The Priests of High Strangeness

Carol Rainey: Paratopia vol. 1, n° 1, Saturday, January 15, 2011
Carol Rainey
Carol Rainey
Carol Rainey has been making award-winning documentaries for PBS, cable networks, and commercial distribution for over two decades. Many of those films focused on scientific and medical topics. Rainey is currently working on a feature-length documentary about the story of UFO researcher Budd Hopkins’ investigation into the Witnessed case (with Linda Cortile). She has also published short stories, written feature-length screenplays and teleplays, and co-authored the book Sight Unseen, published in 2003 by Atria: Simon & Schuster

Co-creation of the "alien abduction phenomenon"

Sometimes an event comes hurdling along and scatters well-intentioned plans left and right. I had intended to wait several more years before writing about my hard-won insights into the alien abduction phenomenon. During my ten-year marriage to UFO researcher Budd HopkinsHopkins, Budd, I’d actively participated in some of Budd’s UFO cases; edited his third book, Witnessed; co-authored the next book, Sight Unseen, with him; shot extensive documentary footage of Budd’s research; and produced short films that he used on the conference circuit. But we haven’t been married for the past several years, we’ve each gotten on with our own lives, and, since 2004, I’ve refused to participate in abduction research. There seemed to be a lot to lose and nothing to gain by speaking up, during my former husband’s lifetime, about my perceptions of some researchers’ ethical violations, misuse of human subjects, and their steady manipulation of the abduction narrative into a rigid doctrine. No need to rush to print.

But then along came Emma Woods’ story, reaching me last spring while I was living and working in the 14th century Moroccan walled-city of Fez. It was an explosive case of subject abuse that shook up many people and would later become the November 2010 cover story for UFO Magazine. During a long rainy day, waiting for the donkey to deliver my cooking gas, I took the time to carefully review the material on both sides—on the subject (Emma Woods’) website and also on the website of researcher David Jacobs. The audio taped excerpts of the sessions provided a trail through the labyrinthine ways in which researchers are able to “lead” the subject in a certain direction by pre-hypnosis conversation about other cases they’re interested in; how the narrative is manipulated to fit the high strangeness requirements of the researcher’s upcoming book; the tapes also show egregious boundary crossing and ethical improprieties.

Before a subject’s hypnotic regression with Budd Hopkins, the author secures the microphone. s1Still from documentary by C. Rainey
Before a subject’s hypnotic regression with Budd Hopkins, the author secures the microphone. s1Still from documentary by C. Rainey

It electrified me out of my silence and into action. Because Emma’s case brought painfully to mind several other cases that had passed through my own home in the not too distant past—and for any adverse effect on these individuals’ lives that I might have contributed to as the documentary filmmaker or writer on the scene, I am genuinely sorry. At this point, perhaps I can best make amends by responding to the question asked in a letter to the editor of UFO Magazine by veteran UFO researcher Ray Fowler: “I wonder how many other Emmas there are out there?”

Let me begin to name them, because they are most definitely there.

And in their naming, it will become clear— despite Hopkins’ and Jacobs’ adamant and repeated statements to the contrary, like politicians working off of the same faxed talking point of the day—that the marshy ground of alien abductions is afloat in hoaxes and partial hoaxes. It will also become clear that what Hopkins and Jacobs claim as “the powerful evidence” for alien abductions and hybrids among us is based primarily on the powerful, hypnotic repetition of their own proclamations—and the public’s gullibility in believing whatever unfounded theories these star paranormal investigators punt down the field. Further, it will become clear that these abduction investigators know that the people featured in their published books or conference lectures are not the norm for abduction experiences. The sensational cases published in Hopkins’ Intruders and Witnessed, in Jacobs’ Secret Life and The Threat are positioned as the anecdotal examples that describe the entire phenomenon.

The problem for the rest of us who are trying to understand this thing is that these particular cases are almost always “high strangeness,” weirder than weird, spectacular exceptions to the rule. They are not representative of what Hopkins and Jacobs “discover” in their day-to-day, run-of-the-mill abduction reports.

Devant la regression hypnotique d'un sujet avec Budd Hopkins, l'auteur s'assure du bon fonctionnement du microphone
Devant la regression hypnotique d'un sujet avec Budd Hopkins, l'auteur s'assure du bon fonctionnement du microphone

The stout, grizzle-bearded man trembling on our studio couch was telling the hellish tale of his boyhood. At first, he seemed to be recalling a fairly standard “abductee” experience: a powerful beam of light, paralysis, levitation into a hovering craft, floating along a hall, lying nude on a table surrounded by little grey beings with medical instruments, sexual manipulation or implantation of devices, return to the original setting with only fragments of memory of the events, and a realization of missing time. Under hypnosis, the middle-aged man remembered even more, screamed, swore, and wept. Under pretext of filming the session, I was keeping an eye on what was stuck down the side of the terrified man’s boot. The label on my videotape says the hypnotic regression took place in Manhattan on Sunday, June 30, 2002.

This was James S. Mortellaro, Jr., who had come to ask the help of my then-husband, Budd Hopkins. For the previous three years, Jim had admired Budd, read all of his books and come to hear his talks at conferences. To audiences around the world, Budd Hopkins was often introduced as the man who had single-handedly brought the alien abduction phenomenon to the attention of the world. Witty, a natural-born raconteur with a fatherly charm and a reputation for kindness, Budd had enthralled television, radio, and conference audiences for four decades with his bizarre accounts of humans terrorized and suffering at the hands of the supremely indifferent, technologically superior alien beings.

Today, Jim told us, he could no longer live without knowing what had happened to him as a child. Why he had fears of falling from heights and sudden lights. Why he tossed down prescription pills the way other people mindlessly eat popcorn at the movies. And why he entered our home with a pistol shoved into his right boot.

Several things about this case were making me increasingly uneasy. It wasn’t just the pills and the pistol. Or the fact that none of Jim’s claims had been checked or verified. Among his more mundane statements, Jim Mortellaro had earlier told Budd that he had two Ph.D.s (Really? That’s impressive, the skeptical wife thinks from behind the camera. From which universities?) and that he’d been “the Marketing Director for Hitachi” before retiring early. (Really? Was that Regional, National or International Marketing Director? Why is it you don’t look or talk like any marketing director I’ve ever known?)

Actually, when I got honest with myself, it wasn’t just this case. A sick-in-my-heart feeling had been growing for some time. It was a festering unease about the way the alien abduction phenomenon had been developing before my eyes and captured through the camera’s lens for the last seven years of my marriage to Budd. A concern about what was truly being discovered during these hypnosis sessions and what was being manufactured—intentionally or not. And a mounting concern about the welfare of vulnerable people who had contacted Budd after reading his books or seeing him on television. Often some small detail or distinct image in his accounts had stirred up echoes of what seemed to be their own memories. Most of the people who came through our door had undergone genuinely inexplicable human experiences. Yet they came primed to cope with the possibility that their experiences or life traumas were caused by being abducted by extraterrestrials.

Devant la regression hynotique d'un sujet avec Budd Hopkins, l'auteur s'assure du bon fonctionnement du microphone
Devant la regression hynotique d'un sujet avec Budd Hopkins, l'auteur s'assure du bon fonctionnement du microphone

When I met Budd Hopkins in 1994, the abduction phenomenon, as Budd revealed it to me, filled me with fascination and the allure of an entirely new intellectual mystery to be solved. Might this be the origin of the human religious impulse? What if we had been seeded here by highly advanced beings or a Big Being from “out there?”

It’s amusing and humbling to realize, now, that in the mid-90’s I’d actually thought these ideas of mine were new, original and daring. In my forties, I was quite simply a UFO virgin. The short explanation for this odd state is that I’d grown up in a strict, fundamentalist religion and had no exposure to the popular culture and science fiction images of the ‘50s and ‘60s. No television, no movies, no comic books, or “worldly” magazines. Even after parting with that religious group, from my twenties through my forties I’d been semi-cloistered in academia, and then worked closely with scientific types where “that sort of thing” just never came up. I vaguely associated UFOs with pop culture and was completely unaware of serious research being done in paranormal fields.

But newly in love and excited by a fresh adventure with a life partner, a fellow artist, who’d share it with me, I packed up and left Boston. There, for over twenty years, I’d produced and directed films about medicine with research scientists and epidemiologists. We’d brought in considerable funding with research proposals awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After working that long, elbow-to-elbow with scientists, I’d come to know quite a bit about research design, protocols, data collection, and evaluation of data, testing of the hypothesis, and the need to protect subjects of the experiment. I’d also learned (although scientists aren’t immune to this problem) that falsifying data or making outsized claims for discoveries that weren’t justified by the facts were career killers. They were ethical suicide. Researchers who did such things lost their jobs. They lost their prestige. They rarely published again. Who could trust such people?

Yet how very different are the standards for the so-called “researchers” of alien abduction! After a decade of involvement in the field, I’m struck that most people with a ufological fascination don’t hold their leading researchers to anything like these scholastic, scientific, or even ethical standards. Many people may not even be aware that such standards exist. But they exist for a reason, folks, and sometimes UFO abduction research—as fascinating as it may seem—violates every one of the basic principles for the getting of knowledge and the protection of human subjects.

The two best-known abduction investigators, Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs, work almost exclusively alone (separately, although with extensive telephone exchanges), without supervision (and are unwilling to accept any), and without any training in medicine or psychiatry or neurology. A bit of comparative religion, anthropology, and folklore under the belt wouldn’t hurt, either, in dealing with these difficult-to-interpret human experiences. They’re not required to get authorization for their experimentation on human beings from an Institutional Review Board (IRB), a clearance that’s required of every legitimate institutional researcher in the country. It’s peer review of a proposed study using human subjects, it’s strict, and researchers are required to report back to the IRB with their findings. None of this applies to UFO researchers.

Drawing by alleged abducted E. N. s2Rainey, C.: with permission of E. N.
Drawing by alleged abducted E. N. s2Rainey, C.: with    permission of E. N.

But, to be fair, for over 40 years abduction researchers have had the courage to explore—and attempt to heal—often traumatic human experiences that virtually no university or institution will touch. The NIH, the nation’s enormously powerful medical research agency, is made up of 27 Institutes and Centers, each specializing in a certain area of research. It is highly unlikely that any one of those institutes has ever seriously considered a proposal requesting funding for alien abduction research. In addition to lack of hard evidence, abduction investigators have such credibility issues that few would be taken seriously. That’s a situation in desperate need of repair. A nascent field like ufology with no visible funding stream or peer-reviewed journals will fail to ever draw enough trained professionals or scientists to move the field out of the marginal realm and into the mainstream. The few researchers in ufology who do have legitimate research training end up funding their weekend, weekhours research out of their own pockets, just as non-scientists Hopkins and Jacobs do. It’s lonely, seat-of-the-pants work that permeates every aspect of the researcher’s life, often costing him or her dearly through the corrosion of status, income, and personal relationships.

What we have now is abduction research that not only lacks an outside funding source; it also lacks researchers who understand the epistemology of the ways in which knowledge is acquired and how that’s connected to truth, justified belief, and skepticism. In such an arid moonscape as this, there are no structures, no boundaries, no standards, and no supervision. So, given all this freedom and no credentialed peers to naysay them, what do you suppose happens to two investigators (who are also each others’ best friends in the world) in their search for knowledge in a wacky, marginal field like “alien abduction?” And, even more important, what happens to the de facto patients of researchers without boundaries? Let’s open wider what was for me the Pandora’s Box of the Emma Woods/David Jacobs case.

The Emma Woods Case

The Linda Cortile Case

These two leading abduction investigators, I now believe, are driven by the rules of the game they’re in to whip up their best cases, to drive them hard. These ufologists, whose ego supplies are dependent on their standing in this marginalized field, are desperate to keep bringing home the magic. Unless they’re to become quickly obsolete, alien abduction experts are expected to deliver the goods: newer, fresher, stranger, and ever more strange reports. It is not incidental that David Jacobs was intending to write a book about Emma Woods and several other experiencers, people who shared a high strangeness narrative focused on the infiltration of hybrid beings into our society. In Emma’s audiotapes, we can hear Jacobs, before the regression, telling Emma about his other cases, which included their hybrids’ violent, sadomasochistic sexual behavior and warning her that they just might discover that in her own upcoming hypnosis session. That isn’t even “leading”: it’s an outright push for her to then deliver, under hypnosis, the exact narrative he needs for his book. It is also not incidental that Budd Hopkins does not ever express doubt about the reliability of Linda Cortile’s story and the seminal importance of her case. If he did, he might be forced to question his own ability to sort fact from fiction or to spot a rising hoax before it crests and breaks over him.

It’s my personal belief, knowing both Jacobs and Hopkins, that they are trapped, like Br’er Rabbit in Tar-Baby, by the very phenomenon they attempt to confront. They can no longer extricate themselves from the surreal, richly imaginative blend of fantasy and reality that is generated around anyone who is deeply involved in paranormal research s3Hansen, George P., The Trickster and the Paranormal, Xlibris Corporation, 2001, pp. 216- 217.. While I was most active in Budd’s work, I also felt the powerful, suggestive influence of this ambiguous phenomenon. If I’d come into a room and hear my husband on the phone, asking: “Did they come through the wall this time, too?” it no longer struck me as bizarre. In relationship, close to a partner holding firm to such ideas, I sensed an almost gravitational influence of that other person’s emotional world. Something like an unconscious resonance. For a short time, I had come to accept that the alien abduction phenomenon was what Budd and Dave said it was. But I never stopped asking skeptical questions—questions that grew increasingly unwelcome.

These investigators believe so completely in the reality of their own interpretation of these experiences that they have lost touch with both consensus reality and the everyday ethics of human behavior that go along with it. They genuinely feel that the fate of humanity is at risk and any tactic taken is justified by the need to warn the world of the coming takeover. That’s a powerful belief system and in these two men, it is rigid. There’s nothing ambiguous or shifting in their ideas. In a most disturbing way, such a fundamentalist type of belief structure leaves them highly vulnerable to credulousness, loss of critical judgment, and outright hoaxes.

Given the stakes (and audio/visual evidence gleaned from my own videotapes over a ten year period), I believe now that these abduction investigators are sometimes trapped by their own deeply held beliefs into becoming the victims of hoaxers—which they adamantly refuse to acknowledge. I’ll review one such case below.

In other cases, there’s evidence that these same abduction investigators are co-creating the strangest of high strangeness cases with the cooperation of the experiencer/abductee. Sometimes co-creation of the narrative is conscious—by one or both parties—and in other cases, the collaboration seems to be primarily unconscious n2The term “co-creation” is used here as most lay people would use it: two people get together and make something. It is important for the reader to be fully aware that in the situation under discus sion, the imbalance of power between subject and researcher is enormous.. Of course, abduction researchers are acting as de facto therapists for the “abductee,” as well as investigators into the phenomena. And a certain type of “co-creation” is often considered part of the therapeutic process, discussed in psychiatric journals and on therapists’ websites. One author states: “Interaction between patient and therapist is now considered to be a cocreation of the patient’s inner world resonating with the analyst’s inner world s4“Beginning: The Art and Science of Planning Psychotherapy by Mary Jo Peebles-Kleiger,” a book review by E. James Lieberman, M.D., M.P.H. at . Both psychodynamic and Gestalt therapy work with the idea that what is created in the therapy is a co-creation in which both the therapist and the patient play a vital role.

I’m in no way implying a relationship of equals in this “work.” The imbalance of power between subject and researcher is tremendous. It only takes listening to Emma Woods’ audio clips or my own videotapes of hypnosis sessions to realize that. The researcher is the authority figure—“this famous author,” as Linda Cortile refers to Hopkins. The researcher is also often the object of transference, whether he realizes it or not; he is working with a hypnotized patient; and so he has the full responsibility to be aware of and manage the relationship with the subject, using the highest ethical principles.

But the entire enterprise can skid off the side of a cliff if the investigator/therapist is not constantly aware of and analyzing his own conscious and unconscious positions and his own motivations in these delicate encounters. In actual psychotherapy, of course, many therapists often periodically sit down with another more experienced psychotherapist to discuss their clients’ issues, as well as their own response to them. Many professional organizations require therapists to incorporate third-party supervision into their practice as a way to protect the client s5Dr. Greg Mulhauser at https://counsellingre When an impartial third party reviews what’s occurring between therapist and client, serious lapses in judgment or oversights can be caught before something harmful happens—as in Jacobs telling Emma that she suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, these ufologists work without supervision of any kind. In the Emma Woods case and in the four cases below, I believe we see two psychologically naive investigators who are completely unaware of their own unconscious positions—and completely unaware of the powerful force field that sets up in their encounters with vulnerable experiencers.

Before getting back to Jim Mortellaro, who’s still undergoing trauma on the old studio couch, let’s look briefly at two earlier cases that I participated in and made short films about.

Dora’s Case

The Beanie Case

The Jim Mortellaro Case

There are many complex reasons that the UFO community often finds itself twisted in knots, attempting to defend the validity of a case, even one that is as clearly hoaxed as Mortellaro’s. Reasons, too, that any criticism of an abduction researcher with Hopkins’ standing in the field will be ferociously attacked. The subject requires far more development than this article has room for, but George Hansen’s erudite and compassionate book, The Trickster and the Paranormal, offers one explanation that is especially apt for the situations covered in this article: that “Ufology is a tiny field with a tenuous existence and an attack on Hopkins [and to a lesser degree, Jacobs] has greater repercussions than one on a comparable person in a larger field.” Other ufologists, Hansen continues, identify themselves so closely with the field and with the ET hypothesis, that they perceive any criticism of these men to be personal attacks on them, as well s6Hansen, pp. 258-263.

There’s another, simpler reason that “they” will continue to believe. Because it was essentially denied as a hoax by Hopkins, its primary proponent, the Mortellaro case still exists as part of the historical record of UFO abduction case studies—in a Hopkins lecture on the case from FortFest 2002, posted on YouTube; in online pages containing the case materials; audio files of hypnosis sessions; and in multiple DVDs for sale of Hopkins’ conference presentations about it. Anyone attempting to study the evidence of alien abduction might be just as likely to study the Mortellaro case as the Travis Walton case.

The page on Hopkins’ Intruders Foundation website was quickly pulled down and there seems to be little evidence that anything NOTE: Use of Mr. Mortellaro’s real name does not violate his confidentiality because he has both signed a release for my use of his image and words and he has voluntarily been using his name over the Internet and on radio broadcasts for a number of years. Some members of the Intruders Foundation Advisory Committee in 1998, planning activities long before the disruption of the Mortellaro case. (Photo, still from documentary, C. Rainey)went wrong. (However, the official statement is still posted on the site, along with numerous other articles by Mortellaro). What about demanding a recall, in such cases? Even a cannery for green peas has to recall a few batches of cans when the product turns out to be spoiled. But when it comes to the wholesale creation and public offering of an entire genre of performance art called “the alien abduction phenomenon,” nobody’s held responsible for anything. Especially not the man lauded for his role in its creation—an artist whose brief, shining moment in the art world passed over forty years ago.

The final irony occurred barely 19 months after the Mortellaro debacle. At the 3 Friday UFO Congress, preeminent abduction researchers Hopkins and Jacobs took the stage. They both spoke on the topic of transgenic beings (otherwise known as “hybrids”) among us. While Jacobs stated (without evidence) that “the evidence has been amassing for years,” this is what Hopkins asserted before the large assembly—and to future researchers who will view his statements on the DVD for decades to come:

This is something that I’m very proud of… that in all the years of the work that Dave has done and I have done, along with a number of other people, we have never had to take anything back, and say: ‘Boy, did we make a whopper of a mistake.’ We’ve been very, very cautious. We haven’t had cases, one after another... blow up… despite the efforts of many, many, many debunkers. And that’s why we can say… that the material we presented tonight, as strange and complicated and difficult as it is—is, I believe, going to stand the test of time, like the rest of it has. s7"Budd Hopkins and Dr. David Jacobs Presents 'Transgenic Beings' DVD", Mothership Productions

So there you have it: no mistakes were ever made; the flawed, overly credulous, and at times unethical research tactics in the Emma Woods case, in Mortellaro’s, Dora’s, Beanie’s and Linda’s cases did not exist; and so neither the researchers nor the UFO community learned a damned thing. Denial is such a terrible waste of an opportunity. There’s often enormous power in not being paralyzed by the fear of failure, especially when people learn from either watching or making the mistakes. Certain abduction researchers have been making a lot of mistakes, not just lately, but in the past, as well. Serious gaffes that keep mainstream scientists and public funding of research far, far away from that circus. Serious gaffes on an ongoing basis that send fairly knowledgeable people like me and many others running from the field.

But when will ufology, as a community, bother to learn from those mistakes? And will the community ever have the courage to step up to the two Priests of High Strangeness and say:

Thanks for your courageous and dedicated work in this field, Hopkins and Jacobs. It’s been great; you were true pioneers and we know that your belief system is strict, heartfelt, and sincere as death. But we’ll take it from here.

We just don’t think it’s possible that you alone, you two, exclusively hold The Truth about this human experience with The Other. Face it, you’ve been engaged in an activity that makes it impossible for you to see clearly; not any more you don’t.

So, thanks, but we’ll take it from here.

n3All of the cases referred to in this article will also be featured in the author’s up-coming feature documentary, Something Hidden. Focused on the story of Hopkins’ investigation into the Witnessed case (with Linda Cortile), the film is also the parallel story of Rainey’s uniquely personal journey into the heart of a human enigma—the UFO abduction phenomenon. Additional footage and an opportunity to participate in the film can be found at All photos used in this article are owned by Carol Rainey unless otherwise noted.