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Close Encounters with Alien Abductions

Book Review

David Ludden

Skeptical Briefs Volume 17.1, March 2007

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens.
By Susan A. Clancy.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 2005.
ISBN: 0-674-01879-6. 179 pp. Hardcover, $22.95.

Susan Clancy, the author of Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, has probably gotten more personally involved with alien abductees than any other skeptic. Clancy is frank in her belief that extraterrestrial visitation is exceedingly unlikely and that the alien-abduction experience can be explained more plausibly in terms of sleep paralysis with hallucinations, the availability of cultural scripts, and the development of false memories through hypnosis and other guided imagery techniques. Nevertheless, Clancy is not out to debunk the alien abduction myth, nor does she try to disabuse her interviewees of their delusions. Rather, her purpose, as the title of her book indicates, is to probe the psychological and cultural factors that lead some people to believe they have had encounters with extraterrestrials.

One theme that runs through the book is the observation that alien abductees are, in all other respects, very ordinary people. Clancy’s interviewees, as a group, exhibited the same general ranges of education, socio-economic status and religious upbringing as the population at large. Even more importantly, her sample of alien abductees were no more likely to be psychotic than the general population. This observation is an important counterargument to the pat explanation that those who claim to have been abducted by aliens are simply crazy. Nor can abduction claims be explained in terms of publicity seeking, since many abductees are reluctant to share their experiences with the general public.

There is one aspect, though, in which abductees are different from the general population. On personality tests, they score higher on a characteristic called schizotypy. Schizotypic personalities are prone to fantasy and magical thinking. They also have more difficulty distinguishing real from imagined events than the general population, and they are more likely to hold paranormal beliefs. In addition, they may be more likely to develop full-blown schizophrenia, and there is evidence for a genetic link between schizotypy and schizophrenia. On the other hand, schizotypic personality is not necessarily maladaptive; in fact, artists, poets and other highly creative people generally score high on the schizotypy dimension. However, there are plenty of people with schizotypic tendencies that do not develop beliefs in alien abductions, so there must be other causal factors involved.

Clancy was struck by the clarity of the memories and the intensity of the feelings that many of her interviewees had about their supposed abduction experience. It was clear that they had had some sort of traumatic experience, and that they were trying to find some “reasonable” explanation that fit their memories and the strong emotions they felt. In most cases, the traumatic experience was consistent with the condition known as sleep paralysis. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when most dreaming occurs, the body is paralyzed, presumably to prevent the acting out of dream content. Usually, the paralysis ends when REM does, but sometimes when a person awakes from REM sleep, the paralysis continues for a minute or so. Waking up paralyzed is terrifying enough, but often this experience will be accompanied by a crushing sensation on the chest and a sensation of suffocation. Furthermore, the dream content during the REM sleep may continue as the sleeper awakens, leading to hallucinations. Feelings of floating or spinning are common as well. The experience is bizarre, but to the person not prone to magical or paranormal thinking, it will likely be interpreted as nothing more than a momentary perceptual aberration. However, to the paranormally inclined, the experience perfectly fits the alien abduction.

Another theme running through the book is the idea of the alien-abduction scenario as a cultural script. Clancy argues that the “the common features of the alien-abduction stories . . . are not evidence for validity” but rather come from “shared cultural knowledge.” She notes that alien-abduction claims are mainly limited to North America, and that alien abduction reports did not begin until after “they were featured on TV and in the movies.” In particular, Clancy maintains that the first North American alien abduction report, the Betty and Barney Hill case, bears a striking resemblance to the plot of an episode of The Outer Limits, down to the physical description of the extraterrestrials, as well as to the plot of the movie Invaders from Mars. Betty Hill, who was a flying saucer aficionado, had seen both shows. In fact, a common element in the development of abduction memories is a prior interest in alien abductions. That is, abductees already know what is supposed to happen to them before their first episode of sleep paralysis or hypnotic regression, and so the emotional events they experience are easily molded into a standard alien-abduction script.

The cultural and historical aspects of the alien-abduction experience could have been better developed in this book. Clancy does spend several pages tracing the history of the belief in extraterrestrials—all the way to the ancient Greeks, in fact. However, the existence of life elsewhere in the universe is not really relevant to the question of alien abductions; given the vastness of the universe, there is at least some probability that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere. But if our understanding of physics is correct, it is extremely improbable that extraterrestrials could ever travel such vast distances to get here, regardless of how advanced their technology is. And even if they had a way to span the distance, as Clancy asks, “Wouldn’t you think these mentally and technologically superior beings would have something more interesting to do . . . than to hang around North America kidnapping its . . . inhabitants, in order to do the same experiments over and over again?” I would also ask: Even if they got here somehow, why would they want to have sex with us? For it is the sexual component of the alien abduction script that links it culturally and historically with phenomena such as the incubus and succubus visitations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe as well as Satanic ritual abuse and recovered memory syndrome, two other sex-related cultural scripts of late twentieth-century North American paranormal belief.

Abducted provides a good introduction to skeptical research on alien abductions, in particular the work done over the past eight years by Clancy and her colleagues at Harvard University. In this book, Clancy vividly portrays the human side of this line of research, which has necessarily been excluded from her academic publications. The book also provides the layperson with a good portrait of the day-to-day grind of psychological research. Abducted is not the definitive book on the alien-abduction experience (not enough research has been done for that book to be written yet), but it is well worth reading for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the psychological and cultural factors that can compel people to believe they have been in contact with extraterrestrial beings.

David Ludden

David Ludden is an assistant professor of psychology at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky.