March 07, 2015

UFO Abductions, the Great Barrington Museum, and Our Shared Mental Categories

Here's a story that's interesting in so many ways. Forgive me if you've already read about it, but I couldn't resist writing about it.

Back in 1966, Thomas Reed was a young boy living with his family on a farm in Sheffield, out in western Massachusetts. He shared a bedroom in the big Victorian farmhouse with his younger brother Matthew.

One night, Thomas and his brother saw some small, glowing orbs floating through their bedroom. They hovered just below the ceiling and Thomas felt like they were watching him. He closed his eyes several times, hoping they were just a dream and that they would disappear, but they didn't. They floated through the room repeatedly that night before they vanished.

Those orbs seemed strange at the time, but they would seem commonplace compared to what followed. Several nights later, glowing human-like shapes appeared in the boys' room. After seeing the ghostly shapes the boys found themselves outside in the woods, and the shapes (which now seemed to be small humanoids wearing masks) took Thomas and Matthew into a large metal craft that rested in a clearing.

The interior of the craft glowed with white light that had no apparent source. The humanoids brought Thomas into a room and showed him images on a screen: what seemed to be galaxies and, oddly, a willow tree. The two boys were brought back to their bedroom, and the next day after school Thomas found the clearing where the craft had landed.

A drawing by Thomas Reed of the willow tree and UFOs, from the Roswell UFO Museum.

This was Thomas's first UFO abduction. Others followed over the next three years, and included his mother and grandmother. Unlike the first abduction, the later ones were sinister and more menacing. The situation got so bad that the Reed family moved to a house in nearby Great Barrington.

A large willow tree stood in the front yard, and one of his first nights in the new house Thomas saw glowing orbs in his bedroom. Were the UFOS done with Thomas and his family?

You can find more details about Thomas Reed and his UFO abduction online. It is a well-known case, but has come to recent prominence because the Great Barrington Museum has announced it will add a display about the abduction to its exhibits.

The decision was made only after a difficult discussion by the Museum's board, but the question remains: should a mainstream museum have an exhibit about a UFO abduction? Reaction has been mixed. A researcher named Ted Acworth is quoted by the Globe, and I think many people might share his views:

“I’m convinced that there are things happening that are unexplainable, but is that proof of a UFO?” said Acworth, who lives in Boston and now works on technology startups. “A lot of highly credible people believe in their bones that they saw something. It’s not just fringe wackos. But the nearest habitable planet is many, many light years away, and I don’t think they’d come here just to scare people and fly home again. They’d make themselves known.”

The comments section on the Boston Globe article are divided into people who think aliens are visiting us from other planets, and people who explain why this might not be plausible.

Personally, I think there are some situations where truth can and should be determined. Did Aaron Hernandez kill Odin Lloyd? Either he did or didn't, and we need to figure it out. Is that skin cancer or is that just a freckle? It's one or the other, and you better find out.

But some situations feel a little more nebulous, and you just need to accept them on faith. For example, did Moses really see a talking burning bush? Some people say yes, some say no. But was there really a fiery shrub out in the wilderness, or was it a dream, or a vision? It's hard to say, and what evidence would be acceptable? Credo quia absurdum.

The Thomas Reed abduction case feels the same way to me. Reed says it happened, as do family members. He's passed a lie detector test. Corroborating sightings of UFOs were made by people not affiliated with the family in any way. But no physical trace of the craft has been found and, despite what you might see on lurid cable shows, no hard proof of alien visitors or craft has ever surfaced. And the law of physics, and common sense, indicate that alien beings won't fly across the light years just to harass a family in western Mass.

Thomas Reed's abductions sound like visionary experiences to me. It's interesting how parts of his story resemble classic ghost stories. Ghost hunters count glowing orbs as signs of supernatural activity, and the glowing figures in the bedroom sound very similar to ghosts. The fact that the family relocated in an attempt to stop the activity reminds me of The Amityville Horror and other haunted house narratives, and seems to imply they felt the visitors were associated with the house, rather than extraterrestrials who could fly wherever they wanted.

But of course, being who I am, I'm also reminded of witchcraft accounts where the witch appears as someone sleeps to torment them (and sometimes unwillingly take them on nighttime journeys), and also of fairies who take humans into the hollow hills, and... You get the picture. Supernatural beings all do similar things, even if their specific identities change over time. Aliens, witches, fairies, ghosts, daimons, demi-gods all parade through our nighttime world and work their charms on us.

You might disagree with me about the nature of Thomas Reed's abductions, and that's OK. However, we might agree that whether it was real, a visionary experience, or even a lie, Thomas's story is recognizable. We all understand that this is what a UFO abduction is like. It's a mental category we share.

After the Salem witch trials, at least one of the afflicted girls admitted that she lied about the whole thing. She confessed and asked her church for forgiveness (which they granted). Many of the other accusers probably lied as well. They wanted to settle family grudges, they wanted attention and power, etc. But the trials wouldn't have happened if everyone else in their society didn't already believe in witchcraft as a category. They all understood what a witchcraft attack was like. It was a mental category they shared. Even after the witchcraft trials ended and were revealed to be a sham, the Puritans didn't stop believing in witchcraft. They just realized it was impossible to prove.

I don't think Thomas Reed is lying, and he's certainly not accusing any neighbors of tormenting him through UFO abduction. But like witchcraft, UFO abductions are a mental category we all share and recognize. They're probably worth a museum exhibit, even if they're impossible to prove.


Wade Tarzia said...

"Thomas Reed's abductions sound like visionary experiences to me. It's interesting how parts of his story resemble classic ghost stories." -- I like your analysis. We can be credulous without calling an event an outright hoax, etc. Our brains seem to be wired to permit the perception of alternative realities/supernatural interpretation (at least as far back as the Paleolithic shamanic symbols painted in caves), and some people do interpret their experience accordingly, and friends and family (community) fall behind them because we are, after all, social primates. I like Carl Sagan's chapter on this in his The Demon Haunted World: Science as Candle in the Dark book.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Wade!

Thanks for the comment. I'll have to check out the Sagan book, which I confess I haven't read. My ideas about all this paranormal stuff were strongly affected by reading Patrick Harpur's Daimonic Reality a few years ago. Harpur talks about how in the past people thought the spirits lived outside us, but now in the current era we think they live inside us (in our psyches), but despite the change in location they are still up to their same old tricks. And they're still hard to pin down!

I agree that we are wired to perceive alternate realities (whatever they are). While some people get training in managing those perceptions - shamans, depth psychologists, magickal practitioners - most people don't, and so when they involuntarily experience an alternate reality it's not usually pleasant. Maybe they should start teaching those techniques in public school! : )

Anonymous said...

There is also a good possibility that these widely publicized accounts of experiences could be nothing more than a narcissistic delusion sold repeatedly in hopes of gaining self-serving notoriety and acceptance, whereby satisfying ones own egotistic disillusionment. The world is full of fantasy prone people!