Betty and Barney Hill were an American couple who claimed to have been abducted by extraterrestrials in a rural portion of New Hampshire on September 19–20, 1961. The couple’s story, called the Hill Abduction, and occasionally the Zeta Reticuli Incident, was that they had been kidnapped for a short time by a UFO. Theirs was the first widely-publicized claim of alien abduction, adapted into the best-selling 1966 book The Interrupted Journey and the 1975 television movie The UFO Incident.
The Hills lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Barney (1922–1969) was employed by the U.S. Postal Service, while Betty (1919–2004) was a social worker. Active in a Unitarian congregation, the Hills were also members of the NAACP and community leaders, and Barney sat on a local board of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. They were an interracial couple at a time when it was particularly unusual in the United States; Barney was black and Betty was white.
The UFO encounter
According to a variety of reports given by the Hills, the alleged UFO sighting happened on September 19, 1961, at around 10:30 p.m. The Hills were driving back to Portsmouth from a vacation in Niagara Falls and Montreal, Quebec, Canada. There were only a few other cars on the road as they made their way home to New Hampshire’s seacoast. Just south of Lancaster, New Hampshire, Betty claimed to have observed a bright point of light in the sky that moved from below the moon and the planet Jupiter, upward to the west of the moon. While Barney navigated U.S. Route 3, Betty reasoned that she was observing a falling star, only it moved upward, like a plane or a satellite. Since it moved erratically and grew bigger and brighter, Betty urged Barney to stop the car for a closer look, as well as to walk their dog, Delsey. Barney stopped at a scenic picnic area just south of Twin Mountain. Worried about the presence of bears, Barney retrieved a pistol that he had concealed in the trunk of the car.
Betty, through binoculars, observed an “odd shaped” craft flashing multicolored lights travel across the face of the moon. Because her sister had confided to her about having a flying saucer sighting several years earlier, Betty thought it might be what she was observing. Through binoculars Barney observed what he reasoned was a commercial airliner traveling toward Vermont on its way to Montreal. However, he soon changed his mind, because without looking as if it had turned, the craft rapidly descended in his direction. This observation caused Barney to realize, “this object that was a plane was not a plane.” He quickly returned to the car and drove toward Franconia Notch, a narrow, mountainous stretch of the road.
The Hills claimed that they continued driving on the isolated road, moving very slowly through Franconia Notch in order to observe the object as it came even closer. At one point, the object passed above a restaurant and signal tower on top of Cannon Mountain. It passed over the mountain and came out near the 48′ profile of the Old Man of the Mountain. Betty testified that it was at least one and a half times the length of the granite profile and seemed to be rotating. The couple watched as the silent, illuminated craft moved erratically and bounced back and forth in the night sky. As they drove along Route 3 through Franconia Notch, they stated that it seemed to be playing a game of cat and mouse with the couple.
Approximately one mile south of Indian Head, they said, the object rapidly descended toward their vehicle causing Barney to stop directly in the middle of the highway. The huge, silent craft hovered approximately 80–100 feet above the Hills’ 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and filled the entire field of the windshield. It reminded Barney of a huge pancake. Carrying his pistol in his pocket, he stepped away from the vehicle and moved closer to the object. Using the binoculars, Barney claimed to have seen about 8 to 11 humanoid figures who were peering out of the craft’s windows, seeming to look at him. In unison, all but one figure moved to what appeared to be a panel on the rear wall of the hallway that encircled the front portion of the craft. The one remaining figure continued to look at Barney and communicated a message telling him to “stay where you are and keep looking.” Barney had a conscious, continuous recollection of observing the humanoid forms wearing glossy black uniforms and black caps. Red lights on what appeared to be bat-wing fins began to telescope out of the sides of the craft and a long structure descended from the bottom of the craft. The silent craft approached to what Barney estimated was within 50–80 feet overhead and 300 feet away from him. On October 21, 1961, Barney reported to NICAP Investigator Walter Webb, that the “beings were somehow not human”.
Barney tore the binoculars away from his eyes and ran back to his car. In a near hysterical state, he told Betty, “They’re going to capture us!” He saw the object again shift its location to directly above the vehicle. He drove away at high speed, telling Betty to look for the object. She rolled down the window and looked up, but saw only darkness above them, even though it was a bright, starry night.
Almost immediately, the Hills heard a rhythmic series of beeping or buzzing sounds which they said seemed to bounce off the trunk of their vehicle. The car vibrated and a tingling sensation passed through the Hills’ bodies. Betty touched the metal on the passenger door expecting to feel an electric shock, but felt only the vibration. The Hills said that at this point in time they experienced the onset of an altered state of consciousness that left their minds dulled. A second series of codelike beeping or buzzing sounds returned the couple to full consciousness. They found that they had traveled nearly 35 miles south but had only vague, spotty memories of this section of road. They recalled making a sudden unplanned turn, encountering a roadblock, and observing a fiery orb in the road.
Arriving home at about dawn, the Hills assert that they had some odd sensations and impulses they could not readily explain: Betty insisted their luggage be kept near the back door rather than in the main part of the house. Their watches would never run again. Barney noted that the leather strap for the binoculars was torn, though he could not recall it tearing. The toes of his best dress shoes were inexplicably scraped. Barney says he was compelled to examine his genitals in the bathroom, though he found nothing unusual. They took long showers to remove possible contamination and each drew a picture of what they had observed. Their drawings were strikingly similar.
Perplexed, the Hills say they tried to reconstruct the chronology of events as they witnessed the UFO and drove home. But immediately after they heard the buzzing sounds, their memories became incomplete and fragmented. They vaguely recalled a luminous moon shape sitting on the road. Barney recalled saying “Oh no, not again”. Betty thought Barney had taken a sharp left turn off Route 3.
After sleeping for a few hours, Betty awoke and placed the shoes and clothing she had worn during the drive into her closet, observing that the dress was torn at the hem, zipper and lining. Later, when she retrieved the items from her closet, she noted a pinkish powder on her dress. She hung the dress on her clothesline and the pink powder blew away. But the dress was irreparably damaged. She threw it away, but then changed her mind, retrieving the dress and hanging it in her closet. Over the years, five laboratories have conducted chemical and forensic analyses on the dress.
Initial report to the U.S. Air Force and NICAP
On September 21, Betty telephoned Pease Air Force Base to report their UFO encounter, though for fear of being labeled eccentric, she withheld some of the details. On September 22, Major Paul W. Henderson telephoned the Hills for a more detailed interview. Henderson’s report, dated September 26, determined that the Hills had probably misidentified the planet Jupiter. (This was later changed to “optical condition”, “inversion” and “insufficient data.”) (Report 100-1-61, Air Intelligence Information Record) His report was forwarded to Project Blue Book, the U.S. Air Force’s UFO research project.
Within days of the encounter, Betty borrowed a UFO book from a local library. It had been written by retired Marine Corps Major Donald E. Keyhoe, who was also the head of NICAP, a civilian UFO research group. On September 26, Betty wrote to Keyhoe. She related the full story, including the details about the humanoid figures that Barney had observed through binoculars. Betty wrote that she and Barney were considering hypnosis to help recall what had happened. Her letter was eventually passed on to Walter N. Webb, a Boston astronomer and NICAP member.
Webb met with the Hills on October 21, 1961. In a six-hour interview, the Hills related all they could remember of the UFO encounter. Barney asserted that he had developed a sort of “mental block” and that he suspected there were some portions of the event that he did not wish to remember. He described in detail all that he could remember about the craft and the appearance of the “somehow not human” figures aboard the craft. Webb stated that “they were telling the truth and the incident probably occurred exactly as reported except for some minor uncertainties and technicalities that must be tolerated in any such observations where human judgment is involved (e.g., exact time and length of visibility, apparent sizes of object and occupants, distance and height of object, etc.).”
Betty’s dreams Ten days after the UFO encounter, Betty began having a series of vivid dreams. They continued for five successive nights. Never in her memory had she recalled dreams in such detail and intensity. But they stopped abruptly after five nights and never returned again. They occupied her thoughts during the day. When she finally did mention them to Barney, he was sympathetic, but not too concerned, and the matter was dropped. Betty did not mention them to Barney again.
In November 1961, Betty began writing down the details of her dreams. In one dream, she and Barney encountered a roadblock and men who surrounded their car. She lost consciousness but struggled to regain it. She then realized that she was being forced by two small men to walk in a forest in the nighttime, and of seeing Barney walking behind her, though when she called to him, he seemed to be in a trance or sleepwalking. The men stood about five feet to five feet four inches tall, and wore matching uniforms, with caps similar to those worn by military cadets. They appeared nearly human, but with bald heads, large wraparound eyes, small ears and almost absent noses. Their skin was a greyish colour.
In the dreams, Betty, Barney, and the men walked up a ramp into a disc-shaped craft of metallic appearance. Once inside, Barney and Betty were separated. She protested, and was told by a man she called “the leader” that if she and Barney were examined together, it would take much longer to conduct the exams. She and Barney were then taken to separate rooms.
Betty then dreamt that a new man, similar to the others, entered to conduct her exam with the leader. Betty called this new man “the examiner” and said he had a pleasant, calm manner. Though the leader and the examiner spoke to her in English, the examiner’s command of the language seemed imperfect and she had difficulty understanding him.
The examiner told Betty that he would conduct a few tests to note the differences between humans and the craft’s occupants. He seated her on a chair, and a bright light was shone on her. The man cut off a lock of Betty’s hair. He examined her eyes, ears, mouth, teeth, throat and hands. He saved trimmings from her fingernails. After examining her legs and feet, the man then used a dull knife, similar to a letter opener to scrape some of her skin onto what resembled cellophane. He then tested her nervous system and he thrust the needle into her navel, which caused Betty agonizing pain. But the leader waved his hand in front of her eyes and the pain vanished.
The examiner left the room and Betty engaged in conversation with the “leader”. She picked up a book with rows of strange symbols that the “leader” said she could take home with her. She also asked where he was from, and he pulled down an instructional map dotted with stars.
She and Barney were taken to their car, where the leader suggested that they wait to watch the craft’s departure. They did so, then resumed their drive.
On November 25, 1961, the Hills were again interviewed at length by NICAP members, this time C.D. Jackson and Robert E. Hohman.
Having read Webb’s initial report, Jackson and Hohman had many questions for the Hills. One of their main questions was about the length of the trip. Neither Webb nor the Hills had noted that, though the drive should have taken about four hours, they did not arrive at home until seven hours after their departure. When Hohman and Jackson noted this discrepancy to the Hills, the couple had no explanation (a frequently reported circumstance in alleged alien abduction cases that some have called “missing time”). As Clark writes, despite “all their efforts the Hills could recall almost nothing of the 35 miles between Indian Head and Ashland. Although Betty’s recall was somewhat fuller than Barney’s, both were able to recall an image of a fiery orb sitting on the ground. Betty and Barney reasoned that it must have been the moon, but Hohman and Jackson informed them that the moon had set earlier in the evening.
The subject of hypnosis came up. Perhaps hypnosis could unlock the missing memories. Barney was apprehensive about hypnosis, but thought it might help Betty put to rest what Barney described as the ‘nonsense’ about her dreams.”
By February 1962, the Hills were making frequent weekend drives to the White Mountains, hoping that revisiting the site might spark more memories. They were unsuccessful in trying to locate the site where they observed a fiery orb sitting in the road. However, they were able to eliminate several possible routes. (They found the “capture” site on Labor Day weekend in 1965.) Private disclosure
On November 23, 1962, the Hills attended a meeting at the parsonage of their church where the invited guest speaker was Captain Ben H. Swett of the U.S. Air Force, who had recently published a book of his poetry. After he read selections of his poetry, the pastor asked him to discuss his personal interest in hypnosis. After the meeting broke up, the Hills approached Captain Swett privately and told him what they could remember of their strange encounter. He was particularly interested in the “missing time” of the Hills’ account. The Hills asked Swett if he would hypnotize them to recover their memories, but Swett said he was not qualified to do that and cautioned them against going to an amateur hypnotist, such as himself. First public disclosure
On March 3, 1963, the Hills first publicly discussed the UFO encounter with a group at their church.
On September 7, 1963, Captain Swett gave a formal lecture on hypnosis to a meeting at the Unitarian Church. After the lecture, the Hills told him that Barney was going to a psychiatrist, Dr. Stephens, whom he liked and trusted. Captain Swett suggested that Barney ask Dr. Stephens about the use of hypnosis in his case. When Barney next met with Dr. Stephens, he asked about hypnosis. Stephens referred the Hills to Dr. Benjamin Simon of Boston.
On November 3, 1963, the Hills spoke before an amateur UFO study group, the Two State UFO Study Group, in Quincy Center, Massachusetts.
The Hills first met Dr. Simon on December 14, 1963. Early in their discussions, Simon determined that the UFO encounter was causing Barney far more worry and anxiety than he was willing to admit. Though Simon dismissed the popular extraterrestrial hypothesis as impossible, it seemed obvious to him that the Hills genuinely thought they had witnessed a UFO with human-like occupants. Simon hoped to uncover more about the experience through hypnosis.
Dr. Simon’s hypnosis sessions
Simon began hypnotizing the Hills on January 4, 1964. He hypnotized Betty and Barney several times each, and the sessions lasted until June 6, 1964. Simon conducted the sessions on Barney and Betty separately, so they could not overhear one another’s recollections. At the end of each session he reinstated amnesia. Barney’s sessions
Simon hypnotized Barney first. His recall of witnessing non-human figures was quite emotional, punctuated with expressions of fear, emotional outbursts and incredulity. Barney said that, due to his fear, he kept his eyes closed for much of the abduction and physical examination. Based on these early responses, Simon told Barney that he would not remember the hypnosis sessions until he was certain he could remember them without being further traumatized.
Under hypnosis (as was consistent with his conscious recall), Barney reported that the binocular strap had broken when he ran from the UFO back to his car. He recalled driving the car away from the UFO, but that afterwards he felt irresistibly compelled to pull off the road, and drive into the woods. He eventually sighted six men standing in the dirt road. The car stalled and three of the men approached the car. They told Barney to not fear them. He was still anxious, however, and he reported that the leader told Barney to close his eyes. While hypnotized, Barney said, “I felt like the eyes had pushed into my eyes.”
Barney described the beings as generally similar to Betty’s hypnotic, not dream recollection. The beings often stared into his eyes, said Barney, with a terrifying, mesmerizing effect. Under hypnosis, Barney said things like, “Oh, those eyes. They’re there in my brain” (from his first hypnosis session) and “I was told to close my eyes because I saw two eyes coming close to mine, and I felt like the eyes had pushed into my eyes” (from his second hypnosis session) and “All I see are these eyes… I’m not even afraid that they’re not connected to a body. They’re just there. They’re just up close to me, pressing against my eyes.”
Barney related that he and Betty were taken onto the disc-shaped craft, where they were separated. He was escorted to a room by three of the men and told to lie on a small rectangular exam table. Unlike Betty, Barney’s narrative of the exam was fragmented, and he continued to keep his eyes closed for most of the exam. A cup-like device was placed over his genitals. He did not experience an orgasm though Barney thought that a sperm sample had been taken. The men scraped his skin, and peered in his ears and mouth. A tube or cylinder was inserted in his anus. Someone felt his spine, and seemed to be counting his vertebrae.
While Betty reported extended conversations with the beings in English, Barney said that he heard them speaking in a mumbling language he did not understand. Betty also mentioned this detail. The few times they communicated with him, Barney said it seemed to be “thought transference”; at that time, he was unfamiliar with the word “telepathy”. Both Betty and Barney stated that they hadn’t observed the beings’ mouths moving when they communicated in English with them.
He recalled being escorted from the ship, and taken to his car, which was now near the road rather than in the woods. In a daze, he watched the ship leave. Barney remembered a light appearing on the road, and he said, “Oh no, not again.” He recalled Betty’s speculation that the light might have been the moon, though the moon had in fact set several hours earlier. He also stated that he attempted to produce the code-like buzzing sounds which seemed to strike the car’s trunk a second time by driving from side to side and stopping and starting the vehicle. His attempt was unsuccessful.
Under hypnosis, Betty’s account was very similar to the events of her five dreams about the UFO abduction, but there were also notable differences. Under hypnosis, her capture and release were different. The technology on the craft was different. The short men had a significantly different physical appearance than the ones in her dreams. The sequential order of the abduction event was also different than in Betty’s dream account. She filled in many details that were not in her dreams and contradicted some of her dream content. It is interesting that Barney’s and Betty’s memories in hypnotic regression were consistent but contradicted some of the information in Betty’s dreams.
Betty exhibited considerable emotional distress during her capture and examination. Dr. Simon ended one session early because tears were flowing down her cheeks and she was in considerable agony.
Dr. Simon gave Betty the post hypnotic suggestion that she could sketch a copy of the “star map” that she later described as a three dimensional projection similar to a hologram. She hesitated, thinking she would be unable to accurately depict the three-dimensional quality of the map she says she saw on the ship. Eventually, however, she did what Simon suggested. Although she said the map had many stars, she drew only those that stood out in her memory. Her map consisted of twelve prominent stars connected by lines and three lesser ones that formed a distinctive triangle. (see below) She said she was told the stars connected by solid lines formed “trade routes”, whereas dashed lines were to less-traveled stars.
Dr. Simon’s conclusions
After extensive hypnosis sessions, Dr. Simon concluded that Barney’s recall of the UFO encounter was a fantasy inspired by Betty’s dreams. Though Simon admitted this hypothesis did not explain every aspect of the experience, he thought it was the most plausible and consistent explanation. Barney rejected this idea, noting that while their memories were in some regards interlocking, there were also portions of both their narratives that were unique to each. Barney was now ready to accept that they had been abducted by the occupants of a UFO, though he never embraced it as fully as Betty did.
Though the Hills and Simon disagreed about the nature of the case, they all concurred that the hypnosis sessions were effective: the Hills were no longer tormented by anxiety about the UFO encounter.
Afterwards, Simon wrote an article about the Hills for the journal Psychiatric Opinion, explaining his conclusions that the case was a singular psychological aberration.
Publicity after the hypnosis sessions
The Hills went back to their regular lives. They were willing to discuss the UFO encounter with friends, family and the occasional UFO researcher, but the Hills apparently made no effort to seek publicity.
But on October 25, 1965, a newspaper story changed everything: A front page story on the Boston Traveler asked “UFO Chiller: Did THEY Seize Couple?” Reporter John H. Lutrell of the Traveler had allegedly been given an audio tape recording of the lecture the Hills had made in Quincy Center in late 1963. Lutrell learned that the Hills had undergone hypnosis with Dr. Simon; he also obtained notes from confidential interviews the Hills had given to UFO investigators. On October 26, the UPI picked up Lutrell’s story, and the Hills earned international attention.
In 1966, writer John G. Fuller secured the cooperation of the Hills and Dr. Simon, and wrote the book The Interrupted Journey about the case. The book included a copy of Betty’s sketch of the “star map”. The book was a quick success, and went through several printings.
Barney died of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 25, 1969, at age 46; Betty Hill died of cancer on October 17, 2004, at age 85.
Analyzing the star map
In 1968, Marjorie Fish of Oak Harbor, Ohio read Fuller’s Interrupted Journey. She was an elementary school teacher and amateur astronomer. Intrigued by the “star map”, Fish wondered if it might be “deciphered” to determine which star system the UFO came from. Assuming that one of the fifteen stars on the map must represent the Earth’s Sun, Fish constructed a three-dimensional model of nearby Sun-like stars using thread and beads, basing stellar distances on those published in the 1969 Gliese Star Catalogue. Studying thousands of vantage points over several years, the only one that seemed to match the Hill map was from the viewpoint of the double star system of Zeta Reticuli.
Distance information needed to match three stars, forming the distinctive triangle Hill said she remembered, was not generally available until the 1969 Gliese Catalogue came out.
Fish sent her analysis to Webb. Agreeing with her conclusions, Webb sent the map to Terence Dickinson, editor of the popular magazine Astronomy. Dickinson did not endorse Fish and Webb’s conclusions, but for the first time in the journal’s history, Astronomy invited comments and debate on a UFO report, starting with an opening article in the December 1974 issue. For about a year afterward, the opinions page of Astronomy carried arguments for and against Fish’s star map. Notable was an argument made by Carl Sagan and Steven Soter, arguing that the seeming “star map” was little more than a random alignment of chance points. In contrast, those more favorable to the map, such as Dr. David Saunders, a statistician who had been on the Condon UFO study, argued that unusual alignment of key Sun-like stars in a plane centered around Zeta Reticuli (first described by Fish) was statistically improbable to have happened by chance from a random group of stars in our immediate neighborhood.
Skeptic Robert Sheaffer, in an accompanying article said that a map devised by Charles W. Atterberg, about the same time as Fish, was an even better match to Hill’s map and made more sense. The base stars, Epsilon Indi and Epsilon Eridani, plus the others were also closer to the Sun than the Hill map. Fish counterargued that the base stars in the Atterberg map were considered much less likely to harbor life than Zeta Reticuli and the map lacked a consistent grouping of Sun-like stars along the lined routes.
In 1993, two German crop circle enthusiasts, Joachim Koch and Hans-Jürgen Kyborg, suggested that the map depicted planets in the solar system, not nearby stars. The objects in the map, they said, closely match the positions of the Sun, the six inner planets and several asteroids around the time of the incident. This would parallel other abduction accounts where witnesses claim to be shown such depictions, though admittedly often elaborate and unmistakably our own solar system.