Weird, Wicked Weird: Bates professor studies alien abductees, asks, 'What's Up?'

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Bates College professor Stephanie Kelley-Romano sits in her office on the third floor of Pettigrew Hall on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — For an upcoming book, Stephanie Kelley-Romano, a Bates College associate professor of rhetoric, interviewed 300 Americans who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, including a few who had second thoughts.

One woman reached back out: “I’m so sorry. I thought it was aliens and I was mistaken. It was actually angels.”

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Kelley-Romano has talked to people who have lost time. Who claim to have extraterrestrial DNA. Who’ve woken in the night to a room smelling of sulfur and the presence of “them.”

Her work began in 1996, navigating what could have been a roadblock: How to ask people she calls “experiencers” to share their stories when you don’t believe they’ve actually been abducted?

Twenty years later, she still doesn’t believe. But she knows plenty of people who do.

“If I go to a party and people say what do I do? People gather around, ‘Oh, my god, that’s so awesome, I can’t believe you get paid to do that!'” said Kelley-Romano, 49. “And then people disperse. Invariably, at least one if not two or three people will come back to me and say, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but …’ and then they tell me a story about an experience they had, whether it be with a ghost (or something else paranormal).”

Kelley-Romano has drawn a number of theories from the research. She sees parallels with the current Birther Movement and with early folklore of Native Americans secreting off with settlers in the night, as well as broader social lessons.

“I tell my experiencers, ‘I care about the language you use, I care about abduction discourse as something that is ubiquitous in the culture’ — it’s freakin’ everywhere,” she said. “Our top blockbuster films every year have to do with aliens. People overwhelmingly believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which I don’t think is a statistically improbable thing, but then to make the leap that they’re coming here and taking some of us over and over and over again? The way that they do that tells us about who we are.”

As she writes, she’s arranging “What’s Up?” into themed chapters: People who believe they need to relay a message to humanity. People who say they’ve undergone medical procedures (probing, breeding). People who claim to see a big picture, that all life in the universe is connected — and that they have alien DNA.

There’s yet another section for people who’ve changed their minds or have changed their stories.

“Overwhelmingly, the metaphors that are used are of animal experimentation, of pets, of a garden,” she said. “There are some people, ‘Oh, we’re like a garden and they’re tending to the garden,’ and other people will be like, ‘We’re an experiment. They take us and they tag us and they do reproductive things with us. They don’t think of us as anything other than subjects.'”

Reports have evolved over the decades. In the 1960s, more people claimed to be physically taken and gone for hours at a time, she said. That changed to being taken, but with aliens warping or freezing time.

“Now people report these things called ‘psychic abductions,'” said Kelley-Romano. “So now people will talk about the fact they’re abducted while they’re dreaming, abducted in an out-of-body experience.”

In drawing a parallel to the Birther Movement, with people like President Donald Trump claiming former President Barack Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen, she’s found, “if an expert said, ‘He absolutely was born here, we have this, this and this to prove it,’ the presence of an expert actually reinforced the belief (that he was not),” said Kelley-Romano. “The presence of UFO experts debunking UFOs in UFO articles increased the people’s connection to their belief in UFOs. Experts have this (way of) confirming whatever it is you already believe, regardless of what it is they say. I think that’s interesting to try to figure out how it works and what’s going on there.”

Kelley-Romano, who has taught at Bates College since 1999 and is chairwoman of its rhetoric department, is hoping to land a book contract in the summer of 2018 and see “What’s Up?” published in 2019.

While her active abductee outreach has tailed off, she still hears several times a year from people with experiences to share, sometimes in unexpected quarters.

“I give talks oftentimes at Bates to incoming students and prospective students — I think because when people look at the catalogue and see ‘The Rhetoric of Alien Abduction’ when they’re paying a quarter of a million dollars, they want to make sure I’m not some sort of whack job,” she said. “I give a professional talk about my research. I’ve had at least two or three parents with children come up to me after the talk to say, ‘We’re looking at Bates specifically because we saw your research and I am an experiencer.'”

Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send ideas and photos to kskelton@sunjournal.com.

Bates College professor Stephanie Kelley-Romano sits in her office on the third floor of Pettigrew Hall on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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  • StephenBassett

    Comparing the experiencer phenomena to birtherism is ultra lame.