All over the world, statues of the Virgin Mary are bleeding like they've never bled before, aliens are becoming frenzied in their abductions and UFOs are landing on every street corner. Surely the end of the world is nigh? Hester Lacey on end-of-century angst
Nutters, loonies, headcases, crazies, step forward: your hour is rapidly approaching. Logically, the year 2000 should excite little more interest than the mileometer on a car dashboard when it turns back to a row of zeros (though apparently some sad people get quite thrilled by this phenomenon, too). In fact, however, with three years still to go, there is already a wave of fuss, hoo-ha and general over-excitement swelling around the millennium. At the Fortean Times, the magazine which casts a cool eye over strange happenings, they are calling it Pre-Millennial Tension. The magazine has already started a Millennium Watch column, tracking such essential data as the main contenders for the title of Antichrist in the year 2000, and a quick run-down of previous predictions of the end of the world (all reassuringly wrong).

Fortean Times contributing editor Mike Dash is publisher of the useful tome The Fortean Times Book of the Millennium (John Brown Publishing, pounds 9.99, for "all you need to know about the year 2000"). He believes these are barely the first trickles of a considerable flood. "We are just beginning to see, for example, an upsurge in religious phenomena being reported - visions of the Virgin Mary, or statues that are moving or bleeding or weeping or menstruating or whatever," he says. Yeuch, how very messy. Reportings of UFO sightings and alien abductions ("the modern-day equivalents of sightings of Mary," says Dash) will also skyrocket. But there are worse possibilities than a few dribbling statues and strange lights in the skies. "I'd be utterly astounded if there wasn't a huge upsurge in new con-men, it's the perfect time to do it," says Mike Dash ominously. "There is a general authority vacuum developing in society, particularly western society. Until relatively recently people had faith in the government, they had faith in science as a vehicle of progress, they had faith in religion. Now they're not going to church any more, science has opened up the hole in the ozone layer and invented nuclear bombs, and the government is corrupt. Essentially people don't believe in all these old authorities, so there is a vacuum there for con-men to move into and take advantage of, because people would rather believe in something than nothing. The millennium provides a focus for that general feeling of malaise."

Confusingly, the term "millennial" doesn't necessarily have to relate to the actual date; it is also used to refer to any movement that believes Christ will return to the earth and stay for 1,000 years. Christianity's "end-times" scenarios, taken from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, include a testing period for the faithful involving beasts, pits, devils, pale horses, plagues etc. Various different interpretations also include the "rapture" - the spontaneous whisking away of the righteousness into heaven. All cults, whether or not they are Christian, that subscribe to an "end-times" scenario where the believers are saved and an extremely nasty fate awaits those who are not among the chosen few, are referred to as "millennial".

This means that there are already a few choice examples of millennial cults that have failed to deliver the goods. "In Korea back in 1982, for example, there was a thing called the Dami Mission Church, run by a millennial prophet," says Mike Dash. "He managed to persuade several hundred people that he knew when the end of the world was going to happen, and how you could survive it. The way that you survived it was giving all your property to him, putting on a white sheet, going up this very tall hill in South Korea and waiting for three days, praying - then the world would end and you'd be saved. This guy wasn't actually there at the time and when the three days went by the followers did eventually come down from the hill and call the police. When the police tracked this guy down, they discovered he'd invested all the money he'd taken from the cult in long-term bonds which matured after the date he'd set for the end of the world."

Most prophets try to be as vague as possible on actual dates; a useful trick, as nothing looks sillier than predicting the end of the world for Sunday and waking up intact on Monday morning. From the Book of Revelation in the Bible to Nostradamus to more modern-day predictors, couching intimations of doom as obscurely as possible keeps the followers on their toes. American sociologists in the Fifties researching a book called When Prophecy Fails found that in fact one failure is by no means a disaster; the faithful will allow for one "miscalculation", though getting it wrong twice in a row generally spells the end. But, ahem, surely these days we are all far too clever to be taken in by a man draped in a sheet demanding that we cash in the Porsche and the stereo? "I don't believe that we're that sophisticated. Underneath people are just as superstitious and as credulous as they've ever been, if not more so. You can see that by people's willingness to believe the most outlandish stories about UFO abductions or whatever. In fact there is almost an eagerness to believe that sort of thing. So I wouldn't place too much faith in society's ability to cope with this sort of thing in a mature and sophisticated way."

Of course we have already been through this once; first time round, a thousand years ago, it all passed off far more quietly. There is a myth that last time the millennium changed there was mass hysteria throughout Europe, thousands of people congregated at St Peter's in Rome and watched the last few seconds of the old millennium tick away, waiting for the end of the world and expecting the second coming of Christ. "In fact, that's not true," says Mike Dash dampingly. "At the time the vast majority of people in Europe were illiterate and didn't know what the date was." Small chance of that now. But in any case, says Dash, "the modern dating system only came in about 700 anyway, and it's absolutely arbitrary."

Phew, so no cause for panic then ... or is there? The significance of the millennium remains the cause of some debate. Some pooh-pooh it. "I have noticed a growing dissatisfaction in people generally," says Chris Swain, a hand-reading consultant. "We are not happy with the present situation in society. As people's awareness is developing they are searching for enlightenment and this is coinciding with the end of the century. I would say that anxiety and uncertainty are perhaps more to do with the spirit of the age rather than the approach of the millennium. Anyway, according to Buddhism, we are now in year 2540, so we are well past the deadline for some of the doomsday merchants."

Others, however, believe the year will be especially significant. "It is absolutely true that people are experiencing end-of-century anxieties," says Claire Valin, an astrologer. "A lot of texts say that the year 2000 could herald the end of the world. For example, Mayan prophesies say that the world will end in 2012. The world is entering the Age of Aquarius and as we move into a new age we are moving into a new zone which brings with it the fear of upheaval and having to adjust to something new." But, she adds reassuringly, "there is no need for negativity with the approach of the millennium. People will actually become more spiritual as they grow into the new age. The next era will be one of peace and brotherhood and humanitarianism, though it will take us another 2,000 years to achieve this."

Oh well, that's all right then, though a bit of a long wait before it all comes right. So, what plans for celebrating? "People keep asking me what I'm going to do on the night of the millennium," sighs Mike Dash. "I suppose the answer should be 'I'm going to put on my white sheet, go to the top of Ben Nevis, and wait for the UFO to come and pick me up', but sadly the answer's probably that I'm going to go to a party like everybody else."