By Benedict Carey
They are neither, it turns out, and their experiences should be taken as seriously as any strongly held exotic beliefs, according to Susan Clancy, a Harvard psychologist who interviewed dozens of self-described abductees as part of a series of memory studies over the last several years.
In her book "Abducted," due in October, Dr. Clancy, a psychologist at Harvard, manages to refute and defend these believers, and along the way provide a discussion of current research into memory, emotion and culture that renders abduction stories understandable, if not believable. Although it focuses on abduction memories, the book hints at a larger ambition, to explain the psychology of transformative experiences, whether supposed abductions, conversions or divine visitations.
"Understanding why people believe weird things is important for anyone who wishes to know more about people - that is, humans in general," she writes.
Dr. Clancy's accounting for abduction memories starts with an odd but not uncommon experience called sleep paralysis. While in light dream-rich REM sleep, people will in rare cases wake up for a few moments and find themselves unable to move. Psychologists estimate that about a fifth of people will have that experience at least once, during which some 5 percent will be bathed in terrifying sensations like buzzing, full-body electrical quivers, a feeling of levitation, at times accompanied by hallucinations of intruders.
Some of them must have an explanation as exotic as the surreal nature of the experience itself. Although no one has studied this group systematically, Dr. Clancy suggests based on her interviews, that they tend to be people who already have some interest in the paranormal, mystical arts and the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors. Often enough, their search for meaning lands them in the care of a therapist who uses hypnotism to elicit more details of their dreamlike experiences.
Hypnotism is a state of deep relaxation, when people become highly prone to suggestion, psychologists find. When encouraged under hypnosis to imagine a vivid but entirely concocted incident - like being awakened by loud noises - people are more likely later to claim the scene as a real experience, studies find.
||Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens," by Susan Clancy. Harvard University Press, $22.95
Where, exactly, do the green figures with the wraparound eyes come from? From the deep well of pop culture, Dr. Clancy argues, based on a review of the history of U.F.O. sightings, popular movies and television programs on aliens. The first "abduction" in the United States was dramatized in 1953, in the movie "Invaders From Mars," she writes, and a rash of abduction reports followed this and other works on aliens, including the television series "The Outer Limits."
One such report, by a couple from New Hampshire, Betty and Barney Hill, followed by days a particularly evocative episode of the show in 1961. Mr. Hill's description of the aliens - with big heads and shiny wraparound eyes - was featured in a best-selling book about the experience, and inspired the alien forms in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1977, according to Dr. Clancy.
Thus does life imitate art, and vice versa, in a narrative hall of mirrors in which scenes and even dialogues are recycled. Although they are distinct in details, abduction narratives are extremely similar in broad outline and often include experimentation with a sexual or procreative subtext. "Oh! And he's opening my shirt, and - he's going to put that thing in my navel," says one 1970's narrative, referring to a needle.
"I can feel them moving that thing around in my stomach, in my body," the narrative, excerpted in the book, continues. The passage echoes other abduction accounts, past and future.