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Alien Encounters

How did the big-headed, wide-eyed, spindly-legged, green-skinned popular depiction of an "alien" become the universal representation of extraterrestrial species?

Let’s play the word association game.

“Little green men.”

Chances are you replied “aliens.” Since chances are that you have never actually seen a little green man from Mars, or from anywhere else, why should this association pop into the mind so readily? Because popular culture has drilled it in there. As early as 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs referred to “green men” in his first science fiction novel A Princess of Mars and in the following decades, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon often battled green extraterrestrials. When stories started to circulate about aliens being recovered from a crashed flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, the extraterrestrials were usually portrayed as having green skin. Then the image of a green alien was further strengthened by a curious widely-publicized event on a Kentucky farm in 1955.

Members of the Sutton family along with a couple of friends showed up at a police station obviously terrified. That is an indisputable fact. They recounted how a “bright silvery object with an exhaust all the colours of the rainbow” landed and humanoid creatures with “an oversized head and arms extended almost to the ground” emerged. When one came towards the back door, two guys grabbed their guns and fired at the “little man” who seemed to be impervious to bullets, did a “flip” and scrambled into the darkness. The police investigated the next day but aside from shell casings found nothing. Once the police left, the creatures returned claimed the Suttons.

The media loved the story and numerous versions were published, often accompanied by drawings of the creatures as described by the witnesses. Large heads, large ears, about three feet tall, glowing eyes, spindly legs, and talons instead of fingers. The aliens were never described as green, their bodies were said to “give off an eerie shimmer as if made of silver metal.” But one reporter for The Evansville Courier thought the story needed a bit of colour and used a touch of journalistic license. The aliens became “little green men.” Other media followed suit and the legend of “The Siege of the Little Green Men” was born. What actually happened that night remains a mystery but no trace of an alien encounter has ever been found.

The Kentucky aliens were not described as having particularly large eyes, so where does our most common depiction of an alien with large oval eyes come from? For that we go back to September 1961 and what should have been an uneventful drive for a New Hampshire couple. Barney and Betty Hill had taken a belated honeymoon trip and were on their way home when they noted a bright light in the sky. They didn’t pay much attention to it until the light seemed to follow them, getting closer and closer. Betty had a look through binoculars and described what she saw as a “spinning disk” in the air. Barney at first dismissed this as imaginative thinking but when the light appeared to hover over them, he stopped the car, grabbed a gun from beneath the seat (he was after all American), got out, and pointed the binoculars at the strange light. Indeed, he saw a giant spinning disk, but more than that. Through its windows, some sort of beings dressed in uniforms were staring back at him!

When Barney tried to raise his hand with the gun, he found that he couldn’t. He panicked, ran back to the car and the couple took off down the road. As they later recounted, drowsiness overtook them and by the time it passed, they had travelled miles without any memory of having done so. Once home, they realized that the trip had taken two hours longer than it should have. How could two hours just have disappeared?

Something strange had obviously happened. Betty found a tear in her dress she could not explain, Barney’s shoes had been scraped, their watches had ceased to function, and a compass needle held near their car began to whirl uncontrollably. The next day Betty reported the event to the local Air Force base and a report was taken. Convinced that they had experienced an alien encounter, she voraciously searched the local library for books about UFO sightings. Whether due to her readings or the real-life experience, she soon began to have disturbing dreams about having been taken aboard a spacecraft where she and her husband were asked, in accented English, to lie down on examination tables where they were probed and prodded in various ways. Strands of their hair were plucked, nail clippings taken and needles inserted into various bodily orifices.

The Hills first spoke publicly about their experience in their church in 1963, two years after the event, and followed with talks at local UFO study groups. Because of sleep problems and anxiety, Barney began to see a psychiatrist who referred him to a colleague, Dr. Benjamin Simon, specializing in hypnosis. Perhaps under hypnosis, the couple could recall what actually happened and their anxieties could be resolved. During several sessions, the two gave similar, but not identical, accounts that reflected Betty’s dreams. This did not surprise Dr. Simon since it was clear that the couple had discussed the dreams in detail. Although he concluded that the abduction had been a fantasy, he thought the Hills were honest in their beliefs. In any case, the sessions had put an end to the couple’s anxiety about the supposed abduction.

The Hills were not really interested in publicity and their story would have faded away had not a reporter for the “Boston Traveller” got wind of it. He learned about the hypnosis sessions and managed to secure a tape of a talk the Hills had given. In 1965, his compelling account was picked up by United Press International, propelling the Hills to fame that was furthered by a book, “The Interrupted Journey,” detailing their version of the alien encounter. Since then, numerous expert critics have refuted the Hills’ account, pointing out the possibility of false memories surfacing during hypnosis, the ease of mistaking an aircraft warning beacon for a UFO and Betty’s story changing every time it was told. After Barney’s death, she became a dedicated ufologist, claiming constant harassment by UFOs.

While the veracity of the Hills’ close encounter of the third kind is suspect, there is no question that the publicity the supposed event eventually received spawned a host of alien abduction reports. The aliens in these adventures are commonly described as having skinny bodies and large heads with oval eyes, just like a picture drawn by Barney under hypnosis depicting the leader of the extraterrestrials who had abducted him and Betty on that lonely road in 1961. Today a sign on New Hampshire Route 3 marks the spot where the alleged incident occurred, noting that this was “the first widely-reported UFO abduction in the United States.”

So, now we have a grasp on why the most popular image of an alien is a giant-headed, oval-eyed, greenish creature. That mental picture is born out of some questionable human accounts imaginatively inflated by an exuberant media vying for attention. The only alien I have seen in real life is indeed such a creature. Unfortunately, he happens to be only a foot tall, is made of rubber, and comes in “Alien Anatomy,” a game based on performing an alien autopsy. That toy hit the market soon after the 1995 release of a video that was presented as an authentic autopsy of an alien recovered from the 1947 saucer crash at Roswell. It was quickly proven to be a hoax. I suspect the only alien I will ever get to examine the innards of is the one that came in my game, which is no longer available and according to eBay is a real collector’s item. There may yet be another form of green associated with my little green man.


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