Dinner Party is an immersive exploration of Betty and Barney Hill’s alien abduction story that premiered at the Sundance New Frontier. Rather than using normal alien abduction tropes, writers Laura Wexler & Charlotte Stoudt chose to use the spatial affordances of VR to present a symbolic representation of each of their experiences to highlight how vastly different they were. Betty and Barney were an interracial couple in New Hampshire, and the encounter with aliens was a positive peak experience for Betty, but Barney had an opposite experience that Wexler & Stoudt attribute to his experience as a black man in the early 1960s. Inspired by passages of Barney’s hypnosis recordings posted online, Wexler & Stoudt expanded Hill’s story into an immersive VR narrative at the New Frontier Story Lab, and collaborated with director Angel Manuel Soto to bring this story to life in VR.
Dinner Party is the pilot episode of a larger series called The Incident, which explores the aftermath of how people deal with a variety of paranormal or taboo experiences. Wexler & Stoudt are using these stories to explore themes of truth and belief such as: Who is believed in America? Who isn’t? What’s it feel like to go through an extreme experience that no one believes happened to you? And can VR allow you to empathize with someone’s extreme subjective experience without being held back by an objective reality that you believe is impossible?
Dinner Party is great use of virtual reality storytelling, and it was one of my favorite VR experiences I saw at Sundance this year. It has a lot of depth and subtext that goes beyond what’s explicitly said, and I thought they were able to really use the affordances of VR to explore a phenomenological experience in a symbolic way. It’s a really fascinating exploration of radical empathy using paranormal narrative themes that you might see in the The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, and I look forward to see what other themes are explored in future episodes.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So one of my favorite experiences at the Sundance Film Festival this year was called Dinner Party. So Dinner Party was about the story of Barney and Betty Hill. They were the very first alien abduction story that happened in the 60s. And their experiences of this were completely different. And the writers of this piece, Laura Wexler and Charlotte Stout, wanted to really explore the deeper meaning behind that as kind of like a racial allegory, since Barney and Betty Hill were an interracial couple in the early 60s. So Dinner Party is the pilot episode of a larger series called The Incident where they are going to be exploring different paranormal experiences of people but looking at it less about like whether or not these events actually happened. It was more about what's it feel like to have this extraordinary thing happen to you and then to try to tell people about it and to not be believed. they're exploring some really deeper themes within their work. And so I had a chance to talk to both Laura and Charlotte, as well as I have another interview with the director, Angel Manuel Soto, where we kind of dive into his perspective into directing this piece. But today we're going to be unpacking some of the deeper meaning behind Dinner Party with the writers, Laura Wexler and Charlotte Stout. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Laura and Charlotte happened on Monday, January 22nd, 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:45.448] Laura Wexler: So I'm Laura Wexler. I'm one of the creators and writers of Dinner Party, which is the pilot for a series called The Incident. And so it's a series of VR shorts. Each one tells the story of a true life supernatural event. So Dinner Party is based on the story of Betty and Barney Hill, who in 1961 reported the first nationally known UFO abduction.
[00:02:09.839] Charlotte Stoudt: And I'm Charlotte Stout, also a co-creator and co-writer of Dinner Party.
[00:02:15.184] Kent Bye: Tell me a bit about the process of developing this story. What you were starting with in terms of the story, the books, the movies that were out there, and then making that translation into VR.
[00:02:25.827] Charlotte Stoudt: So Betty and Barney Hill were driving back from a trip they'd taken on a dark road, and they saw a light in the sky. And then at some point, while the light seemed to be following them, they lost time. And they woke up further down the road, a lot of time had passed, and they really didn't know exactly what had happened to them. So they sought hypnotherapy. And through that hypnotherapy, they recovered through their unconscious minds what had happened. So what's extraordinary is you can hear Barney's tape on YouTube today and it really sounded to us kind of in 2017 very similar to some of these traffic stops and police stops that have been captured on like FaceTime Live and the Eric Garner incident and we kind of felt there was an extraordinary resonance between the two events and we thought it would be a good time to tell the story.
[00:03:19.843] Laura Wexler: And so we developed the project at the New Frontier Story Lab. And so we went there with, you know, a script and we met with advisors and mentors. And from there, then we got a grant from the Engadget Alternate Realities Award. And so we made the film with that as sort of the seed money. And from the start, we were really interested because we are storytellers, first and foremost, in telling an engaging story, having people really connect deeply with these characters. For us the emotional stakes of the movie are that these are two people who deeply deeply love each other and yet are faced with an extraordinary challenge which is the best thing that ever happened to her is the worst thing that ever happened to him. And so we were always working the levels of the story that yes it's a UFO abduction film it's also a film about marriage and then as Charlotte said it's really a racial allegory. It's a film about how different it is to be black and white in America in 1960s, sure, but also today in 2018.
[00:04:22.011] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe get to orient us to the event, when the event happened, when the event sort of broke the news, and then sort of like other, you know, happenings in terms of what came after that. But just setting the context in terms of what was happening at that time, which was sort of playing into the dynamics of their relationship.
[00:04:40.703] Laura Wexler: Well, sure. So they were an interracial couple living in New Hampshire, in a small town in New Hampshire in the sixties. So still, I went to New Hampshire this summer and went to the spot where they had this experience. And it's still, it's very white. It's very, very white. So you can imagine that Barney Hill as an African-American man would have been just really in the massive, massive minority in the sixties. He was active in civil rights. He worked for the post office. He, actually was on the Civil Rights Commission for the state of New Hampshire. Betty was a social worker. So these were people who were involved in the NAACP, involved in marches. And this was actually one of the things that really concerned Barney Hill when they had this experience was he knew that people who have these inexplicable experiences are often labeled as crazy. and often disbelieved. And as a person who's fighting for civil rights as a black man in America in the 60s, he couldn't risk being disbelieved. And so in the film, you hear him say, like, you want to believe in this thing and I don't. He didn't want this to happen. You know, his health was affected. He knew something had happened, but he didn't want it to be true. And so what's ironic, I think, is that the hypnosis gave him some kind of relief, but it also gave him this story that he really to his death could never reconcile the story with like sort of who he wanted to be known as and what he wanted to be remembered for. So it was really different than it was for Betty. For Betty, she felt chosen. Barney Hill did not want to be chosen. He wanted to live his life in peace and try to do what he could to make things better in America. And being abducted by aliens was not on that list.
[00:06:25.243] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it sounds like that it happened maybe around 1961, and then 1964 it was leaked, and I get this impression that Betty just wanted to talk about it all the time, so it was probably some sort of rumble against certain circles of people, and then they had these tapes that, you know, so maybe you could talk a bit about it leaking out.
[00:06:42.169] Charlotte Stoudt: Yeah so it happened I think it's September 19th 1961 is sort of the actual date and you know in the film we've compressed some events because it's a 13 minute VR film but they spoke to friends just trying to understand they spoke to actually the army because there was a there was sort of a military base there so they did a full UFO report but it was obviously kept secret and then they spoke a few times at churches and I think they were really just looking for help to try to reorient themselves in the world because it was so deeply troubling to them and it turns out that someone recorded one of the discussions at the church and leaked it and that's how it got out. So they really didn't seek, you know, any press of any kind. I think they were just trying to come to terms with it.
[00:07:28.809] Laura Wexler: Yeah, and in a way you can't blame either of them. He didn't want to talk about it because he wished it never happened. She wanted to talk about it because for her it was the best thing that ever happened to her. It was a connection with this larger world. She felt so, you know, special and wanted to tell everybody, hey, there's life out there. So it was, again, this challenge of, like, she wanted to share this wonderful thing that had happened, and he wanted to put it away.
[00:08:00.313] Charlotte Stoudt: Right, she even thought our story will help the civil rights struggle because if people understand that there is life beyond earth and we are just part of a great larger thing that this will actually help race relations instead of as the way Barney felt was they would be dismissed as kooks. So they had two different points of view on this event even you know as activists they felt differently about it you know not to mention as married people.
[00:08:25.869] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'm really struck by being here at Sundance this year to see some of the themes that are coming up with the virtual reality experiences that are here. We have Zikr, which is about, you know, the Sufi religious practices of getting into ecstatic states. And we have Aval Vina about going into different psychedelic journeys and what that's like to sort of split in between your embodiment into, you know, different levels of awareness and being within the universe. And then you have alien abduction which has that very similar like sort of altered state of consciousness deconstructing the nature of reality and having some sort of conceptualization of what that might look or feel like and I'm just curious to hear that process of taking their descriptions of how they described it and then how you're doing that artistic and creative interpretation of that.
[00:09:10.183] Laura Wexler: Yeah, I mean, I think so much of what I've seen here at the festival is informed by psychedelic imagery and psychedelic experience, which I mean, again, it feels very virtual reality. They have so much in common. In terms of representing their abductions, We did not want to stay with the usual tropes of, you know, little gray men with big eyes or spaceships or anything like that. That has just been done and also again for us it was the subjective experience of it rather than any kind of objective truth or even objective picturing of it that was important. It is what they felt it to be, really. And so that's where we wanted to place viewers, was inside their subjective experience. So we don't say this actually happened, yes or no. We're not interested in solving the mystery of whether this is real. It was real to them, it meant something to them, it affected them, and that's enough for us to explore that. And again, the most important question for us was, why was their experience so different? Not, was it real? That's not to us an interesting question in this film. It's why was their experience so different? What does that mean? So the special effects of the sort of the particleization and the breaking down of the bodies was to us like that subjective experience to take you there. But yes, very informed by psychedelics. And you know, you could watch this film and be like, he had a bad trip, she had a great trip. You know, you could look at it that way.
[00:10:44.376] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's really striking in that, you know, taking a real phenomenological approach of really trying to symbolically describe an inner subjective noetic experience and have the polarity of an ecstatic, almost enlightened experience of this unity connection to everything in the universe versus sort of going into the underworld, the depths of hell and having something that was sort of a complete opposite experience and just using the same architecture of the imagery, both the particle effects, but sort of have the sound design and the visuals kind of reflect those polar extremes.
[00:11:17.367] Laura Wexler: Yeah, I mean, right, dissolution, becoming just, you know, having your skin break down and becoming your essence can be wonderful, it can be orgasmic, or it can be terrifying. If you spend your life trying to constitute yourself in the world against forces that are always trying to make you invisible or tear you apart, That kind of dissolution is your worst nightmare. But if you are safe and you move through the world intact, that is an experience you would be longing for as something thrilling and connective. So again, like the fact that she's white and he's black to us really informs the kind of experiences they have. And to us, that's a larger statement about what it is to live in America in different bodies.
[00:12:02.240] Kent Bye: And I'm curious to hear each of your thoughts on the news that came out in December in the New York Times with Blink-182's Tom DeLonge coming out and kind of orchestrating this group, former government officials, to kind of initiate what seems to be some sort of unofficial but official disclosure of military investigation of UFOs. So I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on some of these latest developments and sort of the UFO lore.
[00:12:29.423] Charlotte Stoudt: You know, I think a lot of truth is out there. Yeah, the truth is out there. And like a lot of people, you know, we hope there is something. I think everybody secretly or not so secretly wants some material to come out that is proof that will tell us conclusively because Like Betty, we long for a larger perspective because the world seems so fractured right now. So it was a question at the time of such anxiety and conflict in America that for someone to say, yes, there's an intelligence out there and they visited us, would kind of be a revelation amidst all this back and forth stuff that's been going on. So in a weird way, I think UFOs have always been They signal a certain psychology, right? They address a certain anxiety or hope about the other, whether the other is a racial other, Russia, it's a blue state, red state, you know, that the alien always stands in for whatever anxiety you have of what is not you. So in this moment, I wish they would have told us, you know.
[00:13:35.296] Laura Wexler: Well, and it's also interesting because, you know, when you track the incidence of UFO sightings, they increase during times of anxiety. So I think sightings are up right now because everybody's just a little bit anxious about, oh, a million different things. And so, yeah. You know, when you have no answers in your known world, you look to the unknown world. So there's something so human and fragile and poignant and moving about the small humans, like looking up into the sky and saying, is there something out there that's going to save us or destroy us? And just pondering that in a moment of anxiety and great uncertainty as we're in now.
[00:14:20.092] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm a huge fan of the X-Files growing up and I sort of have a thread of doing a lot of investigation into this whole issue of whether or not aliens exist and whether or not they've actually visited here. So like Stephen Greer's Disclosure Project and Richard Dolan's National Security State, the book Witness to Roswell. You know, there's a whole corpus of information that's out there and a lot of it, like Witness to Roswell for example, that is an example of 500 eyewitnesses talking about what they saw when living in Roswell. and a lot of these former military officers who would have no reason to lie about this, especially on their deathbeds and signing affidavits. There's a lot of compelling eyewitness testimony that they have, but yet there's not a lot of empirical proof. So I think that the paradigm of material reductionism wants to see objective empirical proof to know that this exists, but yet we have all of these experiences that people have had. And I can't help but to also kind of make a parallel between the Me Too campaign and Time's Up and stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment in that there's a direct experience that half of the population has experienced some degree of, and yet there is a certain amount of not believing it. And so there's sort of a parallel that I see that some of these issues of people who have these stories of experiences of either witnessing UFOs or these experiencer stories of people being abducted, but there's a certain amount of taboo around not being able to talk about it. And I think that in some ways there's been a breaking of those taboos for women with the Me Too campaign. But also in the story of UFOs, there's sort of like once the government came out and subtly acknowledged it through the sort of plausible deniability of someone who was formerly of that, but not currently. So it's not like, you know, the president or anybody's coming out officially saying it, but there's sort of like this backdoor disclosure that's there. But I see that there's these kind of parallels of these.
[00:16:10.838] Laura Wexler: Yeah, and for us I think again that's a really emotional experience we want people to have is to raise that question of like what does it feel like not to be believed? What does that feel like? And who is believed in America and who isn't? And in all of the episodes for the incident that we're planning, in each case, you know, an ordinary person is undergoing something inexplicable that is real to them. They're trying to figure out what happened to them and it's real, and they're fighting against disbelief. And that is another kind of suffering that people who undergo this stuff have to deal with, have to face. And so we're always interested in what the experience is like for the person having this encounter that they never asked for, they can't explain, and now they have to deal with a doubt everywhere they look.
[00:17:06.332] Charlotte Stoudt: And that's why VR is so perfect, because we can put you in the middle of that experience with them and you can share their bemilderment, wonder, terror. It unfolds in front of you, you know, just as it's unfolding for them. And I think that's what excites us about this project, that we can tell these very compact stories that kind of explode open with all these questions.
[00:17:28.716] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it reminds me of Jung's take on UFOs, which he did see it as sort of like a projection of the inner psyche, that it was less that it was necessarily objectively happening, but that it was sort of more of a reflection of this inner anxiety, and that if you take a phenomenological approach to these, sort of paranormal experiences, the experiences feel real even if you can't prove them. And so I guess in some ways you're kind of pushing at that edge of what's real, what's not real, which I think is also kind of another reflection of what's happening in our society of like what is reality. But that it's allowing you to sort of creatively explore that through this lens of wonder and awe of what's possible with virtual reality.
[00:18:05.613] Laura Wexler: Yeah, and it's asking the question what is real in a lot of different ways. So this was real to these people. So what is it really like to be these people? What does it feel like to be them? That's another sort of question about real as opposed to just the search for the objective truth. Again, VR allows you to really embody someone else's realness, right? And you don't have to litigate whether it's objectively true or not. That doesn't have to be the end-all, be-all. It can just be, I want to see what this felt like. How real did this feel for that person? And what does this mean? Sure, there's the objective truth of it, but there's also the truth about this is a reflection of race in America. It's about anxiety. In some of the other episodes we're doing, they have to do with abuse. wanting to belong and things like that. So these other truths that are coming out in these incidents that may not be just the objective truth. And we're really interested in that.
[00:19:08.944] Kent Bye: And what do you each want to experience in VR?
[00:19:12.245] Laura Wexler: Wonder, awe, amazing story, awesome acting, characters you identify with.
[00:19:20.390] Charlotte Stoudt: I want to see things I've never seen before.
[00:19:25.085] Kent Bye: Cool. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:19:33.749] Laura Wexler: I think what's so exciting is the answer is I don't know. I really don't know. I mean, we're present at the birth of this new medium, and we don't know what it's going to be yet. We don't know what it needs. We don't know what it does best. We're just happy to be in the muck trying to figure it out. It's really, really exciting.
[00:19:55.104] Kent Bye: Okay, awesome. Well, thank you so much.
[00:19:56.613] Laura Wexler: Thank you. Thanks. Thank you so much
[00:19:59.505] Kent Bye: So that was Laura Wexler and Charlotte Stout. They are the writers of Dinner Party, which is the pilot episode of a larger series called The Incident. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I really appreciated the deeper layers of meaning of this experience. I mean, I saw the experience and I got a lot out of it just from watching it. But then talking to both Laura and Charlotte, I got so many different layers of meaning that they had embedded into it. I think that was what made this piece so powerful is that they are talking about a lot of deeper themes that are not really explicitly covered within the experience. The actual experience itself doesn't really explicitly even mention race, but there's so much that's embedded within the context that is talking about these different dynamics. And I think the big question that they were trying to answer is, why were their experiences so different? And one of the things that Laura said is that, you know, you spend your life trying to constitute yourself in a world against forces that are always trying to make you invisible or tear you apart. Then having a disillusioned type of experience is one of your worst nightmares. And I think that sort of describes what Barney Hill was going through. Whereas on the other hand, Betty was very safe. And so her experience was completely different. And it's sort of a larger statement about the different bodies and experiences that you have within America. To me, it was really striking that they're less concerned about representing an accurate depiction of someone's phenomenological experience and more trying to give you a feeling or a vibe of what it felt like for each of them. And in the case of Dinner Party, you really see this polar extreme of what Betty's experience and what Barney's experience was. And to me, that is a really interesting kind of innovation when it comes to not just, you know, physically representing what happened, but trying to do this symbolic representation of a really intense, deep experience that someone has had. And also some really fascinating questions that they're asking, like, does it feel like to not be believed? And who is believed in American and who isn't? And I think that these are some larger issues that I think have been kind of exploding over the last year. And some of these taboo subjects, such as UFOs, are experiences that some people may have claimed that they have had, but yet, it's kind of in that fringe element of our society, such that it's not recognized as something that's valid to be able to actually talk about. And They talk about in the incident, they're going to be exploring all sorts of different dimensions of our society where it's not okay to talk about stuff. Specifically, abuse was another topic. But there's these things within society where if you have an experience of something, then you may not have the luxury of being able to actually talk about your experiences. And if you do, then you're not going to be believed. And I think that To me, when I think about this, I think about as a metaphor, these technology adoption life cycles where you have this innovators and early adopters, and then there's a crossing of the chasm of going into the mainstream. So there's kind of the frontiers of experiences. And then there's the experiences as well as, you know, empirical evidence when it comes to science that things have to be at a certain level in order to be accepted by the mainstream paradigm. So, you have to have a certain level of objective proof, there has to be consensus within the scientific community, it has to be independently verified, and within the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn talks about the structure of scientific revolution such that, you know, there's these anomalous events, and then as soon as the anomalous event is describing something that's wrong with your paradigm, if there's enough evidence to really specifically describe it, and you're able to create a new model that encompasses that information, then you can have something of a paradigm shift. And I think that within the last year, I think we're in this process of going through a paradigm shift, especially when it comes to women reporting their experiences when it comes to sexual assault and sexual harassment. This was something that before, there was a certain level of objectivity that we needed in order to say, this actually happened. And we have this problem of the he said, she said dynamic where a woman may have experienced something of either assault or harassment, but yet there wouldn't be any empirical evidence of that. And so it was basically like her word against his. And I think what we saw in 2017 was this huge paradigm shift where we're kind of moving away from needing direct facts of something happening, and then kind of just believing that this story actually happened, especially when you have numbers of women that are coming forward, especially against someone like Harvey Weinstein is probably the best example in terms of there was enough of a repeating pattern of each of the individual stories that if you weren't willing to believe one, then when you have at least 30 or 40 or 50 or more women coming out with that same story, then it sort of changes into this other dimension. And as a journalist, you have to try to think, well, how do you then verify these stories? And what I saw happening this past year was If something this extreme had happened to somebody, then they were likely to tell people that were closest to them what had actually happened. And so part of the verification process was to go to these victims' closest confidants and to be able to verify that these stories were transmitted to them at that time. And I think that's something that's new in our culture and new in our society is that the direct experience of somebody without any sort of external objective evidence was being entered into the court of public opinion. And I think there's still a lot of huge open questions when it comes to, well, we have a criminal justice system that has a certain level of objective proof that's required. And then you have this call out culture that's emerging from sexual assault and sexual harassment. And it's kind of a stopgap in order to overcome some of the failures of the criminal justice system that these stories were being ignored. And then it's kind of like, you know, how do we actually deal with this? So In the future, I feel like there's going to be some sort of fusion between the criminal justice system and some sort of truth and reconciliation process where the truth of someone's direct experience can be told and it can be heard and listened and received and validated by the community. And I think that that's what I've seen within the context of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and that's still evolving. But I think with this type of experience, but like dinner party, we're getting even more on the fringes of the supernatural and supernormal types of experiences of an alien abduction, where, again, there's not a lot of empirical proof that this happened beyond the sort of like hypnotherapy sessions and the stories that they're telling people. So in some ways, there's a bit of like, well, do you believe that this actually happened or not? And I think that these types of stories are anomalous. They're not within any existing mainstream paradigm, which means that you either have to completely revolutionize your worldview of what's even possible before you're able to really listen to someone's direct experience. And I think that What Laura and Charlotte are trying to do with this experience is to try to just give you some sort of experience within virtual reality that tries to mimic that feeling of going through something super crazy and super normal and out of anybody's paradigm of what reality is. and you're stuck with this experience and you are living with the reality of your direct experience but within a context where there's nobody that actually believes that that happened and you're just, you know, surrounded by doubters who are saying that this actually didn't happen. So I'm actually really curious to see where this series goes, some of these other pieces that they're going to put together. It's such a powerful metaphor for so many different dimensions of our society, whether it's talking about race in America or the experience of women or so many other different victims of different abuse and these experiences that are super natural and super normal that have no explanation existing out there within the mainstream paradigms. So that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, there's a couple things you can do. First of all, just spread the word, tell your friends, and secondly, consider becoming a member. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon your gracious donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.