The nightmares wouldn't stop -- the sudden, bizarre, unsettling nightmares. They were always the same; they seemed almost real:
Lea was sitting in a booth in a small, empty room with gray walls. A monotonic voice behind her said: "Don't move, or you might be hurt."
She felt paralyzed. She heard clicking noises, like an X-ray machine. Suddenly she was lying on a table. A bright light shone in her eyes. She sensed people moving around, examining her.
Then she was sitting up, facing a short creature so hideous she could not look at its face. From a box the strange being removed a shiny needle. At the tip was a silver marble. The creature moved closer toward Lea.
At that point Lea would jerk awake in her bed, terrified and drenched with sweat. Her screams would awaken her parents. But her mother, Lea recalls, would always admonish her: "It's just a nightmare. Everybody has them. You shouldn't watch all that scary stuff on TV."
Lea now believes it wasn't just a nightmare. She believes it was real. She is one of the people whose stories you might expect to see in a supermarket tabloid under the heading "Humans Who Believe They've Been Abducted by Aliens."
Lea is 25, lives in Prince George's County, works at a bank and is engaged to be married. She is thin and has blue eyes. She is, in her words, average-looking and average in every way. Knowing that most people react with scorn and ridicule at the mention of UFOs and extraterrestrial life, she asked that her last name not appear in this story.
"I used to think I belonged in a mental institution, to be honest with you," she says. "But I don't think anymore that I'm crazy. I go to school. I work full time. I pay my bills like anybody else. . . . I think other people think I'm crazy."
The subject of abductions by space aliens is so far-out, so utterly fantastic that most people, even with their wildest imaginations, cannot begin to fathom it. Many will not take it seriously. It is unbelievable, unthinkable.
The subject is also deeply disturbing. These are not pleasant stories of people out raking leaves suddenly beamed into a UFO, subjected to a little cosmos comedy and sent back to their yards chuckling.
These are chilling accounts of people who say they've been kidnapped, confined in spaceship examination rooms, probed, prodded and examined by aliens who seem primarily interested in sexually related activities. Their stories more resemble reports of rape than they do a heartwarming visit by "E.T."
Around these alien abduction stories, an industry has been launched. It soars far beyond the tabloids. There are best-selling books, popular films and prime-time television shows. Mental-health professionals gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last summer for a conference on abductions. In Maryland and across the country have blossomed support groups, where people who believe they've been abducted can share their stories -- away from the ears of those who might mock, exploit or be titillated by their anguish.
And, of course, there are the scientists -- from the internationally known astronomer Carl Sagan to a Navy physicist from Maryland -- and a plethora of researchers, lining up on either side of the highly charged issue.
What's really happening? No one knows for sure. But one thing is clear: Something has shattered Lea's and others' calm, secure existence on planet Earth. Whether the rest of us accept or reject their stories is irrelevant. We cannot assuage their fear: It is palpable. The torment is real.
Lea's began while she was in the fourth grade. She remembers clearly:
She was outside her apartment in Prince George's County playing with her sister and other children. It was dusk. They heard a hum, or a buzz, like a swarm of bees. They saw a disklike object -- wingless, silver-gray, a row of lights along the edge -- creep at treetop level over the apartment complex. It hovered above a parking lot between buildings, and then drifted away.
Lea and her sister ran inside to tell their parents. The girls even drew pictures.
"My father wanted to call somebody," Lea says. "But my mother said no, we'd made it up. But all of us saw it. We talked about it for days at school."
Shortly after that, Lea says, the recurring nightmare began. She dreamed it on and off for a decade, from when she was 10 until about 20.
Dreams are only part of her story. When she was 12 or 13, she and her sister, who is two years younger, were staying at their grandparents' house in St. Mary's County. They were in separate beds in the same room when a ball of lightning, as Lea describes it, passed through a window and curtain into the room.
About the size of a tennis ball, it glided between the beds, bounced off a door and vanished. A couple of seconds later another lightning ball did the same thing, and then another. Lea says there might have been 20 in all.
She and her sister screamed. Five other people were in the house, but no one heard them. Lea finally escaped into the hallway. Her next memory is of waking up in bed the next morning.
None of this made sense. She says her sister remembers the balls of light, as well as the UFO over their apartment building years before. But her sister, Lea says, won't talk about it with strangers.
For a long time afterward, Lea feared she was losing her mind. But then, five years ago, she and a friend were at a mall outside a bookstore. Lea spotted a display of books, the covers of which featured a drawing of a grotesque creature with big, black, almond-shaped eyes.
The book was "Communion," the writer Whitley Strieber's account of his abductions by aliens. Lea pointed at the drawing and screamed: "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! That's them! That's them!"
They were the creatures in her nightmare.
"That's when it registered," Lea says. "That's when I said: 'Wait a minute. Something's going on here.' "
It was the first she had heard of abductions by space creatures. She read the book, and then a couple of others on the subject. She became convinced that the terrifying events -- the nightmares, the night of the lights, perhaps other unexplained events as well -- had been abductions.
Lea's not alone.
Some researchers estimate that thousands -- if not millions -- of humans have been abducted and studied by aliens. They base that estimate on a 1991 survey of 5,947 Americans by the Roper polling organization. The survey was commissioned by believers the abduction phenomenon.
The survey asked 11 questions, including: Have you ever woke up paralyzed and sensing a strange presence in the room? Have you ever "lost" an hour or more you can't account for? Have you ever felt as if you were flying? Have you ever seen balls of light in your room? Have you ever found scars on your body you could not explain?
Two percent of the respondents answered yes to at least four of those questions. From these results, the poll sponsors concluded that 2 percent of adult Americans may have been abducted by aliens.
David M. Jacobs was a sponsor of the poll. The author of "The UFO Controversy in America," published in 1975, is an associate professor of history at Temple University. In recent years he interviewed 60 people who believe they've been abducted, and last year his book about them, "Secret Life," was published. From his office in Philadelphia, Mr. Jacobs says:
"This subject is as far-out as it gets. It just seems too crazy, too out of the question. The skeptics say: 'This could not be happening; therefore it is not happening.' But you have to go where the evidence takes you, even though kicking and screaming while en route."
Evidence? Budd Hopkins, another of the poll sponsors, says he has interviewed witnesses and has found physical evidence, such as unexplained body scars and mysterious burn marks on lawns where spaceships may have landed. But primarily, he and other researchers rely on the abduction stories -- stories told by people of different races, all ages, both sexes; police officers, psychiatrists, scientists, lawyers, entertainers, nurses, journalists, farmers, an Army colonel, a golf pro.
Mr. Hopkins, who is a painter and sculptor in New York City, became interested in aliens after seeing a UFO in 1964. Eleven years later, a 72-year-old friend told him of watching a spaceship land in a New York park, and of watching about 10 alien passengers take soil samples. Mr. Hopkins found others willing to tell their stories, and since the mid-1970s he has been at the forefront of abduction research. He has studied more than 400 cases and written two popular books, "Missing Time" and "Intruders," from his interviews with people who claim, sometimes while under hypnosis, to have been abducted.
"The overall patterns in these cases are so remarkably consistent, often down to tiny details, and people reporting these experiences are often so inherently credible that the phenomenon simply cannot be dismissed," he wrote in "Intruders."
Most abductees report being taken first as children, when a small implant, which could be remembered as a marble at the tip of a needle, is placed deep into the ear or nose, the researchers say. The implant's function is unknown, but these researchers say it might serve as a locater so the person can be abducted again later.
The aliens described in the stories are small, no more than 4 feet tall, and extremely thin. They are light-colored, often gray. Their heads are oversized, yet their mouths and noses are tiny; they have no ears or hair. Their eyes are large and black.
Nearly all the stories involve spaceships parked on the ground or floating in the air. The victims are examined in a room resembling a hospital operating room. The methodical creatures use a variety of devices to examine humans from head to toe, occasionally leaving scars. But the aliens, it seems, reserve special interest for the human sexual organs.
Here is where the story, if it hasn't already, "will almost certainly strain your credulity to the breaking point," Mr. Hopkins wrote in "Intruders."
Through interviews with people who report abduction stories, Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Jacobs came to believe that these aliens are -- and have been for several decades -- conducting some sort of breeding experiment with human beings.
This involves the taking of sperm and egg samples; the #i implanting of a genetically altered embryo into women; the extraction of the fetus; and, finally, the external incubation of the fetus. Women have sometimes reported they were presented hybrid babies and expected to nurture, even breast-feed, them.
"It's very hard to think of this as some wonderful, new adventure," Mr. Hopkins says.
Maybe an extraterrestrial species is introducing a desirable human characteristic into its own evolutionary cycle, say the researchers. Maybe it is reducing the difference between its species and ours. Maybe it is seeding another planet, or maybe it has a plan completely beyond the comprehension and imagination of the human brain.
Yeah, right, say the skeptics.
The astronomer Carl Sagan says that he is open-minded to the prospect of intelligent beings living in space, but he doesn't believe they're sneaking into bedrooms and tormenting Earthlings.
"Tell me," he says, "which is more plausible: We're victims of a massive invasion of alien sexual abusers, or people are seeing things that just aren't there?"
Although abduction claims began surfacing nearly half a century ago, not one shred of indisputable physical evidence has surfaced, says Mr. Sagan, who recently wrote an article for Parade magazine debunking those claims.
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," he says. "Somebody telling a story is not evidence, even many people telling the same story isn't good enough. They're people, that's the point, and people intrinsically have certain fallibilities."
Abduction accounts may say something about how the brain works, or how people can be deluded, or even how religions begin, he says from his office at Cornell University. But they say nothing, he says, about skinny, large-eyed aliens kidnapping humans.
"There's a better chance of your getting hit on the head by one of Santa's reindeer than of you being abducted," says Philip J. Klass, a retired senior editor and now contributing editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. "I will say, slightly tongue-in-cheek, there is better evidence of the existence of mermaids and Irish leprechauns."
Mr. Klass, who lives in Washington, says he has tried to verify UFO cases for nearly 30 years and has not found a credible one. In his 1989 book, "UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game," Mr. Klass contended that people who believe they've been abducted by aliens need treatment by qualified psychotherapists, not UFO "cult gurus."
Robert A. Baker, a retired professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, has written derisively about abduction stories. He says some are simply fabrications or the recounting of stories gleaned from books or movies, while others are products of psychological disorders.
The stories may be repressed memories of childhood sexual or physical abuse surfacing in disguised form, he says. Or they may be the type of vivid, realistic dreams occurring as a person falls asleep or wakes up -- hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations. And, he says, some people who believe they've been abducted may be fantasy-prone or psychologically disturbed.
"Anyway," Dr. Baker says, "if this phenomena were as common as Hopkins and Jacobs would have us believe, the sky would be filled with spacecraft abducting people back and forth. UFOs would be stacked up like aircraft coming in at O'Hare."
The believers and skeptics counter each other point by point. Both sides publish newsletters buttressing their claims. And both produce mental-health specialists who pronounce judgment on the sanity of the victims.
But in the end, what are we left with? The stories.
Lea started out thinking she was dreaming or hallucinating. After coming to believe she had been abducted, she contacted a representative of the Mutual UFO Network, an international group interested in UFOs. She was referred to Bob Oechsler, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration mission specialist who lives in Edgewater in Anne Arundel County.
Mr. Oechsler, who became interested in UFOs as a boy, is intrigued with the technology of crafts from outer space: How do they get here from there? For the past two years he has researched UFO sightings full time. On his front door is a brass plaque that reads: UFOs are real!!!
He invited Lea to his home. After a couple of meetings he suggested she undergo hypnosis. Some abductees remember only snippets of their experience, but find they can recall more during hypnosis. A psychologist hypnotized Lea at Mr. Oechsler's home, but Lea says few hidden memories emerged.
Mr. Oechsler is starting a support group for abductees, one of dozens forming across the country, he says. About 30 people, including Lea, have signed up.
Bruce S. Maccabee, a research physicist for the Navy, will also attend. The Frederick County resident has researched UFOs on his own for years, and is a longtime leader in UFO research groups, one of which, the Fund for UFO Research, in Mount Rainier, Md., sponsored the abduction conference at MIT.
At the organizational meeting of Mr. Oechsler's support group, Dr. Maccabee told the participants:
jTC "This subject is so weird, so misunderstood. All we can do is hold your hand and make you realize you're not alone."
That would be a relief to Lea.
Strange things continue to happen to her. Not long ago, she says, while visiting friends in the West Virginia mountains, she was floated out of the house, taken aboard a spaceship and handed a baby.
It was a boy, with leathery skin, a thin neck and an oversized head with patches of red hair. It had huge eyes, she says, but they weren't coal black like those of the adult aliens. They were blue.
"I don't know why, and I know this sounds strange," Lea says in a voice trembling with emotion, "but as soon as I held him in my arms, I knew he was mine. I felt like I was his mother."
She rocked him and talked quietly to him, she says, as several aliens watched. Lea hesitates and says, almost apologetically: "I know this doesn't make any sense."
Even though she has trouble sleeping and often feels as if she's being watched, she says she has "kind of gotten used to the idea" of being abducted.
"I don't like it, but there's nothing I can do about it, as far as I can see," she says. "If they were going to hurt me, I think they would have done it a long time ago."
She knows what the skeptics say. But, she says, they don't give people enough credit for knowing the difference between what's actually happened to them and what they might have imagined. Lea says she was never abused as a child. She says she has no reason to make up a story so crazy and bizarre.
Why does she think the aliens chose her?
"I have no idea," she says. "I don't know who they are, where they come from, what they're doing, nothing.
"I just want people to understand that this is real, this is happening. It's out there, and you're going to have to accept it sooner or later."
Is she absolutely sure that her torment has been caused by aliens?
"There's no doubt in my mind," she says. "And I know they'll be back."
TOM KEYSER is a reporter for The Sun.