Some call it the New Age, some the New Nonsense. Still, a recent poll by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Council indicates that 42 percent of Americans believe they have been in contact with someone who has died. To call on the spirit world for advice or solace many turn to mediums. Those who claim to contact figures from the past or those beaming down from outer space are called channelers. Among the famous:

JZ Knight: The 35,000-year-old man

Seated in front of a hushed audience of 200 in a ballroom of the Red Lion Inn in Seattle, JZ Knight, 40, a lithe blonde dressed simply in a white tunic, taps herself on the forehead and chest and closes her eyes. After breathing rhythmically for several minutes, she leans forward with clenched fists. In a guttural voice she announces that she is Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit who once conquered Atlantis. "You need answers," she/he rasps. "I am here to answer you."

Since MacLaine credited Ramtha in her 1985 best-seller, Dancing in the Light, with helping her solve problems from the cosmic to the mundane (the right vitamins to take), Knight has emerged as the West Coast's most celebrated spirit channeler. Thousands of people around the country pay up to $150 apiece to hear Ramtha deliver her unearthly banquet-room sermons. Combining Eastern mysticism and New Age self-reliance, Ramtha/Knight proclaims: "Love what you are. Love the god that you are. Embrace the wind, and the willow, and the water, for it is the creation of your importance, and be at peace."

"This world is not all there is," says Knight/Ramtha, clutching the face of a distraught young man afflicted with AIDS. "Things are better where I am." A woman is urged to leave her fiancé; he is the source of her inner pain. A young actress, advised to "give to this world through your art," scoffs at the message but marvels at the medium's dialect. "Meryl Streep would have problems with that accent," she says.

Born in Roswell, N.Mex., the daughter of an alcoholic father who deserted the family, JZ Knight was raised by her mother in a Fundamentalist home. "I always loved God," JZ says. "I never had a fairy godmother." She wed early and had two sons, now 18 and 20. Divorced and since married to a dentist, she moved a dozen years ago to Taco-ma, Wash. It was there at her kitchen table, while experimenting with crystal pyramids, that she first encountered Ramtha the warrior, who was, so he says, her father in his previous life. At first fearful, Knight eventually agreed to be the channel for Ramtha, who predicts a New Age of the supercon-sciousness in the year 2000.

"It's like a death process," JZ explains of the moment when Ramtha preempts her body. "I go through a tunnel, and there's a whistling sound and a light at the end. As soon as I hit the light, I come back." Ramtha's channeled prophecies are unsurprisingly dire. For the next two decades, he says, the earth will "cleanse and replenish" itself with a series of hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic activity. Hundreds of believers have been inspired to pack up and head for the Pacific Northwest. Explains Barbara Wood, a widow and mother of four, who left Birmingham, Ala., "We were convinced there really was a separate entity speaking through JZ Knight."

JZ, who replenishes herself after a channeling session by smoking a cigarette and downing a Cherry Coke, expects to weather the global storms with her husband, Jeffrey, on their ranch in Yelm, Wash. They are currently building a multimillion-dollar dream mansion complete with stables for their 60 Arabian horses. Of course, when and if natural disaster strikes, finding enough gas for JZ's new Rolls-Royce could be a problem. On the other hand there are always the horses.

Ruth Norman: History's ageless wonder woman

"I am not indigenous to this earth," insists Ruth Norman, 86, the grande dame of New Age spiritualists. In her lengthy sojourn on this planet, including 55 earlier incarnations, Norman says she has seen it all. She is convinced that she was Mary Magdalene in biblical times and that her dear husband, Ernest, a psychic who died in 1971, was Jesus Christ. During other lifetimes, she believes she strutted and fretted across the world stage as Socrates, Buddha, Charlemagne, King Arthur and Peter the Great—among others.

Norman is the author of 85 self-published books, with another 30 manuscripts waiting in the back room. Her UNARIUS Academy of Science headquarters, located next to a Salvation Army thrift shop in El Cajon, Calif., has a factory-size printing operation that cranks out her words of wisdom for 600,000 subscribers worldwide. Norman touches all the phenomenological bases, from Atlantis to outer space. Unlike the new generation of upstart channelers, she gets down to business without benefit of trance. She sits down with a tape recorder or pen, opens her mind to the spirit plane and then invites anyone, from Herodotus to Einstein, to speak through her.

Years ago, Norman bought 67 acres outside San Diego. There, in the year 2001, she expects 33 interlocking spaceships to land, each carrying 1,000 "other planetary dwellers," ushering in the age of UNARIUS (Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science). Frail and hard of hearing, Norman declares that she'll stick it out until then. "This new golden age of logic and reason," she says, "is why I have been developing throughout the many, yes, millions of years."

Thomas Jacobson: Every soul is a student

Unlike many other channelers, Thomas Jacobson, 38, doesn't mind if folks think he is bonkers. "I sympathize with the skeptics," he says. "What I offer people is the chance to temporarily suspend the debate over whether channeling is real and just immerse themselves in the experience."

The son of a Congregational minister from Lakewood, Ohio, Jacobson job-hopped through stints as a Marine Corps band member, policeman, bartender, waiter, busboy and motorcycle salesman before drifting in 1973 to California, where he studied psychic phenomena. "It always angered and frustrated me," he says, "that I had to wait to die to find out what's going on when you're dead." Four years later, near the end of a fruitless 12-week meditation class, Jacobson was ready to abandon his quest for spiritual enlightenment. "When I closed my eyes, beer and pizza and girls would come to mind," he says. "And then, bang, I felt like I'd been hit in my solar plexus by a sledgehammer. This wind came out of my mouth, and it sounded like a monster, just these loud sounds."

Jacobson went from having no job to becoming an $82,000-per-year channeler for the disembodied spirit of Dr. Peebles, a 19th-century physician and philosopher. "Dr. Peebles talks about the planet as a school," Jacobson explains, "and he says every soul is a student." During 90-minute private sessions (cost: $140) at Jacobson's home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., where he lives with wife Jo Anne, 37, Dr. Peebles/Jacobson lectures in a pedantic falsetto. But Peebles has yet to answer skeptics by materializing bodily. "I would love nothing better than for him to come forward and say, 'See!' " Jacobson claims. "It makes me angry that he doesn't."

Chris Griscom: Through the eye of a needle

Chris Griscom, in her mid-40s, is a psychic with a difference: She uses acupuncture to help clients penetrate the spirit world. Living a reclusive life in the sunbaked village of Galisteo, N.Mex., she is what her pal Shirley MacLaine calls a psychic sensitive. "I knew I had many incarnations," says MacLaine, "but until I worked with Chris, I hadn't gotten in touch with anything I could say I had experienced myself."

MacLaine tells how Griscom, guided by the spirit of an ancient Chinese doctor, administered numerous past-life-recall treatments to Shirley by placing tiny gold needles at strategic "meridian points" on her body. In the process she put MacLaine in touch with her eternal Higher Self, who appeared as an enrobed 7'-tall androgynous figure. This prompted a series of moving pictures to appear rapidly in MacLaine's mind's eye, detailing her previous incarnations. MacLaine saw herself variously as a young Buddhist monk, an orphaned child adopted by a herd of elephants, a Colonial settler present during the signing of the U.S. Constitution, a ballet dancer in Russia and a Mongolian maid raped by a bandit. She also visualized herself sword fighting with her mother and came away with the startling revelation from Griscom that "we choose our own parents and are therefore responsible for our own fates."

A California native who moved to New Mexico after nine years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America, Griscom sees her role as helping people visualize their past lives in a nonlinear way. "We are the stars of our own movie," she has said. "We are writing the script at all times."

Penny Torres: From Poltergeist City or Pompeii?

Penny Torres, 27, is the hottest newcomer to channeling in Southern California. A housewife who whiled away most afternoons watching soap operas until Mafu, an "entity from the 7th Dimension" who was last incarnated as a leper in 1st-century Pompeii, entered her life in February 1986. A shy woman of Catholic upbringing, Torres was introduced to Mafu's name by a channeler in Laguna Beach. "The minute she said his name, I almost got pushed out of my seat by a burst of cold and then hot air from underneath me," Torres says. "It took my breath away."

Unable to sleep that night, Torres wandered into her living room at 4 a.m. and heard a voice say, "It is I, Mafu, and I come to tell you that you are loved." Torres then picked up an amethyst crystal, one of half a dozen she had impulsively purchased for $1,000 and felt herself propelled into the bedroom of her 1-year-old son, Andrew, who was suffering from pneumonia. When she held the crystal over her son's bed, its tip shattered into a fine powder. "The next morning Andrew was cured," Torres says. "I thought I was crazy. This is Poltergeist City."

Torres' doubts were assuaged soon after, when Mafu began speaking to her husband, Tony, then a Los Angeles policeman. One night the couple's bed levitated, and they found themselves staring at a 7' apparition in a belted toga with huge hands and chiseled Greek features. "We both wet our pants," Penny admits. Friendly but shy about revealing himself to other mortals, Mafu pleaded with Penny to let him use her body to "bring the message of love to the human plane." With her husband's permission, Penny agreed. But the first time she left her body to make room for Mafu, she felt a burning sensation in her lower abdomen. When Mafu reappeared in his toga to celebrate the success of the channeling, Penny gave him a good scolding. "He was in a happy mood and, I was going 'You jerk, I'm in pain here,' " Torres says. "He said he hadn't been in a body since 79 A.D. and next time he'd try to align better."

Eventually Torres and her husband cut a deal with Mafu. In return for the use of her body for seven years, Mafu offered them "whatever you desire," including a "kingdom of gold." Modestly they asked nothing more from Mafu than that he cover their basic needs, which include a $2,500-a-month house in Hollywood. Keeping her part of the bargain, Torres now spends about 45 hours each week "out of her body" channeling Mafu. She charges the public $30 per head for day-long seminars; overnight retreats are $125.

Speaking through Torres in a voice that sounds like Eartha Kitt doing Monty Python, Mafu tells his listeners, "I am an enlightened entity and I come to you from the Brotherhood of Light." Having traversed four dimensions and 1,908 years, Mafu is eager to impart his wisdom, including the fascinating news that Ronald Reagan is negotiating with the "peoples of the inner earth" who come and go through secret polar tunnels and will soon emerge to lead us to a better way of life. But the way Reagan's luck is running nowadays, it is likely that an overzealous press will start Polargating the story and blow the whole damn scheme.