A feeling of having been manipulated or coerced is common among abductees, and many doubt the motives of the aliens because of lies, broken promises, and false prophecies.

The similarity between UFO lore in general and traditions of contact with the supernatural was studied at length by Hilary Evans. (5) Although space does not permit a complete description, the following themes are remarkably similar:

Visits to and from the Otherworld

Belief in an Otherworld located beneath or above the earth, or far away, is common; in this world live gods, fairies, spirits, and other mysterious beings. On occasion human beings enter the Otherworld through a prehistoric mound that sometimes rises on pillars of brilliant light to resemble a landed UFO, or through a cavern where no sun shines, or where there is only half-light. (6) Similarly, in many abduction stories the abductees enter the ship through a corridor, and spend most of their stay in a rounded room with uniform light. Celtic fairies and German dwarfs, although they are not hairless, are similar to the aliens: they live in an Otherworld, are usually shorter than humans, have large heads and piercing eyes, and often walk with a limp or clumsy gait. (7) Some races of fairies, like aliens, float through the air, and possess other supernatural traits. Both fairies and aliens use deception in their "bag of tricks."

Fairies have other similarities to aliens, since both kidnap human beings, often in their own homes. Both fairies and aliens disorient or even paralyze their captives. A favorite motif in fairy lore is a slower passage of time than in the ordinary world; sometimes the human beings think they have been away for a few hours, but when they awaken find that decades or centuries have passed. Some visitors in fairyland may come back with second sight or knowledge of the future, while others return demented or physically injured, as do some abductees.

The common theme in abduction stories of carrying off human beings for sexual or reproductive purposes is a staple item in supernatural lore. Zeus was prone to carry off females, and Pluto took Persephone to Hades. In the form of incubi and succubi, demons seduce humans in their sleep and sometimes capture their souls; La Llorona in Mexico and Central America seduces men away from their homes, and the Devil may disguise himself as a handsome man and carry off the young maiden. Fairies are especially interesting in this regard, since they want to mate with humans and to exchange their elderly for human babies.

Initiations, Conversions, and Final Judgments

A common theme in folklore and mythology is the visit to the underworld, often accompanied by physical ordeals. Throughout the world we also find many rites of passage, especially at puberty, during which the initiant endures a form of death involving a journey to the otherworld, followed by rebirth and return. Of particular interest is the initiation of the Siberian shaman, who enters a deathlike trance, during which friendly spirits may help, other spirits harm. In a rounded cave with uniform lighting, dismemberment may occur, with parts of the head or brain removed, and objects injected or inserted. Similarly, some abductees report that parts of their bodies were removed, and objects inserted. Initiations also may involve painful and terror-filled ordeals, during which the initiate is isolated, cleansed, and purified, the body sometimes dismembered and then reconstructed. During the event, initiates acquire special knowledge and new skills, and at the end have a new status in society, a complete change in lifestyle.

Stories of alien abduction resemble those told by people who have been pronounced clinically dead; they often report having taken a journey to the otherworld, during which they rushed through a dark tunnel, at the end of which was a very bright light, and experience feelings of regret at having to return to their bodies.

Many religious conversions involve symbolic death and rebirth, often as an unexpected experience while the subject is doing something quite mundane. Saint Paul, for example, was traveling as Saul of Tarsus, the suppressor of Christianity, when an intense light blinded him, and Jesus (from Heaven) began to speak to him, after which he was temporarily blinded, and subsequently converted to Christianity. The stories of abductees have a religious element, since some believe they are special, that they have been given a chosen status to deliver messages, prophecies, and warnings from aliens to other human beings.

A Modern Tradition?

H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and Orson Welles' famous broadcast naturally had a tremendous impact on popular culture. But the tremendous recent increase in beliefs and stories about UFOs and alien abductions results mainly from the proliferation of printed material such as the National Enquirer and numerous UFO magazines and books, plus exposure to UFO-focused movies and television programs. Many abductees decided to report their experiences only after having read articles or having seen television programs on the subject.

Folkloric Significance of Abductions

The abduction stories clearly demonstrate that a complex legend filled with extraordinary content can arise and take hold in a technologically advanced society. Whether the enormous publicity actually causes fantasies, or merely encourages witnesses to report their experiences is uncertain. In any case, a vast audience of millions is assured. The UFO community itself is always eager for such stories, and is well organized through newsletters and journals; UFO organizations usually give abduction reports to the media, and thus ensure their distribution. Although skeptics try to counter the UFO lore, its enormous proliferation overwhelms voices of criticism.

Folklore as a field of study traditionally included only items handed down or passed around orally or by imitation; until the last fifteen years or so, academic scholars in the field generally ignored UFO beliefs and stories, along with other forms of "popular culture," until they realized the folkloric nature of this lore. In beliefs about UFOs and tales of abduction, oral transmission plays only a minor role; tales of abduction indicate a new idea, a new legend, representing a reasonable outgrowth of beliefs about technologically advanced aliens. These stories join others about UFOs, Men in Black, government coverups of crashed spacecraft, the mysterious Bermuda Triangle, the legend of Bigfoot, and other "unsolved mysteries" in modern mythology.

As Bullard says, "Abductions resemble initiations, narratives of supernatural kidnap and visits to the otherworld in too many aspects of event sequence, content motifs, and thematic clusters for us to expect a full explanation in chance alone." There are two possible explanations for the similarities in all folk narratives, including abduction stories. On the one hand, the stories may be transmitted orally, or as in the case of abduction tales, through the popular media. On the other hand, perhaps the recurrent themes result because the different narrators have shared the same sort of experience. (9) Naturally, believers prefer the second explanation.

Perhaps we hear of so many abduction reports at this time because an unusual experience by itself might be too confusing or even embarrassing to even report, but UFOlogy provides a ready-made language of description and interpretation, and an eager, willing, and huge audience. Without these elements, abduction tales could not possibly exist. At another time in history, or in another cultural setting, the abductee might describe the experience in completely different language.

Bullard concludes: "Science may have evicted ghosts and witches from our beliefs, but it just as quickly filled the vacancy with aliens having the same functions."


1. Degh, Linda. "UFOs and How Folklorists Should Look at Them." Fabula 18(1977),242-243.

2. Bullard, Thomas E. "UFO Abduction Reports - The Supernatural Kidnap Narrative Returns in Technological Guise." Journal of American Folklore 102/404(1989),147-170.

3. Hufford, David. "Ambiguity and the Rhetoric of Belief." Keystone Folklore 21(1977),11-24.

4. For a complete description of the Hills' account, see: Fuller, John G. The Interrupted Journey. (New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1966.)

5. Evans, Hilary. Visions, Apparitions, Alien Visitors. (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: Aquarian Press, 1984.)

6. Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.)

7. Briggs, op. cit., 109-111, 337-338.

8. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism. (New York: Harper Torchbooks,1965), 4-5.

9. Hufford, David. The Terror That Comes in the Night. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 15-16.

Joyce Bynum received a Master's degree in Folklore from the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught Folklore at the University of California Extension and San Francisco State University.
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Title Annotation:Folklore: Maps and Territories; Unidentified Flying Object
Author:Bynum, Joyce
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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