In Magonia 41, November 1991 American folklorist Thomas (Eddie) Bullard questioned earlier suggestions that the level of ‘variation’ in abduction reports was not of great significance. He felt that there was a limit to the variations between dufferent reports and this led to the suggestion that there was an objective source behind them.
Variation Enigmas, by Thomas Bullard
Dennis Stillings writes (Magonia 39) that “concerns about variation … seem to me to have only peripheral significance when dealing with abduction accounts.” He adds that variation has no bearing on the central meaning of folklore, while personal, social and cultural modifications are irrelevant to the underlying experience. He objects that I have taken both variation and lack of variation in abduction reports to support a case for genuine aliens. I regret that my remarks have been vague and confusing, because I consider the issue of variation has a great deal to do with our understanding of abduction reports. Let me try to explain again why:
Stillings says “it is the mysterious central meaning or experience that we are trying to get to”, and here we agree. Only the professional sceptics know what abductions are a priori, the rest of us have to rely on evidence. Most abduction evidence is anecdotal, the claim narrated by an alleged eyewitness. We outsiders have to evaluate that claim and decide if it is truth, fiction, fantasy, lie, error, or some mixture of these possibilities.
A test for authenticity often comes down to comparisons: is the abduction story unique, or suspiciously uniqueness-starved?
Martin Kottmeyer has demonstrated that science fiction parallels abduction on many counts. Other writers have demonstrated the likeness of these reports to folklore, religion and mythology. For example, the pattern of shamanic initiation experience compares step-by-step with abductions: The candidate separates from his usual environment (missing time), suffers symbolic death and rebirth at the hands of powerful unfriendly beings (examination by aliens), gains knowledge and powers from friendly beings (implant, conference), and returns with a magical vocation (psychic powers and a mission). An abduction story that is too much like cultural influences or psychological patterns more probably represents a fantasy based on those sources than a record of genuine alien kidnap.
Case closed and game over? Not quite. If abduction stories can be traced to the patterns and motifs of other stories, or to the psychological underpinning of all stories, these very ties identify abductions as folklore, pure and simple. There is no escape. As long as abduction reports are psycho-social phenomena such as fantasies, lies, errors, or whatever, with a basis in borrowed form and content, these stories share a likeness in kind with other folklore and should obey its rules.
Where folklorists’ methodologies apply, so must their cautions. Over 150 years of experience has made clear to folklorists how easy it is to misuse comparison, and they are no longer eager to charge into a search for origins or deep meanings on the basis of appearances alone. The same pattern of shamanic initiation is also broad enough to cover the student who leaves home for college, dies to old friends and gains new, loses cherished beliefs and learns higher truths from professors intimidating or nurturing, then emerges with a head full of implanted knowledge ready for a new life. No one would conclude that the college student is a fantasy because the initiation pattern fits, but many people would condemn abductions on no better evidence. Now, that’s cheating. We all know beforehand that college students exist, whereas abductions are very much in question and cannot be denied by such double standards for evidence.
Demonstration of the similarity of abduction to folklore in terms of form and content is necessary but far from sufficient to prove a relationship. If abductions are folklore, in the full sense of narratives based on other narratives or composed from belief, then abduction reports should act like other folk narratives. Herein lies the significance of variation. Folk narratives vary with exuberance, they adapt not only to locale and narrator, but interchange parts until every imaginable permutation of content appears in circulation. Whole new cycles of a given story evolve, with the pattern adapting different content, or the same content outfitting a different story framework. This rapid and vigorous change is the nature of real folklore. Too many people are unaware of this central property of folk narratives, since most people are still victims of the ‘storybook fallacy’ – the misconception that the printed text of the narrative is the only ‘right’ version. Nothing could be further from the truth. That printed text represents the work of the folkloric taxidermist, who stuffs the narrative as it lived for one moment only and shoves a stale carcass in the reader’s face as if to say here is the alpha and the omega, the narrative as it was, is and will be.
Abductions contrast with the expected course of folk narratives by remaining relatively constant from narrator to narrator over decades. Yes, the stories differ here and there. The aliens are not always dwarf greys, or the ships of similar design, or the narratives of equal length. Yet these loosely constructed, complex and bizarre stories have potential for florid variation if they are indeed fantasies feeding off cultural influences. The media have taught us many possible space adventures: the episodes and the events of abductions could change places without harm to the story. It should change all the more if the narrators are gifted fantasizers. Instead, these people curb their imaginations and stay within narrow bounds, never realising the potential of their subject matter, seldom even forgetting or fumbling the narration as most ordinary storytellers do. Abduction reports violate the folklorists’ expectations even when such extenuating circumstances at hypnosis and media influence are taken into account.
The dramatic pattern common to many folk narratives would be served just as well with different content in the same dramatic roles, so this pattern cannot account for the peculiar stability of the reports. Something is clearly peculiar here.
Similarities are important in science, but so are differences. Anomalies signal that something is wrong with our conceptual paradigm, and abduction reports flash that signal to the folklorist by their stability. What I expect is variation; what I see is the opposite. Here at last is some unambiguous evidence. It tells me that these reports do not act like folklore. That may not sound like much of an answer, certainly not the answer I want, but I can hold on to it with confidence.
I too would like to reach into the heart of the mystery and know its meaning, but I must approach by steps and not by leaps. This step does not answer the question of meaning or the nature of the experience, but evidence must come before meaning, and at least now I know something important about the nature of the evidence available to me.
I know that abduction reports do not act like normal folk narratives. This finding weighs against the hypothesis that these reports are psychosocial products in the same class as other folklore. On the other hand, if abduction reports begin in experience and reflect a common experience with some accuracy, then the stability makes sense. So does a degree of difference. Two people seldom describe the same experience in exactly the same way, and abduction reports would only mystify us further if narrators broke this rule too. A modicum of variation reassures us on that account. This is what I mean by some variation being proper for real experience, but the more striking fact is that great potential for change goes unrealized. The narrow variations in abduction reports operate within a remarkable framework of unexpected stability.
Whether the source of folklore lies in eternal psychological roots or some other explanation, swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore
The psychosocial solution for abductions requires that the reports be folklore in some sense. Advocates of this idea point for support to the parallels between abductions and other lore, but these advocates cannot play the game by half the rules. They must acknowledge the folklore process as well as the product. An artificial separation of the two equals self-delusion not evidence. In fact the personal, cultural and social modifications are essential parts of that process, integral to its reality and necessary to its understanding. Whether the source of folklore lies in eternal psychological roots or some other explanation, swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore. These variants are an empirical fact that theory must accommodate or die trying. Archetypal roots do not abolish the profusion of variety in folk narrative, nor the mystery of too little variety in abduction reports.
I do not claim to know the ultimate nature of the reports, whether the answer comes up aliens or something else. I admit that the consistency of the reports may be an artefact, a quirk of error in my study or the investigations-on which it was based. Maybe cultural influences or the media are to blame, maybe folklorists underestimate the capacity of some narratives to stabilise. I won’t deny these possibilities, but I will doubt them. So much of the abduction evidence is slippery, elusive and ambiguous that a firm anomaly, even indirect in its implication, makes a welcome addition to the argument. Variation – or rather the lack of it – offers one small foothold in a sea of spectacular maybes. I cannot ignore it; those who do are more determined to sink than swim.
After all, a platypus also looks like a duck here and there, but it doesn’t act like one. The original solution to this problem was to ram the reprobate into unsuitable categories, or dismiss it altogether. Are we ready to break with old tradition and learn at last from past mistakes.
In the following issue, Magonia 42 March 1992, Hilary Evans responded vigorously to Bullard’s argument:
Folklore Rules; OK?
The trouble about Eddie Bullard, he’s such a nice fellow, we all want to help him in this distressing situation he’s in: the situation, that is, of not sharing the same view on abductions as the rest of us. He’s such a reasonable fellow, we feel, surely we have only to murmur a few reasonable words to have him come over to our way of thinking? And when he doesn’t, we tell ourselves it’s only because he keeps bad company. Left to himself…
Should we bother? Why don’t we leave him with his delusions, if he’s happy with them? Except he obviously isn’t; it clearly distresses him to see the rest of us so wrong-headed in our ideas. And we, for our part, if we are honest (and we are, chaps, aren’t we?) we ask ourselves: if someone so fair-minded as Eddie Bullard doesn’t share our ideas, could our ideas just possibly be mistaken?The fact is that, irrespective of our concern for Eddie Bullard’s peace of mind, he is the perfect object to bounce our ideas off and see if they come back to us intact.
What Bullard believes:
Bullard’s argument can be summarised as follows:
- 1: those who favour a psychosocial explanation for the abduction experience (‘PS-proponents’ from here on) refuse to accept the abductions-are-real hypothesis (AAR from here on) because of the parallels with folklore.
- 2: their argument is invalid, because it does not conform to the rules of folklore.
- 3: therefore, in the absence of any reasonable alternative, the AAR-hypothesis is the more probable explanation
I think he is mistaken on three counts:
First, I don’t think there are any such rules.
Second, even if there were, I don’t think we would be obliged to respect them.
Third, PS-proponents do not base their position solely on the parallels with folklore.
Rules? What rules? I see no rules…
It doesn’t surprise me that Bullard, as a professional folklorist, wishes to think of his subject as possessing what, if it lacked them, might leave him feeling improperly dressed: namely rules. So he wags his finger at the PS-proponents, accusing us of seeking to ‘play the game by half the rules’. But from what I can see of folklore, it is the most amorphous, least defined of subjects. School-of-thought after school-of-thought has sought to impose its scheme of things on the subject, and to no avail. Folklore remains a free-for-all field where hardly any two players are wearing the same shirts.
We can see this in a matter particularly relevant to abductions, the question of diffusion: how does folklore – myth, rumour etc. – proliferate? Do they spread by some subtle contagion? Do they manifest spontaneously here and yon triggered by some Jungian archetype mechanism? Is some Sheldrakean process at work?
In her classic work, Mythes de Guerre, Marie Bonaparte presents us with a shoal of foaftales from WW2, showing how the same stories (with variations) arose – seemingly spontaneously and simultaneously – on both sides of the line. She is inclined to account for both the synchronicity and the variations on psychoanalytic grounds; others will prefer to think that some kind of diffusionist process is at work; yet others will have yet other suggestions. The point is that as things stand, it’s anyone’s guess how myths are created: the field is wide open.
And so it is, I suggest, with the similarity con variazione which so disconcertingly distinguishes the abduction experience. There is no user’s guide which presents us with a handy set of rules.
On not having too much respect for the rules
Even if there existed a set of rules bearing the imprimatur of the Folklore Society or some such recognised authority, it is by no means certain that we could, or even should, respect them. Folklore, as Bullard recognises, is a constantly developing thing; and even if rules could be derived from past experience, they might well need to be modified in the light of later experience.
This is especially likely to be true of abductions, because for all the parallels with folklore, they display many features which have no precedent in the past. Bullard concludes this is because abductions are not folklore at all, but real experience. But this conclusion is not the only one possible. There are at least two valid alternatives. Abductions may not conform to traditional folklore for either, or both, of two reasons: first because they represent a new development in this constantly developing field of study; and/or second, because they are not just folklore, but folklore-plus, and it is this plus which is responsible for their unprecedented character.
“Something is clearly peculiar here,” says Bullard in the course of his paper, bothered by the ‘peculiar stability’ of the reports. Indeed it is. But couldn’t it be that abductions – even to the extent that they are folklore experiences at all – are not the kind of folklore Bullard is used to? He speaks of the abduction experient as ‘seldom forgetting or fumbling the narration as most ordinary storytellers do’ (my italics) – conjuring up an image of the old goodwife in the chimney corner sending the young ‘uns at her knee to their beds trembling at the tale of Johnnie Rimmer’s hairbreadth encounter with the Mersey Devil…But suppose abductees aren’t like that? Suppose they are telling their stories not as spine-tingling winter’s tales but out of some gut-churning inner need? Why should we expect them to do as ‘most ordinary storytellers’ do?
See, once again, the pitfalls into which Eddie-Head-in-Book is liable to trip if he doesn’t look up from his How To Be A Folklorist manual. For when he says ‘these reports do not act like folklore’ what he is really saying is ‘these reports do not act like the folklore I’m used to’.
Not just folklore, but folklore-plus
But Bullard is on the wrong foot anyway if he supposes the PS-proponents interpret abductions solely in terms of folklore. This of course is nonsense, and I can’t believe Bullard really thinks so. But what other conclusion can we draw from his definition of what he supposes to be the PS position:
If abduction stories can be traced to the patterns and motifs of other stories, or to the psychological underpinning of all stories, these very ties identify abductions as folklore, pure and simple.
Neither Vallée nor Méheust – to take the two most prominent exponents – has ever offered or would ever offer so simplistic an interpretation.Rather, folklore is to them as to all PS-proponents just one of several realms of experience which contribute to our understanding of abduction stories. We look also to other forms of communal fantasy. Méheust’s first book, after all, was about flying saucers and science fiction, an avenue which Kottmeyer too has explored with convincing results. Science fiction has much in common with folklore, but it cannot possibly qualify as folklore despite the obvious links and relevancies.
Other parallels have been drawn with witchcraft, with convent hysteria, with the convulsionaries and the visionaries, with demon possession and revivalist epidemics, with all kinds of communal fantasy.
So – and I think I speak for all who prefer some kind of PS explanation, however much we may diverge as to which particular form of it we may espouse – the abduction experience is never simply folklore: it is always folklore with an admixture.
‘swarms of variants’ (?)
Bullard states – and surely we all agree – that ‘swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore’. It could hardly be otherwise: for what is folklore, but the accumulation and distillation of lots and lots of bits of individual lore. From a host of one-of-a-kind instances, the individual elements are filtered out and the shared elements retained, so that a stereotypical communal experience can be abstracted and defined. But this stereotype is no more than a convenient fiction: it is a Platonic ideal, which never exists in its pure form except in the minds of those who fabricate it, never more than a part of the overall experience – the ‘highest common factor’ as we were taught at school.
Each abduction is at once a shared ‘story’, broadly conforming to a pattern, and an individual experience, whose relevance is only to the individual’s needs, preoccupations, hopes and fears. To suggest that the individual abduction is a ‘folklore experience’ would be nonsense – but then no one is making any such suggestion. What the PS-proponents are suggesting is that the composite abduction experience – the depersonalised and sanitised abstraction – can be paralleled with certain folklore themes, and that this can help us understand what is happening in individual instances.
In the section devoted to the PS approach in his Encyclopedia of UFOs, Jerry Clark was both fair and perceptive. It is an excellent position statement, particularly since it is made by someone who does not share that position. But he makes a fundamental error – which Bullard also, albeit only implicitly, seems to be making: Clark speaks of the PS hypothesis, but this is as much an abstraction as the stereotype abduction.
What there is, is a psychosocial approach: but though there are many who favour that approach, there are probably as many PS-hypotheses as there are PS-proponents.
As I see it, the abduction experience is an admixture of ‘folklore’ – in the form of a shared myth – with a deep and often very serious individual need. The individual draws on the folklore themes to give his private experience the necessary public ‘credentials’. By creating a fantasy scenario whose broad outline will be recognised by the consensus as ‘an abduction story’, he obtains a degree of legitimacy for the experience as a whole – and therefore for those elements which are purely personal to himself: just as in other forms of behaviour such as seeing visions, dissociation of the personality, trance communication and channeling, stereotypes have come into being, which serve as sustaining structures for individual experiences which lack the strength to stand on their own.
A choice of scripts
Some see visions, some are possessed by demons, some are abducted by aliens. Each of these behaviours is chosen, subconsciously, because it is felt by the individual to be an appropriate way of externalising an internal dilemma, crisis or whatever. And it is this internal, personal core which causes the variations, so the abduction experience of Kathie Davis will conform to the folklore model only so far as it is necessary for it to qualify as something that others will recognise (or, it may be argued, where she herself can feel justified in distancing herself from the experience, in effect saying it wasn’t me, it was THEM).
If the PS approach is correct, what we would find is that all abduction experiences tend to share a number of common factors, and to differ in individual details. Which is just what we do find.
This doesn’t by any means imply that the PS approach is correct. There are still other problems: for example the remarkable specificity of some details which, it is argued, could not by any reasonable explanation have been known to the individual, and which can therefore only be the result of a real experience. If this is so, it is a formidable challenge to those of us who question the AAR position: but such extraordinary claims need to be supported by something more convincing than the Gee-Whiz assertions of the Believers.
If such support should be forthcoming, many of us might have cause to rethink our positions, just as we would do if a UFO were to touch down in Mortlake churchyard. Bullard may turn out to be justified in his AAR belief. But if so, it will need to be on stronger grounds than by appeal to the rules of folklore.
As Phil Klass reminds us, abductions are a dangerous game: one of the greatest dangers comes from those who play the game thinking they know the rules.
Bending the rules
As Phil Klass reminds us, abductions are a dangerous game: one of the greatest dangers comes from those who play the game thinking they know the rules. Hopkins tells us he has consulted a number of leading psychologists, and one and all have assured him there is no known psychological model for abduction behaviour. Therefore, according to the psychological rule-book, no psychological explanation can be valid; therefore – the reasoning goes – abductions must be real.
But psychology, like folklore, is concerned with drawing communal conclusions from individual experience: and while it can formulate helpful guidelines in respect of what is communal, what is individual defies formal rule-making – which is why, even after 100+ years of psychology as a formal field of study, we have on-going controversies about psychoanalysis, about hypnosis, about possession, about multiple personality. Hopkins’s touching faith in the psychologists’ faith in their rule-book has led him into the AAR cul-de-sac: Eddie Bullard’s similar faith in the folklore rule-book has led him into the same dead end.
But there is more to abductions than the rule-books know of. Seen en masse, it may look as though a huge communal game is in progress on the abduction playing-field. But look more closely, and you will see that each player is playing a little game of his own, and if there are any rules, they are of his or her own making.