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Mutants and Mystics: A Book Excerpt
There are other likely pop-cultural sources. In "Gauche Encounters: Bad Films and the UFO Mythos," Martin Kottmeyer traces the specifics of Betty's dream-vision (big alien noses, examination tables, needles, and star maps) back to the imagery of the B-movie Invaders from Mars (1953) and Barney's wraparound eyes to an episode of the PBS series The Outer Limits entitled "The Bellero Shield" (February 10, 1964). The latter episode, it turns out, aired just twelve days before the hypnosis session that produced this key iconic feature.[vi] And this is just the beginning: in case after case, Kottmeyer shows how this or that detail of this or that famous abduction looks a lot like this or that movie scene. In the end, his claim that it is "the badfilm buff" who has the privileged perspective on all things alien and abducted is difficult to counter. He has effectively reduced the paranormal to popular culture.
But is it really that simple? We have already seen Barney invoking Alice in Wonderland. Similarly, Betty herself reports asking Barney, after he has looked in astonishment at the thing in the sky through a pair of binoculars and realizes that the occupants of the craft have seen them and are coming after them, if he had watched a Twilight Zone episode recently. He doesn't answer.[vii] My point is this: Barney and Betty's experiences on the road clearly rendered any such simple explanations patently inadequate for them. They were perfectly aware of the possible pop-cultural influences, but these could not possibly explain the full contact experience.
This historian of religions can only agree. Many traditional religious encounters, after all, are equally "gauche" in their use of gaudy art. But just because something is encountered through the imagery of bad movies or sappy religious art does not mean that what is being encountered is a bad movie or a pious painting; it might simply mean that all religious experience is culturally conditioned, and that the human imagination often draws on the most immediate, not to mention the most colorful, to paint and frame an encounter with the sacred. It is a lesson well worth learning early in our Super-Story: trauma and Technicolor, God and the gauche, are not mutually exclusive.
Whatever we make of the ultimate iconic origins of the alien's eyes, we can well posit that the influence eventually went the other way, that is, from the alien abduction experiences to the representations of Spider-Man, since some of the later artistic renditions of Spider-Man look more and more like an alien. This later "Ultimate Spider-Man" (created by artist Mark Bagley at the turn of the millennium, in 2000) approaches an almost archetypal or spiritualized form, as it moves further and further away from the human body of Peter Parker to the lithe, thin, huge-eyed, "subtle body" of the classic alien Gray.
Or Black. Consider also Spidey's famous black suit, which first appears in 1984 in Secret Wars #8. Not only does this black suit appear at the height of the abduction narratives, and not only does it make the wall-crawler look even more like an alien, but we quickly learn that the black suit is an alien, that is, a sentient alien symbiote that can take on and exaggerate, inevitably in violent and aggressive ways, the personality features of anyone with whom it bonds (read: abducts). In the film Spider-Man 3, the alien symbiote even bonds to Peter in a manner eerily similar to the classic alien abduction experience, that is, in bed while Peter is sleeping on his back. This, I must add, is the classic physical posture and scenario of what folklorist David Hufford has called the "old hag" or "supernatural assault" tradition and tracked around the world, including through the modern American folklore of the alien and the physiology of "sleep paralysis." Such universal experiences coded in local forms, Hufford shows, are usually terrifying experiences but also, strangely, sometimes possess ecstatic or spiritual dimensions.[viii] Rather like the blue and black Spideys.
Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. He is the author of six books, including Esalen: America and The Religion of No Religion and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.