Alien Invasion!

A MAN WHO ONCE worked for NASA is lecturing a couple of hundred normal-looking Americans in the exceedingly normal-looking ballroom of the Asheville, N.C., Radisson. His name is Brian O'Leary, and he is not normal. Just look at him. The guy is wearing a shiny periwinkle shirt under his gray suit and is talking to a giant purple pig puppet. ""We are no longer at the top of the cosmic pecking order,'' O'Leary berates the pig puppet. Then, addressing this national meeting of the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, he explains, ""People like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and the pig are mouthpieces for the old way of thinking.'' They do not believe in UFOs. O'Leary does. So do the members of his audience, who gaze raptly at a slide show of everyday scenes with little flying saucers in the background. Some of these even manage not to look like pie plates or Frisbees. Paul Walker, an Asheville bookkeeper who calls himself an ""open-minded skeptic,'' says he's here listening to the pig-puppet man because he wants the answer to one simple question: ""What else is there to life beyond this dimension of existence?''

He's not the only one. According to a NEWSWEEK Poll, 48 percent of Americans believe UFOs are real and 29 percent think we've made contact with aliens. Another 48 percent think there's a government plot to cover the whole thing up. In April the governor of Nevada officially renamed State Route 375 the Extraterrestrial Highway because of the frequency of UFO ""sightings'' reported there. Last week three men were arrested on New York's Long Island for plotting to assassinate local officials who the men believed had concealed a UFO landing. The American Astronomical Society recently announced the discovery, in deep space, of a building block for amino acids, the foundation of life on Earth. Less reputable stargazers claim to have seen Elvis eating fried chicken on Uranus.

We're in a major alien moment, even more intense than the ""Chariots of the Gods'' mania of the '70s. This week the baddest aliens of all arrive -- flying the baddest saucers you've ever seen -- in ""Independence Day,'' projected to be a summer blockbuster of galactic proportions (page 51). They blow up New York, Washington and Los Angeles, then we fight back. Actually, we kick their alien butts, thanks to the planet-saving heroics of Jeff Goldblum (geeky science guy), Bill Pullman (cool president guy), Will Smith (wise-cracking fighter-pilot guy) and an awesome arsenal of special effects. If aliens ever do invade, we should forget about our primitive weapons and fight the bastards with special effects.

Predictably, almost every purveyor of pop culture has been busy cashing in on this renewed obsession with little green men. Disney World has revamped Tomorrowland to include an attraction called ExtraTERRORestrial Encounter. This fall, your television sets (do not adjust them!) will be invaded by clones of Fox's huge supernatural soap, ""The X-Files'': more paranoid sci-fi fantasies about alien abductions, government cover-ups and who killed JFK. ""Contact,'' directed by ""Forrest Gump''-ster Bob Zemeckis, and Tim Burton's campfest ""Mars Attacks!'' are just two of the 11 UFO movies on the way. ""Starship Troopers,'' from ""Showgirls'' director Paul Verhoeven, will hopefully answer the burning question: is there lap dancing in space?

But UFOs aren't the only paranormal phenomenon scrambling our brain waves. The best-seller lists are seldom without a few helpful manuals on how to be embraced by the light, or a prophecy of the Celestine variety. And it's not only the usual crystal-grippers and ""Jerry Springer'' guests who are into this stuff. Forty percent of those polled by NEWSWEEK admitted to believing in the supernatural. All manner of weirdness has taken hold of otherwise sensible people. Hillary Clinton is imagining conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. Sony has set up an ESP lab. Designer Donna Karan says that in previous lives she was, among other things, a cowgirl and a painter in the court of the Medicis.

Now, Donna may be a fashion designer, but she's not crazy. She's not one of those wackos who think aliens built Atlantis and that reptilian sewer-dwelling dwarfs were responsible for the missing-children scare in the '80s. The lunatic fringe represents one end of the paranormal spectrum. At the other end are sober researchers who think there might be something out there worth looking into (page 54). The interesting people are the ones in the middle. Donna. The guy in the next cubicle. The woman who runs your division. They have families. They can tell a joke and usually know where their car keys are. Yet they had their house exorcised before moving in and can't wait to see John Travolta get telekinetic in his new movie, ""Phenomenon'' (page 64). The extent of their belief drops them somewhere along the slippery slope from ""X-Files'' viewer to alien abductee.

Colleen Fogerty has never spotted a UFO, but she sees auras all the time. A 49-year-old hospital-administration consultant in Minneapolis, she's been known to turn boardrooms into Ouija-boardrooms. ""I'll be sitting in a meeting and a vaporlike apparition will come out of people and tell me what's really going on in that meeting,'' says Fogerty. ""Now try to concentrate when that's going on. It's, like, "Scoot!' '' She doesn't channel spirits from The Other Side much anymore. ""It makes me dizzy.'' But she does rely heavily on ESP. ""These administrators can't for the life of them understand why they can look for a person for a year and I give them one in a week.'' She is, after all, a headhunter.

Strange things are going on in Minneapolis. Twin Cities business consultant Deborah Savage and her restaurateur husband head a neo-Masonic group that studies the teachings and consciousness-enhancing methods of Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. These lawyers, nurses, teachers (and one airline baggage handler) all aspire to the group's enigmatic inner circle. ""The aim is to move toward a higher level of being,'' Savage says. ""People become attracted to this after they discover there's more to life than material wealth.''

Horst Rechelbacher, CEO of the Aveda beauty-salon chain, discovered that 20 years ago when he gave up a life of drugs and debauchery as a jet-setting hairstylist to the stars and got heavily into meditation. He now refers to his company as his ""spiritual practice'' and is a devotee of shamanic journeying -- a sort of tourism for the soul, where you never have to worry whether they take American Express. ""I like to bring myself into a state that I call alpha, which is tranquillity,'' he says. ""I call it brain-wave surfing.'' Lately he's been surfing with New Age healer-to-the-stars Deepak Chopra. Together they're concocting a line of ""wellness'' elixirs designed to give your aura that extra bounce and sheen. Eric Utne, founder of the hipster digest The Utne Reader, excitedly predicts ""shamanic journeys will be for people in their 30s and 40s and 50s what rock concerts are for people in their teens.'' Later this year, Utne is launching ""The Living Theater of the Soul,'' a paranormal road show where astral fellow travelers can commune and pay way too much for T shirts.

Why has this vast middle class of credulous neospiritualists sprung up over the last few years? Boomers approaching their golden years are still searching for Meaning in their lives, something more transcendent than an old Grateful Dead record. Disillusioned Gen-Xers, prone to conspiracy theorizing, are convinced they have a better chance of encountering an alien than they do of collecting Social Security. It's a substitute religion for people who haven't got one and a supplemental one for those who already do. Carl Jung called flying saucers ""technological angels,'' a modern mythology combining science with a notion of salvation. ""I want to believe'' is the movement's (and the moment's) mantra. These very words are inscribed on a UFO poster behind Agent Mulder's desk on ""The X-Files,'' the hit TV show that has codified and popularized once obscure lore about the alleged alien crash landing near Roswell, N.M., in 1947. According to legend, the remains of the spacecraft's alien passengers are now at a secret air force base in Nevada known as Area 51, where they were autopsied. Earlier this year Fox aired a program called ""Alien Autopsy,'' a sensationalist pseudodocumentary of this very event. ""Independence Day'' takes us inside the same base. ""The truth is out there'' is another ""X-Files'' slogan that neatly skirts the issue of how much of this mythology is or isn't, or might just maybe, possibly be true.

Like more conventional religions, paranormalism has a strong millennial component. ""There's going to be a boom econ- omy in this [subject] at least until the year 2000,'' predicts Dennis Stacy, editor of the UFO Journal. Every thousand years, people expect the heavens to open up and reveal either God or little green men. ""Independence Day'' plays shamelessly to Judgment Day eschatology, with its fiery scenes of mass destruction, heaving dark firmament and plague of locustlike aliens. As one of the teenagers the movie is clearly aimed at might say, ""It's, like, Biblical, dude.'' Totally. Dean Devlin, who co-wrote and produced ""Independence Day,'' wanted his movie to be about ""how will we react at the end of the world?'' Ronald Reagan used to carry on about the same thing. ""Star Wars'' (intergalactic Armageddon) as opposed to ""Starman'' (friendly alien falls to Earth and looks like Jeff Bridges) is the narrative du jour. Gone are the cuddly Spielbergian fairy tales of benevolent beings from the sky. In ""Independence Day'' alien-loving earthlings gather on top of the Library Tower in L.A. with placards saying WELCOME! and TAKE US AWAY! They are among the first to fry. As ""X-Files'' creator Chris Carter says, ""Steven Spielberg did two wonderful alien movies a long time ago. The new approach is more apocalyptic, and that's interesting.'' Not coincidentally, Carter's next TV series, moving into the ""X-Files'' time slot this fall, is called ""Millennium.'' Fox is optimistically hoping its viewers will know what the word ""millennium'' means, even if they can't spell it.

When the end of the world does come, it seems safe to say there'll be a home page devoted to it on the World Wide Web. Already the Internet has attracted a critical mass of sci-fi dweebs, paranormalists and conspiracy theorists who crowd sites like The Alien Exploratorium. ""The underground population was there and interested, just like militias,'' says UFO Journal editor Stacy. ""The Net simply makes that information available.'' If the paranormal is a new kind of religion, the Net is where its gospels are being written and spread to an ever widening body of the faithful. Linked sites cross-reference one user's fantasy to another's paranoia to another's casual voyeurism. On America Online's ParaScope site, launched in April, hundreds of thousands of subscribers read and jabber about everything from UFOs to sightings of El Chupaca- bras, the demon ""goat-sucker'' blamed for various farm-animal deaths in Florida and the Southwest. The Chupa is the Bigfoot of the '90s. Naturally, he has his own Web site, though he may still be looking for a corporate sponsor.

Is all this nonsense harmless or pernicious? Much of it is merely modernized pagan folklore about faeries and changelings. Chris Carter points out that ""writers have always used the supernatural, paranormal, mystic and miraculous to tell stories.'' Hey, ""Independence Day'' is just a movie, right? Sure, but every time a Hollywood movie or ""Communion''-like book penetrates the public consciousness, up go reports of alien encounters, sightings and paranormal experiences. Such is the fluid interplay between pop culture and the collective unconscious. Talk-show confessionals and the Net encourage not just writers but everyone to use these fantasies to tell the stories of their own lives. The part of our brain that used to be filled with hobgoblins and incubi is now populated by bug-eyed aliens or creatures with Spanish names that suck the blood from goats. We dream in imagery manufactured in the laboratories of Hollywood or downloaded from AOL.

There is a psychic toll. Listen to the young woman who told the International UFO Congress and Film Festival in Mesquite, Nev., that she was abducted by aliens and sexually ""probed,'' that the little men ""took eggs out of me'' and gave her a ""very detailed sponge bath.'' You think, this poor woman is crying and could use some serious couch time. Then it turns out it's taken six regression-therapy sessions to recover these so-called memories. Scary. John Horrigian, a Boston software salesman who moonlights as paranormal investigator and debunker, says, ""There are definitely lunatics out there, but if all these claims are hoaxing and lying, we've got a serious pathology affecting this country.'' He's right. We do.

Arthur C. Clarke, author of ""2001: A Space Odyssey'' and noted millennialist, once observed: ""Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.'' It's enough to make you call one of those psychic hot lines. Almost.

Belief in little green men from distance planets

Area 51,secret Nevada base alleged to house a crashed UFO

1947 newspaper accounts of the crash

Laurence Rockefeller;alt-rock icon Perry Farrell

Traveling into another body or the next county

Monroe Inst. for out of body research,Charlottesville,Va.

Life after Life by Raymond Moody

The Celestine Prophecy author James Redfield

Soul-traveling through upper and lower worlds to learn healing lessons

American Southwest for proximity to Native Americans

Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner

Using people as conduits for chatty,otherworldly beings

Sedona,Ariz. and Santa Fe,N.M. spritual vortices

Channeling by Jon Klimo

Shrirley MacLaine

Using meditation crystals or subtle energies to influence the body's health

Deepak Chopra's planned retreats in San Diego and New York

Tibetan Book of the Dead by Robert A. Thruman (Uma's dad)

Donna Karan, George Harrison

Psychic communication, mind over matter (spoon bending)

Princeton Univ's PEARLab (brain wave experiments)

Parapsychology: A Controersial Science by Richard Broughton

Dionne Warwick, Dan Aykrod

Souls who have been sidetracked on their way to the afterworld

Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore

ESP Hauntings and Poltergeists by Loyd Auerbach

Casting spells

Salem, Mass., site of witch trials in the 17th century

Witchcraft: The Heritage of a Heresy by Hans Sebald

Freakish fauna like Bigfoot and El Chupacabras, the "goat sucker"

Pacific Northwest, Florida

Mysterious World by Arthur C. Clarke

The undead who drink blood and weird "goth" clothing

Hollywood

Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice.