War of the Virtual Worlds

History comes alive in “Dinner Party,” a VR recreation of one of the world’s most famous stories of alien abduction

‘Dinner Party,’ created with Skybound Entertainment, RYOT Films, Telexist and supported by Technicolor and the Sundance Institute, is based on the true story of Betty and Barney Hill.

Available now on Within

An alien abduction — if such a thing has happened — might feel an awful lot like being inside of a virtual reality headset. The nature of the technology makes it so that you are at once completely immersed in the action, while simultaneously watching it from a slight distance, as if your body is not quite your own.

This paradox helped draw the creators of “Dinner Party” to the medium. The 13-minute experience recreates one of history’s most legendary real-life claims of an alien abduction: an event that came to be known as the Zeta Reticuli Incident.

“The virtual reality component of the film literally takes off into outer space, and the viewer goes right along with it.”

“There’s something both alienating and intimate about VR. It’s a new medium, a shock to the system,” said the project’s co-creator, Charlotte Stoudt. “Yet the immediate sense of presence you feel inside virtual reality is eerie. Those contradictory qualities made VR the perfect medium for an abduction story.”

In 1961 an interracial couple, Betty and Barney Hill, were driving to their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire after a vacation at Niagara Falls. It was around 10:50 pm that they saw a bright light moving across the sky. They drove slowly and it came closer. At one point Barney observed a group of humanoid creatures. The couple became fearful and tried to get away. Only later did they realize that they were missing time — and that they had traveled almost 35 miles without any memory of the journey.

“Dinner Party” takes place after the abduction itself, during a party for a few friends that the Hills are hosting. They have kept their secret close, but Betty feels an overwhelming need to share it with their company. She pulls a tape recorder out of a drawer and plays audio from two hypnosis sessions. The first session is of Betty recounting her memory of the abduction, and the second session is of Barney doing the same.

“In separate sessions, Betty and Barney were each hypnotized and able to recall, in vivid detail, their abductions. But both experienced such emotional distress during their hypnosis that the doctor reinstated amnesia after each session.”
Barney Hill, Betty Hill and dog, Desley

“After a long period of nightmares and traumatic symptoms, the Hills went to Dr. Benjamin Simon, a renowned psychiatrist, to undergo regressive hypnosis in the hopes of recovering memories of that night,” explains executive producer, Laura Wexler. “In separate sessions, Betty and Barney were each hypnotized and able to recall, in vivid detail, their abductions. But both experienced such emotional distress during their hypnosis that the doctor reinstated amnesia after each session. So it wasn’t until Betty and Barney heard their own voices on tape that they were finally able to grasp what had happened to them.”

This is where the virtual reality component of the film literally takes off into outer space, and the viewer goes right along with it.

Wexler said that the camera acts as the aliens and the aliens are us — the viewers. What she means is that as we occupy the VR experience we become the omnipresent aliens who are tracking and watching the Hills. We hover in the room all around them in the 360-degree film.

“VR was the perfect medium to recreate the Hills memories of the experience.”

The effect is quite chilling. And it becomes even more so as we listen to the audio being played on the tape recorder, during which time, the scenery changes and the viewer is transported into another realm where the aliens conducted their strange experiments on their human subjects.

At this point the recognizable world disappears and the Hills become represented by points of light in an unfamiliar dark space that appears endless. VR was the perfect medium to recreate the Hills memories of the experience. Trying to render the images with traditional animation, or even with CGI could not possibly rival the uncanny feeling VR imparts to viewers — the feeling that they, too, are in some small way, made up of molecules of shifting light.

“Betty was white and Barney was black, and in 1961 scientists speculated that their wildly divergent memories of the event could, in fact, be rooted in their experience of race in America.”

Once we experience this strange disassociation from our bodies we are primed to absorb the central political point of the story, which is that Betty’s experience was sublime, while Barney’s was torturous. Betty was white and Barney was black, and in 1961 scientists speculated that their wildly divergent memories of the event could, in fact, be rooted in their experience of race in America.

“We wanted the abduction sequences in ‘Dinner Party’ to reflect the differences in the Hills’ experiences,” said Wexler. “We thought a lot about the experience of dissolution, and how if you in general feel safe and intact in your body, the experience of dissolution can be freeing. But, if you’re a person whose body is a battleground, the experience of being particalized would be terrifying, dehumanizing, and violating.”

Given today’s fraught socio-political climate, Wexler and Stoudt both felt that the lessons we can glean from the racial strife of the 1960s, could also be quite relevant in modern times. VR, with its reputation for conjuring emotion, became a powerful vehicle for conveying that message.

“When we read the hypnosis transcripts, we were struck by how much their accounts differed. Betty, a white woman from a family that long prided itself on its progressive politics, had a frightening, but ultimately validating, experience; she retained a sense of agency,” said Stoudt. “Barney, an African American man, felt utterly helpless and violated. If you listen to Barney’s hypnosis tapes on YouTube — they are raw and terrifying, wrenchingly similar to recent cell phone footage of black men and women facing mortal violence
at traffic stops.”

There was never any consensus in the scientific community about the truth of the Hills experience. When Betty drew a star map that identified the aliens as coming from a planet orbiting the star Zeta Reticuli, and “Astronomy” magazine wrote about it, the editor who penned the story was mocked and eventually lost his job. This led to the incident being labeled the Zeta Ridiculi incident, a jab about how far-fetched and unbelievable the story was.

Nonetheless, the Hills’ story serves as a powerful reminder that there is more to the universe than our mortal minds can possibly comprehend, and the use of virtual reality in imparting that reminder does, indeed, feel like a new frontier in filmmaking. One that will lead us to a whole new way of thinking about the way we interact with the world around us — and the many worlds beyond us.