The folklore of the 20th-century produced nothing more absurd, yet nothing more persistent, than the belief that creatures from other worlds habitually visit Earth, kidnap a few humans and then return them, apparently unhurt, to their homes. The alleged human victims later describe their experiences in what scholars of alienography call "abductee narratives." These sound like tales told by idiots, but no one who cares about the popular imagination can be entirely indifferent to them.
Abductees report that some aliens say they are bringing world peace and others announce that their mission is war. But a strikingly high percentage appear to be carrying out a peculiar assignment, raiding the reproductive systems of their victims to collect DNA. "My eggs were taken," one typical abductee reported, and another said, "sperm was sucked from my penis by a machine."
Why? Extraterrestrials must be far smarter than we are (they travel distances our scientists can barely imagine) so anyone even mildly curious will wonder what they want with a substandard planet's genetic material. That in turn suggests another question to Susan A. Clancy, a Harvard psychologist and the author of Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard University Press), the latest book on this phenomenon. Having interviewed dozens of abductees, and found them likeable and honest, Clancy writes about them with compassionate but sceptical understanding. She's not like the late John Mack, a psychiatrist at the Harvard medical school, who scandalized his colleagues by deciding that abductions actually took place. Clancy believes her subjects only in the sense that she believes they think they are telling the truth.
And she doesn't abandon her sense of humour. She asks why mentally superior aliens haven't anything better to do than hang around North America stealing our genes. "Why are these genius aliens so dim?" she asks. "After fifty years of abducting us, why are they still taking the same bits and pieces? Don't they have freezers?"
And why are aliens so boring? They often speak to abductees but they never say anything interesting. As Clancy has noted, not one of them sounds as engaging as an average human child. They recall those dead people who speak from the spirit world through table-tappers and similar mystics. The record shows that these communicants have never uttered even one interesting sentence. Most conversations consist of "I saw your Uncle Leonard." "How is he?" "Fine, sends his best."
The reason is the same in both cases. The conversations are fictional and both abductees and spiritualists suffer from stunted imaginations. They are capable of one delirious flight of fancy, nothing more.
Clancy discovered that abductees share certain characteristics. They are not crazy, but they score high on a schizotypy test, which doesn't mean they are schizophrenic but suggests they have a weakness for fantasy and for thinking related to magic. Most of them believed in flying saucers before they were abducted.
In her view the aliens are entirely human creations, expressing fairly ordinary emotional needs. Most of us don't want to be alone and many of us yearn to believe there's something bigger out there -- and that it cares about us. Also, we want to feel special. "Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need." Abductees express these feelings by believing in a convenient story that can never be proved and therefore never disproved. They also may be terrified (and thus made to feel vulnerable) by recent discoveries in genetics and reproductive technology.
Clancy devotes careful attention to the mother and father of the abductee community, a New Hampshire social worker named Betty Hill and her postal worker husband, Barney. Believing they were abducted in 1961, they began hypnotherapy a few years later. That's how Barney deeply affected American mass culture by giving credibility to the little guys with big heads and wraparound eyes who have since appeared in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The X-Files.
Asked under hypnosis to draw an alien, Barney came up with a sketch that launched a thousand myths. In fact, he was reproducing a face he had seen 12 days earlier on a TV show, The Outer Limits. But by the time anyone figured that out the aliens Clancy calls "macrocephalic space-waifs" had become permanently lodged in mass culture. As Clancy says, "Betty and Barney Hill got their ideas from books, movies and TV. From then on, people got their ideas from books, movies, TV, and Betty and Barney Hill."