Extraterrestrial aliens have, in fact, not been abducting human beings. They have not been prodding and probing earthlings, or engaging in even more intimate contact with them, to learn about or breed with the species. So asserts a group of researchers at Harvard University. Although not surprising, the news is nevertheless reassuring as the editors of this magazine, through Space Adventures, help to usher in the age of space tourism by offering a seat aboard a Soyuz capsule bound for a lunar orbit.
Meanwhile, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson continues to pursue his goal of making spaceflight available to the masses. Last year he announced the launching of Virgin Galactic, which has been referred to as the world’s first commercial “spaceline.” In July, in partnership with Burt Rutan, creator of SpaceShip One, the first privately developed reusable spaceship, Branson formed the Spaceship Co., which plans to build five five-passenger spacecrafts for Virgin Galactic. Branson expects that within the next few years, Virgin Galactic will carry as many as 3,000 space tourists on suborbital flights. With this prospect looming, it is good to know that if other life forms are out there, they have offered no indication that they mean any harm to us, our planet, or our ability to get a good night’s sleep.
The findings from the Harvard study, and the stories of the abductees interviewed for it, appear in Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard University Press, 2005), which was published in October and was authored by psychologist Susan Clancy, one of the study’s chief researchers. Those who regularly contribute to the university’s coffers either through tuition payments or alumni donations will be relieved to learn that the purpose of the study was not to determine the legitimacy of the abductees’ claims. Instead, the researchers used their subjects’ perceived experiences to gain insight for further study on the broader and bitterly debated subject of repressed and recovered memories of traumatic events.
In fact, the researchers did not consider the possibility that anybody, including the study subjects, ever has been abducted by aliens—an inherent flaw in the study, abductees would argue. According to the Harvard University Gazette, a publication that covers issues relevant to the school’s faculty and staff, the researchers attribute the alien-abduction experiences to “dreaming with your eyes wide open.” During stages of REM sleep, when you might otherwise kick and thrash as dictated by your actions in your dreams, your body conveniently falls into a state of total paralysis. The alien-abduction tales are attributed to instances when people wake before the paralysis subsides, a condition known as sleep paralysis that, when it happens, lasts for only seconds. For some people, the paralysis is accompanied by sensations of pressure on the chest, electrical tingling, or levitation, and visions of flashing lights or shadowy figures hovering near the bed.
In other cultures and in earlier times, sleep-paralysis sufferers also attributed the sensations and visions to otherworldly beings, but these were she-devils, not extraterrestrials. Perpetrators have included an assortment of witches, hags, and ogresses—all characters who played prominent roles in the public conscience and then crept into people’s subconscious. Among these were Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Semitic lore, who found it beneath her to lie underneath her husband; and, from the popular medieval European legend, the succubus (curiously, from the Latin succubare, to lie under), an alluring woman with unearthly beauty—and perhaps horns or batlike wings—who, like Lilith, would seduce or harm men in their sleep. The succubus continued to make nocturnal visits during the 16th century, when a carving of her likeness would adorn the outside of an inn to indicate that the establishment also operated as a brothel. She appeared in European literature as late as 1895, in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ En Route, a thinly disguised autobiography in which the protagonist, a reformed occultist, encounters a succubus in his sleep.
The notion that the imagined creatures who visit during sleep paralysis reflect the victims’ preoccupations holds true for the subjects in the Harvard study, most of whom believed in UFOs before they experienced their abductions. This may not bode well for prospective Space Adventures or Virgin Galactic passengers, who are now or most certainly will become obsessed with outer space. Yet science can offer comfort to anyone who needs it. “As far as science knows, nobody is being abducted by aliens,” Clancy told the Gazette. Thus, however disconcerting an alien abduction may be, it really is nothing to lose sleep over.