Thursday, January 17, 2008

UFO Fervor Has Spread Far Beyond Stephenville

Aliens Approaching Earth
By Matt Frazier and Bryon Okada
he Star Telegram
1-17-08

     The Stephenville UFOs have gone beyond North Texas.

Thanks to dozens of reports of a strange, silent object over the town about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth, UFO stories have filled newscasts, newspapers and online reports around the world.

"Dozens in Texas Town Report Seeing UFO," read an online headline for The Washington Post.

"Multiple reports of UFO-like sighting in Texas town," proclaimed Canada's CBC News.

UFO photos were among the top Yahoo searches this morning, along with Katie Holmes and Prince William's girlfriend.

The reported sightings have become a catalyst on blogs and in chat rooms, triggering scientific and philosophical debates, religious inquiries, conspiracy charges and bad Texas jokes.

"It's amazing how this has taken on an international profile," said Kenneth Cherry, president of the Texas chapter of the Mutual UFO Network. "I've had calls from Japanese and British newspapers. I'm supposed to be doing Larry King Live on Friday."

All this attention is not enough, says one group in New York, which believes this should be a top issue for the presidential candidates.

But in Stephenville, a dairy town of 15,000, most people just thought the UFO sightings were fun.

'Interesting today'

A UFO is parked outside a Stephenville business.

"It's been interesting today," said Treva Thompson with the Stephenville Chamber of Commerce. "My son and some of his friends made helmets out of tinfoil and are walking around town."

City Secretary Cindy Stafford has been going about town in a green alien mask. Some high school students are making alien T-shirts. One automobile dealership put up a sign saying UFOs could be traded in there.

It's not that people are making fun of those who say they saw a UFO, said Sara Vanden Berge, managing editor of the Stephenville Empire-Tribune. With such a small population, the witnesses, including county Constable Leroy Gaitan, are too well-known.

It's just that aliens are a fun and welcome change from cowboys and rodeos.

"There are some people who are taking it very seriously," Vanden Berge said. "But there is a large group of people having a good time with it. They are just having fun with the idea."

Others across the country are also having fun with the idea.

Some of the comments on the Internet and airwaves over the past couple of days:

Why did the Stephenville resident cross the road? To get to the other UFO.

Is the UFO over Stephenville looking for Jewel and Tasty BBQ? (The singer Jewel has been connected with legendary rodeo competitor and Stephenville resident Ty Murray.)

President Bush has hired real aliens to get rid of the illegal human aliens.

Taking it seriously

Not amused by the jokes is Dennis Balthaser, UFO researcher and former director of Roswell's International UFO Museum and Research Center.

"Once again the media is not taking this seriously, and that makes it difficult to investigate," Balthaser said.

Supporting this idea is the Washington-based Paradigm Research Group, which dedicates itself to getting the federal government to acknowledge and disclose information about extraterrestrials on Earth. This week it renewed its long call for the mainstream media to take the issue seriously, saying it should demand answers from the presidential candidates regarding the issue.

The group says it has compiled 1,700 news accounts of UFOs since 1947.

"What you discover is the local and regional press covered the issue pretty straight," executive director Stephen Bassett said. "The phenomena is laid out. But when it comes to the top tier -- the major networks and papers of record in the U.S. -- they have not done their job."

The problem is obvious, says one responder to a news blog: The media is conspiring with the government to keep the existence of UFOs a secret.

One post from South Carolina offered a different idea: "I don't know y'all, but it seems to me like a tourist attraction scam."

Spiritual questions

Is God an alien?

Can a Christian believe in UFOs?

Aren't UFOs mentioned in the Bible?

Questions like these have become popular as some struggle to reaffirm their place in the universe.

That is as it should be, said C. Scott Littleton, professor of anthropology at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

"People have been seeing anomalous objects in the sky for millennia, but for the most part they -- and their occupants -- have been perceived as gods, demons," Littleton said. "Indeed, I suspect that most if not all of our religions evolved to 'explain' these otherwise inexplicable phenomena."

Believing or not believing in UFOs is not so much a concern, said James K. Walker, president of the Watchman Fellowship, an evangelical group based in Arlington that debunks cults.

What is a concern are those rare instances in which unexplained phenomena result in the formation of a religious group or cult that professes to offer spiritual guidance, then spins off -- for whatever reason -- in a destructive pattern. "When they go off the deep end, they can take a bunch of people with them."

He mentioned the 1997 case in which Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven's Gate cult, persuaded followers to commit suicide so their souls could ride on a spaceship trailing Comet Hale-Bopp.

Telepathic channeling with aliens is a common feature of UFO-based cults, said Walker, who included several UFO cults -- Chen Tao in Garland, Armageddon Tim Ark Base in Weslaco, the Raelians of Southern California to name a few -- in his recent book, The Concise Guide to Today's Religions And Spirituality.

"Faith is a good thing," the "unapologetically Christian" Walker said. "The object of your faith is what makes all the difference."

Report a UFO

The Texas chapter of the Mutual UFO Network plans to begin interviewing witnesses at 1 p.m. Saturday in a meeting room in downtown Dublin near the Dr Pepper plant. To report a sighting, call MUFON State Director Kenneth Cherry at 817-379-0773 or fill out a report form at www.mufon.com.

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