Betty and Barney Hill UFO abduction case is the perhaps the most famous in the history of the phenomena. We share their story on this edition of Unpleasant Dreams.
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Their little cabin looked out onto the beach, cool and silvery blue in the moonlight. There they were, she and her husband, waking up together in the serene early morning light, this whole empty beach to themselves. In a life as busy as theirs, filled with commitments and friends and family, such tranquility was rare, and cherished.
When she saw the lights in the sky, she initially thought it was just a glimmer from the sunrise, a touch of red and gold on the horizon. It was only a moment later when she realized that it was moving too quickly to be from any sunrise. It was Them.
This wasn’t like last time. They’d seen one craft on that September night in ‘61, and not more than a dozen of those creatures. This was new; hundreds and hundreds of Them, filling up the horizon with alarming rapidity. She turned to Barney, beckoning for him to join her at the window. “They’re back, Barney! Let’s go out to see them.” But before he could come to her, she raised a cautioning hand to stop him; something was wrong. The clouds rushed in behind the ships, approaching too quickly, grey and dark and ominous, flashing dark red like blood and wine. They looked foreboding. Almost angry. And then the fire rain began. Waves of wrathful red, banishing the serene blue and tearing fiery swathes through the land, the water from the bay evaporating with the trees, the other buildings, bringing pain and chaos and searing panic into her mind.
Betty Hill woke up in terror, the dream clinging to her. It had only been a couple weeks ago that she and Barney returned from their spontaneous honeymoon, the happy memories they had shared immediately overshadowed by that strange, late night drive home, curious and frantic and surreal. She’d had several nightmares prior to this, strange and vivid and very, very real, but this one was different. Her dreams were odd and fragmented, images of very small men in what seemed to be military uniform; a long, long silver pin being inserted into her navel, a funny moment where she explained to them what dentures were (upon their discovery that they could remove Barney’s teeth but not hers), calling to Barney as they were escorted through the forest and into the craft, but realizing that he was in a trance and couldn’t reply. But this dream was different.
The Hills led very busy and satisfying lives. Betty was a social worker and Barney worked the night shift for the USPS. The Unitarian couple were very active in their church and in the local chapter of NAACP. They had a close circle of family and friends, who supported their biracial marriage in 1960s New Hampshire. Their spontaneous decision to take a trip to Canada would double as a honeymoon and a well-earned break. They brought their pet dachshund Delsey, whom they’d adopted six weeks prior, along for the ride.
In a way, theirs is a sad story. They’d been married for only a little more than a year when they’d had their encounter. They had been friends for a long time; comfortable old friends, whose lives entwined and branched into a need to never, ever wake up apart again.
There were aliens, and an abduction, as well, but this isn’t a story of an alien abduction. This is the story of how a moment in time consumed the existence of two well-adjusted, happy people who were going about their lives.
Their love story would be tragically short. Barney was only 46 years old when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, only eight years after their strange drive home from Canada. Betty never remarried, and they had no children together.
The shadow of that evening would haunt them, though. They both experienced general anxiety and were apprehensive of driving in lonely places at night; Barney developed what his physician deemed “psychogenic” maladies (headaches, problems with sleep, ulcers) and he sought out psychiatric care. Betty would only have those terrible, strange, vivid dreams for those five autumn nights in 1961, but she would spend the rest of her life enmeshed in the UFO community, searching for answers. Barney was more reluctant at first, more apt to try to put the entire situation out of his mind, but he inevitably found himself pursuing answers alongside his wife.
On September 21st, Betty reported to Pease Airforce Base what she remembered of their strange trip home. At that point she did not remember much: she remembered seeing the strange light in the sky that wasn’t a shooting star and the realization that it was following them, and she remembered stopping off to let Delsey out of the car to relieve herself, and that they felt pursued. They were very afraid. Barney peered through binoculars at the approaching light and cried out that they needed to leave, now. They were going to be captured. And then what? Had they slept? They’d gotten home hours after they had anticipated, and there was a mysterious pink dust or powder on her torn dress (and how did that happen? It wasn’t torn when they got in the car for the drive home). They’d showered, they’d slept a little.They found themselves wanting to examine their own bodies, and they felt a strong need to leave their luggage out on the porch rather than to bring it into their home. Something was wrong, and it had everything to do with the falling star that was not a star.
A Major Anderson returned her call the following day and asked for details of their experience. When he filed his report five days later, which was in turn forwarded to Project Blue Book, his conclusion was that the Hills had misidentified Jupiter.
The Hills, who by all accounts were both very intelligent and clear-headed, practical people, did not feel that they had misidentified Jupiter. They knew what a planet was, and they knew what a falling star was, and neither of those things followed their car over a period of hours or jumbled up their memories or tore Betty’s dress and left pink dust on it. Their little dog Delsey contracted a fungal infection upon their return, followed by respiratory problems and what seemed to be nightmares haunting her small doggy sleep, and certainly none of that was the result of misidentifying Jupiter.
That same week, Betty borrowed a book, The Flying Saucer Conspiracy, from the library in town. It was written by Major Donald Keyhole, then director of NICAP (National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena), and at the book’s invitation to send in personal accounts of their encounter, she wrote to him about their experience. Within the month, they had met with NICAP chairman Walter N. Webb, an astronomer living in Boston, who interviewed them personally and walked away believing in their experience and its extraterrestrial origins.
In time, the Hills began telling people of their experience in the interests of finding similar stories to theirs. They also began seeking out information on hypnosis, which was very much in the zeitgeist at the time, as well as other forms of memory retrieval. After attending a number of lectures and reading extensively on the topic, the Hills connected eventually with Dr. Benjamin Simon, a hypnotherapist of excellent repute, and their story began to unfold.
Combined with Betty’s fragmented dreams, a story emerged. There was never another dream of fire raining from the sky; that appears to have been a simple nightmare. What had really happened was frightening enough: an increasingly frantic drive through that dark, dark New Hampshire night as the light pursued them; Barney used binoculars and saw creatures through the windows of the ship. That is, once it had come close enough to identify it as a ship. They felt the beings were going to capture them. Their car was stopped, and they were ushered out of it by men who didn’t look quite human – they wore what appeared to the Hills to be military uniforms, but not ones that either of them were familiar with. They weren’t violent, but it was terrifying for the couple. The creatures were short by human standards, but very wide-chested, their hair and eyes were very dark. They had large noses, and their skin was a dull grey-ish colour, a blue tint to their lips. At one point Betty called out for Barney, who appeared to be in a trance of some sort, and did not acknowledge her or her cry. As they walked, they saw a glowing ball on the ground, beyond the jagged black trees, and were ushered into it via a ramp. They were examined separately by the creatures, who spoke to them in their heads. One test caused Betty a lot of pain, and one of the creatures was able to soothe it with a gesture. They were confused by the aging process, and Betty had to explain it to them. She was friendly with one of them, whom she called the Leader. The Leader showed her a star map that indicated to her roughly where they were from, though Betty could not find her own sun on the map and couldn’t contextualize the location being shown. The leader would have allowed her to bring a book back with her, but he had been overruled by his associates. They chose to wipe their memories of the event, but it didn’t work. Not completely. Betty told them, at the time, that she would find a way to remember.
It would inevitably be the Hill’s search for truth, Betty’s insistence on remembering, that garnered the publicity, not the Hills themselves.
In 1965 John H. Luttrell, reporter for The Boston Traveller, wrote an article, based on tapes made of the Hill’s public discussions and some notes he’d procured: “UFO Chiller: Did THEY Seize Couple?” and that article garnered a lot of attention. Their case came to the attention of author John Fuller, who worked with the Hills and Dr. Simon to produce the book The Interrupted Journey the following year, detailing the Hills’ experience and subsequent investigations. Eventually there would be a movie, and more lectures, more study, more collaborations with UFOlogists. An entire life filled with UFOs.
There would be some answers for them, in a sense. In 1969, amateur astronomer Marjorie Fish and Betty worked together to find the location on the map that the Leader had shown Betty. Betty had remembered it in detail under hypnosis, and later drawn it out. Utilizing star maps and home-made 3D models, after considerable effort, Fish narrowed it down to a very precise pattern of stars, and identified it as the binary star system known as Zeta Reticuli. What science knows of the Zeta Reticuli system is limited, but it’s certainly out there, and it may well be a system that supports life.
Then there was the evidence of their journey: Betty’s lovely new blue dress, mysteriously torn, their stopped watches, those strange circles imprinted on their car that made their compass go wild when it was brought too close to them. The strap on Barney’s binoculars was broken, and his shoes were scuffed. In time, they would re-locate the site of their abduction. Debate continues to this day, but clearly something, extraterrestrial or otherwise, had happened to the Hills that night.
What really happened to Betty and Barney Hill? There have been a lot of explanations put forth. Certainly Betty and Barney were strong in their belief until the day each died that they had been abducted and examined by literal aliens in a literal space ship from a distant galaxy. Others skeptical of the UFO hypothesis have suggested perhaps the couple had been drugged or suffered a hallucination. One very interesting theory, initially hypothesized by David V. Forrest in cases of “alien abduction” in general, is that Barney may have suffered “accidental awareness” in a recent surgery, wherein the patient isn’t fully anesthetized and retains fragmented flashes of memory of the trauma of undergoing surgery, some experiencing incredible pain, some suffering fear and panic. Whether or not Barney suffered from this in relation to his recent tonsillectomy, Barney had said that his experiences in hypnosis helped, less to assign a cause to his memories of pain and the unfamiliar-looking beings surrounding him on a bed, but by allowing him to make peace with his fragmented memories. Their hypnotist, Dr. Simon, himself felt that they had dreamed the experience: a mysterious situation combined with strange dreams. Perhapsit was influenced by an then-recent episode of the Outer Limits that a number of people have suggested as having been the genesis of Betty’s grey alien creatures. Maybe she muttered aloud as she slept and somehow those mutterings wormed their way into Barney’s mind as well.
There are those who believe the Hills were knowingly lying, intentionally fabricating a hoax, but there’s no reason to believe that the Hills didn’t believe their own account. No one has come forth and accused the Hills of being dishonest people in any other aspect of their lives. They didn’t seek to profit from their story, and the story remained very consistent throughout their lives. There were no deathbed confessions of a hoax, no attempts to cash in on their story, and ultimately, the 1960s were not a hospitable time for wild UFO tales. There weren’t a lot of incentives to make yourself “the crazy UFO people.” In time, Betty would certainly be considered that. Repeatedly throughout her remaining years, she would see Them again. Some people believed that They were indeed following up with their subject, learning from and monitoring her; others believed she was mentally unwell.
There’s a lot left to the Hill case. The collection of their documents resides at the University of New Hampshire and has since Betty’s death in 2004, including a number of transcripts and diaries. Their niece, Kathleen Marden, is following up on her aunt and uncle’s legacy, and she has become a well-respected UFOlogist in her own right. The search continues.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Dickinson, Terence, et al. “The Zeta Reticuli (or Ridiculi) Incident.” Astronomy.com. Retrieved 8 February 2022.
Fox, Margalit. “Betty Hill, 85, Figure in Alien Abduction Case, Dies.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2004. Retrieved 8 February 2022.
Lacina, Linda. “How Betty and Barney Hill’s Alien Abduction Story Defined the Genre.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 4 September 2018. Retrieved 8 February 2022.
Marden, Kathleen and Stanton T. Friedman. Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience. Weiser, 2007.
Pflock, Karl and Peter Brookesmith, eds. Encounters at Indian Head: The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Abduction Revisited. Anomalist Books, 2007.
Robinson, J. Dennis. “Historic Portsmouth: Simon Says ‘It Was a Dream’.” Seacoastonline.com, Portsmouth Herald, 28 May 2020. Retrieved 14 February 2022.
Skomorowsky, Anne. “Alien Abduction or ‘Accidental Awareness’?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 11 November 2014. Retrieved 19 February 2022.
Todd, Iain. “Zeta Reticuli: Facts About the Binary Star System.” BBC Sky at Night Magazine, 18 May 2021. Retrieved 19 February 2022.
“UNH Innovation Spotlight – Betty and Barney Hill Collection.” UNHInnovation, 20 October 2021. Retrieved 8 February 2022