Captured by the light: Alien abductions, their origins, and misconceptions

December 20, 2018

For a number of decades, people have claimed that they have been taken aboard unusual flying craft -- often against their will -- and examined in alien environments by strange beings.

Known to those who study unexplained aerial phenomena as UFO or alien abduction, the earliest UFO literature was essentially void of any references to such captures or kidnappings. However, beginning in the 1960s popular books on the subject, namely John G. Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey, began to chronicle the claims of those like Betty and Barney Hill, a New Hampshire couple who alleged they were taken aboard a flying saucer and examined by aliens while returning late one night from a vacation at Niagara Falls.

Other books that followed expanded on the narrative of abductions, producing similar reports to that of the Hills -- some of which dated prior to their own 1961 encounter -- and before long a shift in the focus of the UFO community at large was well apparent. Conferences that once showcased Air Force veterans like Major Donald Keyhoe, advocating the release of UFO information by the government, and civilian researchers and scientists like J. Allen Hynek seeking trace evidence of landed saucers, were replaced by those now taking up the case of the abductees: Harvard psychologist Dr. John Mack and artist-turned investigator/hypnotist Budd Hopkins, as well as those like Whitley Strieber, a successful novelist who eventually came forward with his own abduction experiences… both to fanfare, and attacks from critics.

Then, with the coming of the new millennium, the focus of the UFO community seemed to shift once again, this time moving gradually away from the abduction phenomenon, in favor of more “nuts and bolts” approaches to studying odd things in the skies.

What caused the shift? Has the widespread accessibility to information sources (and, perhaps more importantly, opposing viewpoints) led to fewer budding researchers following what could be deemed more credulous lines of thought, despite interest that persists in a UFO phenomenon? Could it also be that the once popular abduction literature -- after decades of being sustained on even less physical evidence than that which exists in support of UFOs themselves -- finally began to collapse inward, under the weight of broader scientific scrutiny?

Perhaps it’s a combination of factors that have caused the shift away from alien abductions that once held the hearts of so many in the UFO community. In a sense, UFO reporting in the last few decades has taken a postmodern approach, in the sense that old ideas once taken for granted are now more thoroughly questioned. Some of the better books on the UFO subject to arrive in recent years have focused almost exclusively on science, historical analysis, and sometimes just bare-bones journalism: Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record comes to mind, as well as my friend David Marler’s Triangular UFOs: An Estimate of the Situation and John B. Alexander Ph.D.’s UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies, and Realities all come to mind in this regard. From the more skeptical side of the equation, Bad UFOs: Critical Thinking About UFO Claims by Robert Sheaffer takes a look at famous cases, and calls into question how and why caution should be employed by UFO advocates. Occasionally, groups from one camp may criticize the other (or hit back in defending their positions) although, in my opinion, perspectives from both sides of the fence are helpful, and necessary, in an effort toward looking at the phenomenon objectively.

Of course, one thing that the reader of any of the aforementioned books will notice is that there is very little (if any, in some cases) to be said about alleged alien abductions in such modern examples of UFO literature. We could speculate all day on the reasons for this “shift,” as I’ve called it, although a more interesting line of inquiry, in my opinion, has to do with its origins in the first place: where did the idea of alien abductions come from? Or at very least (and so as not to presuppose that all such claims are to be ruled out of hand, however unlikely they seem), are there cultural predecessors in myth and fiction that might give us an idea about some of the influences behind the strange rise, and sudden fall, of what became a fringe movement within an already controversial subject like UFOs?

As several researchers have outlined already over the years, the general features of the alien abduction motif are all common in much earlier literature, including fairy folklore of the British Isles, as well as other mythology from around the world (the works of Jacques Vallee come to mind here, as do those of Jerome Clarke, among others). Cultural groups since time immemorial have spoken of gods and spirit folk who occasionally carry humans away from the mortal realm, sometimes accompanied by periods of missing time -- a trope that has been present in alien abductions as early as the Betty and Barney Hill encounter.

Shortly after UFOs assumed their place in the cultural landscape by the end of the 1940s, claims of encounters with “Space Brothers” and other friendly visitors from nearby planets that are now well-known to be uninhabited (or simply uninhabitable) began to appear. These alleged encounters are very different from the claims of the abductees, however: most of the “friendly” aliens of this period were suspiciously humanlike in appearance, and any earthling setting foot inside one of their flying saucers did so of his or her own volition.

Not so with the abductees, among whose claims we find such terrors as paralysis and levitation in the methods extraterrestrials employ to bring their human captives on board (as many modern chroniclers of the phenomenon will note, certain similarities exist here with the sensations experienced by sufferers of sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that was not as widely recognized by the general public only decades ago).

It is also noteworthy that the first known appearance of the alien abduction idea in a print publication occurred years before any allegedly “true” abduction reports had been publicized. One of the cover stories of the October 1953 issue of Man to Man, a men’s pulp magazine known for its adventure stories (and occasionally, speculative science articles) had been the sensational piece, “Are Flying Saucers Kidnapping Humans?” This was featured alongside the appetizing feature article, “WHY PEOPLE MUTILATE THEMSELVES” (all the sorts of pertinent things readers of adventure magazines in the 1950s wanted to know, I suppose).

Even the earliest alien abductions on record occurred after the publication of the aforementioned article; the strange case of Antonio Villas Boas, for instance, allegedly took place in 1957, but wasn’t written about until much later. And on a similar note, researcher Peter Rogerson has said that he feels the Villas Boas case may raise a few red flags, since a story with details that were similar to Villas Boas’s account had been printed in the November 1957 issue of the Brazilian periodical O Cruzeiro (this would have placed the publication date after the date Villas Boas would later allege that his encounter took place, although he didn’t publicly discuss it until well after the article was published. Hence, it is possible that if his story was a fabrication, the “later” article could nonetheless have been its inspiration).

Books like Ann Druffel and Scott Rogo’s The Tujunga Canyon contacts actually did outline a series of alleged abductions said to have occurred in 1953; however, as with the Antonio Villas Boas affair, the account wasn’t written about until 1980 (I should note that Whitley Streiber’s book Communion also outlines experiences from his childhood, although these likely would have placed them between the late 1950s and early 1960s). Hence, it is reasonable to assume that the aforementioned article does, in fact, predate virtually all of the modern alien abduction claims.

Add to this the countless science fiction magazines from even earlier in the twentieth century that featured humans being captured, strapped down, and examined with scientific equipment from fictional alien worlds on their covers, and it becomes hard to avoid the fact that the alien abduction meme had already been firmly planted (or maybe we should say “implanted” in this case) in the public mind by the time stories of “real” abductions began to appear in books and magazines.

Although my general tone here may sound completely dismissive toward the alien abduction meme, it is not my intention to say that all people who claim to have had odd experiences in particular, those with unusual aerial vehicles, or even their occupants  are liars, frauds, or simply wrong (and frankly, I maintain a certain disdain for those who do resort to ad hominem attacks and accusations fraud, hoaxes, or monetary incentives in order to get their points across in any case).

As I’ve noted before in the past, I have met Travis Walton on a number of occasions, and find him to be a delightful person in general (as anyone who has met him would attest). Walton is a kind, friendly person, and on many occasions when we’ve talked, the conversation has had to do with anything but UFOs or abductions. He often gives talks about his experience, where he notes the way its depiction in Hollywood was sensationalized.

He wrote a book about his experience, and in addition to selling it at events he attends, he is sometimes paid to give his lectures. Strangely, the fact that Travis profits in any way from his experiences have sometimes been used as a case against his claims, with doubtful types calling foul and complaining that “it’s all just a way of making money!” To the contrary, Walton is not a full time “UFO celebrity,” and has had to work for a living like anyone else over the years. Frankly, if I had experienced what Walton says happened to him back in November 1975, I would have written a book about it, too. In short, the complaints that people like Travis Walton do what they do “for the money” is an old–and inaccurate–stereotype, that is all-too-often launched against UFO advocates as a way of delegitimizing their claims (as an author of at least a few books on the more nuts and bolts side of the UFO equation, I can say I speak from a degree of experience in this regard, as there are far more profitable ways to make a living!).

Of course, I can’t prove or disprove what Travis Walton claims. All I can tell you personally is that he is a pleasant individual and that while I am often not convinced as far as many abduction claims go, there are a few elements to his experience that, to me, stand out from the rest. Despite having received plenty of critiques over the years, it remains one of the only multiple witness UFO encounters of its kind; this alone sets it apart from a broad majority of more credulous abduction claims, let alone the fact that in Walton’s case, an individual (Walton) actually did go missing for several days. This is far more than could be said of the majority of similar incidents.

And as far as similar incidents go, there is really just one that comes to mind, although it is seldom discussed in the United States (or in general). The disappearance of Franck Fontaine near Pontoise, France in November 1979 is a case that bears a few similarities to the Travis Walton situation, and perhaps curiously so. To summarize the situation briefly, Fontaine and a pair of friends were planning a trip to the nearby market to sell clothing on the morning of Monday, November 26, 1979. Shortly after 4 AM, Franck and his friends observed a light that appeared to be larger than the moon passing behind the La Justice Mauve apartment complex where they lived. Franck went in the direction of the object to get a closer look, and when his friends pursued him minutes later, Franck’s truck was found sitting with its interior lights on, surrounded by a curious fog; the light zipped away into the sky, and Franck was nowhere to be seen.

Much like the Walton case, Franck Fontaine remained missing for several days, then purportedly reappeared at the apartment at 4:20 AM on December 3. A media frenzy ensued, during which police, reporters, and UFO investigative groups all became interested; ultimately the three would come forward and admit that the entire affair had been a hoax, and most left it at that, satisfied that the entire affair had been another waste of time, like most similar UFO-related claims.

A point worthy of mention here is that when elements arise during a UFO investigation that would seem to point to a hoax, skeptical investigators tend to rest their case, emphasizing only the facts that support such dismissal (in Walton’s case, the fact that questions remained about various lie detector tests he and the other witnesses had taken, as well as the involvement of the National Enquirer in a possible monetary reward for “proof” of alien contact, come to mind). This is logical, of course, since those making the extraordinary claims are the ones left with the burden of proof, not the skeptics (who are right to question what appear to be extraordinary claims). If a party in question is suspected of a possible hoax, and then they come forward later and admit to it, continuing to pursue the case would appear to make no sense.

Jacques Vallee wrote about the Fontaine case in his 1991 book, Revelations: Alien Contact and Human Deception, a book which presented what may be Vallee at his most skeptical. Colleagues of Vallee in the French UFO research community that had been in touch with Fontaine and his friends had noted inconsistencies in their narrative, albeit not with relevance to the incident so much as their claims that the entire affair had been a hoax. In essence, the group from La Justice Mauve finally claimed to a select few researchers that they were so harrassed by reporters, skeptics, and UFO advocates alike that they simply admitted it was a hoax so they could be left alone.

Vallee goes on to follow this line of inquiry, which leads to a meeting with a French government official who is not named in the book, but of whom Vallee says, “His full name is known to me.” This individual explains to Vallee that the entire affair had actually been orchestrated, as outlined in this exchange which Vallee paraphrases in Revelations (for sake of clarity, Vallee leads off the exchange below, with questions and answers from the unnamed official alternating thereafter):

“What happened to Fontaine?”

“We put him to sleep and he was kept under an altered state of high suggestibility.”

“Were the police and the gendarmerie aware that the operation was a hoax conducted by a higher-level agency?”

“Certainly not. Their behavior under these conditions was one of the things we wanted to observe.”

“What was your own role?”

“My interest in the affair is purely personal. It has no relationship to my position with the French Air Force.”

To be continued

By Micah Hanks