Captivated by an alien abduction tale

N.H. exhibit puts artifacts on display article page player in wide format.
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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DURHAM, N.H. - They came in the dead of the New Hampshire night in 1961, or so the story goes, about a dozen, short, hairless humanoids who snatched a terrified Portsmouth couple into a hovering spacecraft for a very close encounter of the medical examination kind.

Nothing would ever be the same for Betty and Barney Hill, a politically active, socially conscious couple who rocketed into the international spotlight with the first widely publicized tale of alien abduction.

Now, nearly a half-century later, thousands of items belonging to the Hills - from the torn dress Betty wore that night, to tapes of the Hills recounting their experience under hypnosis, to a papier-mache bust of the extraterrestrial generalissimo - are available for public study at a University of New Hampshire museum.

"Culturally, it's had an amazing impact, no matter what you think of the story," said David Watters, director of the university's Center for New England Culture, as he gazed at a new exhibit featuring a fragile, dented bust fashioned from Betty's descriptions of the leader of the space pack, whom she dubbed Junior.

To hear a university scholar lump culture and flying saucers into the same sentence might seem odd, but Watters is adamant that this story has a firm place in the New England narrative, partly because it springs from a region with such a skeptical, show-me sensibility.

"It's the flip side of New England pragmatism," said Watters, who is also a state representative from Dover. "New Hampshirites are not known as being particularly imaginative, say. They run a pretty straight path."

That description would also apply to the Hills, according to Betty's niece, Kathy Marden of Stratham, who describes herself as a ufologist. Although the Hills were an interracial Portsmouth couple in an overwhelmingly white state, they were an accepted, integral part of the community. Barney, a black man who worked as a letter carrier, was a civil rights activist for the NAACP; Betty, a graduate of UNH, did social work.

"They were honest, stable, normal, regular people," Marden said.

That stability, however, was knocked from its moorings in the early morning of Sept. 20, 1961, as the Hills drove south on US Route 3 through the White Mountains. The couple were returning from a weekend trip to Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Montreal when, according to Betty, she spotted an illuminated object that shot upward in the sky and moved in other unexpected ways.

Just south of Franconia Notch, the disc descended and hovered about 100 feet above the car, Barney said later. He left the automobile, spotted humanoid figures in the craft, and soon fled back toward the car.

Frightened and confused, he and Betty continued their drive home.

Only back in Portsmouth, the couple recalled, did they notice several oddities that suggested their encounter might have been far more substantial than they remembered. Betty's dress had been torn, their watches had stopped, and the car trunk was marked with concentric circles that made a compass needle spin uncontrollably.

The Hills shared the story with their family, reported the sighting to military officers at nearby Pease Air Force Base, but deliberately kept the tale from the public because of fears they would be labeled crazy or delusional. Meanwhile, Betty was troubled by recurring dreams in which the humanoids forced her and Barney into the spacecraft for medical exams. She dreamed of having a needle inserted into her abdomen, of observing a star map, and of having her body examined.

Then, in separate hypnosis sessions over several months in 1964, the Hills provided more details of their interactions with the aliens. In gasping, crying recollections, Barney recalled his terror at encountering the spaceship.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, what is this thing?' " he said in one tape of the hypnosis. "I ran screaming back to my car that they were going to capture us, yet I could not wonder what they wanted to capture us for."

Marden, who owns the tapes, is convinced that her aunt and uncle's story is based at least partly in reality.

"After I transcribed the hypnosis tapes and dissected them," Marden said, "it became apparent to me it was not a fantasy."

Countless others have also suspended disbelief since The Boston Traveler, without permission from the Hills, brought the story to an astonished public in 1965. The story circulated around the world, inspired books, a 1975 television movie - "The UFO Incident," starring James Earl Jones - and ultimately found a central role in the canon of UFO lore.

"I don't believe in UFOs, but I know Betty did," said Watters, who met Hill before her death in 2004. "I found her utterly believable, but yet I don't believe it. That's the puzzle."

Marden, who wrote a book about the abduction story, faces no such puzzle. As a result, on lonely roads in the deep of night, Marden feels the stirring of a gnawing anxiety.

"Knowing that my aunt and uncle had a close encounter with a UFO on a dark, desolate New Hampshire road," Marden said, "always makes me nervous when I drive alone on that same type of road."