From NATURE, Vol. 372, November 17, 1994: Minds Possessed by Susan Blackmore Review of: _D
From NATURE, Vol. 372, November 17, 1994:
by Susan Blackmore
Review of: _Dark White: Aliens, Abductions and the UFO Obsessions_, by Jim
Schnabel, publ. by Hamish Hamilton, 1994, 304 pages, L16.99
How can apparently sane, intelligent and likeable people believe that
four-foot-high aliens are visiting our planet and abducting people? If you are
perplexed by this question, Jim Schnabel's latest book _Dark White_ (Grey --
geddit?) will give you some answers.
A recent Roper opinion poll claimed that nearly four million Americans have
been abducted. The stories are remarkably consistent as well as outrageous.
People are woken in the dead of night or, less commonly, taken from their car
or workplace, and confronted by large-headed, small-bodied, huge-eyed grey
aliens who transport them magically into a spacecraft. Here they are taken
down curved corridors, laid on a flat table and subjected to humiliating or
terrifying mental, medical and gynaecological procedures. Eventually they find
themselves back in bed but with two or three hours 'missing'.
The stories cry out for comparison with fairy abductions, incubi and
succubi and myths such as the Old Hag of Newfoundland, who visits victims at
night and tries to suffocate them. Schnabel deals well with all of these by
his greatest strength lies in the way he portrays the main characters involved.
Take Budd Hopkins, a New York artist who first saw a UFO in 1964. He began
to investigate experiences of 'missing time' and found himself overwhelmed by
people needing help. Perhaps it was because he was already well known as an
artist that people took him seriously. He learned how to hypnotize them and
soon they were 'remembering' the abductions that took place in the missing time
Schnabel portrays Hopkins as a kindly and sincere man who really wanted to
understand what was going on. The vividness and consistency of the stories
persuaded him of the nuts-and-bolts reality of the aliens and their UFOs. It
was also Hopkins who first came across stories of the alien hybridization
programme. As Schnabel points out, as soon as Budd recognized it, women began
turning up with strange scars and tales of disappearing pregnancies, and men
told of having sperm removed by beautiful female aliens.
Contrasting with the sincerity of a possibly naive artist is the craziness
of Whitley Strieber. The way Schnabel describes him you would not trust his
opinion of what he had for breakfast, let alone the reality of his aliens. His
best-selling book _Communion_ followed several horror novels that, according to
Schnabel, mix fiction and biography with alarming ease -- and apparently it was
going to be called _Body Terror_ until Strieber decided that it must not
This tension between terror and enlightenment runs through the whole story.
Whereas Hopkins' abductees seemed only to experience pain and fear, those
studied by Leo Sprinkle, a psychologist from Wyoming, more often reported
spiritual experiences and "environmental and spiritual consciousness-raising".
Joining this clan was soon to be John Mack, well known as a Pulitzer
prizewinning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. With
such qualifications he had an authority perhaps greater than any of the others
involved. He soon collected a large following of abductees convinced that the
aliens had peaceful intent and watned to warn us of impending environmental
Like Mack, Ken Ring, a psychologist, sees the positive side. He had
studied near-death experiences and noted the similarities between these and
abductions. Both pointed to the progress of human consciousness towards unity
A problem for anyone who simply wants to know whether or not the aliens
exist is that these academics, unlike the more down-to-earth Hopkins, can evade
such a crude question: after all, it depends on what one means by reality. But
what of the science?
There is certainly a scientific story to be told. Yet, with no index or
proper references, this book fails to tell is well enough. This is a shame
because the groundwork is all there. Schnabel tackles sleep paralysis, in
which the muscle paralysis of dreaming sleep can carry over into waking, and
compares it with abduction myths. He considers childhood trauma, the problems
of hypnosis and the arguments over false memory.
Best of all he clearly explains the most tricky -- and most interesting --
of the theories. Michael Persinger, a Canadian neuroscientist, argues that the
experiences are caused by firing in the temporal lobes of the brain and can be
set off by changes in magnetic fields. Schnabel marshals the evidence for this
theory and concludes that abduction accounts may all be similar not because the
aliens are all similar but because our brains are. Stimulation of the relevant
areas, combined with cultural and personal material, may account for it all.
The book convinced me that abduction accounts are well worth serious
research. It is not a question of whether or not the aliens exist but of what
the experiences have to tell us about our minds and brains.
[Susan Blackmore is in the Department of Psychology, University of the West of
England, Bristol BS16 2JP, UK.]
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank