Last week, NASA issued a clarification that a bright light in an image tweeted by one of its astronauts was, in fact, from the International Space Station, and not from a UFO. Even though there's never been any scientific evidence that UFOs exist, it's not exactly surprising: A higher percentage of Americans believe that UFOs exist than those who believe in climate change, evolution, or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.
One of the best-known organizations claiming to scientifically study UFO's is the "Mutual UFO Network," or MUFON. Much of their work involves consulting with "experiencers"—people who claim to have been abducted or otherwise come in contact with extraterrestrial beings. It's a little bit hard to accept that the process has any scientific validity, given that the "experiencer questionnaire" reads a bit like an oncologist diagnosing a hypochondriac by asking them if they have cancer. Even still, they are the go-to for those who believe to have had alien encounters.
MUFON's director of experiencer research is Kathleen Marden—the niece of Betty and Barney Hill, two of the most well-known alleged UFO abductees from the 1960s. I talked to Marden about her methodology, the support services she provides for "experiencers," and whether media portrayals of aliens do more harm than good.
VICE: Tell me a little about what you do with MUFON.
Kathleen Marden: I'm MUFON's director of experiencer research. What we ask experiencers to do before they file a report with MUFON is to go to our website and take the experiencer questionnaire. It's a commonalities questionnaire to determine what they have in common with experiencers who participated in the Martin Stoner Commonalities Research Project in 2012. Once they do that, their score will go to me, along with their questionnaire, and I will assign a member of the team to get in touch with them.
Then what happens?
We talk to individuals to help them determine what they want to do: Do they want a formal investigation of their case with someone from MUFON? Do they have evidence? Are they not sure what's going on? Do they want some pointers on what to look for and how to collect the evidence? Do they have unpleasant memories about what has happened to them? Are they looking for a support group? We will attempt to find a support group for them—there are so few that it's really difficult, but there are some online support groups. Or are they looking for a therapist or a hypnotist? Then we will tell them where to look for a list where they might be able to get some information about those things. Professionals who specialize in this stuff are not very prevalent so it's difficult, but we do the best we can to help experiencers define what they want.
Have you encountered people who've tried to deceive you about their alien encounters?
Absolutely. A very small percentage of experiencers who request an investigation and file a report have done so in order to attempt to pull off a deception. I have caught a couple of them in cases that I have investigated. These people tend to either have a mental illness or they tend to be on the margins of society and believe that by pulling off a deception, they're going to bring publicity to themselves and possibly money. That's not going to happen because most experiencers, if they bring publicity to themselves, it's of a negative type. They're criticized by the public and by skeptics, and nobody makes a lot of money doing this.
Do you worry that somebody might not share those commonalities but still be worthy of investigation? Are there other benefits to filling out the questionnaire?
That happens. My team is non-prejudicial. There are individuals who have had recent experiences for the first time, and they won't have all of the characteristics that long-term experiencers have. So it's kind of open-ended. What it does is it can start a conversation, and the goal is to help people because these events can be traumatic and people don't know where to turn.
Because most people don't believe them?
They might have tried to speak to their families, and the families say, "Well… what were you drinking?" You know, I had a case where a medical doctor had confided in a friend [about an alien encounter], and that friend dropped him like a hot potato. People can speak with us safely and it helps anyone to be able to just get that off of their shoulders. People are at risk of losing their jobs if they tell their coworkers. The way people in this field are treated, or individuals who have had these experiences, is pretty terrible. And that's why I'm an advocate.
I'm looking at the questionnaire and the first question is, "Have you had a close encounter with a UFO?" That seems kind of like a leading question.
Well, people, I believe, are pretty generally honest about it. We want to know, have they had a close encounter? If they have, the chances of an abduction are much greater. I'm not trying to trick people here. This is kind of straightforward.
Do you know of any cases where a prominent individual suffered for claiming to be an experiencer? I think Dennis Kucinich took a beating in his 2008 presidential campaign after he was questioned about his alleged sighting.
Yes. Jimmy Carter, for example, had a UFO sighting and actually filed a formal investigation report about his sighting—and it was a multiple witness sighting. There are many individuals from prominent positions, whether it be astronomers or politicians—who have spoken publicly. [Editor's note: Carter filed a report with an unofficial investigations group four years after the sighting in 1973. There was never any official follow-up by him, and he has repeatedly said he does not believe the sighting was extraterrestrial.]
On Motherboard: Meet Paul Hellyer, the World's Highest Ranking Alien Believer
You're the niece of Betty and Barney Hill. What happened to them, and how has that influenced your career?
Betty and Barney Hill were credible individuals. They were taking a brief vacation in 1961 and they had this very unusual event that occurred that changed their lives. They had no prior interest in [UFOs]; they had never read a book on this topic before that. They had conscious and continuous recall of observing an unconventional craft that came down very low—it hovered only a hundred feet overhead. My uncle got out of the car. He had conscious continuous recall of observing entities on that craft that he said were "somehow not human." He became very fearful that he was going to be captured. He ran back to the car, telling Betty that they had to get out of there right away. As he was speeding down the highway, he and Betty heard a series of buzzing sounds striking the trunk of the vehicle. The next day, they discovered that there was a magnetic field around that trunk when they placed a compass needle over the spots and the compass needle would spin and spin but drop down when it was placed on an other area of the car.
This must have been very upsetting.
He was traumatized by this event, so much so that he ended up developing ulcers and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was seen by medical doctors, and then was referred to the psychiatrist because traditional medical treatment did not cause his symptoms to recede. Betty had a series of nightmare-like dreams: She only had five, they occurred early in the morning just before she woke up, and she wrote them down and formed them into a storyline. Barney wasn't very interested in it. He did overhear a little bit of them, but not all of them
My understanding is that much of their telling of the alleged incident occurred during hypnosis sessions a few years later, right?
I did a comparative analysis of their separate statements under hypnosis. [The doctor] hypnotized them separately and he reinstated amnesia at the end of each session so they didn't know what the other one stated. I have those tapes of their separate hypnosis sessions—I transcribed them and lined up their separate statements. What I discovered is that Betty and Barney describe where these ETs were standing, how they moved, what they did. That information was not in Betty's dreams—and it was also in conflict with some of the information in Betty's dreams—which lead me to believe this was a real event, and not just Betty reliving dreams under hypnosis and Barney knowing a little bit about her dreams and building on his own story based upon that. All of their testimony is in agreement; there is no conflict in their separate testimony.
What would you say to someone who accused them of being coached to tell this story?
Well, that's ridiculous! There was no other abduction experience before Betty and Barney's! We weren't aware of any of this. How could anyone possibly coach them? And Betty and Barney were upstanding credible members of the community. The psychological evaluations that they underwent showed that they were normal functioning people—except for Barney's distress over this experience. They were highly intelligent. They were committed to the truth. These were church-going people. They were committed to improving the conditions for their community, and for the people of their state and the nation.
Some people have suggested that those who claim to have had contact with extraterrestrials are actually experiencing vivid dreams, or sleep paralysis. How do you respond to those sorts of explanations?
All of those things are something that could occur, and that is something that we always look at. We always attempt to explain these away with prosaic explanations first. But we, as unbiased investigators, must also look for evidence. We have to look for individual testimony, eyewitness testimony, circumstantial evidence, physical evidence such as fluorescence in certain patterns on the bodies of experiencers, certain markings that we find on the bodies of experiencers—even to the point of installing surveillance cameras, motion-activated infrared in the homes of experiencers and outside those homes, and looking at the evidence.
What we find is that the outside camera might pick up a bright light outside the home. If this is a bedroom abduction, you might see the husband and wife sitting up in bed, and the next thing you know, the camera shuts down for two hours, and then you see the individuals again—but they're in bed in a different position. It's that sort of thing: the cameras always shut down.
A camera shutting down for two hours sounds more like an absence of evidence.
No. It's not an absence of evidence. It's evidence that something unusual has occurred. It's evidence of an anomaly. And when you get evidence of that anomaly over and over again, then it is significant. And what we need in all of this is not one smoking gun, one piece of evidence that is going to be irrefutable, but the preponderance of evidence, the weight of the different types of evidence that is around this constellation of evidence that we require in cases of alien abduction, for example.
Do you think that portrayals of extraterrestrials in popular media are conducive or harmful to people coming forward?
It depends on what you see. For example, MUFON's Hangar 1: The UFO Files show on the History Channel has caused many people to come forward. We've received far more reports than we did before Hangar 1 was on. But then, there are some science fiction shows that are just very, very frightening and, oh boy, it is not good for this field—and I don't think that it's good for the general population either. That kind of portrayal, in my opinion, makes people more frightened, and that's certainly something that shouldn't be happening. We should be looking at this more scientifically, more as investigators, and I am not in favor of any of the science fiction that comes out on this.
Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.