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."

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