I wrote the following article to respond to a column by Kitty Mervine that appeared in "The Yankee Skeptic Blog". Kitty and I have a friendly relationship, but I thought that she was way off base when she wrote that Betty's interest in UFOs, ghosts, and Bigfoot prove that she was fantasy prone.

Was Betty Hill Fantasy Prone?

© Kathleen Marden

August 26, 2013 


The “fantasy prone” personality, as defined by Sheryl C. Wilson and Theodore X. Barber (1981), suggests a lifelong distortion of the line of demarcation between fantasy and reality. Their study was comprised of 25 female daydreamers, with high hypnotic suggestibility (the ability to focus and attend and take direction from a hypnotist), and 25 who were not good hypnotic subjects. There were no male experimental subjects. They identified a segment of the adult population (approximately 4%) that spends most of its time engaged in magical thinking and has the tendency to mix and confuse fantasies with real experiences. Wilson and Barber wrote that 65% of fantasy-prone individuals sometimes confuse fantasies they have daydreamed, with reality, particularly when they pertain to conversations with loved ones.  

Although fantasy play is common in early childhood, according to Wilson and Barber, fantasy prone individuals carry this intense daydreaming pattern into adulthood.  It begins with imaginary playmates and the inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality beyond the developmental stage, when children realize the Easter Bunny, Santa and the tooth fairy are fantasy based. Studies have indicated that some fantasy prone individuals were encouraged to develop childhood fantasies by a significant adult, or did so as a way to escape from unpleasant childhood experiences.

Wilson and Barber stated that fantasy prone individuals retain a rich fantasy life well into their adult years. They fantasize alternate identities, have lucid imaginings, out of body experiences, psychic abilities, hypnogogic hallucinations, the ability to heal others, etc. They did not examine any scientific evidence that suggests some paranormal phenomena might be real in some individuals (e.g. telepathy, remote viewing)


Some would like to suggest that anyone who studies or believes in the reality of paranormal phenomena is automatically fantasy prone. As a result, any experience, belief, or observation outside the accepted scientific norm, is seen as an indication of fantasy proneness in some individuals. Given this all encompassing definition of fantasy proneness, believers in a higher power (God), in hypotheses that have not yet gained scientific respectability, and in the impeccable character of their favorite sports star are fantasy prone. If we accept the Wilson/Barber scale as a measure of fantasy proneness among abductees, we must first adopt the a priori belief that UFO and psi phenomena are impossible despite the evidence to the contrary. (See Science Was Wrong by Friedman & Marden.) Let us examine some of the psychological evidence.

Kenneth Ring and Christopher J. Rosing (U. of Connecticut, 1990), attempted to assess the psychological factors that give some individuals the propensity to experience UFO abductions.  264 participants completed a battery of personality screenings. The experimental group consisted of those who claimed to be alien abductees or near death experiencers. Individuals in two control groups expressed an interest in UFOs or an interest in NDEs. The experimenters found that suspected abductees were no more fantasy prone than the control groups. However, the  abductee group reported childhood experiences with psychic phenomena, non-physical beings and alternate realities (the ability to see into other realities or to see beings that others are not aware of).(10) This is a frequently reported trait among reported childhood abductees, including some categorized as best evidence cases. A follow-up study by Dr. Robert LeLieuvre (2010) yielded consistent results with Ring and Rosing’s findings. 

A 1991 study by Mark Rodeghier (U. of Illinois), Jeff Goodpastor (Gateway Technical College) and Sandra Blatterbauer (CUFOS) on subjects who met clearly defined criteria for an abduction experience, found no difference in the Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings score for alleged abductees and the general populace.

Nicholas Spanos, PA Cross, K. Dickson and SC DuBreuil (Carleton University) administered an extensive battery of scales to a 19 individuals who reported observing erratically moving lights in the sky that they interpreted as UFOs and 20 individuals who reported experiencing a close encounter with or abduction by non-human entities. Their finding indicates that those who report UFO experiences, even missing time and telepathic communication with aliens, are no more fantasy prone than the general population. However, those with higher scores on the fantasy proneness scale reported more elaborate abduction experiences.

In 2005, skeptic Christopher French (England) administered the Wilson/Barber scale, without additional personality screenings, to 19 self reported abductees and 19 controls. He found a significantly higher rate of “fantasy proneness” among the self identified abductees. (For the complete research paper see http://www.kathleen-marden.com/psychological-studies.php)

Thus, one can infer from the conflicting results of the above listed studies that some self identified abduction experiencers are fantasy prone, whereas others are not. My work as an abduction researcher has placed me in contact with some individuals who are clearly fantasy prone. A few have a schizoaffective disorder psychiatric diagnosis, whereas others infer  mystical explanations for a host of events, when a prosaic explanation is clearly the most acceptable one. However, others test normal on psychological and personality measures.

This leads us to the question was Betty Hill fantasy prone? I have not been able to find evidence that Betty had childhood fantasies or carried daydreaming into her adult life. She had never read a UFO book prior to her close encounter (less than 200 feet), with an unconventional craft in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Nor did she witness UFOs before this unforeseen event. Psychological tests indicate that she and Barney were normal, responsible members of their community. They were active members of their church, stable in their professional careers, and proponents of civil rights and social justice issues. She performed her job as a social worker for the State of New Hampshire well and was promoted to the position of supervisor after the violation of confidentiality that propelled her alleged abduction by non-humans into the public arena. This violation damaged the public’s perception of the Hills and was distressing to our entire family. Barney had been so highly respected for the good work he was performing for his fellow citizens that NH’s governor had appointed him to the US Commission on Civil Rights’ State of NH advisory committee. (The evidence is at the Hill’s archival collection at UNH.) 

I think that I can supply some personal insight with regard to Betty’s personal transformation from mainstream belief to an interest in paranormal phenomena, such as ghosts and Bigfoot. This is because 23 years ago, I entered the UFO field as a rational skeptic. At the onset, it was my objective to examine all of the evidence pertaining to the Hills’ personal history, personalities, character, and credibility. In addition to this, it would be vital to conduct a thorough investigation of their 1961 encounter, the evidence, and Betty’s later claims of witnessing UFOs. I did not have a personal agenda. In fact, it would have been desirable to found evidence that Betty and Barney has simply been mistaken. My research culminated in the book Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience, with Stanton Friedman, published in 2007.

After Captured was published, and over a span of several years, I began to meet self-proclaimed clairvoyants, mediums, and healers at UFO oriented meetings and conferences. In addition to this, I met credible researchers who used scientific methodology in their investigations of these and other scientifically unacceptable phenomena. Of course, I met some highly credulous believers and probable charlatans along the way. Their antics give the study of unknown phenomena a bad name. The researchers who adhere to strict scientific protocols and have advanced degrees are more difficult to ignore or refute. The evidence becomes  increasingly probable when credible scientists vet the research and assess it as viable.

When one examines Betty’s history and the conditions under which her belief system evolved, it becomes clear that September 19, 1961 was a significant date. For the first time in her life, she witnessed an unknown craft that hovered less than 200 feet above her vehicle, and through binoculars her husband observed figures dressed in black, shiny uniforms that were “somehow not human”. This information is in the earliest reports to NICAP. She then met Walter Webb, an astronomy lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium in Cambridge, who investigated UFO reports for NICAP in his spare time.

Next Betty met and corresponded with Robert Hohmann, a technical writer who worked closely with scientists and engineers, and C.D. Jackson a senior electrical engineer. Both worked  for IBM and shared a mutual interest in UFOs. In 1965, Betty agreed to participate in a contact experiment with Hohmann and Jackson, to attempt to vector in a UFO. Of this experiment she wrote, “I did not think it was possible, but agreed to try it.” Every night Betty stood by her back door and read instructions that had been provided for her. When a UFO landing and several sightings were reported by credible witnesses, Betty came to believe that she had the ability to communicate with ETs. This became a lifelong quest for evidence. Unfortunately, she sometimes jumped to erroneous conclusions that appeared to be emotionally based. (Betty did undergo observable behavioral changes in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, when she began to exhibit questionable judgment. This can possibly be linked to what was later diagnosed as a slow growing brain tumor.) 

After a craft allegedly landed on her parent’s farm in 1966, Betty’s sister’s family and visitors began to observe perplexing phenomena in their home, such as light orbs that appeared to be intelligently controlled and poltergeist activity. They had no interest in these phenomena and this had not occurred prior to this date. This house was located across the street from the alleged landing site that left physical trace evidence in trees and on the ground. The family reported that trees died and vegetation would not grow in this area for many years. A paranormal investigator, in a position of authority, informed the family that the house had become haunted. Today’s researchers know that light orbs and poltergeist activity are often associated with a UFO presence. But in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, Betty was faced with the decision of accepting her family’s observations and the professional opinion of an authority figure, or of rejecting them. Betty had a sharp mind and an insatiable curiosity, so she researched her family’s claims and passed the information along to Dr. Berthold Schwarz, whom she had met during this time-frame.

Dr. Schwarz, was a prominent psychiatrist who took these events seriously. He and other paranormal researchers persuaded Betty that sociology. He taught at the college level and was a senior researcher at the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Policy. It was Coleman’s research and that of other researchers she trusted that caused Betty to acquire an interest in Bigfoot. Her collection once contained the plaster cast of a huge footprint that was reportedly made by the elusive creature. (Yup, fantasy prone again.)

It appears then, if one’s research findings fall outside the range of what is deemed scientifically acceptable according to our current scientific paradigms, we are fantasy prone. (Or perhaps we simply have unscientific scientists.) Our new expanded definition of fantasy proneness can be attached to nearly every member of society. Based upon this new definition, the following scientists are or were fantasy prone: Ignaz Semmelweis, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, James McDonald, J. Allen Hynek, Brian Josephson, Dean Radin, and many more...  In addition to this, the thousands who have studied their research findings and have been convinced by the evidence are also fantasy prone. This one size fits all definition of fantasy proneness is a great label for those whose beliefs fall outside the range of what is currently considered scientifically acceptable. (Of course lovable Betty was fantasy prone! Or did I mean delusional?  Or was that liar? Attention seeker? Raving lunatic? Oops! I mean one shoe must fit, mustn't it? After all, there is no doubt that alien abduction is impossible.)

 telepathic communication, poltergeist activity, ghosts, light orbs, etc. have been observed by too many credible individuals to be ignored. Dr. Schwarz had carried out controlled experiments in which certain individuals materialized metallic appearing substances (ectoplasm) on their bodies. He also photographed anomalous orbs around Betty’s body (allegedly not dust particles). This and her introduction to well educated paranormal researchers convinced Betty that there was probably some scientific validity to these mysterious phenomena. (Today we know that this is impossible, so we must discard these research findings and label Dr. Schwarz fantasy prone.) 

As Betty met more and more people whose research lay outside the range of what is considered scientifically respectable, those with a negative agenda found more reason to criticize her. Yet, Betty had always been an independent thinker, committed to truth and justice regardless of the social consequences. The evidence convinced her that these individuals were not fantasy prone, deluded, or intellectually insufficient. She refused to adhere to the tenets of current scientific paradigms, regardless of the consequences. (More evidence that she was fantasy prone, I suppose. :-))