Harvesting a hoax
New York Daily News, Aug. 1, 2002
BY JAMI BERNARD
Here’s all you need to make a crop circle: a plank, a knotted rope, the light of the moon and perhaps a pint or two to get you in the mood.
Yet, as easy as it is for mere humans to imprint these geometrical patterns in a wheat field, there are still plenty of believers who refuse to give up hope that aliens have landed and are leaving meaningful graffiti in our farmlands. “Signs,” a new Mel Gibson movie, is counting on that.
The crop circle is a copycat phenomenon that took off after two British pranksters began matting down grain stalks in the late ’70s (they confessed in the early ’90s).
In “Signs,” Gibson plays a farmer and former pastor whose faith, already strained by the accidental death of his wife, is further tested when his Pennsylvania cornfield is transformed overnight into what looks like an alien landing pad.
Moviemakers routinely use the fertile soil of hoax, delusion and superstition to suggest the supernatural. Naturally, they discard the husk of reason to explain these phenomena, because that would undermine their stories.
“Signs” writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, whose movies “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” employed elements of the uncanny to dramatize internal human crises, says the crop circle was a natural for his new movie because of its intrinsic visual possibilities.
“The design is a fantastic way of insinuating that there are aliens. Like footprints, it’s a great device to start the ball rolling. It’s so visually dramatic to see tiny figures of people standing inside a crop circle, and it goes nicely with the minimalist approach to film that I like.”
But crop circles remain serious business for self- described “cereologists” (named for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture), and Touchstone Pictures is playing on that to draw an audience to “Signs.” “Is it real or is it a hoax?” the studio’s promotional literature teases.
Freddy Silva, author of “Secrets in the Fields: The Science and Mysticism of Crop Circles” (Hampton Roads Publishing), said from his home in Wiltshire, England (home of many a crop circle), that he can tell a “real” one “by looking at them, almost like it just hits you in the heart. Most people will think I’m mad, but it works on the same principle as Buddhist mandalas. Crop circles lead you to a heightened sense of awareness.”
So far, science has done just the opposite. Joe Nickell, an investigative reporter for the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, can reel off cereologists’ claims, plus the science that nullifies them. The “orbs of light” that cereologists say show up in photographs of crop circles are caused by “particles of dust or moisture in the air just in front of the lens, so they bounce the flash back.” That the grain stalks are bent but not broken is because crop circles are made when the stalks are most pliable, or after a heavy rain.
Michael Shermer, author of “Why People Believe Weird Things” and a columnist for Scientific American, agrees that an attraction to crop circles and other alien-centric mythologies “really is a religious belief. It’s the promise of something transcendent, bigger than us, beyond us.”
Meanwhile, the magician and debunker James Randi is standing by with $1 million for anyone who can prove a crop circle has been made by something other than a human. On the Web site randi.org are details of the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, open to anyone with a supernatural claim. Hundreds have applied; all have failed the test or fled before taking it. The $1 million remains unclaimed, but hope springs eternal.