Betty Hill peered through the car's windshield at a strange, beaming light in the sky. It was behaving unusually—rather than falling down, as a shooting star might, it instead drifted upward

Betty's husband Barney, behind the wheel on U.S. Route 3 in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, glanced up and saw the same phenomenon. The light grew bigger and brighter ... and it seemed to be tracking their movement.

Delsey, the couple's dachshund, squirmed and trembled on the seat between them.

When the light was still there after a few miles, Barney stopped their '57 Chevy to get a better look. They stepped out of the car and, sharing a pair of binoculars, saw a disc-shaped object in the blackness, flashing multicolored lights as it traversed the moon.

What happened next shocked the world—and introduced mid-century Americans to the possibility of alien abduction.

The Hills claimed to have been kidnapped by extraterrestrials that night 60 years ago, on September 19, 1961. According to government reports, they didn't just spot a flying saucer. They said its alien occupants took them aboard and subjected them to medical experiments. The couple described traumatic events—not at first, in their testimony to military and civilian authorities, but later, after haunting nightmares and months of hypnosis. Their story was so bizarre that it dominates our concept of alien abductions in movies, TV shows, and books even today.

"Somehow Not Human"

Under hypnosis, Betty Hill drew this description of their alien abduction. A copy is displayed at the Notch Express gas station on Route 3.Shannon Leigh O'Neil

Except for their “mixed marriage,” as it was then called (Barney was Black, Betty was white), the Hills enjoyed totally ordinary, middle-class lives. They lived in coastal Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Betty was a social worker and Barney commuted to Boston to work nights for the U.S. Postal Service. They belonged to the local chapter of the NAACP and attended a Unitarian Universalist church. Neither Betty nor Barney believed in aliens or UFOs, their niece Kathleen Marden later told a British TV interviewer. They didn't seem like alien abductee types. But that's exactly what they alleged they were.

After stopping to check out the light, the Hills continued on the highway toward Franconia Notch with their eyes glued to the object in the sky. Suddenly, the UFO lowered itself in front of their car and hovered, silently, as though it was waiting for them. Barney stopped in the middle of the road and got out with the binoculars again. This time, he saw about 10 aliens with huge eyes and grayish skin staring at him from inside the craft's windows. They wore shiny black or dark blue uniforms with matching caps. They were "somehow not human,” Barney later told investigators. He felt as if they were communicating with him telepathically.

"We need to get out of here,” he shouted as he scrambled back into the car. “They're going to capture us!"

The couple sped away. Then, they heard beeping sounds coming from the trunk; both felt a tingling sensation. They recalled making a sharp turn, running into some kind of roadblock, and seeing "a fiery orb."

The next thing they knew, it was two hours later and they were 35 miles south of Franconia Notch, with no idea how they got there. Delsey was cowering under the seat.

Filed in Project Blue Book

Betty and Barney Hill's alien abduction report was filed in the government's Project Blue Book.Shannon Leigh O'Neil

At sunrise, the Hills rolled into their driveway, exhausted—and although they were home safe, they couldn't shake the sense that something was very wrong.

The car’s trunk now bore strange shiny circles that hadn't been there earlier. When they held a magnetic compass near the spots, the needle spun wildly. Each of their watches had stopped and their binoculars’ strap was broken. Barney’s shoes were scuffed up and Betty's dress was ripped and dusted with an unidentified powder. Barney had an odd feeling that someone had collected his semen.

The following day, the Hills called the nearby U.S. Air Force base in Portsmouth to report the incident. Betty and Barney withheld most of the details of what they had witnessed because they feared being labeled crazy. The investigator concluded that the couple mistook the planet Jupiter for a UFO and filed the report with Project Blue Book, the classified Department of Defense program for investigating UFOs [PDF]. From 1947 through 1969, Project Blue Book reviewed 12,618 sightings; 701 cases remained “unidentified.” The Hills’ case was filed under “insufficient data,” a classification indicating one or more crucial pieces of evidence was missing [PDF].

The Hills still wanted answers about what had happened to them. From her local library, Betty checked out a book about flying saucers by Donald Keyhoe, a retired Marine Corps aviator and the co-founder of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), the leading civilian UFO research group. The Hills reached out to Keyhoe, who responded enthusiastically and invited them to tell their whole story. Another NICAP member, an astronomer named Walter Webb [PDF], spoke with the Hills for six hours straight. Betty and Barney finally felt that people were listening to—and believing—them.

But with the sense of validation came graphic nightmares. The interviews seemed to unearth unconscious memories for Betty: In one dream, the aliens led her and Barney up a ramp into a metallic-looking craft. Once inside, they were taken to separate rooms and subjected to experiments by two aliens, the leader and the examiner. When the examiner inserted a needle into her navel, Betty felt excruciating pain, but only momentarily. The leader waved his hand over her eyes, and the pain disappeared.

Sessions with a Boston psychiatrist brought up more strange recollections. Betty and Barney sought help for their anxiety and insomnia—and insight into the two-hour stretch of time missing from their memories—from Dr. Benjamin Simon, a well-known expert in hypnosis. At one point during her five months of therapy, Betty drew a star map that the alien leader had shown her in a dream. It depicted the sky as seen from the abductors’ home planet, orbiting the star Zeta Reticuli. Barney’s recollections were generally similar to Betty’s, except with fewer details and more emotional outbursts.

"Oh, those eyes," he yelled, recalling the aliens' cold stare. "They're there in my brain!"

When the last session ended, Simon concluded that Barney's recollections were just fantasies influenced by Betty's dreams.

The Hills Go Public

A historical marker on Route 3 notes the site of Betty and Barney Hill's mysterious encounter in 1961.Kat Long

The Hills didn’t go public with their story until 1963—and even then, they kept it local. They shared their account with a small church group and gave a talk for the Two State UFO Study Group in Quincy, Massachusetts. But John Luttrell, a columnist from The Boston Herald-Traveler, got wind of the sensational tale. With an audiotape from the Two State lecture and notes from UFO investigators as sources, Luttrell published a column on the Hills that got nationwide attention. When United Press International picked up Luttrell’s column, it went global.

Since then, the details of the Betty and Barney Hill abduction—a flying saucer, aliens with big, penetrating eyes, and mysterious physical examinations—have inspired countless TV episodes, podcasts, books, and films. Their psychiatrist teamed up author John G. Fuller to publish the 1966 bestseller The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours Aboard a Flying Saucer. Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones starred as Betty and Barney in the 1975 TV movie The UFO Incident. Their descriptions of humanoid aliens crept into sci-fi classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The X-Files.

The Hills never sought fame. They only wanted to understand what had happened. Barney Hill died of a stroke in 1969 at age 46, perhaps due to the stress of the situation and its aftermath. Betty Hill died of lung cancer in 2004 at age 85. But their legacy lives on, particularly in the rugged corner of New Hampshire where it all began. A gas station on U.S. Route 3 moonlights as an alien abduction museum, displaying newspaper clippings and photos about the couple. And just up the road, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources put up a marker commemorating the site of their mysterious encounter.