America falls to an invasion of aliens

A semi-religious need? A hankering for the Cold War? John Carlin reports on the US obsession with flying saucers

For A one-off premium of $19.95 (pounds 12.50) the UFO Abduction Insurance Company guarantees you, or your beneficiary, $10m should you be kidnapped by an alien, and $20m in the event that the alien eats you.

Careful to avoid being taken for a ride, the company president, Michael St Lawrence, explained that claim forms required the signature of an authorised on-board alien. "Since I got started in 1987 I've had approaching 10,000 clients but only a handful of claims," Mr St Lawrence said in a telephone interview from his Florida headquarters. "One was from a guy who said Elvis was sitting next to him in the spaceship."

Is Mr St Lawrence for real, or is he a joker? The answer is that he is a joker. ("My corporate motto," he said, "is 'Beam me up, I'm covered'.") But the question is not a ludicrous one in a country where hundreds of organisations are dedicated to the study of what is known as UFOlogy; where an estimated 200,000 seemingly sane people believe they actually have been abducted by aliens; where 10 per cent of the population believe they have seen UFOs; where, according to a Newsweek poll last week, 48 per cent of the population believes in the existence of UFOs. In fact, said Mr St Lawrence, Newsweek had made contact with him to request an interview, but cancelled when they discovered that he was not a believer in alien life forms, that he was in the business of selling spoof insurance policies - "framed, gold-embroidered: a unique gift for Christmas and birthdays".

The number of customer inquiries - some serious, some not - had increased in recent days, Mr St Lawrence said, following the phenomenal success of Independence Day, a film about alien space invaders in giant flying oysters. Its record-breaking $100m receipts in the week following its 4 July release have highlighted Americans' fascination with the notion of life in the Great Beyond.

Since Americans' thoughts and behaviour are shaped to an enormous degree by what they see on the screen, it is logical to explain this fascination in terms of the effect on an impressionable public of films like Independence Day, ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and television programmes like The X Files and Star Trek.

There are 10 such movies currently in production in Hollywood, among them Alien IV and Mars Attacks, due out this Christmas. One man who appears to present a particularly compelling example of Americans' readiness to digest celluloid fantasy as fact is Jan Harzan. A sales executive for a large computer company, he is the director of the Orange County, California, branch of Mutual UFO Network, or Mufon - a nationwide UFO enthusiasts' organisation with 5,000 members.

Mr Harzan said he first acquired his taste for the extra-terrestrial when, aged 11, he saw hovering outside his home what he called "a craft about ten or 12 feet long, cylindrical in shape with landing gear, emitting a hum like a high-power tension line". Unlike the whimsical Mr St Lawrence, he believes that at least some of the alien abduction stories must be true. "I think that probably it is going on because, I mean, if we were going to another planet we might want to take one or two people away with us to check them out, maybe give them an injection or two but not harming them in any way, and then returning them. I don't see why not: it wouldn't be a major problem."

Alvin Lawson of the UFO Report Centre, also in Orange County, takes a more sceptical view, contending that after 25 years of study he has not encountered "one molecule" of evidence to support the idea of alien abductions.

But he also believes that people's willingness to believe these stories cannot merely be explained in terms of people's susceptibility to the magic of the movies, that the alien movie genre is a response to needs that lodge deep in the species. "We're talking about religious and spiritual impulses in human nature," Mr Lawson said. "The abduction scenario, for example, is very close to ancient beliefs that supernatural forces guide people up into the sky and then bring them back renewed. Such visions have recurred for centuries all over the world."

Scott Allen, a professor who lectures on US popular culture at Maryland's Townson State University, discerns a more uniquely American dimension in the present bout of alien-mania. "We're a country founded on paranoia, in response to a fear of authoritarian government," he said. "And it's sort of become a national right for Americans to have enemies, to be afraid of something. Recently the Godless Commies were the great national fear, especially in the Fifties when we had a spate of these alien movies - Earth versus the Flying Saucers featured an attack on Washington, like Independence Day - whose success fed off our fears that the Communists would turn us into mindless zombies.

"What's interesting is that now the Cold War is over and yet here we are making all these films expressing a similar anxiety. That's because our two biggest fears today, terrorism and illegal immigration, tie in so closely with the film fantasy of space aliens sowing terror - threatening our national identity the same way the Commies did in the Fifties."

There's another possible explanation as to why the market-shrewd Hollywood production houses are planning to continue the alien blitz in coming years. Mr Lawson, pursuing his quasi-religious vein of analysis, suggested that the approaching millennium conjures up in people's minds visions of Armageddon. "They're looking for a cataclysm, and the movies are delivering it."

Mr St Lawrence, who has his own reasons for studying the alien market closely, takes a similar view. Striking a sober note, the jester turned philosopher and said: "I believe that as the year 2000 approaches it's kind of human nature to pause and wonder what's going on, to look around the world and see that we're not doing very well. This desire to believe in aliens might be, in a wishful thinking sort of way, a search for some kind of meaning, a meaning we've failed to discover down here on our own."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there