Let's not forget 'The UFO Incident' was the eeriest TV movie of the 1970s
The story of Barney and Betty Hill continues to stir debate to this day.
Image: The Everett Collection
In February 1964, two seemingly minor incidents were happening on opposite ends of America that would forever shape our perceptions of UFOs and aliens. In Phoenix, Arizona, a precocious teenager named Steven Spielberg was putting the finishing touches on a homemade feature film titled Firelight. Meanwhile, in New England, a Boston psychiatrist named Dr. Benjamin Simon was conducting hypnotherapy sessions with a New Hampshire couple named Barney and Betty Hill. The Hills claimed to have been abducted by aliens in 1961.
Before we dig into that, let's follow the career of young Spielberg for a moment. The Arcadia High School auteur would premiere his Firelight movie, which starred his sister and classmates, at Phoenix Little Theatre in March 1964. The sci-fi flick cost $500 to make. Spielberg sold $501 worth of tickets.
The aspiring director took Firelight with him to Los Angeles as a demo reel. Spielberg landed his first professional gigs in television, making his directorial debut at the close of the Sixties with a segment called "Eyes" in Rod Serling's 1969 Night Gallery pilot. Two years later, Spielberg made a splash, helming both the series premiere of Columbo ("Murder by the Book") and the gripping Dennis Weaver chase film Duel, still one of the greatest made-for-TV movies. Of course, Jaws would make him a household name in 1975 — and give him creative freedom to follow his heart with his next project. He made another alien abduction tale.
Spielberg returned to the subject matter of Firelight with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a brilliant blockbuster that recreated some of the scenes from Firelight, albeit on a much bigger budget.
With its colorful UFOs that look and sound like a giant flying version of the Simon electronic game, and with the childlike "little gray men" extraterrestrials in the climax, Close Encounters, the third-biggest movie of 1977, would heavily influence how we image aliens, their behavior, and their transportation.
But it was not the first influential alien-abduction movie of the Seventies. That brings us back to the Hills.
On February 22, 1964, Dr. Simon brought Barney Hill into his office, hypnotized the New Hampshire man, and let the audiotape record.
Over the course of several sessions in the subsequent months, Barney and Betty (no relation to the Rubbles) recalled their nighttime encounter with a flying saucer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as they returned home to Portsmouth from a trip to Niagra Falls. At the time, they had little recollection of the incident, later finding themselves dazed and confused 35 miles down the road.
Days later, Betty began to have nightmares. She subconsciously remembered a crew of 5-foot-tall-ish aliens in uniforms surrounding their Chevy Bel Air, taking them aboard the craft, and conducting experiments on the humans. Dr. Simon's hypnosis sessions pulled more details from the husband and wife and they were in a trance.
Now, we are not here to debate the veracity of the Hills' story. That continues to be a hot topic on the internet to this day. Believers see Barney and Betty as the people who convinced them to believe. Skeptics see their narrative as the manifestation of anxiety over being a mixed-race couple in 1960s America with a dash of drowsy driving. Many have pointed out that the Hills' hypnotherapy accounts took place days after a notably similar episode of The Outer Limits aired. It was called "The Bellero Shield," and in it, Sally Kellerman and Martin Landau encounter an alien that matches the physical description given by the Hills. We leave it for you to decide…
We will argue that the made-for-TV movie based on their story, The UFO Incident, would set the mold for alien abduction anecdotes for years. Much of that is thanks to the wonderfully unsettling performances of the two stars, James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons.
Jones, two years before becoming Darth Vadar, was still on the rise as a star. Earlier that decade, the stage veteran had starred in The Great White Hope (1970) and The Man (1972), a Rod Serling script about the first Black man to become President of the United States. Parsons already had an Oscar for her supporting role in Bonnie and Clyde. Younger generations are more likely to know her as Roseanne's mom on Roseanne.
The low-budget NBC flick The UFO Incident works essentially as a three-person stage drama, with Barnard Hughes as Dr. Benjamin Simon. The aliens and UFO are effectively used sparingly. Instead, the camera holds tight on the faces of Jones and Parsons, as they break into hysteria during their hypnosis sessions. Jones babbles like a shivering boy, his eyes wide with fear. Parsons vibrates and screams under her mental torture. Their convincing performances get under the skin like a needle. They are also why this eerie movie would help convert millions of viewers into amateur ufologists.
Thanks to the dark lighting and disquieting acting, The UFO Incident works just as well as a horror movie as it does a sci-fi film. No wonder NBC aired it in late October 1975.
Two weeks later, a forestry worker named Travis Walton would claim to be abducted by aliens — in Arizona, not far from where Steven Spielberg grew up. Many doubters point out that the details of his story share a remarkable similarity with that of the Hills, who had recently been popularized in The UFO Incident. It just might be that television airwaves are the most powerful thing flying around in the night sky.