Hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens. In a typical case, an abductee recounts lying in bed one night when an eerie feeling overcomes him, and alien beings appear out of nowhere. The extraterrestrials transport him to a spacecraft and subject him to a battery of physical and psychological tests. After what seems like hours, he is returned to his bedroom unharmed, and finds that the whole ordeal transpired in minutes.
Abductees think their traumatic experiences were real. However, most psychologists think abductions are lucid dreams or hallucinations, triggered by an awareness of other people's similar experiences. One recent experiment, in which participants trained in lucid dreaming techniques were able to dream up vivid alien encounters, supports this hypothesis. But if each perceived abduction is just the latest in a series of hallucinations, what was it that triggered that first dream or delusion? How was the alien abduction story born?
Paranormal investigators say it all started in the 1940s and '50s. The Space Age was upon us, and sci-fi literature was soaring in popularity with human-alien encounters a recurring theme. In July 1946, "Planet Comics" ran a strip in which aliens used a luminous tractor beam to kidnap a voluptuous female earthling, whom they called Specimen 9. They tell her the abduction is part of "Project Survival," and as they steer their spaceship toward what looks like Saturn, the leader remarks, "Now home. And if you find our methods ruthless, Specimen 9, it is because our needs are desperate."
Likewise, in 1954, a comic strip appearing in the British tabloid The Daily Express detailed the alien abduction of a Royal Air Force pilot. Dozens of other abduction stories graced the pages of sci-fi novels and comic books. [10 Paranormal Videos Debunked]
Science fiction gets real
Eventually, sporadic reports of real-life violent interactions with aliens began to surface. Most important to this narrative, in 1954, two Venezuelan teenagers claimed to have stumbled upon a spaceship in the woods near their village. Small, hairy aliens attacked them, and injured one of the boys before they were able to beat the creatures back using an unloaded rifle as a club and escape to safety. According to Luis Gonzalez, a UFO expert and skeptic based in Argentina, a magazine article describing this alleged incident seems to have triggered the first alien abduction claim three years later.
In 1957, a Brazilian writer named João Martins penned the first installment of a series titled "Flying Saucers' Terrible Mission" for the magazine O Cruzeiro. "There he describes cases of people in isolated places attacked by small alien beings (the famous 1954 cases in Venezuela, among others)," Gonzalez told Life's Little Mysteries. "Martins also asked his readers to write him with their own experiences. Among hundreds of [responses], he selected one of a young farmer from Minas Gerais with whom he exchanged several letters."
The next year, Martins paid for the 23-year-old farmer to come to Rio de Janeiro, where he was examined by Dr. Olavo Fontes. The farmer's name was Antonio Villas Boas, and he claimed to have been abducted by aliens one day after reading Martins' article.
Dr. Fontes sent a detailed report about the Villas Boas case to the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization, but, Gonzalez explained, they decided it was too fantastical to publish. "Nevertheless, the story circulated between the experts," he wrote.
Eventually the story got out. Walter Buhler of the Brazilian ufology group SBEDV, and a follower of the self-described alien contactee George Adamski, learned about Vilas Boas' story, and in 1962, Buhler visited the young farmer in his hometown. The SBEDV subsequently published a report on the Villas Boas case in English, and the account aligned with Adamski's earlier descriptions of aliens and their spaceships. In January 1965, an international journal called the Flying Saucer Review reproduced Buhler's report worldwide.
Real or imagined?
The story provides the blueprint for what would later become an archetypal alien abduction report. Villas Boas was ploughing fields at night to avoid the scorching temperatures of the day, when he saw the red light of a spaceship; it slowly approached him and landed nearby in a field. Villas Boas tried to escape but was captured by small humanoid creatures, which dragged him into their craft.
The aliens conducted a series of experiments on their captive, including taking samples of his body tissue, exposing him to a gas that made him violently ill, and compelling him to have sexual intercourse with a female alien, who was, Villas Boas said, very attractive, with blonde hair and blue, cat-like eyes.
A few details hint that the story was fabricated or imagined, according to Kentaro Mori, a paranormal investigator who blogs at Forgetomori. "If you read Villas Boas' account you may notice the advanced aliens nonetheless used rope ladders — a very adorable detail," Mori wrote in an email. Moreover, "Villas Boas' original sketch of the alien spaceship, with three legs, looks remarkably like the drawings of Sputnik-1, often depicted with three of its four antennas showing. The Sputnik surely was the talk of the time in 1957 when Villas Boas was supposedly abducted — or imagined his story."
And there was, of course, the fact that the young farmer had just read stories of alien encounters in the pages of O Cruzeiro.
"Villas Boas was a farmer, but not a common one," Mori wrote. "He went on to become a lawyer, he reportedly created himself models of the spaceship he saw, two indications he was a cultured and creative person, contrary to many ET proponents who like to suggest he was simply an ignorant stupid peasant who wouldn't invent such a story."
In fact, those to whom he told the story first didn't believe him. According to Mori and Gonzalez, either Martins, the writer who invited Villas Boas to Rio de Janeiro, or Dr. Fontes, the doctor who examined him, thought the farmer was fabricating the whole thing. That's why they didn't immediately publish the report themselves — and why it took several years to break out. [Will ET Look Like Us?]
The Hill encounter
In the years between Villas Boas' alleged abduction and its worldwide publicity, another incident occurred, and it was publicized first, by a few months. In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill, an American couple, encountered what they thought was an alien spaceship in rural New Hampshire while on a late-night drive. Betty's sister had previously claimed to have seen a flying saucer, so it occurred to Betty that this was what she and her husband were seeing also. They later remembered that the spaceship stalked them for several miles. A few nights after the alleged encounter, Betty started having vivid, nightmarish dreams about being abducted and examined by the aliens in the spaceship. She thought these dreams were suppressed memories.
The couple spoke of their experience in private church meetings, and eventually started attending hypnotic sessions with Dr. Benjamin Simon, a psychiatrist in Boston. Simon concluded that Barney's recall of the UFO encounter was a false memory inspired by Betty's dreams. Nonetheless, the story of their abduction leaked. "The Hill case went public on October 25, 1965, when it appeared in [the newspaper] the Boston Traveler," Gonzalez wrote. The newspaper article led to a popular book, which inspired a made-for-TV movie.
"Alien abductions finally became mainstream UFOlogy in the 1960s and onwards," Mori wrote.
The Villas Boas and Hill cases are both arguably the original inspiration for the untold number of abduction accounts that have followed. The Brazilian farmer's alleged encounter happened first, but the Hills' story was the first (by a matter of months) to enter collective consciousness.
Either way, both incidents were themselves prompted by the surging belief in UFOs across Western cultures at the dawn of the Space Age. For the first time in history, humanity was looking to the stars and perceiving them as not so far away.
This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.