Betty and Barney Hill: The Original UFO Abduction
A critical look at the original UFO abduction story, that so many people take for granted.
by Brian Dunning
October 21, 2008
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.
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.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Betty and Barney Hill: The Original UFO Abduction." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
21 Oct 2008. Web.
25 May 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4124>
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.
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