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Fantasy Proneness Essay

fantasy-prone personality (FPP)

'Fantasy-prone personality' (FPP) is an expression coined by psychologists Cheryl Wilson and Theodore Barber in a 1983 paper based on a small study on hypnotic susceptibility. Their work developed a theme put forth by Josephine R. Hilgard, a pioneer in the study of hypnosis.* Wilson and Barber interviewed 27 highly hypnotizable women and found that 26 of them shared "a series of interrelated characteristics, a syndrome or personality type that we are labeling as the fantasy-prone personality" (1983: p. 345). They compared the highly hypnotizable women to 25 "volunteers from the women students of a nearby college" who were paid $10 to be "tested for imaginative ability." Only one of the students was both highly hypnotizable and passed all the items on the Creative Imagination Scale, which is "a standardized instrument that measures equally well (1) responsiveness to guided imagining and (2) responsiveness to hypnotic suggestions of the type that emphasize the imagining-hallucinatory aspects of hypnosis" (p. 341). The 27 subjects, or fantasy-prone group, were not randomly selected, either. Two were in therapy with Wilson or Barber (for weight loss and phobia), five were "paraprofessional therapists" (some of whom practiced therapeutic touch), five were participants in earlier studies on hypnosis by Wilson and Barber, and fifteen were selected from their hypnosis workshops.

Without replication in larger studies using randomly selected samples, the findings of Wilson and Barber should be considered preliminary at best. Later research, however, has failed to replicate a strong association between being fantasy prone and being hypnotizable.* Further research has also called into question the claim that fantasy proneness constitutes a unitary personality type (Lynn & Rhue,1988, p. 43). Furthermore, some FPPs in the Wilson/Barber study reported strong parental encouragement to engage in imaginary activities, while others seem to have created a fantasy life as a means of escape from an abusive childhood.* There is scant compelling evidence that a significant percentage of abused children versus non-abused children grow up to be fantasy prone. This fact casts doubt on the notion that being abused as a child is a useful predictor of fantasy proneness, as some researchers have proposed. Wilson and Barber, however, do not make this suggestion.

There has been very little research that has attempted to replicate or validate Wilson and Barber's work.1 Nevertheless, the idea that there is a single type of personality that is susceptible to a variety of fantasies, but which doesn't cross an imaginary line into mental illness, has caught on among some investigators of phenomena such as alien abduction and mediumship. The classification of 'fantasy-prone personality' has been used to characterize people who experience such things as psychic powers, out-of-body experiences, UFO experiences, energy healing, false memories, automatic writing, night terrors, religious visions and messages, multiple personalities, and hallucinations.

Below are the main characteristics identified by Wilson and Barber as being shared by those designated fantasy-prone, in addition to being highly hypnotizable: (1) as children they lived in a make-believe world much or most of the time; (2) as adults "the extensiveness and vividness of their fantasy has not significantly decreased" (92% spend more than 50% of their time fantasizing, yet the typical fantasizer shares her secret fantasy life with no one; nobody in the comparison group said she spent more than 50% of her time fantasizing); (3) 65% hallucinate and experience their fantasies "as real as real"; (4) 64% occasionally pretend to be someone else; (5) most have very vivid sensory experiences, while only about 10% of the comparison group have vivid sensory experiences; (6) most have vivid memories, while only about 4% in the comparison group do; (7) most can produce physical effects by imagining experiences, including orgasm, feeling heat or cold, or illness at the thought of eating putrid food; several in the comparison group shared this ability; (8) 92% see themselves as psychic, compared to 16% in the student volunteers; (9) 88% reported having out-of-body or floating experiences, compared to 8% in the volunteer group; (Susan Blackmore reports that surveys have shown that about 15% to 20% of the population have had an OBE at some time during their lives [Blackmore, 1982]); (10) 50% of the fantasy-prone subjects and 8% of the volunteers experienced automatic writing; (11) six in the fantasy-prone group and none in the comparison group experienced religious visions; (12) more than two-thirds of the fantasy-prone subjects and none in the comparison group think they have healing powers; (13) 73% of the fantasizers and 16% of the comparison group think they've encountered spirits or ghosts; (14) 64% of the fantazisers and 8% of the comparison group reported experiencing hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations (waking dreams), including monsters from outer space). Wilson and Barber write: "An additional shared characteristic that we cannot overemphasize is that all 26 fantasy-prone subjects are socially aware and function much like any other group of educated American women" (p. 365).

As far as I can tell, the FPP classification has little predictive or explanatory power. It's a handy tag for many of the psychic and religious actors who grace the pages of The Skeptic's Dictionary. I suppose one could profitably predict that a clear-cut FPP like Sylvia Browne or Whitley Streiber would be an untrustworthy source for anything but the most mundane matter. Other than that, however, I don't see much value in the FPP classification. (One must wonder about the value of a label that unites a gregarious, interminable babbler like Sylvia Browne and a creative loner like Emily Brontë.)

One reason, perhaps, that there has been little clinical interest in studying the FPP is that the designation seems designed to indicate that a person—despite some obvious delusions, or weird behaviors, beliefs, or traits—is not in need of clinical treatment. There is no treatment for a religious fantasist like Catalina Rivas or for the person who believes she was abducted by aliens. The nurses who believe they are healing people by waving their hands over patients' bodies may be deluded, but they are not mentally ill. People who lead rich fantasy lives, including those who take their imaginary playmates from childhood into adulthood, may lead otherwise "normal" lives. To the fantasist the other persons living in her body, the voices of dead people she hears, the ghosts and demons that haunt her rooms at night, the lives she thinks she led centuries ago, etc. are as real as the dog that bit the mailperson last week. Most of us can tell the difference between playing tennis, say, and imagining that we're playing tennis. Some people can't distinguish between the two, but they can hold an intelligent conversation, bring home a paycheck, and pour a decent cocktail. Obviously, some people with rich fantasy lives create wonderful and important art and literature. Being fantasy-prone in itself hardly seems worthy of a deprecatory label. What matters are the kinds of fantasies involved, how they affect the lives of the fantasist and her followers, and whether the fantasist can tell the difference between, say, seeing and feeling a demon sitting on her chest and actually having a demon sitting on her chest.

Steven Novella, M.D., divides the characteristics listed by Wilson and Barber into two distinct sets of traits: 1) heightened fantasizing and creativity, and 2) impaired reality testing and heightened auto-sensation. Only the second set is deleterious. Skeptics are concerned with the people who can't tell the difference between their fantasies and reality. Novella says:

...the totality of the research indicates that there is this broad clinical entity known as the fantasy-prone personality type, which is likely comprised of various psychological and neurological conditions that result in heightened fantasizing and/or an impaired ability to distinguish internal fantasy from external reality. Research indicates that this subset of humanity is disproportionately responsible for a large number of reported paranormal experiences, including ghosts, angels, aliens, abductions, out-of-body experiences, near-death-experiences, reincarnation, and others.

As noted above, the research so far does not indicate that there is a "clinical entity" meaningfully designated by the label "fantasy-prone personality." Being a Wilson/Barber FPP may have no more explanatory power than "having sleep-inducing power" has for how a sleeping pill works. Metrics other than the Wilson/Barber metric may prove useful, but that depends on the outcome of further research. In my opinion, the most promising characteristic for finding a psychological or neurological condition with significant explanatory and predictive power regarding paranormal and religious experiences is the ability to hallucinate and experience fantasies "as real as real," which was found in 65% of Wilson and Barber's small sample of fantasy-prone subjects. They mention Nikola Tesla, "who was able to hallucinate whatever he was thinking or imagining" (p. 368). Others are able to hallucinate auditory, tactile, and olfactory sensations that are "as real as real." Some people can hallucinate at will; others have no control over their hallucinations. Some people seem to "dream while awake." Wilson and Barber do not distinguish between such things as visual thinking, which Tesla and people like Temple Grandin represent, and hallucinating. The difference between visual or auditory thinking and hallucination is that the latter appears to the perceiver to be located in external space, while the former are recognized by the thinker as being internal. I'm hallucinating if I think the voices I hear have an external basis but they don't; I'm not hallucinating when I think in words or imagine a place I've been to or run a tune through my head.The evidence so far does not warrant claiming that the ability to hallucinate vivid images that are indistinguishable from perceptions caused by external objects is necessarily associated with a tendency to live in a fantasy world most of the time. The key to living in a fantasy world is not whether one perceives vividly but whether one can tell the difference between self-generated vivid thoughts and illusions.

FPP is one of those areas where there is little doubt that more research needs to be done before anything conclusive should be claimed. One difficulty I see for researchers in this area is attracting loners to participate in their surveys and studies. If the samples include only college students and circus acts like Sylvia Browne, the profile will be terminally ill at birth. Worse, if the profile does not include the fantasies of the world's religions, it would ignore the chief fantasies of mankind. If it includes them, it is rendered useless by its designating most members of the species as fantasy prone.


1 One study of 62 subjects concluded: "Low fantasy-prone subjects were no less creative or less responsive to hypnosis than their medium fantasy-prone counterparts." Another study concluded: "Fantasy proneness and absorption ['openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences'] were not found to be truly discriminable constructs." One study found an association between fantasy proneness and vulnerability to schizophrenia. Also, one study found no correlation between fantasy-proneness and alien abduction experiences, contradicting Robert Baker and Joe Nickell.

See alsoPatience Worth and Pearl Curran (Patience Worth) and the Fantasy-Prone Personality Label.

further reading

Baker, Robert A. 1987-1988. The aliens among us: Hypnotic regression revisited. Skeptical Inquirer 12(2) (Winter): pp. 147-162. Baker refers to Wilson and Barber's paper (see below) as "important but much neglected." It's certainly been much neglected.

Hull, Jay G. 1996. When explanations fail: Science and pseudoscience in psychology. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 149–50. Page 149 is online.

Lynn, S. J. and J. W. Rhue. 1988. Fantasy proneness: Hypnosis, developmental antecedents, and psychopathology. American Psychologist.

Merckelbach, H., R. Horselenberg and P. Muris. 2000. “The Creative Experiences Questionnaire (CEQ): a brief self-report measure of fantasy-proneness,” Personality and Individual Differences, 31, 987–995.

Newman, L. S., and R. F. Baumeister. 1996. Not just another false memory: Further thoughts on the UFO abduction phenomenon. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 185-197.

Nickell, Joe. 1996. A Study of Fantasy Proneness in the Thirteen Cases of Alleged Encounters in John Mack’s Abduction. Investigative Files, Volume 20.3, May/June.

Nickell, Joe. 2010. The Real 'Ghost Whisperer'. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 34, Issue 4. (Nickell argues that the "evidence strongly indicates" that Mary Ann Winkowski, who says she talks to "earthbound spirits," is an FPP.)

Novella, Steven. 2007. The Fantasy Prone Personality. Neurologica blog.

Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber. 1983. The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena. In Imagery, Current Theory, Research and Application, ed. by Anees A. Sheikh, New York: Wiley, pp. 340-390.


Emily Brontë: a fantasy-prone personality

Alien abductions revisited (Study suggests alien abduction experiences not simply products of fantasy-proneness) by Peter Hough

Alien Abductions, Sleep Paralysis and the Temporal Lobe by Susan Blackmore and Marcus Cox

The Abduction Experience: A Critical Evaluation Of Theory And Evidence by Stuart Appelle

A Study of Fantasy Proneness in the Thirteen Cases of Alleged Encounters in John Mack’s Abduction

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 20.3, May / June 1996


Since Robert A. Baker’s pioneering article appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer (Baker 1987-1988), a controversy has raged over his suggestion that self-proclaimed “alien abductees” exhibited an array of unusual traits that indicated they had fantasy-prone personalities. Baker cited the “important but much neglected” work of Wilson and Barber (1983), who listed certain identifying characteristics of people who fantasize profoundly. Baker applied Wilson and Barber’s findings to the alien-abduction phenomenon and found a strong correlation. Baker explained how a cursory examination by a psychologist or psychiatrist might find an “abductee” to be perfectly normal, while more detailed knowledge about the person’s background and habits would reveal to such a trained observer a pattern of fantasy proneness.

For example, Baker found Whitley Strieber — author of Communion, which tells the “true story” of Strieber’s own alleged abduction — to be “a classic example of the [fantasy-prone personality] genre.” Baker noted that Strieber exhibited such symptoms as being easily hypnotized, having vivid memories, and experiencing hypnopompic hallucinations (i.e. “waking dreams”), as well as being “a writer of occult and highly imaginative novels” and exhibiting other characteristics of fantasy proneness. A subsequent, but apparently independent, study by Bartholomew and Basterfield (1988) drew similar conclusions.

Wilson and Barber’s study did not deal with the abduction phenomenon (which at the time consisted of only a handful of reported cases), and some of their criteria seem less applicable to abduction cases than to other types of reported phenomena, such as psychic experiences. Nevertheless, although the criteria for fantasy proneness have not been exactly codified, they generally include such features as having a rich fantasy life, showing high hypnotic susceptibility, claiming psychic abilities and healing powers, reporting out-of-body experiences and vivid or “waking” dreams, having apparitional experiences and religious visions, and exhibiting automatic writing. In one study, Bartholomew, Basterfield, and Howard (1991) found that, of 152 otherwise normal, functional individuals who reported they had been abducted or had persistent contacts with extraterrestrials, 132 had one or more major characteristics of fantasy-prone personality.

Somewhat equivocal results were obtained by Spanos et al. (1993), although their “findings suggest that intense UFO experiences are more likely to occur in individuals who are predisposed toward esoteric beliefs in general and alien beliefs in particular and who interpret unusual sensory and imagined experiences in terms of the alien hypothesis. Among UFO believers, those with stronger propensities toward fantasy production were particularly likely to generate such experiences” (Spanos et al. 1993, p. 631).

A totally dismissive view of these attempts to find conventional psychological explanations for the abduction experience is found in the introduction to psychiatrist John Mack’s Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994). Mack states unequivocally: “The effort to discover a personality type associated with abductions has also not been successful.” According to Mack, since some alleged abductions have reportedly taken place in infancy or early childhood, “Cause and effect in the relationship of abduction experiences to building of personality are thus virtually impossible to sort out” (Mack 1994, p. 5). But surely it is Mack’s burden to prove his own thesis that the alien hypothesis does have a basis in fact beyond mere allegation. Otherwise the evidence may well be explained by a simpler hypothesis, such as the possibility that most “abductees” are fantasy-prone personality types. (Such people have traits that cut across many different personality dimensions; thus conventional personality tests are useless for identifying easily hypnotizable people. Some “abductees” who are not fantasy prone may be hoaxers, for example, or exhibit other distinctive personality traits or psychological problems.) Mack’s approach to the diagnosis and treatment of his “abductee” patients has been criticized by many of his colleagues (e.g., Cone 1994).


To test the fantasy-proneness hypothesis, I carefully reviewed the thirteen chapter-length cases in Mack’s Abduction (Chapters 3-15), selected from the forty-nine patients he most carefully studied out of seventy-six “abductees.” Since his presentation was not intended to include fantasy proneness, certain potential indicators of that personality type — like a subject’s having an imaginary playmate — would not be expected to be present. Nevertheless, Mack’s rendering of each personality in light of the person’s alleged abduction experiences was sufficiently detailed to allow the extraction of data pertaining to several indicators of fantasy proneness. They are the following:

  1. Susceptibility to hypnosis. Wilson and Barber rated “hypnotizability” as one of the main indicators of fantasy proneness. In all cases, Mack repeatedly hypnotized the subjects without reporting the least difficulty in doing so. Also, under hypnosis the subjects did not merely “recall” their alleged abduction experiences but all of them reexperienced and relived them in a manner typical of fantasy proneness (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 373-379). For example, Mack’s patient “Scott” (No. 3) was so alarmed at “remembering” his first abduction (in a pre-Mack hypnosis session with another psychiatrist) that, he said, “I jumped clear off the couch” (Mack 1994, p. 81); “Jerry” (No. 4) “expressed shock over how vividly she had relived the abduction,” said Mack (1994, p. 112); similarly, “Catherine” (No. 5) “began to relive” a feeling of numbness and began “to sob and pant” (Mack 1994, p. 140).

  2. Paraidentity. I have used this term to refer to a subject’s having had imaginary companions as a child (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 346-347) and/or by extension to claiming to have lived past lives or to have a dual identity of some type. Of their fantasy-prone subjects, Wilson and Barber stated: “In fantasy they can do anything — experience a previous lifetime, experience their own birth, go off into the future, go into space, and so on.” As well, “While they are pretending, they become totally absorbed in the character and tend to lose awareness of their true identity” (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 353, 354).

    Thus, as a child, “Ed” (No. 1) stated: “Things talked to me. The animals, the spirits . . . . I can sense the earth” (Mack 1994, p. 47); “Jerry” (No. 4) said he has had a relationship with a tall extraterrestrial being since age five (Mack 1994, p. 113). At least four of Mack’s subjects (Nos. 5, 7, 9, and 10) said they have had past-life experiences (pp. 160-162, 200, 248, 259), and seven (Nos. 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12) said they have some sort of dual identity (pp. 92-93, 173, 200, 209, 243, 297, and 355-356). For example “Dave” (No. 10) said he considers himself “a modern-day Indian"; while “Peter” (No. 11) under hypnosis said he becomes an alien and speaks in robotic tones (Mack 1994, pp. 275, 277, 297). In all, eleven of Mack’s thirteen featured subjects exhibited paraidentity.

  3. Psychic experiences. Another strong characteristic of fantasy proneness according to Wilson and Barber (1983, pp. 359-360) is that of having telepathic, precognitive, or other types of psychic experience.

    One hundred percent of Mack’s thirteen subjects claimed to have experienced one or more types of alleged psychical phenomena, most reporting telepathic contact with extraterrestrials. “Catherine” (No. 5) also claimed she can “feel people’s auras"; “Eva” (No. 9) said she is able to perceive beyond the range of the five senses; and “Carlos” (No. 12) said he has had “a history of what he calls ‘visionary' experiences” (Mack 1994, pp. 157, 245, 332).

  4. “Floating” or out-of-body experiences. Wilson and Barber (1983, p. 360) stated: “The overwhelming majority of subjects (88 percent) in the fantasy-prone group, as contrasted to few (8 percent) in the comparison group, report realistic out-of-the-body experiences” (which one subject described as “a weightless, floating sensation” and another called “astral travel”). Only one of Mack’s thirteen subjects (No. 2) failed to report this; of the other twelve, most described, under hypnosis, being “floated” from their beds to an awaiting spaceship. Some said they were even able to drift through a solid door or wall, that being a further indication of the fantasy nature of the experience (more on this later). Also, “Eva” (No. 9) stated that she had once put her head down to nap at her desk and then “saw myself floating from the ceiling . . . . My consciousness was up there. My physical body was down there” (Mack 1994, p. 237). Also, in the case of “Carlos” (No. 12), “Flying is a recurring motif in some of his more vivid dreams” (Mack 1994, p. 338).

  5. Vivid or “waking” dreams, visions, or hallucinations. A majority of Wilson and Barber’s subjects (64 percent) reported they frequently experienced a type of dream that is particularly vivid and realistic (Wilson and Barber 1983, p. 364). Technically termed hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucinations (depending on whether they occur, respectively, while the person is going to sleep or waking), they are more popularly known as “waking dreams” or, in earlier times as “night terrors” (Nickell 1995, p. 41). Wilson and Barber (1983, p. 364) reported that several of their subjects “were especially grateful to learn that the ‘monsters’ they saw nightly when they were children could be discussed in terms of ‘what the mind does when it is nearly, but not quite, asleep.'” Some of Wilson and Barber’s subjects (six in the fantasy-prone group of twenty-seven, contrasted with none in the comparison group of twenty-five) also had religious visions, and some had outright hallucinations (Wilson and Barber 1983, pp. 362-363, 364-365, 367-371).

    Of Mack’s thirteen selected cases, all but one (No. 13) reported either some type of especially vivid dream, or vision, or hallucination. For example, “Scott” (No. 3) said he had “visual hallucinations” from age twelve; “Jerry” (No. 4) recorded in her journal “vivid dreams of UFOs” as well as “visions"; and “Carlos” (No. 12) had the previously mentioned “visionary” experiences and dreams of flying (Mack 1994, pp. 82, 112). Almost all of Mack’s subjects (Nos. 1-11), like “Sheila” (No. 2), had vivid dreams with strong indications of hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucination (Mack 1994, pp. 38, 56, 80, 106, 132, 168-169, 196, 213, 235, 265-267, and 289).

  6. Hypnotically generated apparitions. Encountering apparitions (which Wilson and Barber define rather narrowly as “ghosts” or “spirits”) is another Wilson-Barber characteristic (contrasted with only sixteen percent of their comparison group). A large number of the fantasizers also reported seeing classic hypnogogic imagery, which included such apparitionlike entities as “demon-type beings, goblins, gargoyles, monsters that seemed to be from outer space” (Wilson and Barber 1983, p. 364).

    Mack’s subjects had a variety of such encounters, both in their apparent “waking dreams” and under hypnosis. Only the latter were considered here; all thirteen subjects reported seeing one or more types of outer-space creatures during hypnosis.

  7. Receipt of special messages. Fifty percent of Wilson and Barber’s fantasizers (contrasted with only eight percent of their comparison subjects) reported having felt that some spirit or higher intelligence was using them “to write a poem, song, or message” (Wilson and Barber 1983, p. 361).

    Of Mack’s thirteen abductees, all but one clearly exhibited this characteristic, usually in the form of receiving telepathic messages from the extraterrestrials and usually with a message similar to the one given “Arthur” (No. 13) “about the danger facing the earth’s ecology” (Mack 1994, p. 381). Interestingly, many of these messages just happen to echo Mack’s own apocalyptic notions (e.g., pp. 3, 412), indicating Mack may be leading his witnesses.

    In the case of “Eva” (No. 9), the aliens, who represented a “higher communication” (Mack 1994, pp. 243, 247), purportedly spoke through her and described her “global mission.” “Jerry” (No. 4) produced a “flood of poetry,” yet stated, “I don't know where it’s coming from” (p. 99); “Sara” (No. 7) has been “spontaneously making drawings with a pen in each hand [of aliens]” although she had never used her left hand before; and “Peter” (No. 11) stated he has “always known that I could commune with God” and that the aliens “want to see if I'm a worthy leader” (Mack 1994, pp. 99, 192, 288, 297).


One of Mack’s subjects ("Sheila,” No. 2) exhibited four of the seven fantasy-prone indicators, and another ("Arthur,” No. 13) exhibited five; the rest showed all seven characteristics. These results are displayed in Figure 1.

Although not included here, healing — that is, the subjects’ feeling that they have the ability to heal — is another characteristic of the fantasy-prone personality noted by Wilson and Barber (1983, p. 363). At least six of Mack’s thirteen subjects exhibited this. Other traits, not discussed by Wilson and Barber but nevertheless of possible interest, are the following (together with the number of Mack’s thirteen subjects that exhibit it): having seen UFOs (9); New Age or mystical involvement (11); Roman Catholic upbringing (6 of 9 whose religion was known or could be inferred); previously being in a religio-philosophical limbo/quest for meaning in life (10); and involvement in the arts as a vocation or avocation (5). For example, while apparently neither an artist, healer, nor UFO sighter, “Ed” (No. 1) had “a traditional Roman Catholic upbringing” and — as rather a loner who said he felt “lost in the desert” — he not only feels he can “talk to plants” but said he has “practiced meditation and studied Eastern philosophy in his struggle to find his authentic path” (Mack 1994, pp. 39, 41-42). “Carlos” (No. 12) is an artist/writer/ “fine arts professor” involved in theatrical production who said he has seen UFOs and has a “capacity as a healer"; raised a Roman Catholic, and interested in numerology and mythology, he calls himself “a shaman/artist teacher” (Mack 1994, pp. 330, 332, 340-341, 357).

Also of interest, I think, is the evidence that many of Mack’s subjects fantasized while under hypnosis. For example — in addition to aliens — “Ed” (No. 1) also said he saw earth spirits whom he described as “mirthful little playful creatures” (p. 48); and “Joe” (No. 6) said he saw “mythic gods, and winged horses.” “Joe” also "remembered” being born (Mack 1994, pp. 170, 184). “Catherine” (No. 5), “Sara” (No. 7), “Paul” (No. 8), and “Eva,” (No. 9) said they had past-life experiences or engaged in time-travel while under hypnosis. Several said they were able to drift through solid doors or walls, including “Ed” (No. 1), “Jerry” (No. 4), “Catherine” (No. 5), "Paul” (No. 8), “Dave” (No. 10), and “Arthur” (No. 13). “Carlos” (No. 12) claimed his body was transmuted into light. I have already mentioned that under hypnosis “Peter” (No. 11) said he becomes an alien and speaks in an imitative, robotic voice. In all, eleven of Mack’s thirteen subjects (all but Nos. 2 and 3) appear to fantasize under hypnosis. Of course it may be argued that there really are "earth spirits” and “winged horses,” or that the extraterrestrials may truly have the ability to time travel or dematerialize bodies, or that any of the other examples I have given as evidence of fantasizing are really true. However, once again the burden of proof is on the claimant and until that burden is met, the examples can be taken as further evidence of the subjects’ ability to fantasize.


Despite John Mack’s denial, the results of my study of his best thirteen cases show high fantasy proneness among his selected subjects. Whether or not the same results would be obtained with his additional subjects remains to be seen. Nevertheless, my study does support the earlier opinions of Baker and Bartholomew and Basterfield that alleged alien abductees tend to be fantasy-prone personalities. Certainly, that is the evidence for the very best cases selected by a major advocate.


I am grateful to psychologists Robert A. Baker and Barry Beyerstein for reading this study and making helpful suggestions.


  • Baker, Robert A. 1987-1988. The aliens among us: Hypnotic regression revisited. Skeptical Inquirer 12(2) (Winter): pp. 147-162.
  • Bartholomew, Robert E., and Keith Basterfield. 1988. Abduction states of consciousness. International UFO Reporter, March/April.
  • Bartholomew, Robert E., Keith Basterfield, and George S. Howard. 1991. UFO abductees and contactees: Psychopathology or fantasy proneness? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 22(3): 215-222.
  • Cone, William. 1994. Research therapy methods questioned. UFO 9(5): 32-34.
  • Mack, John. 1994. Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Spanos, Nicholas P., Patricia A. Cross, Kirby Dickson, and Susan C. DuBreuil. 1993. Close encounters: An examination of UFO experiences. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 102 (4): 624-632.
  • Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber. 1983. The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena. In Imagery, Current Theory, Research and Application, ed. by Anees A. Sheikh, New York: Wiley, pp. 340-390.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at