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The Mindsnatchers

The Threat

by David M. Jacobs
Simon and Schuster, 287 pp., $23.00

According to a Time/CNN poll published a year ago, 64 percent of Americans now believe that creatures from elsewhere in the universe have recently been in personal touch with human beings.1 One such mortal, Whitley Strieber, writes that he has “received nearly a quarter of a million letters claiming contact” in the past eleven years alone. Indeed, many people, most of them mere students of the topic rather than “experiencers,” think that the aliens, having subjected abductees to breeding experiments in parked spaceships or secret underground laboratories, have already produced a race of hybrids who will someday rule or even replace us.

The hybrids may in fact be shopping and commuting all around us as I write. And even if they aren’t, their mixed parentage could help to explain the familiar images found in abduction memories like the following, culled from each of the three books under review here:

He’s got on a, a multistriped t-shirt…. And some, like little blue shorts…. They had sophisticated-looking toys, like maybe they got them out of Edmund’s Scientific or something…. They have a yo-yo…. It looks like an Etch-a-Sketch screen, except it’s filled with all sorts of stuff.

They were dressed like 1920s thugs, and came into the bedroom with old fashioned Tommy Guns, aiming at me and blazing away.

Beth Collings saw a naked man in an enormous white cowboy hat…. Karla Turner…mentions two people she knows who have seen aliens disguised as hillbillies. Katharina Wilson had an experience with an alien masquerading as Al Gore.

Once recollections of this kind are taken to be authentic, guesswork about the aliens’ true nature and purpose becomes irresistible. What if, for example, Katharina Wilson’s visitor wasn’t just masquerading as Al Gore but was “Al Gore”—the hybrid or body snatcher who has already replaced the man from Tennessee? And if so, the alien takeover of our executive branch surely wouldn’t have stopped at the second in command. Consider this provocative observation by the renowned abduction expert David M. Jacobs:

Because the late-state hybrids are mainly human, they have strong sexual drives but little conscience. It is as if they have human attributes but lack human controls. Even if they do have a conscience, they know that the human victim will immediately forget what has happened to her. The hybrid might assume that there is no lasting effect upon the human and he therefore can do and say anything he pleases with impunity.

Could the space creature that has assumed the form of Bill Clinton be hideously mocking us when it keeps invoking “executive privilege”?

Of course there are difficulties to be ironed out before speculations along these lines can become fully respectable. One of them has to do with distance. In the planets circling our Sun, no creatures besides ourselves are known for their partiality to tourism. What, then, about the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri? Voyaging from that vicinity at the generous estimate of a million miles per hour, our current visitors would have had to wave goodbye to their loved ones around the time of Moses—and then, having briefly played doctor with their favored specimens, some white Americans, they could look forward to devoting another three millennia to the return trip. Would it, to quote Prufrock, have been worth it, after all?2

To the unlikelihood of such persistent travel must be added the fact that modern UFO incidents, from the still hotly debated Roswell, New Mexico, Air Force case of 1947 until now, can be accounted for in rationally acceptable mundane terms.3 Misleading optical effects, half-waking dreams, sleep paralysis, tricks of memory, paranoid delusions, temporal lobe lesions, intoxication, fraud, and faddism are abundantly familiar to us, whereas the UFO thesis, even without the added burden of abduction tales, flouts the known laws of nature at every turn. Lacking even a scrap of credible physical evidence, ufologists have had to fall back on an appeal to numbers. How, they ask, could so many trustworthy witnesses be wrong about having spotted a spacecraft? Well, just replace “spacecraft” with “witch,” “ghost,” “angel,” “Loch Ness monster,” “Abominable Snowman,” or “face of Mother Teresa on a bun,” and you have your answer.

If all parties to the UFO controversy subscribed to the rule of Ockham’s razor and to David Hume’s reservations about the miraculous, the issue would have been laid to rest a whole generation ago, when Philip J. Klass’s UFOs Explained (Random House, 1974) deflated the best brief for visitation then extant, J. Allen Hynek’s The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (Regnery, 1972). Empirically speaking, nothing has changed since then; it is still the case that “you can’t get here from there.” Yet UFO claims, far from abating or becoming more humble, have expanded in number, extravagance, and fervor, and there is no reason to think that any deployment of evidence or logic can now discourage them.

At the time of the Hynek-Klass exchange, the bone of contention was sightings: Could any of the supposedly glimpsed celestial objects be spaceships from elsewhere? To be sure, a number of witnesses had also laid claim to very bizarre personal dealings with aliens, but “responsible” ufologists considered such reports fraudulent, and so-called contactees were regarded as a discredit to the cause. The sobriety of that cause depended on the aliens’ continued elusiveness. So long as they kept darting about the heavens so coyly, only pausing occasionally to hover over a swamp or chase a car, their technically inclined human monitors could also maintain a low profile, venturing no inanities about the contents of the baffling extraterrestrial mind.

In 1981, however, Budd Hopkins published his wildly popular Missing Time (Marek), and UFO advocacy underwent a major reversal. The physics of space travel were no longer deemed greatly interesting. Instead, credence was invested in one limited form of human-alien contact—namely, abduction. And that vogue is still going strong today, though certain of the faithful, taking a less dire view of alien actions and motives than Hopkins had, prefer gentler terms such as “visitation” or simply “experience.” But the difference is only a matter of coloration, since all parties concur in maintaining that the uninvited guests have been seizing people and tampering with their bodies and minds.

The abduction stories are supposedly warranted not by their verisimilitude but by the sincerity and emotional agitation with which they are narrated. Thus UFO validation, like much else in our nominally scientific era, has taken an inward turn. Although most citizens distrust abduction reports, others cannot withhold their sympathy from patent victims. They are ready to second Harvard’s resident ufologist and prophet of higher consciousness, John Mack, when he complains that the inclusion of “a hostile debunker” on a radio or television program about abduction “constitutes a human rights violation of an authentic minority.”4

Of the three authors before us, two—David Jacobs and Whitley Strieber—share with Mack and Hopkins the highest popularity among abduction/ visitation believers. Such eminence requires that they keep dissenters at bay by making a grave show of answering empirically based objections. Strieber in particular is a master of such guile, nominally welcoming experimentation and tantalizing his readers with the prospect of physical proofs that never quite materialize. His and Jacobs’s scientific concern is UFOlike: now you see it, now you don’t. Jacobs speaks for both authors when he declares that it just doesn’t matter how the aliens got here. Maybe they did so, suggests this Temple University history professor, by surfing the “astral plane,” or by popping out of “a parallel universe,” or by “traveling on thought patterns”—their own or even ours. “The question is not how aliens get here,” says Jacobs insouciantly, “but whether they are here. The ‘how’ is ultimately a technological detail.”

Once such formalities are out of the way, the encounter expert is free to expand his claims at just those points where they might be considered most vulnerable. You needn’t wonder, for example, how astronauts from another planetary system can give comprehensible orders to monolingual Yankee earthlings; the aliens, Jacobs and Strieber assure us, can read our thoughts and communicate with us telepathically. Again, if only one person in a crowd sees the intruders approach and leave, that is not because they are imaginary but because they have a knack of putting anyone they please into a trance. If an alleged abduction has left doors and windows locked, leading to a suspicion that the whole thing was a dream, the theory comes to the rescue by positing an ability on the aliens’ part to waft both themselves and us through solid walls. If some of the hypnotically recalled visitors bear a suspiciously human aspect, that’s not because people tend to dream about other people but because some UFO denizens must be hybrids. And if women who thought they had been impregnated by aliens turn out not to be pregnant at all, that is because their offspring have already been extracted in a second, but this time amnesiac, violation.

Both Strieber and Jacobs have recourse to the classic sophistry of all ufologists, ascribing a cumulative weight to reports that, when regarded one by one, are lighter than air. (“Individually,” says Strieber, “the stories are incredible. But taken together, they are beyond the incredible.”) What compels assent, they declare, is the otherwise unaccountable congruence of detail from one narrative to another. In fact, however, there is nothing unaccountable about it. Descriptions of spaceships and aliens have always followed the specifications laid down by Hollywood in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); by scare-mongering TV docudramas such as NBC’s sensational and slanted The UFO Incident (1975)5 ; and by books like those before us, the most influential of which has been Strieber’s own runaway best seller of 1987, Communion.

Indeed, authors like Strieber, Jacobs, Hopkins, and Mack are best understood not as neutral compilers of abduction experience but as theoretically committed generators and standardizers of it, each of whom attracts the type of report he is known to favor. Their works at once provide templates for future dreams or nightmares, filter out or minimize anomalous material, and establish the author as an inspirational figure holding special insight into the extraterrestrials’ plans. If you suspect that ETs are up to no good, Hopkins or Jacobs will help you fit the evidence into a satisfying conspiratorial thesis. If, on the other hand, you prefer the mushy Steven Spielberg approach, Mack or Strieber will soothe you with assurances that the aliens, despite their occasional rudeness, are really our tutors, having come all this way just to raise our ecological awareness and enhance our spirituality.

However earnestly intended, these mind-numbing books can shake loose some very big bucks for their authors and their shamelessly cynical publishers, who surely realize that they are not merely widening their companies’ profit margins but fomenting public delusion. Twenty or thirty years ago, for reasons of self-respect, most houses would have thought twice about lending their imprint to such ludicrous stuff. Not today; there’s no business like UFO business. The prospect of striking it rich again with another blockbuster like Strieber’s Communion or Hopkins’s Missing Time is just too tempting to pass up.

  1. 1

    See “Poll: U.S. Hiding Knowledge of Aliens,” CNN Interactive (June 15, 1997), http://www.cnn.com/US/9706/ 15/ufo.poll/index.html. Among the believers, roughly half subscribe to the thesis of alien abduction.

  2. 2

    The logistical difficulties surrounding the UFO thesis, it should be noted, do not extend to the interception of (as yet undetected) radio signals from remote civilizations. In this connection, see two new books: Michael D. Lemonick, Other Worlds: The Search for Life in the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 1998), and Barry Parker, Alien Life: The Search for Extraterrestrials and Beyond (Plenum Trade, 1998).

  3. 3

    For cogent discussion of the Roswell matter, see Philip J. Klass, The Real Roswell Crashed-Saucer Coverup (Prometheus, 1997) and Kendrick Frazier, Barry Karr, and Joe Nickell, editors, The UFO Invasion: The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups (Prometheus, 1997). Sensible broader studies are Klass’s UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game (Prometheus, 1988) and, largely prior to the abduction fad, Donald H. Menzel and Ernest H. Taves, The UFO Enigma: The Definitive Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon (Doubleday, 1977).

  4. 4

    John E. Mack, “An Approach to Helping Abductees,” in Alien Discussions: Proceedings of the Abduction Study Conference, edited by Andrea Pritchard et al. (North Cambridge Press, 1994), p. 484. Mack’s chief contribution to the abduction debate has been Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (Scribners, 1994).

  5. 5

    The UFO Incident founded the abduction craze by purporting to relate the true vicissitudes of Barney and Betty Hill, who had supposedly been kidnapped by ETs in 1961. NBC’s light regard for facts is explored in Klass’s UFO-Abductions and Menzel and Taves’s The UFO Enigma (see note 3 above). Strieber’s publisher has announced that NBC will be doing another encounter “special” soon, this time with Strieber himself as co-host.

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