Betty and Barney Hill: The Original UFO Abduction

A critical look at the original UFO abduction story, that so many people take for granted.

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #124
October 21, 2008
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It was shortly before midnight on September 19, 1961 when Betty and Barney Hill had the experience which was to shape all of modern alien folklore. They were driving from Canada to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Near the resort of Indian Head, New Hampshire, they stopped their car in the middle of Route 3 to observe a strange light moving through in the sky. The next thing they knew, they were about 35 miles further along on their trip, and several hours had elapsed.

Betty telephoned their close friend, Major Paul Henderson at nearby Pease Air Force Base, to report a UFO sighting. Major Henderson found that this was corroborated by two separate UFO reports from radar data from two different Air Force installations nearby. All three reports are officially recorded in Project Blue Book. Then Betty began having nightmares two weeks later. In her nightmares, she described being taken aboard an alien spacecraft and having medical experiments performed. As a result of these nightmares, Betty and Barney decided to undergo hypnosis. In separate sessions, they described nearly identical experiences of being taken on board the alien spacecraft by what we now call gray aliens: Short beings with huge black eyes and smooth gray skin. Both of the Hills had a whole spectrum of tests done. Betty was shown a star map which she was able to memorize and reproduce later, and which has been identified as showing Zeta Reticuli as the aliens' home planet. After the experiments they were taken back to their car in a dazed condition, and sent along their way.

Innumerable books and movies were made about the Betty & Barney Hill abduction. It was the introduction of the gray alien into popular culture. It was also the beginning of the entire "alien abduction" phenomenon. The physical evidence of the star map and the radar reports are said to have both withstood all scrutiny. In fact you almost never hear a critical treatment of their story.

Much of the Hill story is said to be based on these separate hypnosis sessions. In fact, that turns out not to be the case at all. It's important to note that it was more than two years after the incident that the Hills underwent hypnosis. During those two years, Betty was writing and rewriting her accounts of her dreams. All of the significant details you may have heard about the Hills' medical experiments came from Betty's two years of writings: A long needle inserted into her navel; the star map; the aliens' fascination with Barney's dentures; the examination of both Betty and Barney's genitals; and the overall chronology of the episode, including being met on the ground by the aliens, a leader coming forward and escorting them to exam rooms, the aliens' general demeanor and individual personalities, and the way they spoke to Betty in English but to Barney via telepathy. Betty wrote all of this based only on what she claims were her dreams, and probably told the story to Barney over and over again until his ears fell off over a period of two years, before they ever had any hypnosis.

During those two years, Barney's own recollection was somewhat less dramatic. When they first saw the light in the sky, Betty said she thought it was a spacecraft, but Barney always said he thought it was an airplane.

Betty's written description of the characters in her nightmare depicted short guys with black hair and "Jimmy Durante" noses. It was only in Barney Hill's hypnosis sessions that we got the first description of skinny figures with gray skin, large bald heads, and huge black eyes. After Betty Hill heard these sessions, suddenly her own hypnosis accounts began to describe the same type of character, and from that moment on, she never again mentioned her original Jimmy Durante guys. Many modern accounts wrongly state that her original nightmares also described grays.

Although the popular version of events is that Barney Hill's hypnosis description is the first appearance of a so-called gray alien in modern culture, that first appearance actually came twelve days earlier, on national television, in an episode of The Outer Limits called The Bellero Shield. The alien in that episode shared most of the significant physical characteristics with the alien in Barney's story: Bald head, gray skin, big wraparound eyes. The Hills stated they did not watch it and didn't know about it.

Remember: Before examining the specific claims made in a fantastic story, you should check the source of the story for credibility. Barney Hill died only a few years after the alleged incident, but Betty Hill stuck around long enough for her credibility to be pretty thoroughly demonstrated. Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Shaeffer wrote:

I was present at the National UFO Conference in New York City in 1980, at which Betty presented some of the UFO photos she had taken. She showed what must have been well over two hundred slides, mostly of blips, blurs, and blobs against a dark background. These were supposed to be UFOs coming in close, chasing her car, landing, etc... After her talk had exceeded about twice its allotted time, Betty was literally jeered off the stage by what had been at first a very sympathetic audience. This incident, witnessed by many of UFOlogy's leaders and top activists, removed any lingering doubts about Betty's credibility — she had none. In the oft-repeated words of one UFOlogist who accompanied Betty on a UFO vigil in 1977, she was "unable to distinguish between a landed UFO and a streetlight." In 1995, Betty Hill wrote a self-published book, A Common Sense Approach to UFOs. It is filled with obviously delusional stories, such as seeing entire squadrons of UFOs in flight and a truck levitating above the freeway.

She also once wrote in a 1966 letter "Barney and I go out frequently at night for one reason or another. Since last October, we have seen our 'friends' on the average of eight or nine times out of every ten trips." But is it possible that Betty's obsession with UFOs could have been caused by her trauma from a genuine abduction? Yes, it's possible that it could have pushed her further in that direction, but Betty had commonly spoken of UFOs even before 1961, including one story she often told of her sister's own close encounter in 1957.

So here's what we have so far: A woman who clearly had an obsession with UFOs saw a light in the sky that her husband described as an airplane. She then spent two years writing an elaborate story and no doubt telling and retelling it to her husband. Later, under hypnosis, Barney was asked about the events described in Betty's story, and surprise surprise, he retold the story she'd already told him a hundred times, with an added dash from The Outer Limits episode of twelve days before. So far, we have a tale that's hard to consider reliable.

But then there are those three items said to be physical evidence of the Hill abduction: first, the star map hand drawn by Betty by memory from one shown to her aboard the spacecraft; second, the purple dress she was wearing on that night, kept for forty years in her closet, torn and covered with mysterious dust; and third, reports in the Air Force's official Project Blue Book stating that radar confirmed the presence of a UFO on that night at two separate Air Force facilities in the area, both within hours of the Hills' claimed abduction. Let's look at those first.

The first report was from Pease Air Force Base, about 82 miles southeast of Indian Head, at 2:14am. The Hills got home in Portsmouth at 5:00 in the morning on September 20. Their story states that they came to after their medical experiments about 35 miles south of Indian Head, near the town of Ashland. From Ashland to Portsmouth is about an hour and 45 minute drive, so they came to in their car around 3:15. This chronology puts Pease AFB's UFO radar evidence squarely in the middle of the Hills' three hours of medical experiments aboard the spaceship, which they say was sitting on the ground the whole time. If the Hills' story is true, the Pease AFB report must be an unrelated event.

The second report is from North Concord Air Force Station, a small hilltop radar station (closed in 1963) that was about 40 miles north of Indian Head, at 5:22pm on September 19. This is about seven hours before the Hills observed their light in the sky. It clearly does not corroborate the Hills' sighting. The reports in Project Blue Book note each target's extremely high altitude and low speed, and conclude that each was probably a weather balloon.

Next we have Betty's purple dress, the zipper of which she found to be torn. She then hung it in the closet. Two years later, after the hypnosis, she got it out and said there was strange pink dust on it. She hung it up again, this time for forty years, when a group of crop circle investigators examined it. They concluded the dress had an "anomalous biological substance" on it. While a good stretch of the imagination might consider this to be consistent with the abduction story, it's also consistent with perfectly natural explanations, namely, 40 years of dust mites, moths, and mold. I don't find the Great Purple Dress Caper to be good evidence of anything.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

So the only thing we're left with is Betty's star map. In her original written stories, she described the aliens' star map as three dimensional. Under hypnosis, she redrew it on paper, in two dimensions. It's seven or eight random dots connected by lines, and it's quite rough and by no means precise. Several years later, a schoolteacher named Marjorie Fish read a book about the Hills. She then took beads and strings and converted her living room into a three dimensional version of the galaxy based on the 1969 Gliese Star Catalog. She then spent several years viewing her galaxy from different angles, trying to find a match for Betty's map, and eventually concluded that Zeta Reticuli was the alien homeworld. Other UFOlogists have proposed innumerable different interpretations. Carl Sagan and other astronomers have said that it is not even a good match for Zeta Reticuli, and that Betty's drawing is far too random and imprecise to make any kind of useful interpretation. With its third dimension removed, Betty's map cannot contain any useful positional information. Even if she had somehow drawn a perfect 3D map that did exactly align with known star positions, it still wouldn't be evidence of anything other than that such reference material is widely available, in sources like the Gliese Star Catalog. We would not conclude that an alien abduction is the only reasonable way that Betty could have learned seven or eight star positions during those two years.

And so, there we have it. The Betty & Barney Hill abduction story has every indication of being merely an inventive tale from the mind of a lifelong UFO fanatic. Despite the best efforts of authors to bolster it with mischaracterized or exaggerated evidence, it is unsupported by any useful evidence, and is perfectly consistent with the purely natural explanation.

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Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Fuller, J. The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours Aboard a Flying Saucer. New York: Dell, 1966.

Klass, P. UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988. 7-15.

National Archives and Records Administration. "16-30 September 1961 Sightings." Project Blue Book. Project Blue Book, 1 Sep. 2005. Web. 19 Jan. 2010. <http://www.bluebookarchive.org/page.aspx?pagecode=NARA-PBB1-259&tab=1>

Nickell, J. "Betty Hill, First Alien Abductee, Dies." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jan. 2005, Volume 29, Number 1: 9-11.

Pflock, K., Brookesmith, P. Encounters at Indian Head: The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Abduction Revisited. San Antonio: Anomalist Books, 2007.

Sheaffer, R. The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1986. 34-44.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Betty and Barney Hill: The Original UFO Abduction." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 21 Oct 2008. Web. 19 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4124>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 108 comments

I would like to take a different tact on if this is real or imagined by looking at how we treat species we consider lower that us.

Lets take just as an example how we study apes for example.

We travel into their habitat with vehicles that range from trucks to aircraft.

We watch them in person and with unmanned devices (cameras, drones, ect.)

We capture them in singles or sometimes pairs.

We use drugs or restrain them to keep them docile/safe to handle . We conduct experiments on them, take samples of everything, probe them, sometimes attach or implant them with items (tags, tracking devices, ect). Then leave them to recover or run away.

Now they have strange devices, wounds, smells, and chemicals on them.

Their "group" does not know what to make of it, if its real or care.

Then we repeat the process to them multiple times.

Now lets take the fact (execpt to die hard critics) that advanced intelligent life (alien) exists in the universe.

Would they not look at us as a primative technically limited lesser life form.

Would they not treat us as we treat our lesser life forms and study them?

Now does what happened to betty and barney (as well as others) seemed so far fetched?

Eric, Northern IL USA
September 04, 2013 3:42am

What is far-fetched about the Hill case lies in the details. Before he plunges a needle into Betty’s abdomen, an examiner tells her the test would be simple and without pain. But then he is startled when in fact, she experiences great pain. Then he waves his hand in front of her eyes and the pain completely vanishes. Magic. Betty says she then lost all fear of him. He also tells her it was a pregnancy test which Betty expresses a proper doubt about. Is this really the ways of an advanced intelligence with technology thousands of years ahead of us?

There are other internal contradictions and primitive aspects of the Hill case, but what is more broadly significant is that abduction cases en masse are wildly inconsistent with one another and lack a unifying organizing principle like study. David Jacobs in a November 17, 2012 Podcast UFO interview specifically rejects the idea that aliens were ever here to study us. Abductions, for him, were about creating hybrids designed to eventually live among us for unknown reasons. Some cases imply training humans for a post-apocalyptic world following an upcoming cataclysm. Some cases imply humans are forcibly being spiritually evolved. Others seem bizarrely and creatively sadistic with no understandable rational purpose at all. Frankly some look purely theatrical and products of primitive parts of the human mind.

Abduction experiences are too diverse and far too primitive to think it all the work of a reasoning intelligence.

Martin S. Kottmeyer, Carlyle, IL 62231
September 07, 2013 9:20am

To true Martin, aliens appear to function along the primitive fantasies we in general consider advanced science.

The acupunctural alien is pretty par for the course for 50's and 60's .

The cow napping alien or monster is as well.

Mind you, the terra reforming capsule of bacteria hasnt done much of a job yet..

Maybe aliens are as stupid as we are. More likely, we have never met. Make that overwhelming odds indicate that the aliens havent made it anywhere near us yet.

That makes landing probabilities zero. Much to the chagrin of scientists who parody the landing efforts of the "aliens of conspiracy".

Manatee Diversion, Greenacres by the sea Oz
September 11, 2013 1:58pm

anyone who Listens to the male captive in his Later re-visits of his stop over in alien land on his way home will hear a man terrified...not a man on a mind control drug or hypnotized.but a man in total fear. also trying or hoping to protect his wife from the unknown...you ignore these cases at your own peril...i doubt most or many of the abduction area- it is designed to throw people off the important work done by ufo research for many decades...the cover up agencies cannot hide this genuine man's fear-- hear the audiotapes before you decide--the main cases the cover up hopes you avoid Learning about are graham bethune case feb 1951 us navy pilot see huge ufo activity at night over atlantic ocean near N east USA...many other good cases involving good pilots and military air crews...check it out...i appreciate mr Randi or skeptoid expressing an open -minded interest in these matters...check out the disaster of new jersey-sandy storm hit bulls eye center where ufo event occurred right off normandy beach ( yes like the ww2 name) in sep 2007...also a fire today was in the same area to interfere with boardwalk--you cant visit the beach if its all closed up etc...wow storm was 2012, and the fire to new contruction to rebuild from sandy was wow today.check out the gray ball on atlantic city bldg...the ufos have 2 major shapes--saucer or gray or white spheres..etc...see the videos or google new jersey ufo phrase..see how active the Aliens are--how quiet your military is about it ALL

derrufo, usa
September 12, 2013 6:08pm

Thanx derufo... I'll still watch out for magpies when I clean the windows on the balcony.

Ignoring UFO's at my peril is a fair risk

Mortal Dilpin, Greenacres by the sea Oz
September 12, 2013 11:55pm

Another guy has a website where he wrote essays that expressed a lot of doubt about the Hill case. The part that shocked me was when he also stated that his essays have routinely drawn hate mail and even death threats. (often poorly written threats, but threats nonetheless)

But looking at some of the rants on this site, I can see that the believer crowd does not like the Hill case - the "crown jewel" of abductee lore - to be questioned.

Had to laugh at raging remarks by Bill Roach, spouting off about MENSA and the IQ of a Hill supporter, then lamenting those who don't believe in "wonders" or something like that. Not sure how musings about Carl Sagan's love life enhanced his arguments - but hey, if it's good enough for Bill, it's good enough for me :)

It reminds me of when the people try to add credibility to John Mack's writings by saying he is an "award-winning psychologist." They rarely point out that this "award" was a Pulitzer Prize for a biography about T.E. Lawrence. Although an impressive accomplishment, this obviously won't do much to enhance the validity of his patients' hypnotic "recollections."

I once won an award for a pie-eating contest, but when I tried to offer my friend golf-club swinging tips, he turned it down - even though I REALLY was an "award-winning adviser" (I was a self-anointed adviser, and I had won an award)

Bill T, Gaia, Canada
October 05, 2013 8:03am

"....the star map hand drawn by Betty by memory from one shown to her aboard the spacecraft...."

Whenever a ufo believer shoves that "star map" in my face and asks me what I think, I 'play dumb' and say it looks like a map of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area with surrounding highways and towns.

They sure don't like that! :D

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
October 05, 2013 10:30am

What is up with Stanton Friedman? This guy is too smart to actually believe all this nonsense right? Or is he so brilliant that he saw the opportunity as a money grab and ran with it?

There are so many holes in the Hills story that its pointless to even review them, anyone paying attention could shoot holes through it wide enough to drive a UFO through.

Chris, Spring Hill, Fl
October 25, 2013 6:27pm

"Minor detail in Betty Hills story that seems out of place; the alien book!
When given a tour around the UFO, Betty tries to con a book out of the alien leader for later proof.....the alien doesn´t fall for it. And keeps his book!
.......So what kind of book was it?

- A cosmic roadmap?
- An English/Zeta Reticuli dictionary?
- Telepathy 101?"

It's a Cook Book!!!

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
October 26, 2013 11:10am

I don't know if anybody else is mentioned that it's not recorded anywhere that "Betty was a lifelong UFO fanatic"?
I would like to see a reference to that word?
I just read the wikipedia article about the case and it's mentioned there, that's why I am asking...

skeci, Ankara
December 07, 2013 5:29am

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