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A Study of Fantasy Proneness in the Thirteen Cases of Alleged Encounters in John Mack’s Abduction

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 20.3, May / June 1996

Introduction

Since Robert A. Baker’s pioneering article appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer (Baker 1987-1988), a controversy has raged over his suggestion that self-proclaimed “alien abductees” exhibited an array of unusual traits that indicated they had fantasy-prone personalities. Baker cited the “important but much neglected” work of Wilson and Barber (1983), who listed certain identifying characteristics of people who fantasize profoundly. Baker applied Wilson and Barber’s findings to the alien-abduction phenomenon and found a strong correlation. Baker explained how a cursory examination by a psychologist or psychiatrist might find an “abductee” to be perfectly normal, while more detailed knowledge about the person’s background and habits would reveal to such a trained observer a pattern of fantasy proneness.

For example, Baker found Whitley Strieber — author of Communion, which tells the “true story” of Strieber’s own alleged abduction — to be “a classic example of the [fantasy-prone personality] genre.” Baker noted that Strieber exhibited such symptoms as being easily hypnotized, having vivid memories, and experiencing hypnopompic hallucinations (i.e. “waking dreams”), as well as being “a writer of occult and highly imaginative novels” and exhibiting other characteristics of fantasy proneness. A subsequent, but apparently independent, study by Bartholomew and Basterfield (1988) drew similar conclusions.

Wilson and Barber’s study did not deal with the abduction phenomenon (which at the time consisted of only a handful of reported cases), and some of their criteria seem less applicable to abduction cases than to other types of reported phenomena, such as psychic experiences. Nevertheless, although the criteria for fantasy proneness have not been exactly codified, they generally include such features as having a rich fantasy life, showing high hypnotic susceptibility, claiming psychic abilities and healing powers, reporting out-of-body experiences and vivid or “waking” dreams, having apparitional experiences and religious visions, and exhibiting automatic writing. In one study, Bartholomew, Basterfield, and Howard (1991) found that, of 152 otherwise normal, functional individuals who reported they had been abducted or had persistent contacts with extraterrestrials, 132 had one or more major characteristics of fantasy-prone personality.

Somewhat equivocal results were obtained by Spanos et al. (1993), although their “findings suggest that intense UFO experiences are more likely to occur in individuals who are predisposed toward esoteric beliefs in general and alien beliefs in particular and who interpret unusual sensory and imagined experiences in terms of the alien hypothesis. Among UFO believers, those with stronger propensities toward fantasy production were particularly likely to generate such experiences” (Spanos et al. 1993, p. 631).

A totally dismissive view of these attempts to find conventional psychological explanations for the abduction experience is found in the introduction to psychiatrist John Mack’s Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994). Mack states unequivocally: “The effort to discover a personality type associated with abductions has also not been successful.” According to Mack, since some alleged abductions have reportedly taken place in infancy or early childhood, “Cause and effect in the relationship of abduction experiences to building of personality are thus virtually impossible to sort out” (Mack 1994, p. 5). But surely it is Mack’s burden to prove his own thesis that the alien hypothesis does have a basis in fact beyond mere allegation. Otherwise the evidence may well be explained by a simpler hypothesis, such as the possibility that most “abductees” are fantasy-prone personality types. (Such people have traits that cut across many different personality dimensions; thus conventional personality tests are useless for identifying easily hypnotizable people. Some “abductees” who are not fantasy prone may be hoaxers, for example, or exhibit other distinctive personality traits or psychological problems.) Mack’s approach to the diagnosis and treatment of his “abductee” patients has been criticized by many of his colleagues (e.g., Cone 1994).

Methodology

To test the fantasy-proneness hypothesis, I carefully reviewed the thirteen chapter-length cases in Mack’s Abduction (Chapters 3-15), selected from the forty-nine patients he most carefully studied out of seventy-six “abductees.” Since his presentation was not intended to include fantasy proneness, certain potential indicators of that personality type — like a subject’s having an imaginary playmate — would not be expected to be present. Nevertheless, Mack’s rendering of each personality in light of the person’s alleged abduction experiences was sufficiently detailed to allow the extraction of data pertaining to several indicators of fantasy proneness. They are the following:

  1. Susceptibility to hypnosis. Wilson and Barber rated “hypnotizability” as one of the main indicators of fantasy proneness. In all cases, Mack repeatedly hypnotized the subjects without reporting the least difficulty in doing so. Also, under hypnosis the subjects did not merely “recall” their alleged abduction experiences but all of them reexperienced and relived them in a manner typical of fantasy proneness (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 373-379). For example, Mack’s patient “Scott” (No. 3) was so alarmed at “remembering” his first abduction (in a pre-Mack hypnosis session with another psychiatrist) that, he said, “I jumped clear off the couch” (Mack 1994, p. 81); “Jerry” (No. 4) “expressed shock over how vividly she had relived the abduction,” said Mack (1994, p. 112); similarly, “Catherine” (No. 5) “began to relive” a feeling of numbness and began “to sob and pant” (Mack 1994, p. 140).

  2. Paraidentity. I have used this term to refer to a subject’s having had imaginary companions as a child (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 346-347) and/or by extension to claiming to have lived past lives or to have a dual identity of some type. Of their fantasy-prone subjects, Wilson and Barber stated: “In fantasy they can do anything — experience a previous lifetime, experience their own birth, go off into the future, go into space, and so on.” As well, “While they are pretending, they become totally absorbed in the character and tend to lose awareness of their true identity” (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 353, 354).

    Thus, as a child, “Ed” (No. 1) stated: “Things talked to me. The animals, the spirits . . . . I can sense the earth” (Mack 1994, p. 47); “Jerry” (No. 4) said he has had a relationship with a tall extraterrestrial being since age five (Mack 1994, p. 113). At least four of Mack’s subjects (Nos. 5, 7, 9, and 10) said they have had past-life experiences (pp. 160-162, 200, 248, 259), and seven (Nos. 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12) said they have some sort of dual identity (pp. 92-93, 173, 200, 209, 243, 297, and 355-356). For example “Dave” (No. 10) said he considers himself “a modern-day Indian"; while “Peter” (No. 11) under hypnosis said he becomes an alien and speaks in robotic tones (Mack 1994, pp. 275, 277, 297). In all, eleven of Mack’s thirteen featured subjects exhibited paraidentity.

  3. Psychic experiences. Another strong characteristic of fantasy proneness according to Wilson and Barber (1983, pp. 359-360) is that of having telepathic, precognitive, or other types of psychic experience.

    One hundred percent of Mack’s thirteen subjects claimed to have experienced one or more types of alleged psychical phenomena, most reporting telepathic contact with extraterrestrials. “Catherine” (No. 5) also claimed she can “feel people’s auras"; “Eva” (No. 9) said she is able to perceive beyond the range of the five senses; and “Carlos” (No. 12) said he has had “a history of what he calls ‘visionary' experiences” (Mack 1994, pp. 157, 245, 332).

  4. “Floating” or out-of-body experiences. Wilson and Barber (1983, p. 360) stated: “The overwhelming majority of subjects (88 percent) in the fantasy-prone group, as contrasted to few (8 percent) in the comparison group, report realistic out-of-the-body experiences” (which one subject described as “a weightless, floating sensation” and another called “astral travel”). Only one of Mack’s thirteen subjects (No. 2) failed to report this; of the other twelve, most described, under hypnosis, being “floated” from their beds to an awaiting spaceship. Some said they were even able to drift through a solid door or wall, that being a further indication of the fantasy nature of the experience (more on this later). Also, “Eva” (No. 9) stated that she had once put her head down to nap at her desk and then “saw myself floating from the ceiling . . . . My consciousness was up there. My physical body was down there” (Mack 1994, p. 237). Also, in the case of “Carlos” (No. 12), “Flying is a recurring motif in some of his more vivid dreams” (Mack 1994, p. 338).

  5. Vivid or “waking” dreams, visions, or hallucinations. A majority of Wilson and Barber’s subjects (64 percent) reported they frequently experienced a type of dream that is particularly vivid and realistic (Wilson and Barber 1983, p. 364). Technically termed hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucinations (depending on whether they occur, respectively, while the person is going to sleep or waking), they are more popularly known as “waking dreams” or, in earlier times as “night terrors” (Nickell 1995, p. 41). Wilson and Barber (1983, p. 364) reported that several of their subjects “were especially grateful to learn that the ‘monsters’ they saw nightly when they were children could be discussed in terms of ‘what the mind does when it is nearly, but not quite, asleep.'” Some of Wilson and Barber’s subjects (six in the fantasy-prone group of twenty-seven, contrasted with none in the comparison group of twenty-five) also had religious visions, and some had outright hallucinations (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 362-363, 364-365, 367-371).

    Of Mack’s thirteen selected cases, all but one (No. 13) reported either some type of especially vivid dream, or vision, or hallucination. For example, “Scott” (No. 3) said he had “visual hallucinations” from age twelve; “Jerry” (No. 4) recorded in her journal “vivid dreams of UFOs” as well as “visions"; and “Carlos” (No. 12) had the previously mentioned “visionary” experiences and dreams of flying (Mack 1994, pp. 82, 112). Almost all of Mack’s subjects (Nos. 1-11), like “Sheila” (No. 2), had vivid dreams with strong indications of hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucination (Mack 1994, pp. 38, 56, 80, 106, 132, 168-169, 196, 213, 235, 265-267, and 289).

  6. Hypnotically generated apparitions. Encountering apparitions (which Wilson and Barber define rather narrowly as “ghosts” or “spirits”) is another Wilson-Barber characteristic (contrasted with only sixteen percent of their comparison group). A large number of the fantasizers also reported seeing classic hypnogogic imagery, which included such apparitionlike entities as “demon-type beings, goblins, gargoyles, monsters that seemed to be from outer space” (Wilson and Barber 1983, p. 364).

    Mack’s subjects had a variety of such encounters, both in their apparent “waking dreams” and under hypnosis. Only the latter were considered here; all thirteen subjects reported seeing one or more types of outer-space creatures during hypnosis.

  7. Receipt of special messages. Fifty percent of Wilson and Barber’s fantasizers (contrasted with only eight percent of their comparison subjects) reported having felt that some spirit or higher intelligence was using them “to write a poem, song, or message” (Wilson and Barber 1983, p. 361).

    Of Mack’s thirteen abductees, all but one clearly exhibited this characteristic, usually in the form of receiving telepathic messages from the extraterrestrials and usually with a message similar to the one given “Arthur” (No. 13) “about the danger facing the earth’s ecology” (Mack 1994, p. 381). Interestingly, many of these messages just happen to echo Mack’s own apocalyptic notions (e.g., pp. 3, 412), indicating Mack may be leading his witnesses.

    In the case of “Eva” (No. 9), the aliens, who represented a “higher communication” (Mack 1994, pp. 243, 247), purportedly spoke through her and described her “global mission.” “Jerry” (No. 4) produced a “flood of poetry,” yet stated, “I don't know where it’s coming from” (p. 99); “Sara” (No. 7) has been “spontaneously making drawings with a pen in each hand [of aliens]” although she had never used her left hand before; and “Peter” (No. 11) stated he has “always known that I could commune with God” and that the aliens “want to see if I'm a worthy leader” (Mack 1994, pp. 99, 192, 288, 297).

Results

One of Mack’s subjects ("Sheila,” No. 2) exhibited four of the seven fantasy-prone indicators, and another ("Arthur,” No. 13) exhibited five; the rest showed all seven characteristics. These results are displayed in Figure 1.

Although not included here, healing — that is, the subjects’ feeling that they have the ability to heal — is another characteristic of the fantasy-prone personality noted by Wilson and Barber (1983, p. 363). At least six of Mack’s thirteen subjects exhibited this. Other traits, not discussed by Wilson and Barber but nevertheless of possible interest, are the following (together with the number of Mack’s thirteen subjects that exhibit it): having seen UFOs (9); New Age or mystical involvement (11); Roman Catholic upbringing (6 of 9 whose religion was known or could be inferred); previously being in a religio-philosophical limbo/quest for meaning in life (10); and involvement in the arts as a vocation or avocation (5). For example, while apparently neither an artist, healer, nor UFO sighter, “Ed” (No. 1) had “a traditional Roman Catholic upbringing” and — as rather a loner who said he felt “lost in the desert” — he not only feels he can “talk to plants” but said he has “practiced meditation and studied Eastern philosophy in his struggle to find his authentic path” (Mack 1994, pp. 39, 41-42). “Carlos” (No. 12) is an artist/writer/ “fine arts professor” involved in theatrical production who said he has seen UFOs and has a “capacity as a healer"; raised a Roman Catholic, and interested in numerology and mythology, he calls himself “a shaman/artist teacher” (Mack 1994, pp. 330, 332, 340-341, 357).

Also of interest, I think, is the evidence that many of Mack’s subjects fantasized while under hypnosis. For example — in addition to aliens — “Ed” (No. 1) also said he saw earth spirits whom he described as “mirthful little playful creatures” (p. 48); and “Joe” (No. 6) said he saw “mythic gods, and winged horses.” “Joe” also "remembered” being born (Mack 1994, pp. 170, 184). “Catherine” (No. 5), “Sara” (No. 7), “Paul” (No. 8), and “Eva,” (No. 9) said they had past-life experiences or engaged in time-travel while under hypnosis. Several said they were able to drift through solid doors or walls, including “Ed” (No. 1), “Jerry” (No. 4), “Catherine” (No. 5), "Paul” (No. 8), “Dave” (No. 10), and “Arthur” (No. 13). “Carlos” (No. 12) claimed his body was transmuted into light. I have already mentioned that under hypnosis “Peter” (No. 11) said he becomes an alien and speaks in an imitative, robotic voice. In all, eleven of Mack’s thirteen subjects (all but Nos. 2 and 3) appear to fantasize under hypnosis. Of course it may be argued that there really are "earth spirits” and “winged horses,” or that the extraterrestrials may truly have the ability to time travel or dematerialize bodies, or that any of the other examples I have given as evidence of fantasizing are really true. However, once again the burden of proof is on the claimant and until that burden is met, the examples can be taken as further evidence of the subjects’ ability to fantasize.

Conclusions

Despite John Mack’s denial, the results of my study of his best thirteen cases show high fantasy proneness among his selected subjects. Whether or not the same results would be obtained with his additional subjects remains to be seen. Nevertheless, my study does support the earlier opinions of Baker and Bartholomew and Basterfield that alleged alien abductees tend to be fantasy-prone personalities. Certainly, that is the evidence for the very best cases selected by a major advocate.

Note

I am grateful to psychologists Robert A. Baker and Barry Beyerstein for reading this study and making helpful suggestions.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.