Summary: Since anthropology has proven itself a useful means for societal self-examination through the confrontation with other modes of thought and life, I believe an anthropological approach to the subject of human-alien contact will be highly fruitful. Uppermost in the list of useful traits of anthropology is how it allows us to particularize the seemingly universal and contextualize the taken-for-granted.
Stories of meeting beings from other worlds have so permeated popular culture in America and other nations that it is almost something many of us take for granted. But the taken-for-grantedness of this trope of contact is what we should be interrogating, quite apart from the form or likelihood such contact may have. Since anthropology has proven itself a useful means for societal self-examination through the confrontation with other modes of thought and life, I believe an anthropological approach to the subject of human-alien contact will be highly fruitful. Uppermost in the list of useful traits of anthropology is how it allows us to particularize the seemingly universal and contextualize the taken-for-granted.
In the case of alien-human contact stories, we have to contextualize the two main categories of stories – relatively benign contact versus frequently terrifying abduction – on several levels: The place these respective story types occupy in their immediate historical and cultural milieu, the pop culture and entertainment of the 20th century, as well as the heterodox scientific study of UFOs. The relation they have to a set of long-standing folkloric traditions - Western and perhaps even global traditions – dealing with nonhuman aerial beings, with which alien contact narratives share certain elements of structure and content. The relation such reports have to the corpus of social-scientific theory about the historical, institutional, and psychosocial traits of modernity.
Though carrying through such a research program is quite beyond the capabilities of this website, I hope that I can encourage studies along these lines with the information provided herein. For a summary of the history and morphology of these phenomena, continue on; for bibliographies, links, and a discussion of some important issues in research on abduction and contact, click on the appropriate link below.
Contact & abduction - an overview
Before we can enter more dense conceptual terrain, we need to be clear on exactly what phenomena are under discussion. I accept the basic division between contact and abduction that dominates most writing on the subject, and I propose a further, analytically useful subdivision in each category.
I distinguish between what I will call "saucerian" and "channeled" types of contact, though elements of the two are not mutually exclusive. The former type usually begins when a lone person in some isolated place – the desert, frequently – comes across a space craft and its crew and is invited aboard. The contactee has a series of encounters in the craft, viewing the civilizations of several planets and discussing weighty matters with the alien leader. Of special concern to the aliens is the disruption in the galactic community caused by humanity’s recent harnessing of nuclear energy and its use in weapons. After several saucer trips, the contactee writes of his (most contactees of this type have been male) encounters and, in many cases, founds a new religious movement to get the extraterrestrial message to others.
Telepathic contact with an "Ascended Master" or some other extraterrestrial being, though it also produces books and religious organizations, is much more along the lines of classic communication with spirits than the "saucerian" contact reports. (J. Gordon Melton points out the interconnections between contactees and Theosophy, and others link contactees to spirit mediums and "channels.") Some lone person, either by chance or deliberate effort, enters into communication with an alien intelligence. Again, the disruption of the community of intelligences caused by humans and their nuclear weapons is the major theme of the communication. The contactee is urged to tell others of the arrival of "Space Brothers" and the Golden Age with them. Aetherius, Unarius and the group profiled in When prophecy fails all got started in this manner.
Abduction differs from contact on a few critical points:
abductees are taken against their will, whereas contactees enter into their relationship with aliens voluntarily;
abduction is generally unpleasant, if not terrifying, while contact uplifts the intellect and the ego;
and abductees tend to shun publicity for their experiences, an attitude generally diametrically opposed to that of the contactees.
In what I will term a "classic" abduction, a lone person comes into contact with aliens and/or a UFO. The person is rendered immobile, sometimes unconscious, and is taken to a room where s/he undergoes a seemingly "medical" examination at the hands of nonhuman aliens. The aliens use a combination of instruments and visual-psychic scanning, often extracting sex cells, sometimes implanting tiny objects the abductees interpret as tracking devices. Many abductees report a separate segment to the episode in which an alien leader gives them important, sometimes highly symbolic messages. They may see a representation of the end of the world, or they may meet an alien-human hybrid child they are led to believe is theirs. Abductees are then returned to normal life at some remove in space and time from where they were taken. Reports of lifelong series of abductions beginning in childhood are becoming more and more common. Together with the circumstances of the abduction and the seeming alien preoccupation with human reproduction (especially in American cases), these patterns of abductions lead some prominent investigators and abductees to see a sinister plan behind the phenomenon.
A significant percentage of abduction reports suggest abductee – and alien – concern with spirituality, so I will call this percentage "spiritual" abductions. Contact with the alien Other in general has a profound effect on the psyche and worldview, whether or not the Other intends to produce such an effect. "Spiritual" abductions suggest a deliberate and apparently magnanimous intent to change the abductee’s psyche. They have the same basic structure and elements as the more secular "classic" experience but have a different orientation and outcome with respect to the abductee. In taking and manipulating people aliens seem to wish to effect a spiritual evolution of the individual people and, through them, humanity as a whole. As Harvard psychiatrist and abduction researcher John Mack suggests, spiritual growth can be painful and bewildering even if well-intentioned. Though some alien self-interest may persist, "spiritual" abductees report positive reorientations like respect for life, desire to serve others, and a more immediate sense of the divine and miraculous in the everyday.
Brief History of Abduction & Contact
Reports of contact with the crews of alien craft seem to be as old as reports of the craft themselves, and abduction reports are not much more recent. I focus primarily on the US in this history, partially because I know it best, but just as much because the US has been the leading producer of UFO-related reports and investigators, not to mention influential UFO-themed entertainment.
The 1950s were the heyday of both flying saucer sci-fi movies and reports of "saucerian" and "channeled" contact. People like George Adamski, Howard Menger, and Truman Bethurum are among the most famous "saucerians," George King and Ernest Norman began Aetherius and Unarius, respectively, and Festinger et al released their influential study When prophecy fails. Yet the first investigated abduction case occurred in Brazil in 1957. A young farmer named Antonio Villas-Boas was examined by Dr. Olavo Fontes after reporting being taken aboard a spaceship and compelled to mate with an alien female.
The Villas-Boas case did not, however, have an effect on the course of abduction research as a whole until it was compared to the Hill case of 1961, the quintessential abduction report. After experiencing missing time and severe nightmares following their sighting of a UFO on vacation, Betty and Barney Hill of new Hampshire sought the help of psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon. Simon used hypnosis on the two separately, producing two different but very compelling stories of abduction and experimentation at the hands of aliens that journalist John G. Fuller chronicled in his bestseller The interrupted journey.
It was not until the mid-1970s that any other comparable abduction cases came along. Three major cases appeared in ufological literature and the news media in the US - Charles Hickson/Calvin Parker in Mississippi, Travis Walton in Arizona, and Betty Andreasson-Luca in Massachusetts - and with others coming to light elsewhere. The 1970s were also a time when contactee cults, pared down over the course of the 1960s to a few major groups, experienced the public scrutiny and opprobrium that alternative religions generally did in the West at that time. Though channeling had overtaken "saucerian" contact by this time, one prominent but small "saucerian" contact cult began in 1975--Human Individual Metamorphosis, later Heaven's Gate.
Abduction research began to take over ufology in the 1980s. At around the same time elements of right-wing conspiracist thinking began to mix with the dominant extraterrestrial hypothesis and its latent conspiracist aspects (e.g. proposed government cover-up of UFO information). By the 1980s, alien contact and its religious overtones had been fermenting for nearly three decades thanks to the success of UFO-themed entertainment and non-fiction, and had begun to reach a point of saturation. The linkage between abduction research and far-right conspiracism also began to grow in this period.
Through the course of the 1990s, alien contact in its several varieties was - as I argued above - very nearly taken for granted by many people, thanks in large part to popular cultural saturation by such phenomena as "The X-Files." In a similar manner, the connection of UFOs to cults, and (unfortunately) of cults to violence, approached taken-for-granted status. This latter series of connections was made possible by the mass suicide of the remaining Heaven's Gate members in 1998, which resonated with the earlier and much larger mass death of People's Temple members in Guyana. People continued to channel extraterrestrial beings, and the established contactee cults awaited the coming of the Space Brothers, though "saucerian" contact was much less frequent. Perhaps this is because of the spiritual turn of abduction reports and research, which is very much a '90s phenomenon (though well-known cases like that of Betty Andreasson-Luca were manifestly religious in content and effects).