At just over two weeks into October it’s only natural for one’s thoughts to turn towards Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season I thought it would be appropriate to get in at least one spooky story this month. Since I’m not really into horror or thrillers, I decided to go with something a bit out of the ordinary. I don’t recall the exact circumstances in which the internet led me to this book, but here we are.
The book is told from the perspective of its author, horror writer Whitley Strieber, and details his struggle to make sense of, and cope with, his extreme physical and psychological responses to two traumatic, but largely repressed, incidents that occurred on October 4 and December 26, 1985. After a period of severe mental anguish he enters therapy and begins to suspect something truly out of the ordinary happened to him and perhaps his family as well. As the course of his therapy sessions ultimately turns toward hypnosis, he begins to recall specific details of terrifying encounters with non-human beings he refers to as the Visitors. Through this process, he gradually uncovers more memories of not only the two events towards the end of 1985, but rather a lifetime of such experiences in which he has been observed, taken from his home or car, and experimented upon. The story alternates between the author’s, often disjointed, analysis of various events and transcripts of his hypnosis sessions. For good measure, partial excerpts of his wife’s hypnosis and a transcript of a meeting with other abductees is included as well.
This is a story that would fit right in as an episode of the X-Files (though its publication in 1987 predates the hit series by a good six years). While the author does not assert that the Visitors are necessarily aliens (he leaves open a list of possibilities including time travelers, interdimensional beings, or an as yet undiagnosable imbalance in the brain), the events he describes are more or less consistent with the stereotypical alien visitation/abduction narrative. Regardless of one’s thoughts on these matters, the story presented was not only really creepy and chilling, but also a thought-provoking look at the human mind. As far as classifying this as a Halloween-worthy novel, I suppose that’s also up for interpretation, but I certainly found plenty of scary moments in here. Despite the author’s eventual assertion that the Visitors may not mean him actual harm, the experiences described in general are pretty terrifying. The parts that weirded me out the most, though, were probably those involving the author’s young son. Without knowledge of his father’s beliefs, the boy spoke of recurring dreams about being carried away at night by “the little gray doctors” and wrote a variety of journal entries describing other strange events he was witness to. This led Strieber to believe he was being visited as well, which from the perspective of a new father strikes me as particularly horrifying. More personally, I was also a little unnerved when shortly after I began this book (and finished a section wherein the author discusses strange coincidences), a lingering shot of the cover appeared in a random episode of The Game Chasers that popped up in my YouTube suggestions list.
The fact that these events are presented as true, however, adds an extra element to this read. The story told is rather extraordinary and controversial; not to mention that the subject matter tends to inspire a great deal of skepticism as misinformation and hoaxers abound. Not knowing the author or having been witness to any of the events, I have only the words written on each by which to evaluate his claims. I suppose the hardcore skeptic could just say that it’s all pure fiction and be done with it, but that would make for a pretty boring post. Besides, I am more inclined to read this with an open mind and share the author’s convictions that claims such as these should be taken seriously and subjected to the appropriate level of analysis that they merit.
I’ll start with the argument for his position. Speaking on an entirely personal level, there’s a part of me that can’t so easily dismiss his story. The author’s actions in his personal life support the idea that at the very least something happened and for him to be making this all up means he’s running a very long con with no clear motive other than literary infamy. He has apparently maintained his claims over a period of many years and seems like a credible, though admittedly very imaginative, individual. He took a very rational and analytic approach to the situation, first exploring the possibility of mental and/or physical illness as the cause of his trauma and disturbing memories. Only after passing a wide variety of physical and psychological tests does he begin to seriously consider the possibility that the Visitors are real. Another thing in his favor is that he has corroborating witnesses; accounts given by a pair of house guest staying with the family on the night of October 4 lend support to his claims something highly unusual happened that night, and additional insights provided by Strieber’s wife and son also support the visitation pattern he alleges.
On the other hand, despite being Team Mulder back in the 90s, there’s a significant part of me is of the opinion that I don’t want to believe this terrifying tale. However, not wanting to believe something is not the same as that thing being false so we’ll have to dig a bit deeper. It’s not too hard to imagine that an accomplished author, particularly one that specializes in horror, could create a compelling abduction story. It’s always dangerous to fully trust somebody trying to sell you something and indeed the author acknowledges similarities between the Visitors and various creatures from his novels (though he offers the explanation that those characters were influenced by his subconscious reactions to said Visitors). Again, having not been there, it’s on his written word only that I must accept (or not) his experiences, the reports of corroborating witnesses, the accuracy of professional opinions and hypnosis techniques, etc. Even if taking it all at face value, I will say there were a few points where I heard Scully’s voice yelling in my head about certain conclusions drawn. I would also have been interested in hearing some dissenting opinions on his views to get a better sense of perspective. Surely he couldn’t have only dealt with medical and psychological professionals sympathetic to his story? I also wish that we were provided with more details about what his friends perceived about the October 4 incident as well as what his sister thought about incidents from his childhood said to involve her. Despite all the efforts to describe the scientific thoroughness of coming to the Visitor conclusion, all the data and perspectives offered were a bit one-sided.
So, what do I conclude from all that? I’m afraid the best answer I can give is something of a cop-out. On the subject of aliens/Visitors, I am mostly agnostic. I do believe that life, probably even intelligent life, exists somewhere out there. Whether or not we are in the right place or time to encounter it, however, is a serious question for me; as is the question of whether or not we would even possess the sensory or mental capacity to even perceive that life should it cross our path. I’ll add here that I also think that UFOs are literally that – unidentified. Could be aliens, could be military, could be something in between. I think it is important and understandable to want to explain them, but I draw no firm conclusions I’ll put to print. Getting back to the book, I do believe that the author’s mental anguish was genuine and caused by some traumatic event(s) I am not in a position to expand upon further. I’ll make the leap and say that I believe that he believes the Visitors are real which is something that should be taken seriously; if not by the reader then at the very least by those caring for and about him.
Bottom line is that I guess I believed this enough to have been seriously creeped out reading the book but not enough to endorse it as 100% true. I will admit that despite my sympathy to Strieber’s position, he did lose me a bit towards the end in his analysis of the Visitors and the history of their sightings. I think here he slowly crossed a fine line from valid theorizing into pure conjecture and conspiracy theory which made rethink some of the previous chapters. If you’re into this sort of thing, go ahead decide for yourself. The truth is out there, I just can’t tell you what it is.