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  • The Familiarity of Strangeness: Aliens, Citizens, and Abduction
  • Jodi Dean (bio)


“Removal of aliens who enter the United States illegally . . . is an all-too-rare event”1

The major media event of the first week of April 1997 involved the discovery of thirty-nine bodies in a large house in the Rancho Santa Fe section of San Diego. Early reports from traditional media identified the bodies as belonging to web designers, white males in their twenties and thirties. More reliable information, much of it coming off the group’s site on the World Word Wide, explained that they had left their bodies in order to rendevue with the spacecraft traveling in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet. Further investigation corrected the early misidentifications: the bodies belonged to men and women the majority of whom were in their forties and fifties. Most had spent much of the past twenty years following the teachings of “Do,” Marshall Herff Applewhite, who with “Ti” (Bonnie Le Nettles, who died in 1985) taught that UFOs would take the prepared to the level above human.

Much of the commentary in traditional media focused either on why the people “committed suicide” or on the dangers of the Internet. Net commentary trashed traditional media, pointing out that Jonestown didn’t need the web and that the Heaven’s Gate group understood themselves not as dying, but as leaving their bodies. Neither worried much about the UFOs and aliens so central to the group’s beliefs. Aliens have already been assimilated into everyday life in America at the millennium. A primary vehicle for this assimilation has been the alien abduction narrative.

Over the last decade, stories of alien abduction have worked their way into mainstream culture. Although abduction accounts have been part of UFO literature since the case of Betty and Barney Hill was documented in the mid-sixties and have appeared every once in a while in the popular press, sustained public attention to abduction started up first in 1987 (the year of the televangelism scandals, the Iran-Contra Hearings, Wedtech, and the stock market crash).2 That year two purportedly true accounts of alien abduction made best seller lists, Whitley Streiber’s Communion and Budd Hopkins’ Intruders. The former book was made into a movie in 1989. The latter aired as a CBS mini-series in 1992. Today there are scores of books by abductees and their therapists. Legitimated by the 1994 publication of Harvard psychiatrist John Mack’s work with abductees, Abduction, thousands of people have come out with their experiences, reporting that they, too, have been abducted numerous times by alien entities. Around the country online and face to face support groups are available to help abductees come to grips with their experiences.

By the mid-nineties the abduction narrative is established enough for The New York Times Magazine to satirize abductee meetings and put “World leader in alien abductions” at number four on a list of “What’s Right With America.”3 The New Yorker can publish alien abduction cartoons, secure that readers will get the joke. Abduction is a common motif on network tv. “Chicago Hope” and “ER” have run plot lines involving women pregnant with alien babies. The main character on the sitcom “Grace Under Fire” was abducted by aliens, as were Joe and Spence on “Ellen.” On “Seinfeld” Jerry and George have considered what might happen if they were abducted by aliens. Apparently, tales of aliens, specifically those abducting humans, resonate with something in American life at the end of the millennium.

This isn’t the first wave of aliens to sweep across the United States. At the turn of the last century, people reported seeing flying airships and worried over canals on Mars. After the term “flying saucer” was coined in 1947, each of the following decades has been marked by two or three waves of sightings. During the Cold War, fears of contamination, mutation, and the communist other fed a thriving industry of B grade science fiction movies. Today science fiction continues to attract large numbers of readers, viewers, and folks who like to dress up in Star Trek costumes and go to conventions in alien drag...

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