Response to Kimberly Ball's UFO-Abduction Narratives and the Technology of Tradition

Article excerpt

Response to Kimberly Ball's UFO-Abduction Narratives and the Technology of Tradition Cultural Analysis Vol 9 (2010): 99-128

Although "alien abduction" is identified on the web-site of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (http:// www.contemporarylegend.org) as one of its areas of interest, the topic does not actually figure prominently in the society's publications. Ball's paper provides an opportunity to examine two questions. First, what is the relationship between the alien abduction narratives (AAN) in Ball's sample and the texts typically studied by urban legend (UL) scholars? Secondly, what light can UL scholarship throw on AAN?

To begin with the first question, we note that most UL texts do not deal with the paranormal. However, this need not mean there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between AAN and UL, since there is one widespread UL, the Vanishing Hitchhiker (VH), which does have supernatural or paranormal content, making it the most appropriate UL to compare with Ball's texts. However, other differences may be noted. The AAN are all first person narratives, whereas VH texts, like other ULs, are usually third person narratives. Furthermore, most VH texts are relatively short, around 200-300 words, and many have structural features in common. For example, the revelation that the passenger in the vehicle is a ghost comes relatively late. In contrast, the AAN vary considerably in length and have no obvious common structure. This difference is important since the character of VH and UL texts arises from a process of honing that takes place in the frequent retelling that goes on as the stories are repeated by different people. The fact that any given UL text is the result of re-telling by different people is what particularly interests social psychologists. Conversely each AAN is a unique personal testimony without any signs of honing.

Despite these differences, we believe that UL scholarship does have some relevance to an understanding of AAN. It is widely acknowledged that ULs may have a number of different meanings and functions for those who tell them and hear them. Ball's paper generally makes a persuasive case for the AAN being seen as expressing anxieties about modern technologies for the transmission of information. However, some of the texts in her sample contain little evidence to support such an interpretation. For example, one of the texts Ball cites, Raziell (2009), is simply an account of observing a possible UFO with no reference to abduction. The texts vary considerably in the narrator's degree of conviction that abduction actually took place. Some are straightforward assertions that the narrator was abducted but others are much more tentative. Spacemushrooms (2009), for instance, merely describes a dream and comments that "the imagination is a very seemingly infinite thing". Similarly, Magicwords55 (2009) expresses uncertainty in the words "if it really was a abduction and Im not confusing a dream with reality" (original spelling and grammar retained). Zeeboe (2011) goes further. He rationalizes childhood memories of being abducted, saying "I honestly don't think I was abducted. I think it was all based off the power of suggestion". (1)

Given the variation in her sample texts, we would argue that it is inappropriate to look only at one possible function of the narratives. While scholars may treat a collection of unique texts that display numerous similarities in content and structure as a "legend," there appears to be much greater variation between the AAN texts than UL texts, and it is therefore harder to justify treating them as a coherent group of texts in which each narrative has a presumed equivalent function. So while some AAN might well be related to anxieties about "digital information technology and mass media", others make no mention of it at all. Even within those narratives that do draw attention to such technologies it is possible to interpret the usage of such terms as the best explanatory model the individual has to explain their experience--this does not in itself indicate the technology mentioned is the source of anxiety in the narrative. …