Aliens: Reality or Delusion?
Excerpts from Carl Sagan's "A Demon-Haunted World"

"We also know how cruel the truth
often is, and we wonder whether
delusion is not more consoling."

Henri Poincare

Subjects: Alien Abductions
Demons, Witches, and Fairies
The Truth About Crop Circles

Alien Abductions

It's still dark out. You're lying in bed, fully awake. You discover you're utterly paralyzed. You sense someone in the room. You try to cry out. You cannot. Several small gray beings, less than four feet tall, are standing at the foot of the bed. Their heads are pear-shaped, bald, and large for their bodies. Their eyes are enormous, their faces expressionless and identical. They wear tunics and boots. You hope this is only a dream. But as nearly as you can tell it's really happening. They lift you up and, eerily, they and you slip through the wall of your bedroom. You float out into the air. You rise high toward a metallic saucer-shaped spacecraft. Once inside, you are escorted into a medical examining room. A larger but similar being-evidently some kind of physician-takes over. What follows is even more terrifying.

Your body is probed with instruments and machines, especially your sexual parts. If you're a man, they may take sperm samples; if you're a woman, they may remove ova or fetuses, or implant semen. They may force you to have sex. Afterwards you may be ushered into a different room where hybrid babies or fetuses, partly human and partly like these creatures, stare back at you. You may be given an admonition about human misbehavior, especially in despoiling the environment or in allowing the AIDS pandemic; tableaus of future devastation are offered. Finally, these cheerless gray emissaries escort you out of the spacecraft and ooze you back through the walls into your bed. By the time you're able to move and talk...they're gone.

You may not remember the incident right away. Instead you might simply find some period of time unaccountably missing, and puzzle over it. Because all this seems so weird, you're a little concerned about your sanity. Naturally you're reluctant to talk about it. At the same time the experience is so disturbing that it's hard to keep it bottled up. It all pours out when you hear of similar accounts, or when you're under hypnosis with a sympathetic therapist, or even when you see a picture of an "alien" in one of the many popular magazines, books, and TV "specials" on UFOs. Some people say they can recall such experience from early childhood. Their own children, they think, are now being abducted by aliens. It runs in families. It's a eugenics program, they say, to improve the human breeding stock. Maybe aliens have always done this. Maybe, some say, that's where humans came from in the first place.

As revealed by repeated polls over the years, most Americans believe that we're being visited by extraterrestrial beings in UFOs. In a 1992 Roper poll of nearly 6,000 American adults-especially commissioned by those who accept the alien abduction story at face value-18 percent reported sometimes waking up paralyzed, aware of one or more strange beings in the room. About 13 percent report odd episodes of missing time, and 10 percent claim to have flown through the air without mechanical assistance. From nothing more than these results, the poll's sponsors conclude that two percent of all Americans have been abducted, many repeatedly, by beings from other worlds. The question of whether respondents had been abducted by aliens was never actually put to them.

If we believed the conclusion drawn by those who bankrolled and interpreted the results of this poll, and if aliens are not partial to Americans, then the n umber for the whole planet would be more than a hundred million people. This means an abduction every few seconds over the past few decades. It's surprising more of the neighbors haven't noticed.

What's going on here? When you tak with self-described abductees, most seem very sincere, although caught in the grip of powerful emotins. Some psychiatrists who've examined them say they find no more evidence of psychopathology in them than in the rest of us. Why should anyone claim to have been abducted by alien creatures if it never happened? Could all these people be mistaken, or lying, or hallucinating the same (or a similar) story? Or is it arrogant and contemptuous even to question the good sense of so many?

On the other hand, could there really be a massive alien invasion; repugnant medical procedures performed on millions of innocent men, women, and children; humans apparently used as breeding stock over many decades--and all this not generally known and dealt with by responsible media, physicians, scientists, and the governments sworn to protect the lives and well-being of their citizens? Or, as many have suggested, is there a massive government conspiracy to keep the citizens from the truth?

Why should being so advanced in physics and engineering--crossing vast interstellar distances, walking like ghost through walls--be so backward when it come to biology? Why, if the aliens are trying to do their business in secret, wouldn't they perfectly expunge all memories of the abductions? Too hard for them to do? Why are the examining instruments macroscopic and so reminiscent of what can be found at the neighborhood medical clinic? Why go to all the trouble of repeated sexual encounters between aliens and humans? Why not steal a few egg and sperm cells, read the full genetic code, and then manufacture as many copies as you like with whatever genetic variations happen to suit you fancy? Even we humans, who as yet cannot quickly cross interstellar space or slither through walls, are able to clone cells. How could humans be the result of an alien breeding program if we share 99.6 percent of our active genes with the chimpanzees? We're more closely related to chimps than rats are to mice. The preoccupation with reproductoin in these accounts raises a warning flag--especially considering the uneasy balance between sexual impulse and societal repression that has always characterized the human condition, and the fact that we live in a time fraught with numerous ghastly accounts, both true and false, of childhood sexual abuse.

Contrary to many media reports, the Roper pollsters and those who wrote the "official" report never asked whether their subjects had been abducted by aliens. They deduced it: Those who've ever awakened with strange presences around them, who've ever unaccountably seemed to fly through the air, and so on, have therefore been abducted. The pollsters didn't even check to see if sensing presence, flying, etc. were part of the same or separate incidents. Their conclusion--that millions of Americans have been so abducted--is spurious, based on careless experimental design.

Still, at least hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, claiming they have been abducted, have sought out sympathetic therapists or joined abductee support groups. Others may have similar complaints but, fearing ridicule or the stigma of mental illness, have refrained from speaking up or getting help.

Some abductees are also said to be reluctant to talk for fear of hostility and rejection by hardline skeptics (although many willingly appear on radio and TV talk shows). Their diffidence supposedly extends even to audiences that already believe in alien abductions. But maybe there's another reason: Might the subjects themselves be unsure--whether it was an external event they are remembering or a state of mind?

Demons, Witches, and Fairies

Burning witches is a feature of Western civilization that has, with occasional political exceptions, declined since the sixteenth century. In the last judicial execution of witches in England, a woman and here nine-year-old daughter were hanged. Their crime was raising a rain storm by taking their stockings off. In our time, witches and djinns are found as regular far in children's entertainment, exorcism of demons is still practiced by the Roman Catholic and other churches, and the proponents of one cult still denounce as sorcery the cultic practices of another. We still use the word "pandemonium" (literally, all demons). A crazed and violent person is still said to be demonic. (Not until the eighteenth century was mental illness no longer generally ascribed to supernatural causes; even insomnia had been considered a punishment inflicted by demons.) More than half of Americans tell pollsters they "believe" in the Devil's existence, and 10 percent have communicated with him, as Martin Luther reported he did regularly. In a 1992 "spiritual warfare manual" called Prepare for War, Rebecca Brown informs us that abortion and sex outside of marriage "will almost always result in demonic infestation"; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are designed so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshiping demons; and that "rock music didn't 'just happen,' it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself." Sometimes "your loved ones are demonically bound and blinded." Demonology is today still part and parcel of many earnest faiths.

And what is it that demons do? In the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger reveal that "devils...busy themselves by interfering with the process of normal copulation and conception, by obtaining human semen, and themselves transferring it." Demonic artificial insemination int he Middle Ages goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who tells us in On the Trinity that "demons can transfer the semen which they have collected and inject it into the bodies of others." His contemporary, St. Bonaventura, spells it out in a little more detail: Succubi "yield to males an dreceive their semen; by cunning skill, the dmons preserve its potency, and afterwards, with the permissioin of God, they become incubi and pour it out into female repositories." The products of these demon-mediated unions are also, when they grow up, visited by demons. A multigeneraltional transspecies sexual bond is forged. And these creatures, we recall, are well known to fly; indeed they inhabit the upper air.

There is no space ship in these stories. But most of central elements of the alien abduction account are present, including sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really exist, how can we understand so strange a belief system, embraced by the whole Western world (including those considered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience in every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry?

The culture myths of ancient Greece and Rome told of gods appearing to women as bulls or seans showers of gold and impregnating them. In one early Christian tradition, philosophy derived not from hyman ingenuity but out of demonic pillow talk--the fallen angels betraying the secrets of Heaven to their human consorts. Accounts with similar elements appear in cultures around the world. Parallels to incubi include Arabian djinn, Greek satyrs, Hindu bhuts, Samoan hotua poro, Celtic dusii, and many others. In an epoch of demon hysteria, it was easy enough to demonize those we feared or hated. So Merlin was said to have been fathered by an incubus. So were Plato, Alexander the Great, Augustus, and Martin Luther. Occasionally an entire people--for example the Huns or the inhabitants of Cyprus--were accused by their enemies of having been sired by demons.

In ancient Iranian and many other cultures, nocturnal seminal emissions were believed to be elicited by succubi. St. Teresa of Avila reported a vivid sexual encounter with an angel--an angel of light, not of darkness, she was sure--as did other women later sanctified by the Catholic Church. Cagliostro, the eighteenth-century magician and con man, let it be understood that he, like Jesus of Nazareth, was a product of the union "between the children of heaven and earth."

In 1645 a Cornish teenager, Anne Jefferies, was found groggy, crumpled on t he floor. Much later, she recalled being attacked by half-a-dozen little men, carried paralyzed to a castle in the air, seduced, and returned home. She called the little men fairies. (For many pious Christians, as for the inquisitors of Joan of Arc, this was a distinction without a difference. Fairies were demons, plain and simple.) They returned to terrify and torment her. The next year she was arrested for witchcraft. Fairies traditionally have magical powers, and can cause paralysis by the merest touch. The ordinary passage of time is slowed in fairyland. Fairies are reproductively impaired, so they have sex with humans and carry off babies from their cradles--sometimes leaving a fairy substitute, a "changeling." Now it seems a fair question: If Anne Jefferies had grown up in a culture touting aliens rather than fairies, and UFOs rather castles in the air, would her story have been distinguishable in any significant respect from the ones "abductees" tell?

In his 1982 book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, David Hufford describes an executive, university-educated, in his mid-thirties, who recalled a summer spent as a teen ager in his aunt's house. One night, he saw mysterious lights moving in the harbor. Afterwards, he fell asleep. From his bed he then witnesses a white, glowing figure climbing the stairs. She entered his room, paused, and then said--anticlimactically, it seems to me--"That is the linoleum." Some nights the figure was an old woman; in others, an elephant. Sometimes th ey oung man was convince the entire business was a dream; other times he was certain he was awake. He was pressed down into his bed, paralyzed, unable to move or cry out. His heart was pounding. He was short of breath. Similar events transpired on many consecutive nights. What is happening here? These events took place before alien abductins were widely described. If the young man had known about alien abductions, would his old woman have had a larger head and bigger eyes?

Of course, as enthusiasts for extraterrestrial visitations are quick to remind me, there's another interpretation of these historical parallels: Aliens, they say, have always been visiting us, poking at us, stealing our sperms an deggs, impregnating us. In earlier times we recognized them as gods, demons, fairies, or spirits; only now do we understand that it's aliens who've been diddling us all these millennia. Jacques Vallee has made such arguments. But then why are there virtually no reports of flying saucers prior to 1947? Why is it that none of the world's major religions uses saucers as icons of the divine? Why no genetic experiment, whatever its objective, completed by now--thousands of years or more after its initiation by beings supposedly of vastly superior technoligical attainments? Why are we in such trouble if the breeding program is designed to improve our lot?

Following this line of argument, we might anticipate present adherents of the old beliefs to understand "aliens" to be fairies, gods, or demons. In fact, there are several contemporary sects--the "Raelians," for example--that hold gods or God to come to Earth in UFOs. Some abductees describe the aliens, however repulsive, as "angels," or "emissaries of God."

Is it possible that people in all times and places occasionally experience vivid, realistic hallucinations, often with sexual content, about abduction by strange, telepathic, aerial creatures who ooze through walls--with the details filled in by the prevailing cultural idioms, sucked out of the Zeitgeist? Others, who have not personally had the experiance, find it stirring and in a way familiar. They pass the story on. Soon it takes on a life of its own, inspires others trying to understand their own visions and hallucinations, and enters the realm of folklore, myth, and legend. The connection between the content of spontaneous temporal lobe hallucinations and the alien abduction paradigm is consistent with such a hyposthesis.

Perhaps when everyone knows that gods come down to Earth, we hallucinate gods; when all of us are familiar with demons, it's incubi and succubi; when fairies are widely accepted, we see fairies; in an age of spiritualism, we encounter spirits; and when the old myths fade and we begin thinking that extraterrestrial beings are plausible, then that's where our hypnogogic imagery tends.

The typical modern extraterrestrial reported in America in the '80s and early '90s is small, with diproportionately large head and eyes, undeveloped facial features, no visible eyebrows or genitals, and smooth gray skin. It looks to me eerily like a fetus in roughly the twelfth week of pregnancy, or a starving child. Why so many of us might be obsessing on fetuses or malnourished children, and imagining them attacking and sexually manipulating us, is an interesting question.

In recent years in America, aliens different from the short gray motif have been on the rise. One psychotherapist, Richard Boylan of Sacramento, says:

You've got three-and-a-half-foot to four-foot types; you've got five- to six-foot types; you've got seven- to eight-foot types; you've got three-, four-, and five-finger types, pads on the ends of fingers or suction cups; you've got webbed or non-webbed fingers; you've got large almond-shape eyes slanted upward, outward, or horizontally; in some cases large ovoid eyes without the almond slant; you've got extraterrestrials with slit pupils; you've got other different body types--the so-called Praying Mantis type, the retoid types...These are the onces that I keep getting recurrently. There are a few exotic and single case reports that I tend to be a little cautious about until I get a lot more corroborative.

Despite this apparent variety of extraterrestrials, the UFO abduction syndrome portrays, it seems to me, a banal Universe. The form of the supposed aliens is marked by a failure of the imagination and a preoccupation with human concerns. Not a single being presented in all these accounts is as astonishing as a cockatoo would be if you had never before beheld a bird. Any protozoology or bacteriology or mycology textbook is filled with wonders that far outshine the most exotic descriptions of the alien abductionists. The believers take the common elements in their stroies as tokens of verisimilitude, rather than as evidence that they have contrived their stories out of a shared culture and biology.

The Truth About Crop Circles

How modest our expectations are about "aliens", and how shoddy the standards of evidence that many of us are willingly to accept, can be found in the saga of the crop circles. Originating in Great Britain and spreading throughout the world was something surpassing strange.

Farmers or passersby would discover circles (and, in later years, much more complex pictograms) impressed upon fields of wheat, oats, barley, and rapeseed. Begining with simple circles in the middle 1970s, the phenomenon progressed year by year, until by the late 1980s and early 1990s the countryside, especially in southern England, was graced by immense geometrical figures, some the size of football fields, imprinted on cereal grain before the harvest--circles tangent to circles, or conected by axes, parallel lines drooping off, "insectoids." some of the patterns showed a central circle surrounded by four symmetrically-placed smaller circles--clearly, it was concluded, caused by a flying saucer and its four landing pods.

A hoax? Impossible, almost everyone said. There were hundreds of cases. It was done sometimes in only an hour or two in the dead of night, and on such a large scale. No footprints of pranksters leading towards or away from the pictograms could be found. And besides, what possible motive could there be for a hoax?

Many less conventional conjectures were offered. People with some scientific training examined sites, spun arguments, instituted whole journals devoted to the subject. Were the figures casued by strange whirlwinds called "columnar vortices," or even stranger ones called "ring vortices"? What about ball lightning? Japanese investigators tried to simulate, in the laboratory and on a small scale, the plasma physics they thought was working its way on far-off Wiltshire.

But especially as the crop figures became more complex, meteorological or electrical explanations became more strained. Plainly, it was due to UFOs, the aliens communicating to us i a geometrical language. Or perhaps it was the devil, or the long-suffering Earth complaining about the depredations visited upon it by the hand of Man. New Age tourists came in droves. All-night vigils were undertaken by enthusiasts equipped with audio recorders and infrared vision scopes. Print and electronic media from all over world tracked the intrepid cerealogists. Best-selling books on extraterrestrial crop distorters were purchased by a breathless and admiring public. True, no saucer was actually seen settling down on the wheat, no geometrical figure was filmed in the course of being generated. But dowsers authenticated their alien origin, and channelers made contact with the entities responsible. "Orgone energy" was detected within the circles.

Questions were asked in Parliament. The royal family called in for special consultation Lord Solly Zuckerman, former principal scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence. Ghosts were said to be involved; also, the Knights Templar of Malta and other secret societies. Satanists were implicated. The Defence Ministry was covering the matter up. A few inept and inelegant circles were judged attempts by the military to throw the public off the track. The tabloid press had a field day. The Daily Mirror hired a farmer and his son to make five circles in hope of tempting a rival tabloid, the Daily Express, into reporting the story. The Express was, in this case at least, not taken in.

"Cerealogical" organizations grew and splintered. Competing groups sent each other intimidating doggerel. Accusations were made of incompetence or worse. The number of crop "circles" rose into the thousands. The phenomenon spread to the United States, Canada, Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands. The pictograms--especially the more complex of them--began to be quoted increasingly in arguments for alien visitation. Strained connections were drawn to the "Face" on Mars. One scientist of my acquaintance wrote to me that extremely sophisticated mathematics was hidden in these figures; they could only be the result of a superior intelligence. In fact, one matter on which almost all of the contending cerealogists agreed is that the later crop figures were much too complex and elegant to be due to mere human intervention, much less to some ragged and irresponsible hoaxers. Extraterrestrial intelligence was apparent at a glance...

In 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two blokes from Southampton, announced they had been making crop figures for 15 years. They dreamed it up over stout one evening in their regular pub, The Percy Hobbes. They had been amused by UFO reports and thought it might be fun to spoof the UFO gullibles. At first they flattened the wheat with the heavy steel bar that Bower used as a security device on the back door of his picture framing shop. Later on they used planks and ropes. Their first efforts took only a few minutes. But, being inveterate pranksters as well as serious artists, the challenge began to grow on them. Gradually, they designed and executed more and more demanding figures.

At first no one seemed to notice. There were no media reports. Their artforms were neglected by the tribe of UFOlogists. They were on the verge of abandoning crop circles to move on to some other, more emotionally rewarding hoax.

Suddenly crop circles caught on. UFOlogists fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Bower and Chorley were delighted--especially when scientists and others began to announce their considered judgment that no merely human intelligence could be responsible.

Carefully they planned each nocturnal excursion--sometimes following meticulous diagrams they had prepared in watercolors. They closely tracked their interpreters. When a local meteorologist deduced a kind of whirlwind because all of the crops were deflected downward in a clockwise circle, they confounded him by making a new figure with an exterior ring flattened counterclockwise.

Soon other crop figures appeared in southern England and elsewhere. Copycat hoaxsters had appeared. Bower and Chorley carved out a responsive message in wheat: "WEARENOTALONE." Even this some took to be a genuine extraterrestrial message (although it would have been better had it read "YOUARENOTALONE."). Doug and Dave began signing their artworks with two Ds; even this was attributed to a mysterious alien purpose. Bower's nocturnal disappearances aroused the suspicions of his wife Ilene. Only with great difficulty--Ilene accompanying Dave and Doug one night, and then joining the credulous in admiring their handiwork next day--was she convinced that his absences were, in this sense, innocent.

Eventually Bower and Chorley tired if the increasingly elaborate prank. While in excellent physical condition, they were both in their sixties now and a little old for nocturnal commando operations in the fields of unknown and often unsympathetic farmers. They may have been annoyed at the fame an d fortune accrued by those who merely photographed their art and announced aliens to be the artists. And they became worried that if they delayed much longer, no statement of theirs would be believed.

So they confessed. They demonstrated to reporters how they made even the most elaborate insectoid patterns. You might think that never again would it be argued that a sustained hoax over many years is impossible, and never again would we hear that no one could possibly be motivated to deceive the gullible into thinking that aliens exist. But the media paid brief attention. Cerealogists urged them to go easy; after all, they were depriving many of the pleasure of imagining wondrous happenings.

Since then, other crop circle hoaxers have kept at it, but mostly in a more desultory and less inspired manner. As always, the confession of the hoax is greatly overshadowed by the sustained initial excitement. Many have heard of the pictograms in cereal grains and their alleged UFO connection, but draw a blank when the names of Bower and Chorley or the very idea that the whole business may be a hoax are raised. An informative expose by the journalist Jim Schnabel (Round in Circles; Penguin books, 1994)--from which much of my account is taken--is in print. Schnabel joined the cerealogists early and in the end made a few successful pictograms himself. (He prefers a garden roller to a wooden plank, and found that simply stomping grain with one's feet does an acceptable job.) But Schnabel's work, which one reviewer called "the funniest book I've read in ages," had only modest success. Demons sell; hoaxers are boring and in bad taste.

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