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An unassuming couple’s drive home launched a generation of UFO speculation

Screenshot: The X-Files
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Barney and Betty Hill

Barney and Betty Hill, with their dog Delsey. (Courtesy Wikipedia.)

What it’s about: In 1961, a mild-mannered New Hampshire couple were driving home one night and saw a light moving erratically in the sky. They stopped the car, and saw a flying saucer, hovering above their car, with inhuman figures watching through the window. They tried to flee, but blacked out and awoke 35 miles away with no memory of what happened. Or so they claim. While there had been UFO sightings before, the Hills’ story caught the public’s imagination in a way previous stories hadn’t, and America’s love affair with alien abductions began.

Strangest fact: The Hills suffered strange psychological effects after the incident. Both Barney and Betty experienced strange compulsions—she insisted their luggage be kept near the back door for some time afterwards. Upon returning home, Barney “was compelled to examine his genitals in the bathroom,” although he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Both reported a “mental block” concerning the events of that night, but Betty had several nights of extremely vivid dreams about aliens in military-style uniforms, who took her and her husband into their ship, separated them, and examined her and performed medical tests before telling her that her memory of the events would be erased. In the dream, she insisted she would one day remember. She and her husband were returned to their car at the end of the dream, which was where her waking memories picked up.

Biggest controversy: There was physical evidence that something happened to the Hills. Both of their watches had stopped and never ran again. Barney’s binocular strap was torn (he used them to try and view the UFO when it was still in the sky), although he had no memory of it tearing, and the toes of his shoes were scuffed. Betty’s dress was torn in several places, and dusted with an unexplained pink powder (which blew away before she could get a sample). The trunk of their car also had shiny, concentric circles, which Betty claimed could make a compass needle spin.

Thing we were happiest to learn: We have a very detailed account of the Hills’ alleged encounter. The couple’s memories stopped with seeing the ship, getting a glimpse of the occupants, and then regaining consciousness a few miles away, and any other details were fuzzy at best. But after acknowledging the incident to their church group, someone recommended hypnosis to recover their lost memories. A Boston hypnotist named Benjamin Simon hypnotized both Hills through several sessions in the first half of 1964. He interviewed them separately, to make it more difficult for them to corroborate each other’s story.


Under hypnosis, Barney described driving away from the ship, but being compelled to drive off the road and into the woods. He saw six men standing in the road, who turned out to be the aliens. Their leader told him to close his eyes, and when he did, “I felt like the eyes had pushed into my eyes.” It’s not clear what that means, but Hill used that phrase several times, and seemed to be traumatized by the experience. He and his wife were separated, and his body was examined. The aliens spoke a “mumbling language” he couldn’t understand, but when they communicated with him directly, he could hear English words in his head. He was reunited with his wife, and returned to the car.

While Betty’s hypnosis account was similar to her recurring dream, there were differences. She described the aliens’ appearance differently, and events were in a different sequence, although her story under hypnosis did closely match that of her husband’s. Like Barney, Betty seemed traumatized by these memories. Unlike him, she remembered seeing a three-dimensional “star map,” which she later tried to sketch in two dimensions.


Simon wasn’t convinced their memories were real, theorizing that Barney’s memories were simply based on his wife’s dreams, although his story had details her’s didn’t. But while he wasn’t convinced, the Hills were.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Barney Hill didn’t get to enjoy his fame for long. While the Hills didn’t try to draw attention to themselves or their story, a 1965 Boston Traveler article about their experience ended up spreading around the world, and John G. Fuller wrote bestseller The Interrupted Journey the year after, with the Hills’ cooperation. But less than three years after that Barney Hill was dead. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at age 46. (Betty lived a long life, dying of cancer 35 years later.)


Also noteworthy: After The Interrupted Journey was published, an amateur astronomer named Marjorie Fish attempted to recreate the star map Betty Hill described, to try and ascertain the aliens’ place of origin. She built a 3-D model of the Sun and nearby stars, and viewed it from every angle until she found a match. The map seemed to indicate the aliens came from Zeta Reticuli, a binary star system 39 light-years from Earth. Her findings made enough waves that Astronomy magazine addressed the UFO issue for the first time, debating the map for a full year, with no less than Carl Sagan opining that Hill’s map was simply a random bunch of dots. However, Zeta Reticuli remained in the public imagination, and has been used as a home for fictional aliens in the Alien series, Space: Above And Beyond, and even Yu-Gi-Oh!

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Between 1952 and 1970, the U.S. Air Force was in the UFOlogy business. Project Blue Book was an Air Force group tasked with investigating UFO sightings, the Hills’ among them. For the first few years, the project took a thorough and scientific approach to examining claims—the vast majority were debunked, but a small number couldn’t be explained. But Blue Book suffered the fate of many a government project—its funding was cut to levels that made it difficult to function, and then it was criticized for being ineffective. Several project directors who were staunch skeptics didn’t try very hard to justify Blue Book’s value to the taxpayers, and in 1970 the project was shut down, concluding most UFO sightings were hoaxes, or a form of mass hysteria.


Further down the Wormhole: Betty Hill’s notes on the incident and tapes of her hypnotherapy sessions still reside at the University Of New Hampshire, and the state of New Hampshire placed a historical marker at the site of the alleged abduction. Hill (but not her husband, for some reason) is notable enough to make Wikipedia’s list of people from New Hampshire, which also includes fellow space travelers Alan Shepard and Christa McAuliffe, poets E.E. Cummings and Robert Frost, writers John Irving, Willa Cather, and Bill Bryson, notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes, master thespian Adam Sandler, and relatively obscure president Franklin Pierce. There’s a corresponding list for each state, and the list of people from Iowa includes the Cherry Sisters, a vaudeville act so bad they set enduring legal precedent. We’ll give a listen next week.

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