I’m not going to talk about sexual fetishes, necrophilia and adults drinking breast milk, which all happened in this episode of American Horror Story. Fetishes are thought-provoking in how the conscious and unconscious impulses in the brain intersect, but they are complicated and not really safe for work. Instead, let’s discuss a topic that’s nearer to my X-Files loving heart, alien abductions. One of the recurring themes (topics? Plot lines?) of this season has been Kit and Alma’s abduction by aliens in the opening of the first episode.
Kit and Alma’s abduction story was clearly based on the most famous (and arguably the first) alien abduction case on record, the Betty and Barney Hill case. In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple like Kit and Alma, were driving home to New Hampshire at 10:30 p.m. when they saw what they believed to be a flying saucer. It followed them for a while, and then landed in front of the car. The next thing they remembered was getting home at dawn, a full 7 hours later. They would eventually undergo hypnosis, and remember being taken to an alien ship by three small beings with large eyes and grey skin, where they would undergo medical tests before being returned. Their memories of small beings would give rise to the common alien image often called “greys,” as would the basic structure of the overall abduction story. (To read a full account of their story, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_and_Barney_Hill_abduction.)
This basic story has become shorthand for an “alien abduction” in pop culture. If you watched the X-Files in the 1990s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Fire in the Sky in 1993 or The Fourth Kind in 2009, you know the images. People lose time; the lights flash on images of medical testing; women often have extended bellies implying pregnancy; the images cut quickly to avoid showing more than flashes of the alien creatures. When Grace tells Kit her memories of the event, this is what you see. It’s a very effective sequence we have that our society has accepted as “alien abduction.” There are thousands of people each year who report having this experience or a variation on it. It’s in our heads, and it’s not going away.
However, there is no evidence that there are aliens on any other planet in the universe, and no evidence that they have come to Earth. That is not to say that they do not exist, only that we don’t have proof they do. So what is going on? The thousands of people who report these incidents genuinely believe that they have been abducted by aliens, so what is happening? How do so many people have the same experiences? The short answer is that we don’t know. There are a number of possibilities, ranging from true to false, from something to nothing. Everything from sleep paralysis to actual beings taking humans for experimentation is a possible explanation. American Horror Story is taking the believer side, which makes sense in terms of what horror usually does.
The scientific explanation I find fascinating is the idea that the abductions, which often happen at night when the abductee is in bed, are pieces of memory from when the abductee was an infant. The grey aliens, with their pale skin and large, almond shaped eyes, resemble what scientists have found about how babies’ brains interpret visual stimuli (their brains are working to take in so much information that they don’t process the fine details, unlike adults who can process details because their brain already has the basic information down). The abduction is a vivid memory out of context that is then reinterpreted by the adult brain into something they can understand, the alien abduction. This hypothesis even takes into account the warm, comfortable feeling that abductees report feeling after an experience. Another possibility is that the suggestion of an alien abduction, even from a friend jokingly mentioning one, helps interpret a memory that a person may not be able otherwise (like falling asleep at an unfamiliar time, or a hallucination). This explains how therapists using hypnosis can influence their patients to believe that they were abducted using suggestion. Once the idea of an alien abduction is introduced (or easily identifiable details of one), the patient may begin to add details to make their memory match the abduction story. Once they discuss the idea, the therapist and the patient buy into the idea and reinforce each other’s understanding until they believe that there is no other possible explanation.
As you can tell, I find alien abduction stories captivating because they lend themselves to so many possible interpretations. Finding aliens on another planet is really exciting idea; the mind interpreting fragments of memory from infancy is also a really interesting idea. A lot of the explanations are as interesting as the stories themselves (check out a partial list here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspectives_on_the_abduction_phenomenon). Even though it’s usually tied to horror images and conspiracy theories (which are also fascinating), alien abduction stories go beyond them into the science of how the mind perceives and interprets the world around it. For that reason, they deserve way more study than they get from most scientific fields.
I don’t know where American Horror Story is going with the aliens for this season. I can see that using the Devil is an easy thing to use to illustrate good vs. evil, but I’m not sure what the end game for the inclusion of aliens is. They’ve been seen by enough characters that they can’t be a delusion, but I just don’t know what the point of them has been in the narrative, other than “aliens are cool.” There are two more episodes left to get the explanation. What do you think is going to happen?
For more information on alien abductions, there are two great books you can read. The first is Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, where he uses the scientific method to explain paranormal phenomena. It takes a skeptical point of view written by one of the great science authors. The second is Interrupted Journey, by John G. Fuller. Fuller put together the definitive story from the Hills and their therapist. It’s a good read directly from the people involved, and a nice introduction to the believer side of things. You can also find hundreds of webpages about alien abductions that explain the phenomena from both sides of the discussion.