In the Autumn of 1966, I was in the fourth grade of Elementary school. I can’t say that was a particularly easy time of childhood. Making the transition from childhood to adolescence is full of rough roads and potholes in any generation. Mine had to happen in the era of unprecedented unrest. Along with the normal bugaboos, we had the Vietnam War, race riots, the Cold War, and that horror known as the New Math. Another speed bump was the teacher, Mrs. Blankmore* – she was an out-and-out religious nut.
Fourth graders are too old for nap time, so our after-lunch period was 30 minutes of storytime. While we rechecked our homework, we listened to Mrs. Blankmore read to us. This soft instruction was supposed to encourage interest in more mature literature and aid in our digestion. Some days were pleasant and uneventful. On halcyon days, she read engaging stories like Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes. At other times she introduced us to the biography of Helen Keller and Walter Reed. Then there were those times she went off her rocker and subjected us to a half-hour of strangeness. We listened to tales of Near-Death Experiences from Guideposts magazine. There were bizarre stories from Fate Magazine and Jean Dixon’s predictions for the next year. Then there was that unforgettable time when she got up on her desk and preached a terrifying sermon on the End Times. In a fury of fire and brimstone, she screamed the world would end THAT NIGHT, and we must repent or burn in Hell. I was upset. My mother was upset. Soon, the whole school was upset. Such demonstrations of religious zeal were not conducive to the instruction and shaping of young minds. It did not aid in our digestion. Shortly after her zealous paroxysm, Mrs. Blankmore took a two-week vacation and returned refreshed, calmer, and with an Rx for a new yellow tranquilizer.
Not her real name!*
In between her wild mood swings and refills of Valium, Mrs. Blankmore would read some interesting articles on current events. And that is how I first heard of Betty and Barney Hill. On October 4, 1966, Look Magazine published an excerpt from the new book The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours Aboard a Flying Saucer by John Fuller. I was fascinated with the tale. I immediately rushed to the library and read all I could about the far-out flying saucer phenomena.
I’ll give a condensed refresher of their story for those living in a cave for the past 60 years. On that fateful night, The Hills were returning from a vacation in Montreal. While driving home to Portsmouth on September 19 (or 20 or 21 according to different sources), 1961, the couple spotted a strange light in the sky as they drove through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Barney stopped at an overlook and thought the light was a strange craft with people inside. The couple hurriedly sped off and returned home later than expected, but with no real memory of anything out of the ordinary. After two years of anxiety and daily recounts of vivid dreams by Betty, Barney Hill sought the help of Boston psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon. After several months of hypnotherapy, Dr. Simon believed the stress of the Hills interracial marriage was the root of the problem. After a session with Betty, where Simon explored her dreams under hypnosis, the Hills stated they had been abducted by a UFO, subjected to a medical exam, and returned to their car. With this disclosure, the Hills ushered in a new era in the Flying Saucer mystery– the Alien Abduction era. Their “interrupted journey” became a part of pop culture and American Folklore. Thanks to this story, the image of grey aliens with huge eyes, bulging heads, spindly bodies, and “missing time” became legend.
Here at the 55th anniversary of the Look article, their story remains controversial. I’ve long discounted it as an actual event as I’ve read through the hypnosis transcripts. Dr. Simon dismissed the space alien saga and ruled Barney’s original anxiety stemmed from rampant systematic racism in the US and the pressures of interracial marriage. The aliens were simply Betty Hill’s confabulation under hypnosis, influenced by her UFO-obsessed spawned dreams. Looking back now, I want to examine how the story has held up over time. It doesn’t do too well. The encounter itself and the two subjects are far different from remembered in contemporary folklore. Sixty years later, let’s look at the facts behind the legend.
Betty Was Looking for a UFO Encounter
At the time of the alleged sighting, social worker and civil rights activist Betty Hill fervently wanted to see and go for a ride in a flying saucer. Yes. She did! After hearing of her sister’s sighting of a flying saucer in 1957, Betty was eager to see one herself. During the drive home, she was actively looking for anything strange. Upon seeing an aircraft beacon and, later, the planet Jupiter, she convinced herself a spacecraft was following them. After returning home, Betty immediately immersed herself in the UFO culture of the time. She voraciously read everything she could find on “flying Saucers,” supposed alien sightings, and alien/human contact stories. As a result of her fascination, Betty began to have vivid dreams of UFOs, mysterious occupants and being kidnapped by ufonaunts. Of course, she told her husband her dreams on a daily basis.
Barney Hill’s Life Wasn’t Easy
Barney Hill was a man under intense pressure. At the time of the incident, he and Betty had been married only 16 months. When he met Betty some five years before, he was still married to his first wife and lived in Philadelphia. His divorce was not smooth. He had two sons, and separation from his children was very painful. At the time of the supposed alien encounter, he was fighting for visitation rights. The prospect of leaving his job, friends, and family behind in Philadelphia wasn’t easy. Barney, a career postal worker, was able to secure a second shift postal job in Boston, but at the cost of a 120-mile round-trip daily commute from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Though an intelligent man, his job was now calling out postal zones in the sorting room. Moving to a new home is always a significant life event, and Barney’s new home was far different than Philadelphia. Portsmouth was overwhelmingly white. Even today, blacks only made up 1.7% of the total population. Alienation in his new hometown was very real, and he felt it.
Plagued by peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, and anxiety attacks, Barney sought psychiatric help for dealing with the stress in 1962. By 1963, he was undergoing hypnotherapy by Dr. Simon. After concluding the basis of Barney’s angst was the pressure of interracial marriage, Simon invited Betty to a joint counseling session. Betty vehemently rejected any notion race was a problem. Then, she launched into her UFO tale while under hypnosis. Resistant at first, Barney eventually capitulated and agreed with her narrative after the session.
Racism Looms Large in the Story
At odds with Betty’s rosy, “Pollyanna” description that race wasn’t a problem, Barney Hill was acutely aware it was and felt the repercussions of being a minority in a white world. In high school, he dreamed of becoming an engineer and building things. Told by a school counselor, in no uncertain terms, he could never study engineering because of his race, he dropped out of school and joined the Army. There, he faced more racism, harassment, and humiliation.
Racial equality was certainly Barney Hill’s passion. After leaving the service and finding employment at the US Post Office, Barney channeled his energy into the Civil Rights movement. He became a dynamic crusader for equal rights and a prominent member of the NAACP. Both Betty and Barney received several awards for their activism from the New Hampshire NAACP. Their work for social change received notice in Washington. For outstanding contribution to the fight for Equal Rights, the couple received a commendation and an invitation to the inauguration of LBJ in 1965.
Looking back over the transcripts, two pivotal racially charged incidences appeared prior to the alleged UFO incident. First of all, as he told Dr. Simon in one of his sessions, the couple drove from Montreal to New Hampshire that night simply because Barney was afraid of being turned away from a motel because he was black. Yes, money was tight, but Barney simply didn’t want the hassle of a prejudice-based confrontation. Interracial marriages were rare in 1961. They were also illegal in a surprising number of US States. Barney remained acutely aware of racism and the sad fact racial violence was not always confined to the Southern states. Even though very tired and sleepy, Barney simply didn’t want the hassle. The second incident occurred just before the supposed “kidnapping” itself. Stopping at a roadside café in New Hampshire, Barney encountered less than cordial patrons inside. In therapy, Barney related that, as the meal progressed, he became aware of the increasing hostility of the all-white customers. Their waitress became increasingly rude (Barney suspected she was black herself and passing for white); he urged Betty to hurry with her meal. As Betty seemed oblivious to the perceived hostility, she was surprised when Barney abruptly demanded they leave.
There Were No “Grey” Aliens
At the beginning of the joint therapy sessions, neither Betty nor Barney agreed on the appearance of the UFO occupants. Betty stated they were short with huge noses like comic Jimmy Durante. Barney’s initial description was one looked like a Nazi and another an “angry redheaded Irishman.” His description later morphed into a bald, telepathic being with “wraparound eyes.” This description appeared similar to the “Bifrost Man” on ABC’s The Outer Limits. The “Bolero Shield” episode was broadcast sometime before the “aliens” hypno-session. In the end, both Betty and Barney agreed the aliens looked “oriental,” similar to the indigenous Patagonians of Chile. This epiphany occurred after attending a lecture by Harvard professor Carleton S. Coon at Phillips Exeter Academy. Interestingly Dr. Coon is called the “last racist anthropologist” as he subclassed humans by skin color and promoted whites were superior to other races. His pseudoscience was used to prop up white supremacy for decades.
The classic “grey” was not part of the original experience. Betty Hill freely admitted the grey alien was simply a Hollywood invention. Nearly ten years after the Look article, the Hill saga became a TV movie in 1975 named The UFO Incident. Produced by NBC Networks, the “greys” classic look was an invention by the production costume design staff. Patagonian natives from Chile do not look strange enough for Prime Time ratings. A more streamlined hairless humanoid fits the outer space trope better. And so, even though she never saw the classic “greys,” that image is forever etched in UFO folklore and contemporary tales and associated with the Hills.
Betty’s statement, now in the University of New Hampshire archives, admits:
“Sometimes I have been approached by those who tell me they have been abducted by the same ones I met, or the same type. They are smiling, until I ask if they looked like the ones in my movie. Oh yes. Then I tell them the ones in my movie was Hollywood’s idea of their appearance, for they had no similarities to the real ones. Such disappointment!”
There Is No Physical Evidence or Independent Witnesses
Like all UFO abductions and contact, there is no physical evidence anything happened. Betty forever claimed the experience in the alien craft soiled her dress. Though hanging in a closet for years, UFO groups have cut pieces away for analysis on several occasions. Yet, no conclusive evidence has emerged linking the stains to anything otherworldly.
Barney’s supposed evidence was a ring of genital warts appearing on his groin two years after the event. He alleged the aliens had placed a suction cup device over his genitals for a sperm sample. However, alien suction cups do not cause warts – viruses do. Though not an everyday occurrence, genital warts can erupt in a circular “fairy-ring” pattern. It’s caused by the virus spreading to surrounding tissue. The culprit is usually a damaged or incompletely removed primary wart.
Other than the couple’s dog, there were no independent witnesses to anything strange. Betty Hill used an errant radar blip reported that same night at a local airport as evidence for years. However, upon examination, the blip was dismissed as simply a false return caused by a temperature inversion.
Hypnosis is Not a Lie Detector
Though hypnosis remains a helpful tool for some cases in psychotherapy, it has its limitations. After decades of misuse, we now know hypnosis is not a lie detector. Using it to recover past memories is not advised. Doing so can cause false memories, and the session itself will further reinforce those false memories. Dreams and desires get mixed up with actual events in this instance. Barney did not seek hypnotic regression for two years after the event. That’s a long time for confabulation and wishful thinking to work into his memory and color the actual events. It doesn’t mean the person is consciously lying; it’s what they think happened. That’s how the human brain and memory process is constructed. Human perception is imperfect.
Well, there you have it. Truth is always stranger than fiction and more disappointing. That is the real story of the facts behind The Interrupted Journey and the Hills. Though the Hills became famous for the UFO story, they did not live happily ever after. Barney died suddenly in 1969 at age 46 of a brain aneurysm. After his death, Betty made the story a cottage industry of sorts, lecturing and touring with UFO conventions. As interest in the story waned, Betty’s tales became wilder, to the point where the audience booed her out of a UFO symposium in the 1980s. During that debacle, she showed pictures of streetlights claiming they were flying saucers she could summon at will. She also claimed one UFO looked like “Jack Pumpkinhead.” She died in 2004 at age 85.
In hindsight, I feel the person who suffered the most from this story is Barney Hill. In Fuller’s book, Barney was moved from the forefront to a supporting background role. Heavily editing the sessions from Dr. Simon, Fuller placed Betty’s tale of friendly utopian aliens front and center. Barney’s suffering at the hands of systematic racism was mainly ignored, though getting a courtesy mention.
Contemporary scholars have noticed how Barney Hill’s most outstanding achievement, his work as a civil rights activist, has been lost because the UFO tale is more entertaining. Of course, this is a great disservice to the man and his legacy. The UFO story unfairly overshadows his hard work for equality. His obituary gave four paragraphs to the alleged incident, while his activism and community service record made a penultimate paragraph. Even the New Hampshire NAACP refers to the Hills as the couple famous for the UFO.
Some researchers are now reexamining the incident and calling out the overt racism involved in the tale. Some have gone so far as to speculate the entire affair was simply repression of a far more realistic and horrible event. Did a racism-fueled confrontation, or a hate crime, occur as the couple left the New Hampshire café on that night in September 1961?
While I don’t buy the UFO tale at all, I don’t believe the Hills purposely perpetrated a hoax. They were not kooks and were well-respected members of their community. After the sessions, Betty and Barney gave lectures about their supposed encounter at local churches and civic groups, but it wasn’t for fame or monetary gain. The Hills were hoping someone had a similar experience. Though they did regret the story went public, they are sadly responsible for letting the cat out of the bag. In the audience of one lecture sat a reporter for the Boston Globe. The story made the next edition, where it caught John Fuller’s attention, and the rest is history.
Decide for yourself. Dr. Simon’s files and correspondence can be found at skeptic and UFO researcher Robert Sheaffer’s website. The Interrupted Journey is still in print. Scholarly articles are on the internet for reading, at university libraries, and at JSTOR. Betty Hill’s family sent her records and sundry artifacts to the University of New Hampshire upon her death. If you visit, you can view them.
In the end, as with all UFO tales, we only have the story of two people with no corroborating evidence this event ever took place. The only independent witness was the family dog. To date, there is no record the poor dachshund ever talked. And so, the tale has become part of folklore and history, no matter how much corroborating evidence is glaringly absent. People just want to believe, and they will.