It’s deeply satisfying to learn that a conclusion that I reached through one line of evidence finds confirmation through a new and unexpected line of complementary evidence. That’s one reason I was quite pleased to read a cache of forty-year-old documents related to the 1961 Betty and Barney Hill abduction that Robert Sheaffer released last week. In them, we find some additional confirmation of one of the conclusions I reached in researching the abduction’s connection to The Outer Limits. The evidence isn’t exactly new, but it is a slightly different perspective on what we already knew about the case.
Sheaffer has uploaded 48 pages of documents, which include correspondence between Sheaffer, the Hills’ hypnotherapist Dr. Benjamin Simon, and skeptic Philip J. Klass. Simon’s hypnotherapy session transcripts formed the basis for John Fuller’s 1965 account of the Hill abduction, The Interrupted Journey. The correspondence was occasioned by the publicity surrounding the 1975 NBC-TV movie based on the book, The UFO Incident.
Regular readers will remember that in 1990 skeptic Martin Kottmeyer proposed that Barney Hill’s description of the aliens as having slanted eyes derived from a 1964 episode of the Outer Limits called “The Bellero Shield,” which aired a few weeks before the hypnotic regression session with Dr. Simon that yielded the famous abduction claims. Hill had sought the services of a psychotherapist because he had been experiencing distress as well as psychosomatic symptoms, including genital warts, later attributed to anxiety, during the first half of 1962. He began seeing Dr. Simon after going public with his UFO sighting story in late 1963, due to ongoing anxiety and distress.
I proposed in 2012 that it was more likely that Hill’s hypnotically induced false memories were a conflation of three successive Outer Limits episodes (and one from the Twilight Zone) that all aired in the weeks before the hypnosis session that yielded abduction details absent from earlier accounts and hypnosis sessions. Most important for my argument was the episode “The Children of Spider County,” which not only featured aliens with slanted eyes but also featured a backwoods setting and narrative of interracial romance that closely paralleled Barney Hill’s own experiences. (Barney Hill was African American, and his wife Betty was white.)
At the time, I wrote the following:
The thematic resemblance between “The Children of Spider County” and the life of Barney Hill cannot go without notice. In the episode, Lee Kinsolving, as the alien leader's son, plays a half-human hybrid who defies the society of his heritage to run away with a white woman who loves him deeply. Barney Hill was an African American married to a white woman in an era that frowned on interracial marriage. I have no desire to armchair psychoanalyze the deceased, but it strikes me as beyond coincidental that an episode featuring aliens that match Barney Hill’s description in a backwoods setting matching the abduction site also featured a love story that closely mirrored Barney Hill’s own personal story of a love that defied social convention and came about through the union of different races.
When I wrote the article, I had no way of knowing Barney Hill’s attitudes toward race relations, and I could only offer parallels between what Hill told Simon under hypnosis, what John Fuller wrote of it, and what I saw in viewing The Outer Limits. Now, however, Sheaffer’s cache of documents provides some additional support for my supposition that Hill internalized the narrative of “Spider County” because of his own feelings about interracial marriage.
In the correspondence, Dr. Simon informs Klass that he believed that that “abduction” never happened and was instead the result of dreams that Betty Hill had after she and her husband saw a strange light in the sky. These dreams were similar to 1950s-era science fiction movies, and included a medical exam using techniques familiar from the era (the famous needle in the uterus account is essentially amniocentesis, a then decade-old but frightening technique due to its risk of miscarriage before ultrasound became standard), but they lacked many of the details that later emerged from Simon’s hypnosis sessions. (Her account of her dreams, said to be from November 1961 but not published until 1965, described the aliens as having noses like Jimmy Durante and dressed in Air Force-style uniforms—very different from Barney Hill’s version.) Simon concluded that Betty Hill’s dreams were the result of “anxiety” and that Barney Hill likely developed his abduction narrative from hearing his wife retell the story of her dreams. This much we already knew from The Interrupted Journey.
The next part casts the material in the book in a slightly different light. In The Interrupted Journey, Fuller makes scattered reference to Barney Hill’s fear that backwoods people would exhibit hostility toward him due to his race, and Fuller writes that Simon felt that this fear might have led Hill to have a more deeply emotional reaction to the events. However, Simon’s later testimony shows that this downplays Simon’s real conclusions about Hill and race.
In a letter of March 1, 1976, Simon seems to confirm my own supposition about Barney Hill’s attitude in explaining his involvement in a UFO investigation: “My interest in UFOs was almost entirely on the phenomena of Barney Hill’s developing racial paranoia which seems to me to have been the best representation on the matter that I had seen. The ultimate impact on other events, such as a probably UFO experience, served only to amplify the situation, not to create an explanation of UFOs or similar phenomena.” Later in the letter, he emphasized again that “Barney’s paranoia” was responsible for his interpretation of events, and “Barney’s racial attitudes” were the governing motive in Simon’s treatment of Barney Hill.
In The Interrupted Journey, Hill’s psychosomatic symptoms were strongly implied to be due to the alien abduction, but Simon suggests that Hill’s own race-based fears led him to manifest physical symptoms until hypnotic regression allowed him to express and relieve his racial anxieties by discussing them in symbolic and fantastic form. It therefore makes all the more sense that Hill would reach for a nearly identical television narrative he had recently seen and which reflected what we now know to be a preoccupation with racial anxiety. In short, Simon’s letter provides a pretty good reason why Barney Hill happened to internalize a narrative that resembled his own and subconsciously spit its details back out to fill in the gaps in his recollection of his wife’s dreams.
Oh, and ufologist Kathleen Marden (coauthor with Stanton Friedman of Captured, the Hill abduction book soon to be a major motion picture) is upset by the whole thing and alleges that Betty Hill had declared Dr. Simon’s letters to be a hoax, even though they agree substantively with all of the information in The Interrupted Journey (including Simon’s doubt about the abduction, fully acknowledged by Fuller) and differ only in the spin that Fuller put on Simon’s analysis.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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