Do the roots of how we have come to perceive the UFO abduction phenomenon lie elsewhere, not between the stars but buried in the folklore and superstition of a suppressed people? If so, what does it tell us? Is the abduction phenomenon older than we think, does it manifest itself amongst the various cultures on earth in a different way? A hundred years ago you’d be having a very good chance that an African American, no matter where he might live in the United States, might mutter in agreement to all these questions, before hurrying off in utter fear.
Not too long ago large parts of the American population were the victim of a virulent racism, and, although the sharpest edges have been removed, it has never totally gone away. What this racism also brought with it was a unique divergence of the folkloric beliefs and superstitions of the various racial populations that made up America. African Americans, ultimately having their roots in Africa, inherited the religious beliefs, traditions and folklore of their overseas ancestors who were brought to the continent as slaves. The same went for, say, the poor Irish, Dutch or Swedish colonists. Each racial, cultural or national group brought with it its own set of folkloric traditions from the old countries, and with these mythologies came their own brand of demons, fairies, monsters, witches and things that go bump in the night. These old tales were stronger than the American melting pot that didn’t work for black slaves anyway, so they survived the process of assimilation in the new country. And since there was a communications gap, to put it mildly, between the black slaves and their white masters, the beliefs and superstitions of the former could linger on and mature in relative seclusion.
Not that their white masters didn’t have an inkling. The 19th century black American populations held in slavery were also kept in check by a system of the exploitation of these folkloric fears by their white masters. One has but to think of the sinister garb of the Ku Klux Klan, or the infamous Ghost Riders or Night Riders. It was, as Gladys-Marie Fry notes in her book Night Riders In Black Folk History: ‘a system of psychological control.’ In return, the African American communities, powerless to effectively defend themselves, fell back on and found solace in a new and unique mythology to explain the wanton cruelty that befell them. With it came the warnings embedded in folklore, assembled by astute and smart black forteans before Charles Fort even began his seminal work; the most well-known piece of advice that you should be very weary of what you might encounter at the crossroads, and never, ever accept any gifts from strangers there.
Black forteans you say? Yes, there were a few. But they’d best be called demonologists and exorcists. Since that is what the life of an African American consisted of anyway: to fight off their demon slave owners, the white devil-man, and exorcise the deep injustice that came with it. Black urban legends difer from white urban legends, as Patricia Turner demonstrates in her book I Heard It Through The Grapevine. And black forteana is different from white forteana. Amongst others, its marked difference lies in the social status of the experiencer. A suppressed people living in poverty and their fate decided by the unpredictable whim of their cruel masters formulates a different set of tales to explain and fathom a careless, nihilistic and dark world; a free people entertains a different outlook on life, the universe and everything. There was a time when poor Irish peasants lived in dread of the Good Folk and their children snatching antics. In contrast, well to do 19th century Victorians gravitated towards a totally false idea of the Fairies as cute little darling creatures with butterfly wings. It may also mean that, the better off a folk will become over time, the more they drift away from their dark and atavistic folkloric fears. In due time, folklore may even be seen as superstition, a mental aberration of more primitive times, which is the wrong road to take, of course. There are things that go bump in the night, and there are manifestations for which there is no answer. How does this relate to the UFO-phenomenon? We’ll come to that in a moment.
Rootwork! Hoodoo! Conjuration, the alternative worldview of the old African Americans was strong and mesmerizing. And none more frightening than the Night Doctors, those terrible, mysterious non-human abductors that resembled, as one African American put it in 1887:
...a supernatural being, formed like a man, having long, hook-like fingers and a poisonous breath… wherever he turns and breathes upon a house where a child lies sick the child is doomed to death before another night… Always after the death of a child the negroes get together and ask who of them heard the night doctor pass by. Some one is sure to assert that he or she heard the low, moaning, rushing sound made by the night doctor’s quick flight. But it is regarded as a surely fatal sign if any one sees the night doctor.
When the stories of the Night Doctors began to surface in early 19th century America, one thing that became apparent was that ‘the myth’, as one newspaper named it, was traceable to Africa (which part of that large continent it didn’t say). Another newspaper offered as solution to the origin of this fear:
Where did this belief originate? Perhaps in darker Africa, in days when ancestors of the race in this country were changed from Africans to Americans through the medium of the slave ship, manacle and lash…
Reading these 19th century accounts in the cramped columns of crumbling newspapers, okay, their 21st century equivalent in the form of fuzzy lowres pdf files digitized from badly scratched and well-worn microfilm rolls, one has to wade through a sea of racist context. Stripped of that utterly unpleasant jargon and framework, a fascinating body of stories emerges. The Night Doctors, we learn, abducted black people by pouring wax in their nostrils and mouths, incapacitating them, hurrying them into black carriages, and hurtle them off to secret laboratories and wings of foreboding hospitals for the gruesome purposes of vivisection and weird, ungodly experiments. Or instead of wax they used ‘a peculiar plaster’ which they clap over the face of the intended victim: “this stifles their cries and ultimately suffocates them. Their bodies are then carried to the medical college, where they are dissected and a valuable extract is made from the coloring matter, which makes the ‘darkey’ browner than the white person…” In 1879 Little Rock, Arkansas, was in the grip of a Night Doctors scare:
The idea has been taken up that every night the doctors go out, catch colored people, drag them into the institution, kill and dissect them…
An 1889 newspaper article reads:
The Negroes of Clarendon, Williamsburg and Sumter counties have for several weeks past been in a state of fear and trembling. They claim that there is a white man, a doctor, who at will can make himself invisible, and who then approaches some unsuspecting darkey, and, having rendered him or her insensible with chloroform, proceeds to fill up a bucket with the victim’s blood, for the purpose of making medicine…
The fears of these Night Doctors were not unfounded; the practice of dissection was widely spread in 19th century America, and the graves of African Americans were the main source of corpses. It was, after all, less risky to dissect a black cadaver instead of a white one. Writes Sheena Morrison in Body Snatchers: Tales from the Crypt and Beyond:
In as early as March of 1827, Freedom’s Journal, an African American newspaper, instructed its readers on how to create a cheap mortsafe, a complex contraption of rods and plates that protected the coffin. According to the journal, family members should, “as soon as the corpse is deposited in the grave, let a truss of long wheaten straw be opened and distributed in layers, as equally as may be with every layer of earth, until the whole is filled up. By this method the corpse will be effectually secured.” This contraption ensured that “the longest night will not afford time to empty the grave
Then there is the disturbing story of Madame LaLaurie, a socialite and sadistic serial killer from Louisiana. On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in her residence on Royal Street, New Orleans. Police and fire marshals found in the slave quarters “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated ... suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other”. It is said that eyewitnesses looked aghast at a scene from the deepest pit of hell: “There were women chained to beds with their stomachs cut open, and their intestines wrapped about their waists. There were men with their eyeballs poked out and their private parts mutilated, all while being chained to a wall. Some slaves' intestines were nailed to the floor. One firefighter described a woman with her arms cut off, with patterns of her skin dug out. One person even had animal feces in their mouth, which was sewn shut….”
Sadly, her case was not an isolated one. There were many more and this formed an integral part of a terrible reality that an African American slave faced in 19th century America and elsewhere in the western world where slavery was widely practiced. Those sinister tales of the Night Doctors, abducting African Americans to perform gruesome experiments, are reminiscent of the nefarious Tuskegee experiment that ran from 1932 all the way to 1972. But was there something more lurking behind the Night Doctors scare, something else, that is perhaps not entirely of this world?
Flash forward to a fateful night in September 1961. A beautiful, vivacious couple of mixed race marriage – he is black, she white, is driving in their car to Portsmouth from Niagara Falls, and, as unique as their mixed race marriage is at that time, they are on the verge of having an equally groundbreaking experience. It will become so influential, that it will forever mark the very beginning of what has since been known as ‘the abduction phenomenon’. As they are driving in the vicinity of Twin Mountain (there’s a Twin Peaks for you) they see an odd craft with flashing lights, but worse, the odd craft notices them. One mile off Indian Head, the object descends causing the couple to halt their car in the middle of the highway. In front of them hovers a huge, silent object, filling the entire field of the windshield. Grabbing his gun, the man leaves the car. Behind the windows of the craft he sees:
…about 8 to 11 humanoid figures who were peering out of the craft's windows, seeming to look at him. … Barney had a conscious, continuous recollection of observing the humanoid forms wearing glossy black uniforms and black caps… Beings that were somehow not human…
The couple is Betty and Barney Hill, and their unbelievably weird encounter would essentially mark the recorded beginning of the abduction phenomenon. There were a few claims to earlier abductions, that of Antonio Vilas Boas in October 1957 for instance, but it was not properly recorded until a year after the Hills. Yet another pre-Hills claim was found in a French newspaper from 1954, where a letter writer recalled a certain childhood incident from 1921. The anonymous writer claimed that he was snatched away by two tall men wearing diver suits and helmets, taking him to an ‘oddly shaped tank’. But let’s return to Barney Hill. British ufologist Peter Rogerson observes:
…Anyone who reads Barney’s encounter in the field with the light must suspect that his extreme reaction was more likely to have been a symptom of preexisting post-traumatic stress than something new. His description of the alien as having a Mongolian-type face, wearing a sort of leather jacket and a scarf is curiously reminiscent of a kamikaze pilot. This figure is also seen as an evil Nazi officer and an Irishman (Boston Irish, traditionally hostile to Blacks). In other words, reflected in the unknown light, Barney sees images of evil authority, intolerance and threat…
As Dawn Danella points out in Night Doctors: Exhuming The Truth:
There are some that say that the “night doctors” are a myth belonging solely to black folklore, a story used to frighten and manipulate. There is no doubt that is indeed what the lore achieved but the night doctors, aka “sack-em-up boys” aka “resurrectionists” aka night riders, did indeed live in more than just whispered stories. The night doctors were a real force that made a lasting impression on history and the repercussions of their horror story can still be felt in African American communities today.
Did Barney Hill, an African American who also was active in the Civil Rights movement, in this extremely stressful moment, relive that atavistic fear of the Night Doctors, which once terrorized scores of African Americans and is even felt today? Was it that why Barney Hill reacted much more frightened and in much greater panic compared to Betty? It can be argued then that this deeply felt fear of the Night Doctors stood at the base of how the abduction phenomenon in its earliest stage was shaped in our collective psyche. After all, UFO historian Jerome Clarke ponders in his The Ufo Book how, until the mid 1960s before Betty and Barney Hill’s experience became known “…ufologists knew nothing of an 'abduction phenomenon'. Indeed the Hills' account of being taken against their will into a UFO by humanoids and forced to undergo physical examinations seemed unique to some ufologists…"
An African American citizen though might have known exactly where to look for similarities: he or she might even have recalled those old stories told by grandmother, of the strange disappearances, the inexplicable abductions and the weird experiments of the terrible Night Doctors. They mirror the medical procedures, the physical examination ritual in the UFO abduction phenomenon - that surfaced for the first time with the experience of Betty and Barney Hill on a deserted stretch of road, one September night in 1961. At that time, the infamous Tuskegee experiment was still business as (un)usual.