People convinced they were abducted by aliens likely suffer from sleep paralysis
NOT THE ANAL PROBE!
People convinced they were abducted by aliens likely suffer from sleep paralysis
THIS IS HOW IT HAPPENS: in the middle of the night, you wake up. You’re wide awake, eyes open, but flat on your back, unable to move. You feel a sinister presence in the room, just beyond the edge of your sight. Then you can hear it, padding about softly—maybe even see it, a formless shape moving in the corner. By now your heart is pounding and you are trying to scream, but you can’t make a sound. The presence comes
closer, climbs on your chest, crushes you. You feel your muscles clench, and electric currents flow through you. Then, after about 30 seconds that can feel a whole lot longer, it all stops, and you can move again.
You’ve just been kidnapped by aliens.
Or maybe not. Scientists will tell you that the cause is a bout of sleep paralysis, something that has happened to perhaps a fifth of humanity, and which has been explained
in various terrifying ways over the centuries. In the past few decades, though, Door No. 1, the alien option, has been the answer for a tiny but vocal minority of (mostly) American victims. Why that should be so is the subject of Harvard University psychologist Susan Clancy’s wryly sympathetic book, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens.
Clancy is a witty writer with a keen eye for irony. Unlike many abduction researchers, she completely dismisses the possibility there’s any truth to abductees’ claims. There’s no evidence at all, Clancy says in an interview, or even an understandable rationale: “Why would beings advanced enough to cross interstellar space come here for the sole purpose of inserting objects in human rectums?” Her primary research interest lies in the area of false memory. She became interested in abductees precisely because few take their claims seriously. It struck Clancy that alien abduction offered a far less controversial way of studying “recovered” memories than did her earlier work with sexual abuse claimants.
After being metaphorically tarred and feathered across the Internet by the abductee community, Clancy is considerably wiser about that idea now. But six years ago, when she purchased a newspaper ad asking, “Have you been abducted by aliens?” she had no idea what she was about to encounter. By 10:15 on the first morning, her voice mail was full, and within a month, even after screening out the calls that came from mental hospitals and detox centres, Clancy began to meet the genuine article: otherwise sane and even stolid middle-class citizens utterly convinced of their otherworldly experiences.
Exasperating as Clancy found their stubborn refusal to listen to her alternative
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explanations—“it couldn’t have been sleep paralysis,” one woman countered, “because I wasn’t asleep, I was on the couch watching Letterman”—she grew to sympathize with most. Particularly after she had her own episode of sleep paralysis. The phenomenon occurs when a sleeper returns to consciousness before hormones secreted by the body during sleep wear off. (Those hormones relax certain muscles and prevent people from acting out their dreams in a potentially harmful way. The opposite problem-insufficient hormones or wearing off too soon—can lead to sleepwalking.) Sleep paralysis can happen to anyone, but shift workers, parents of newborns and, Clancy jokes, “academics trying to finish grant applications” are particularly susceptible.
Clancy, now a 35-year-old mother of three young children, embodied the last two risk factors, and even at the time was unsurprised when it happened to her. But knowledge didn’t mitigate the terror: “The physicality of it was overwhelming.” There were parts of the episode, she says now, that she decided to keep out of the book. “I was lying on the couch, not watching Letterman, when suddenly I’m spinning like a rôtisserie chicken and overcome with these feelings.” Feelings? “Yeah, hot and cold, and, ah, erotic.”
How people explain such powerful experiences comes down to what Clancy calls prevailing “cultural narratives.” In much of the world today, and in all of it a few centuries ago, such nocturnal events would be viewed as supernatural: a visitation by angels, demons, succubi or witches. In the increasingly secular West, such explanations no longer work for most people. That doesn’t mean they’re willing to accept the same rational explanation that satisfies a trained scientist like Clancy—her cultural narrative, so to speak. Science simply doesn’t offer the same emotional comfort religion once did. For many people, sleep paralysis is too arid, too small a cause. Instead, people turn to another kind of “rational” narrative. It’s widely accepted that extraterrestrial life—unlike ghosts and witches—is a feet, even if few believe that aliens (and their probes) have actually landed.
A key factor, Clancy says, is that abductees are the sort who think that “everything that happens to them is important.” She means no criticism by that remark, only that they are not among the millions
of people with bruises they have no memory of, or who wake up on the floor beside their beds and simply shrug it off. For abductees, those are not phenomena to ignore. “Here’s the typical road in shorthand,” she says. “Someone feels alienated, not fitting in, unhappy sexually, socially. They remember their sleep paralysis episode. They see a TV show or a bestselling book about abduction and they think, ‘My God, was that
what happened to me?’ They get on the Web, they find an abduction researcher. He suggests hypnotism. Over one—some people are very quick—to 15 sessions the therapist keeps questioning the sleep paralysis memories: the shape in the corner, did it have eyes? What colour? What shape? And the ‘memories’ come out.” Abductees who do remember also score high on psychiatry’s “schizotypy” index. That doesn’t mean they’re schizophrenic, but it does indicate a tendency toward magical thinking and fantasy. Such people easily confuse memories of real events with memories from movies and books. (Some high-schizotypy people experience such rich visual imagery, Clancy dryly notes, “that they can achieve orgasm in the absence of any physical stimulation,
a skill that should be taught.”) Under hypnosis, essentially a relaxation technique that has been known to induce false memories even in the most unimaginative subjects, they blossom.
And what they remember is what they encountered in a rich and ever-growing body of abduction stories. “Before 1962,” says Clancy, who has viewed dozens of sci-fi films and TV shows, “there were movies and stories about UFOs and aliens but no abductions.” Then came a handful of Outer Limits TV episodes, and in 1964 Betty and Barney Hill, the Adam and Eve of the abductee community, underwent hypnosis to get to the bottom of Betty’s nightmares. They remembered being kidnapped, and Barney drew the first picture of the now iconic almond-eyed aliens that dominate most abduction tales. His session took place 12 days after Outer Limits broadcast an episode featuring the same eyes on its aliens. The Hills’ story became a bestselling book in 1966 and a TV movie nine years later; in the wake of the movie, abduction reports skyrocketed from an average of two a year to 50.
Every account since has built on previous ones. There is a treasure chest ofjungian archetypes in the stories, and ample scope for Freudian analysis to boot—tales of the anal probe peaked in the 1980s, the decade when AIDS’ terrible toll among gays was prominently featured in news media. But for all their tendency to magical thinking, Clancy says, abductees show little genuine imagination. Their captors not only look alike, they’re identical in their banality: “No single alien I’ve ever heard described is as fascinating and surprising as the average human child.”
Once the “memories” have been recovered, Clancy says, abductees rarely recant. They now have an emotionally compelling, logically satisfying answer to any alienation they’ve ever felt, as well as to the terror of a sleep episode. And they can justifiably view themselves as special, people with a purpose in life, even if that purpose is to serve the mysterious plans of an alien being. Cultural narratives do change, Clancy notes—witness how extraterrestrials replaced older nightmare explanations—and there’s no telling how long the alien abduction theory will rule. “But what won’t change is that people are always going to be looking for answers, and those answers will be more than science can offer. There are always going to be weird beliefs.” IS1
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