The Bellwether

The Quickening: Art Bell describes a world off its axis in his jeremiad best seller.

Coast to Coast AM
KSTP AM-1500
Sunday through Friday,
12 a.m. to 5 a.m.

FRIDAY, 9.12.97, 2:41 a.m.:

Art Bell: On my Area 51 line, you're on the air.

Male caller: Hello, Art? [frightened] I don't have a lot of time...

Bell: Well, look, let's begin by finding out if you're using this line properly or not. Are you an employee [of Area 51]?

Caller: A former employee. I [stammering] I was let go on medical discharge about a week ago and...[chokes] I've kind of been running across the country. Damn, I don't know where to start, they're gonna triangulate on this position really soon...

Bell: So give us something quick.

Caller: [suppressed sobs] Okay, um, um, okay, what we're thinking of as aliens, Art, they're extradimensional beings.... They are not what they claim to be. They've infiltrated a lot of aspects of the military establishment.... The disasters that are coming...the government knows about them. [increasingly manic] And there's a lot of safe areas in this world that they could move the population to, now, Art.

Bell: So they're not doing anything.

Caller: [screaming] They are not! They want those major population centers wiped out so that the few that are left will be more easily controllable!...

[Silence, sob. And then: dead air.]

HIGH ABOVE THE planet, the GE Americom satellite mysteriously pops out of "Earth Lock"--something that never happens--and network feeds across America are blacked out for several minutes to an hour. For listeners of Coast to Coast AM, Art Bell's highly rated late-night talk show, it could not have happened at a freakier moment. Bell--a 52-year-old, ex-Air Force, high-desert hermit with a warm, affable voice--has spent the night taking anonymous calls from alleged associates of Area 51, the "secret" Nevada military base (near Bell's home studio) where folklore contends the UFO cover-up is headquartered. Naturally, listeners have been treated to a night of assholes claiming they've time-warped from Area 51 in the year 2072. But the quiver in the last guy's voice is eerie and compelling: If anyone tonight has been genuine, it's this man.

For me, it's moments like these that make Art Bell more effective as horror than Wes Craven's entire post-'70s output. Only one other episode has scared me more, this one from April. That night, an Air Force plane had been reported missing; Western callers were reporting huge liftoff activity at neighboring air bases while one of Bell's UFO researchers was discussing a live Web-satellite photo showing a 20-mile-long black mass off the Pacific coast. The "monolith" turned out to be a bum pixel and we never went to war, but that didn't keep me from hyperventilating under my covers at 3 a.m., wondering if my Lyndale cellar would make a good bomb shelter, or if I could bike out of ground zero with an hour head start. The still of the night can work wonders with your credulity.

I've been losing too much sleep with Bell ever since.

As did late members of the Heaven's Gate cult; Bell played a central role in the whole Heavengate debacle starting as long as a year ago. Last November, he questioned psychic remote viewers who introduced the controversy about a spaceship hiding behind Hale-Bopp. In a brilliant media misconception, Time would eventually brand Bell "The Man Who Started the Myth," despite the fact that the cult never professed a firm belief in the phenomenon. (In fact, HG simply interpreted the comet as a marker.) Bell condemned the suicides, of course, but his post-mortem analysis speaks volumes about his perspective on the afterlife and the universe: "I don't know where they are now," he oft repeats. "Do you?"

With that whimsical openness to every paranormal possibility, Bell has become a sort of late-night icon. When he's got one of his regular phone-in guests, it's great radio. There's ex-Cronkite-adviser-turned-crank Richard C. Hoagland, who boasts incredible conspiracy theories connecting the Masons, Mars Pathfinder, and last March's mass UFO sighting in Phoenix; famed exorcist Father Malachi Martin, who reports a 300 percent increase in possessions since 1970; and linguist David John Oates, whose "Reverse Speech" truth-detection experiments must be heard to be believed. And for his part, Bell is packaging and selling his own alarmist version of the millennial apocalypse. He calls the phenomenon "The Quickening"--the same as the title of his new best seller about "how every single human and world endeavor is accelerating like never before, and moving towards an event--but I don't know what."

All of which embodies what I love and hate about Art Bell: He's fascinating, but you get the feeling that the end of the world could become a self-fulfilling prophecy (refer again to Heavengate). Then again, there's something romantic about sharing one late-night transmission with millions of other Americans who don't commute 9 to 5--the militias, paranoiacs, retirees, night-shift flakes, and the apocalypse rubbernecks--that makes you feel like you're truly in touch with our collective darker pulse.

Timecalled Coast to Coast "the nation's top meeting place of the reality-challenged." I prefer "reality challengers."

 
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