A down-to-earth look at alien fantasies



Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens

Susan A. Clancy

Harvard University Press / 179 pages

Why would a serious psychologist take up the seemingly frivolous topic of alien abduction? For Susan Clancy, a member of the psychology department at Harvard, the answer is simple: to learn more about the mind - everyone's mind.

In this remarkable study of people who believe they've been carried off by little green men, Clancy's subjects are memory, personality and truth as each individual experiences it. Even if the idea of alien abduction is absurd, you will find her work fascinating and revealing.

Clancy interviewed more than 40 true believers and concludes that, for some folks, alien abduction explains scary happenings and unpleasant symptoms in an emotionally satisfying way. These "culturally available scripts" cast them as unsuspecting victims who are kidnapped for a time by powerful beings and used for experimental or breeding purposes. The stories they recount are remarkably consistent, featuring needle-wielding extraterrestrials with big heads and wrap-around eyes straight out of central casting. No one reported being abducted by aliens until after such scenes were features on TV and in movies starting in the early 1960s.

But believers don't see the Hollywood connection - they are looking for answers about their experiences and feelings. Clancy believes that a frightening bout of sleep paralysis often triggers the event. As a person transitions from one sleep cycle to the next, it's possible to wake up suddenly and be unable to move. People in this state often imagine that there is someone - a menacing alien, perhaps - in the room with them.

Clancy also describes how sadness or alienation, even persistent absent-mindedness, can lead people to think they've had an alien encounter, especially if they fall into the hands of a therapist who claims a belief in abduction. These therapists essentially implant memories by using hypnosis and suggesting that their patients visualize and describe scenes involving aliens. Recent studies of memory, noted by Clancy, describe how powerful the protracted imagining of an event can be if an authority figure is present to validate what is conjured up. The "memories" that emerge may feel as real as those concerning actual events.

Indeed, the lasting significance of Clancy's book may be its contribution to the growing body of knowledge about memory. Her work supports that of other psychologists, most notably her Harvard colleague Richard McNally, author of Remembering Trauma, a comprehensive tome published in 2003. They both conclude that no video camera in our heads records the events of our lives; we constantly reconstruct experiences using bits and pieces of recall. If you lack concrete information about the source of a memory - how and when and where you acquired it - you can't be sure it's real, which should be a sobering thought for everyone.

Of course, alien-abduction memories have a very specific source - pop culture - and they emerge only in a handful of people. The people most likely to adopt these beliefs include those who are fantasy-prone to begin with, who daydream a lot, and whose minds are full of rich, visual imagery. Clancy also suggests that some believers may want to explain their distress or misfortunes in a way that frees them of responsibility. Others long for something beyond hum-drum life: a touch of the divine, a contact with the supernatural.

Clancy's affection for her subjects infuses the whole book and allows us to see these believers as all too human - people we can recognize and relate to, even as we dismiss their ideas.

Clare McHugh is an editor at Time Inc.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.