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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy