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In the tradition of great storytellers, Davis continues to approach Off The Path in serial form. He’ll explore this season, called "Off the Plank," in 2 or 3 installments and then combine them into a single podcast episode. Here, you’ll find those individual installments — which we’re calling “Mile Markers.” Enjoy the ride!

A 'close encounter' shapes society's image of space aliens

Librarian Emeritus Bill Ross shows off images of aliens from Betty and Barney Hill's collection at the University of New Hampshire Library.
Davis Dunavin
Librarian Emeritus Bill Ross shows off images of aliens from Betty and Barney Hill's collection at the University of New Hampshire Library.

Two people on a road trip in New Hampshire in 1961 were at the center of one of America’s first high-profile alien abduction cases. Their account of that night set the tone for how we imagine extraterrestrials today.

An artist was allowed to sit in when the Hills went under hypnosis. The drawings show creatures with big eyes that almost wrap around their oversized, bulbous heads. That look inspired the most popular depiction of aliens for the past 60 years. Librarian Emeritus Bill Ross said, at the time of the Hill abduction, sci-fi movies and TV shows never agreed on what aliens looked like.

“Aliens were, like, robots and starfish, just all across the board," Ross said. "After the 60s, you start getting into things like Close Encounters, X-Files — the small, big-headed gray creatures.”

They’re sometimes called “the greys.” They appear in the 1977 film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" when the mothership arrives. A lot of the details are similar to the Hills’ story, said University of New Hampshire librarian Elizabeth Slomba.

“You know, isolated rural area, lights, you get sucked up, you may not remember until later what happened," Slomba said. "The probing, the medical examination and then the return home. And those are other elements that you see in other traditional UFO stories.”

One journalist estimates the greys account for about three quarters of all alien abduction reports. And they’ve been seen on TV for decades, in everything from South Park to, of course, The X-Files. Sometimes — in shows like The X-Files — the greys are called “Reticulans.”

The name comes from a drawing by Betty Hill - based on a star chart she drew under hypnosis. She said it was based on stars she saw on the alien ship.

UFO researchers compared the star chart to a real map of the stars and it seemed to point to a star called Zeta Reticuli. The star chart became a focal point in the controversy over what really happened to the Hills.

“Basically, a lot of people used it to validate their story," Ross said. "And you know that it showed Zeta Reticuli, you know, everything pointed to it. Carl Sagan refuted it.”

Sagan's refutation, on his show Cosmos, led to one of his most famous quotes: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The back-and-forth continues today. Librarian Elizabeth Slomba said she sees both sides at the University of New Hampshire Library.

“My favorite day was the day we had the New Hampshire UFO society on one side of the room and the New Hampshire Skeptics on the other side," she said. "And they were really polite to each other. You know, you had the people with the UFO stickers on their computer on one side of the room and you had the people with the stop sign over the UFO on the other side of the room.”

The Hills’ experience had another legacy — one that’s a little more down-to-earth. And it has to do with their lesser-known role — as an interracial couple involved in the American civil rights movement. That’s on the next Off the Path.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.