Is this the secret origin of all alien abductions stories on earth?!
Fifty-nine years ago – almost to the day, on September 19-20th, 1961 – a New Hampshire couple on a road trip named Barney and Betty Hill encountered strange lights on a remote highway and then lost two hours of their lives that they could not recollect. Those lost hours would end up becoming the origin story for the US phenomenon of ‘the alien abduction’. This week on The Ticket, we explore their fascinating story.
There is a myth about alien abductions popular in the US. Or, more specifically, a myth about the kind of people who get abducted. It goes something like this: the people who get abducted by aliens are country bumpkins or rednecks, conspiracy theorist oddballs, drunk… or perhaps all three. The SNL skit “Close Encounter” says it all (it’s also one of the greatest of all time). But there’s a problem with this image. Unlike so many other conspiracy theories, whose origins are often shrouded in mystery or blurred by time and a giant game of telephone, we know the exact time and place that the “abducted by aliens” myth was born in the US. And the couple to whom it happened couldn’t be further from our image of the alien abductee.
Barney and Betty Hill were by all accounts a completely normal couple living their life in 1961 New Hampshire. They were both incredibly hard workers; Barney worked the night shift as a postal worker and Betty was a social worker. And actually, they were a little better than normal – they were kind of extraordinary. An interacial couple in the heated 60s, they were both active members of the civil rights movement. In fact, Barney sat on a local board of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and the couple would eventually be invited to attend Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential inauguration.
But back in 1961, they were just Barney and Betty Hill – hard workers, doggie parents to a dachshund, and on a much needed roadtrip in their 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. Their road trip had taken them from Portsmouth, NH where they lived throughout the northeast for a few days, then onto Niagara Falls, and then up to Toronto. On the night of September 19th, they intended to head to Montreal – but along the way they changed course and decided instead to return home. The reason for this change is still unclear – and even Barney and Betty seemed unable to recall why they’d altered course later. Perhaps they had gotten lost. Perhaps they were trying to get home to beat Hurricane Esther – the massive Category 5 hurricane winding its way up the eastern seaboard – before it reached New Hampshire.
Whatever the reason, the Hills turned south and had headed home down the remote roads of northern New Hampshire. What happened next is the stuff of UFO lore, CIA websites, and Project Blue Book files.
At around 10:30pm, as Betty pet their daschund on her lap, she noticed a bright light in the distance below the three quarter moon. At first, she recalled, she thought it might’ve been a planet because it was so bright. But as they drove along, she became aware that the light seemed to be moving closer to them. She continued watching it, now believing it was some kind of aircraft. But the light kept growing larger. Then it moved above the moon in a strange motion. She pointed out the light to Barney and urged him to pull over. They stopped at a picnic area where Barney got out to walk their dog and Betty got out their binoculars for a closer look.
Betty observed an “odd-shaped” craft flashing multicolored lights. She immediately felt she was seeing something truly unusual and called Barney over. Barney looked, but was initially more pragmatic; he was sure they were simply seeing a commercial plane. Betty pointed out that it made no sound. Perhaps the wind was carrying the sound in the opposite direction, Barney reasoned. There was no wind that night, Betty replied.
When the “plane” suddenly turned and descended towards them, Barney quickly changed his tune. Believing they had been “seen” by whatever the UFO was, they nervously jumped back in their car and continued driving. The light seemed to follow along and grow larger as they neared a remote stretch of road near a place called Franconia Notch where the rock formation “The Old Man in the Mountain” – which adorns New Hampshire licence plates – can be found.
As they slowly made their way down the road, the object suddenly and rapidly descended toward their vehicle, causing Barney to stop right in the middle of the highway. There, the huge, silent craft hovered approximately 80-100 feet above their car. Despite feelings of fear and overwhelm, Barney was drawn to the object. He got out of the car with the binoculars and went for a closer look. As he did, he saw what he claimed were 8 to 10 humanoid figures peering out of the craft’s windows. Barney felt he was receiving a message from one of the beings. It was: “stay where you are and keep looking.” Barney did at first, but eventually, the spell was broken and fear rushed back in. Barney ran back to the car in an almost hysterical state telling Betty, “they’re going to capture us!”
They sped away and made it home four hours later. Of course, there was a problem with that… the drive home should’ve taken them only two.
The Hills arrived home exhausted and frazzled and went to bed after dawn. When they awoke, they noticed several strange things. Betty’s dress had been torn (you can see a picture here in the Hill’s archives housed at UNH). The top of Barney’s best dress shoes had been scuffed and scratched. The strap on the binoculars had been ripped. And more. They immediately sat down and drew images of the beings they’d seen.
They were so rattled by their encounter that Betty called nearby Pease Air Force Base on Sept 21st to report their encounter. However, she was so worried about being labeled an eccentric that she withheld several details. Their encounter was however logged as part of Project Blue Book, but it was not pursued by the Air Force. A week later, Betty checked out a book from her local library about UFOs written by retired Marine Corps Major Donald E. Keyhoe, who was then the head of NICAP, a civilian UFO research group. Betty wrote him a letter on September 26th and Keyhoe passed it on to Boston astronomer and fellow NICAP member Walter Webb. On October 21st, Webb interviewed the Hills for six hours to document their encounter in detail.
That could’ve been the end of the story. But in the weeks that followed their encounter, the Hills began experiencing troubling symptoms. Betty began having vivid dreams about that night – dreams that included more details than what she’d initially remembered. Dreams that seemed to indicate they’d been taken on board the craft and experimented on. Then Barney began having odd physical symptoms – including an unexplained ring of warts around his genitals that, according to him, had to be surgically removed.
Two years passed and neither Barney nor Betty could shake the idea that something more had happened that night. They traveled back to Franconia pass many times, hoping to spark their memories, but to no avail. Barney seemed haunted by his encounter and began drinking too much. Betty was more convinced than ever that they’d had an alien encounter but was worried of being thought of as crazy.
But, as their symptoms worsened, the Hills couldn’t suffer in silence anymore. On March 3, 1963, they mentioned their encounter during a meeting at their Unitarian church – where they were active members. And on November 3, 1963, the Hills spoke before an amateur UFO study group in Quincy Center, Massachusetts. Barney also mentioned it to the therapist he had begun seeing and they talked about the idea of using hypnosis to recover their memories. Barney’s doctor referred them to doctor Benjamin Simon and on January 4th, 1963, over two years after their experience, Dr. Simon began hypnotizing them.
Over dozens of sessions, Dr. Simon introduced the idea of hypnosis to them and practiced getting them into deep states of trance. Finally when they were ready, he took them back to that night. Over many emotional sessions, Barney and Betty recalled in vivid detail being taken aboard the ship and having medical procedures performed on them. Ever wonder where the whole anal probe motif emerged? Thank Betty and Barney. There were metal prods, sperm extractions, anal probes, telepathic communication, and a pregnancy test. Some of the details from each of their accounts matched, others differed slightly. But both were clearly experiencing something – they trembled with fear and sobbed throughout some of their sessions.
Dr. Simon himself wasn’t sure what to make of it. A man of science, he couldn’t explain the experience they were relating to him and yet he could not deny how real it was for them under hypnosis. His official hypothesis was that Betty’s visions were a fantasy and that Barney in turn had been influenced by Betty’s dreams. The Hills obviously disagreed. But what they could agree on was that Dr. Simon’s hypnosis had helped. They both were no longer haunted by anxiety over their experience. The Hills returned from Boston lighter and happier. They were happy to discuss their encounter with friends or family, but sought no publicity around it. Their story would’ve probably stayed a footnote in UFO history, but the Boston Traveler had other plans.
On October 25, 1965, two years after their hypnosis and four after their supposed alien encounter, journalist John H. Luttrell of the Boston Traveler published a front-page story called “UFO Chiller: Did THEY Seize Couple?” Luttrell claimed he’d gotten an audiotape from the presentation the Hills had given to the amaeteur UFO group in Quincy Center, Massachusetts. Through his investigation, Luttrell also learned that the Hills had undergone hypnosis. The next day, UPI (United Press International) picked up the Hills story. Now, the world knew the Hills’ story.
It was the height of the Cold War, the Moon landing program, satellites, and little green men – so the Hill’s story of abduction and medical experiments caught on like wildfire. A book deal followed. And the classic idea of the alien abduction was born.
Barney died tragically of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1969 at just 46 and Betty died in 2004 at the age of 85, having never remarried but becoming a celebrity in the burgeoning field of ufology.
But their story lives on forever.
Listen to Passport
Conspiracy theories are a contagion – can podcasts be an antidote?
From Van Goghs to a priceless Stradivarius, these are 10 of the wildest art thefts of all time.
In Amsterdam, Van Gogh’s paintings are under threat from art thieves. Meet the people stealing them, and the detective trying to get them back.
How counterculture, burning men, and fighting robots created modern Silicon Valley, a place where you can live forever in cyberspace.
There’s never been a more important time to think differently. Here are five novel ways to tackle novel problems.
Passport heads to Russia for the truth about Caviar, the Russian Mafia… and the incredibly complex rituals of Vodka and Russian baths
With US/Russia relations as tense as they’ve been in over 3 decades, we look back at some of the scariest, wildest, and most bizarre near-misses in cold war history.
Forget imported “stuff,” here are 5 of the best ideas for living a happier life that Team Passport has brought back from our travels.
A special episode! Neil and Andrés swing by writer/comedian Rebecca Delgao-Smith’s “The Alarmist” to figure out who’s to blame for the death of Che Guevara.
Neil and Andrés cross the Green Line to meet the artists and entrepreneurs redefining Jerusalem’s culture in the face of danger, violence, and division.