“She Was Awakened by a Tall Humanoid”: Why People Need Alien-Abduction Narratives

Author: Alexander Panchenko

Whether we consider New Age ontologies to be “religious” or not, we still need to analyze which super- or non-human intentional agents are involved in New Age beliefs and practices, and what kind of properties and attitudes toward human beings are ascribed to these agents. In this blog post, I would like to share some observations from my paper “UFOlogy as a Religion” forthcoming (in Russian) in volume No. 163 of the New Literary Observer (Russian: Новое Литературное Обозрение).

Below I will deal with one particular type of UFO stories, namely, “alien-abduction narratives” known in the West, especially in the United States, since at least the 1960s. Here, narratives about humans abducted by aliens were often related to a number of psychotherapeutic techniques, mostly to “recovered memory therapy,” which was believed to recover and neutralize subconscious traumatic memories. The use of this technique had a dramatic effect on the rise of American moral panics in the 1980s and 1990s – in particular on those connected with alleged “parental” and “satanic” abuse – and was often criticized for having resulted in a “false-memory syndrome” (see Ellis 2000: 87–119; Clancy 2005: 11–29, 54–80; Brown 2007: 38–51, 66–69). Alien abduction / abuse was also believed to entail displaced traumatic memories, so relevant abduction narratives were often produced during therapeutic or hypnotic sessions as well as in specific discussion clubs or groups (Brown 2007: 1–4, 25–30, 177–206; Lepselter 2016).

Special issue about flying objects. Based on materials from TASS, APN, Soviet and foreign press].
Yalutorovsk: Uprpoligrafizdat, 1991.

Although alien-abduction narratives in late and post-Soviet societies usually were not “medicalized,” the very motives of erased or unclear individual memories, as well as their relation to personal identities, body, and emotional effects were equally presented in these stories. Late and post-Soviet UFO believers also employed hypnosis to “recover” memories of abductees (see, for example, Azhazha 2014: 115; Priyma 1992: 4). In her book about alien abduction in America, Bridget Brown points to a specific “quasi-religious” position of hypnotherapy in the US since the 1960s: “Yet while hypnotherapists may act as latter-day shamans, they position themselves not as magicians, but as men of science” (Brown 2007: 30). No less important, however, is that the theme of accidental or forced loss of memory in abduction beliefs is related to a more complex associative chain that includes feelings of helplessness and fear, unpleasant or sinister visions, acoustic or optical effects (most often bright unnatural light and shrill sounds). This, so to say, psychosomatic frame is usually related to stories about mysterious medical examinations and biological experiments performed on abductees, scars and marks left on their bodies, and strange tiny implants placed by aliens under human skin:

“She was awakened by a tall humanoid in a silvery-grey coverall who ordered her in a “metal” voice to go on her balcony. The woman obliged reluctantly, since she wore only a night-dress; however, she did not feel the winter cold. In the courtyard, over a transformer unit, she noticed a discoid apparatus and then suddenly found herself in a round, brightly illumined room with white floors. She was examined by two seemingly terrestrial women in coveralls who put her on a trolley that looked like a surgical transport. One who was 50 or 60 years old and full-bodied questioned her continuously while another who was tall and had a blonde fringe under her hood examined her brusquely with a needle and other instruments. The examinations included gynecological ones. Finally the tall woman finished her painful manipulations with Larisa’s body and said abruptly: “We don’t need her anymore!”” [Belimov 2009: 159–160].

One constant theme of such stories is sexual contact with extraterrestrials, and the images of succubae and incubae here are also accompanied by medical or technological attributes. Other recurrent motifs of alien-abduction beliefs include genetics, childhood, and human reproductive performance – it is often stated that aliens deliberately hunt for human babies and gametal cells; they are also believed to use terrestrial women as surrogate mothers. Finally, the stories often emphasize that aliens treat human beings as “lower creatures” or “animals”.

A number of scholars attempted to explain these forms of UFO beliefs in comparison with ancient mythologies, rites of passage, popular demonology, etc. (see Bullard 1989; Kelley-Romano 2006). However, the comparison itself, whether anachronistic or not, gives us little, especially if we do not operate with Jungian “archetypes” and other controversial psychoanalytic categories. On the other hand, since we deal with personal narratives that represent or construct individual experience, it is worth thinking about methodology for such a cross-cultural and transhistorical analysis. One of the theoretical models that might be useful here has been suggested by the American medical anthropologist David J. Hufford. In his publications dealing in particular with the ethnography of so-called “sleep-paralysis” (Hufford 1982, 1995, 2005), he renounced constructivist theories of cultural or social sources of religious experience and argued, on the contrary, that “spiritual beliefs” are “founded on experience” or “empirically grounded”. (Hufford 1995: 18). In this perspective, historically, geographically, culturally, and ideologically different narratives (including both “religious” and “scientific” ones) can be equally related to universal forms of human experience. The case of sleep-paralysis is relevant here indeed, since the “symptoms” of this phenomenon are known in many societies and cultures – “its key features are the same the world over: knowing that you are awake, perceiving your surroundings realistically, being unable to move, feeling overwhelmed by intense terror and anxiety, sensing an evil presence, feeling crushing pressure on your chest, trying desperately to breathe, and lying helplessly on your back” (Adler 2011: 8–16). The Eastern Slavs believed this to be a house spirit who “smothers” sleepers, and in Newfoundland, where Hufford recorded his field interviews, people told about “the Old Hag” coming at night.

It is the sleep-paralysis experience, Hufford argues, on which alien-abduction narratives are founded. He also emphasizes that scientific (i. e. biological and psychiatric) and UFOlogical explanations of the phenomenon should not be contradicted as “true” and “false” (Hufford 2005: 38). His approach is shared by another medical anthropologist, Shelley R. Adler, who notes, however, that “differences do remain, though, between sleep paralysis and certain alien abductions (particularly those that occur during the day, take place outside, and are unrelated to sleep) and for this reason some have claimed that a direct link between sleep paralysis and alien-abduction experiences has yet to be firmly established” (Adler 2011: 33). Yet, the phenomenological approach by Hufford provides us with at least some methodological basis for comparing alien-abduction narratives with culturally different motifs and beliefs related to similar experiences – from house spirits “smothering” Russian peasants to stories about succubae and incubae in the Malleus Maleficarum.

It is obvious, however, that Hufford is mainly interested in the ontology of spiritual experience and argues against its public stigmatization as “psychopathology,” “superstition,” or “ignorance”. Another approach to alien-abduction stories is shared by scholars (for example, Bridget Brown and Susan Lepselter) who interpret UFO beliefs as an alternative epistemology, i. e. as a kind of hidden reflection on power and ideology in present-day societies. The motifs of mysterious abductions, bodily and psychological helplessness, “techno-sexual violation,” medical experiments, and so on are related, Brown argues, to a sense of powerlessness and alienation felt by Americans. In other words, she considers abduction narratives to be a symbolic form of social and political criticism and resistance:

“In attacking the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Islamic fundamentalists let the world know loudly and clearly that they were attacking the center of economic and military globalization, or imperialism, of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, of the perceived godlessness of Western culture and modernity writ large. Accounts of alien abduction give expression – in an obviously more benign, less overtly politicized fashion – to similar feelings from within of exclusion and alienation from national progress and more specifically, from the project of U.S. global expansion and dominance.” (Brown 2007: 209).

This rather politicized conclusion seems to be obviously valid, but, in my opinion, social and ideological contexts of alien abduction phenomena are more diverse and complicated. In the very beginning of her book, Brown remarks that she regards alien-abduction beliefs “largely as an American phenomenon” and that similar narratives existing outside of the United States seem to be “an American export, spread like other mass-produced cultural forms” (Brown 2007: 11–12). I am not sure if this statement is correct. Although the American UFO beliefs of the 1950s and 1960s did influence global popular culture in many aspects, it is equally possible that beliefs, narratives, and practices related to extraterrestrials have their own and – in a way – independent history in the USSR and other countries of the Eastern Bloc. Symptomatically, alien-abduction narratives based upon similar motifs and themes flourished on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, we can read late-Soviet abduction beliefs as related to fear and anxiety felt by the citizens of the totalitarian state with its discipline and hygiene, technocracy and military industry, all-powerful secret police, and memories of the Stalinist repressions.

“UFO abducted… Lenin?” In Argumenty i fakty no. 42 (October 2011)

Finally, UFO beliefs and narratives sometimes underwent certain historical changes. Another group of globally spread narratives about extraterrestrials presents quite different images of aliens. Here, they look and act like powerful and benevolent beings who attempt to warn humanity about future catastrophes (either ecological or cosmic) and even to save at least some terrestrials from it (and this is believed to be the real purpose of abductions). If, as Brown argues, such stories in the United States were mostly popular in the 1950s and 1960s (Brown 2007: 145–159), in Russia they were widespread at the turn of the 1990s, and this can be explained in relation to apocalyptic and millenarian expectations that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. It seems that motives, themes, and the rhetoric of Soviet and post-Soviet alien-abduction narratives can be equally explained both in terms of the experience-centered approach by Hufford and as a symbolic projection of power relations and forms of collective imagination characteristic rather of global culture than of particular societies and political systems of the late 20th century. In fact, these two explanatory models do not contradict but supplement each other.

References

Adler, Shelley R. Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection. New Brunswick / New Jersey / London: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

{Azhazha} Ажажа, Владимир Г. Под колпаком иного разума [Under the Hood of a Different Mind]. Москва: Вече, 2014.

{Belimov} Белимов, Геннадий С. Загадочный Волжский [Mysterious Volzhskiy]. Волгоград: Издатель, 2009.

Brown, Bridget. They Know Us Better than We Know Ourselves: The History and Politics of Alien Abduction. New York / London: New York University Press, 2007.

Bullard, Thomas E. “UFO Abduction Reports: The Supernatural Kidnap Narrative Returns in Technological Guise.” Journal of American Folklore 102, no. 404 (April–June, 1989): 147–170.

Clancy, Susan. A. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Ellis, Bill. Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Hufford, David J. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Hufford, David J. “Beings without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of the Belief in Spirits”. In Out of the Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural, ed. by B. Walker, 11-45. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1995.

Hufford, David J. “Sleep paralysis as spiritual experience.” Transcultural Psychiatry 42, no. 1 (2005): 11–45.

Kelley-Romano, Stephanie. “Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives.” Communication Quarterly 54, no. 3 (August 2006): 383–406.

Lepselter, Susan C. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016.

{Priima} Прийма, Алексей K. Вести с того света [News from Another World]. Mосква: Мистерия, 1992.

Cite this article as: Alexander Panchenko, “’She Was Awakened by a Tall Humanoid’: Why People Need Alien-Abduction Narratives””, in New Age in Russia, 21/05/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4624


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