Life on other planets: The house the Venusians built

When George Van Tassel began work on the domed structure he called the Integratron, he claimed it was designed by architects from Venus. It was never finished but last weekend, a group of devotees celebrated his memory with a Retro UFO Convention. Andrew Gumbel reports from Landers, California

There was a time when every UFO nut in America would dream of making a pilgrimage to the Integratron, an arresting white dome structure rising in the wilds of the Mojave Desert where beings from other worlds would regularly make themselves felt and where, it was said, power was being generated to rejuvenate human bodies and ward off death itself.

This was the spiritual home of George Van Tassel, a former aircraft inspector with Lockheed who moved to the desert in the auspicious year of 1947 - when the Cold War got going in earnest and an alien spacecraft supposedly crashed at Roswell, New Mexico - and soon began receiving communications from alien beings with such names as Knut, Ashtar and Lo. A group of devotees would gather for Van Tassel's Friday night channelling sessions at a large desert boulder known as Giant Rock, and even larger crowds turned out for his annual spacecraft conventions.

When Van Tassel died in 1978, he left the Integratron just short of completion, with no written instructions on how to go about finishing it. (His architects, who were visitors from Venus, hadn't wanted their secrets to fall into the wrong hands, and communicated by telepathy alone.) And so the place languished. One owner thought of turning the six-sided building into a disco. Another was rumoured to be using it as a methamphetamine lab. Last weekend, though, it was back to something resembling its old glory, as a group of Van Tassel devotees made it the centrepiece of a one-day Retro UFO Convention. Old-timers recalled the glory days of spotting mysterious lights in the desert sky. Present-day believers spoke enthusiastically about their own close encounters, everywhere from Arizona to New York City. Those blessed with actual contact with the aliens - known in the vernacular as "contactees" - were welcomed like prophets for the new millennium, complete with shiny silver hats and cloaks that looked eerily like cast-offs from the Star Trek wardrobe department.

Professors and lecturers, some noticeably more learned than others, offered talks on everything from the sorcerer Aleister Crowley and his "Scarlet Women", who may or may not have created a "tear in the fabric of space and time", to the theory that a portal in Antarctica leads to a secret world of underground cities populated by reptilian aliens flitting in and out of 15 different dimensions.

Attending the festivities was a hodge-podge of conspiracy-mongers, eccentrics, bemused onlookers treating the whole thing as an elaborate game of dress-up and storytelling, and people genuinely looking for alternative forms of spiritual enlightenment. Tattooed soldiers and their girlfriends from the nearby military base at Twenty-Nine Palms mingled with dreamy New Age fanatics and the sort of ordinary whitebread couples who wouldn't look out of place at a suburban mall.

Their pay-off was people such as Michael the Universal Kabbalist, also known as Orion Starseed, a meek-looking man in his late fifties who showed up in silver and purple robes and a shaggy white wig and explained to anyone who cared to listen that the space people had inducted him to a higher level of consciousness that he now felt compelled, like a religious missionary, to share with the rest of his fellow humans.

"I have strong intuitive knowledge of my many life journeys in the Orion System," he explained in a pamphlet-length biography he passed out to anyone interested. "I am one of many who have chosen to visit Earth at this juncture to help rise the light energies of those souls who have found their inner light and to help prepare them for the Ascension of the Earth."

In person, Michael was rather less nebulous, explaining how he was scarred by his war experiences in Vietnam, got heavily into alcohol and drugs, and hung out with an outlaw biker gang in the high desert for nine years before suffering a near-fatal heart attack and becoming convinced he had been touched by an other-worldly light that revealed to him the full complexities of the universe. "I was snorting drugs and having a great time, not a care in the world, until they showed up," he said, sounding almost wistful.

Even more zealous was Hans Peterman, author of a book called Gravity, Matter and Space Travel, who delivered a bewildering two-hour lecture about hidden underground cities on both Earth and Mars, an ancient interplanetary war that led to a Martian colonisation of our world, and the links between ancient pyramids built by the inhabitants of Atlantis and the modern-day military bunker within the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado.

In his world view, the aliens live among us but are mostly invisible because they inhabit entirely different dimensions of space-time. "They coexist with us," he said, "but only at specific frequencies. Now you see 'em, now you don't." Occasionally, Peterman offered personal anecdotes to back up his theories - he said he'd been to the Antarctic and knew where the secret entrance to the underworld was - and other times he simply asserted he was speaking "the truth, ladies and gentlemen, the truth ... no ifs or buts about it".

His audience, including a man in dark glasses who had covered his bald head in silver paint, lapped up every word. "The Bermuda Triangle - what is it really?" Peterman threw out at one point. A mousy woman near the back suggested, a little uncertainly, that it was an interdimensional portal. "Yes!" Peterman responded enthusiastically. "Definitely an interdimensional portal."

Once your brain takes a trip down this road, there is really no end to the fun it can have. That was certainly the attitude taken by Greg Bishop, a bona fide researcher and editor of a magazine specialising in weird Americana entitled The Excluded Middle. "I'm not here to poo-poo them or be a debunker," he told the audience at his own lecture, where he compared UFO devotees to the once-reviled prophets and mystics of ancient religions living off thorns in the desert. "You get nothing out of that."

The whole UFO phenomenon is a strange, uniquely American hybrid of religious inspiration, technological wonder and pop culture, frequently blended with personal stories of grief, loss and trauma. It was perhaps no coincidence that LRon Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, came in for frequent mentions at the convention. You don't have to be Tom Cruise to find irresistible appeal in a sci-fi religion based on mythical tales of space creatures, intergalactic warfare, flashing lights and ordinary individuals blessed with the power to communicate with a higher intelligence in the great blue yonder.

Jerry Pippin, a radio host who broadcasts his programme The UFO Files from Oklahoma, said there had been no let-up in the number of sightings reported. "We never lack for material," he said. He had himself experienced his first UFO sighting, in the skies above Phoenix, Arizona, just last November, and sounded almost childishly excited about it. It is no longer just the western American desert that the aliens appear to enjoy visiting, as they did at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. These days, Pippin said, there are as many sightings in the big cities to the east such as Chicago and New York.

In the end, the convention was about two centrepieces, both of them more or less religious. The first was the Integratron itself. An actor pretending to be George Van Tassel returning from the beyond led a tour, describing among other things how he had avoided the use of any metal materials in building the dome, as his friends from Venus directed. Upstairs, visitors were invited to lounge on beds and cushions and let their consciousnesses drift to other dimensions as a New Age space guru calling himself Arjuna hummed "celestial sounds" and blew into a Tibetan horn.

The pseudo-Van Tassel became downright defensive when someone drew a parallel between the supposed energy-collecting properties of the Integratron and the once-notorious "orgone box" devised by the psychiatrist and free love advocate Wilhelm Reich. "They're not at all the same," he said hotly. "His was a box, this is a dome!"

Some of the more true-believing visitors appeared entirely unfazed by the fact that the Integratron was both unfinished and manifestly incapable of delivering on its promise of cell rejuvenation and eternal life. "I feel absolutely marvellous!" one woman said after the Tibetan horn routine.

The other object of veneration was Giant Rock, just a few miles away, where the Van Tassel phenomenon first took off. The Rock had been sacred to local native Americans for centuries; the US government had then acquired the land and built a small airstrip next to it. In the 1930s, a man called Frank Critzer had hollowed out an underground home for himself beneath the boulder, only to die in a showdown with local police who came to investigate rumours - apparently unfounded - that he was a Nazi spy.

Van Tassel held his first channelling sessions in Critzer's old bunker, which has since been filled in. He also opened a restaurant catering to incoming airmen; Howard Hughes himself was said to have dropped by for a slice of pie.

Intriguingly, an Indian shaman once predicted that Giant Rock would be split in two. And, a few years ago, that is exactly what happened. According to local lore, a clean break down the middle would have spelt the end for humanity; as it was, only a small chunk fell away, suggesting there is still hope for us. The UFO devotees at the convention were in no doubt - this was a sign from higher space intelligence. Conventioneers duly went on a mini-pilgrimage to Giant Rock, where they discovered not an atmosphere of religious veneration so much as the roar of motorbikes and dune buggies and a rock smeared from top to bottom with crude graffiti. It looked for all the world like an alien invasion. Only, from the point of view of a UFO nut, it was entirely the wrong sort of alien.

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