Experts in Psychic Quakery Say the Last Days Are Nigh, and California Gets a Bad Case of the Tremors

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Orson Welles strikes again. In 1938, via his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, Welles convinced more than a few people that Earth was being invaded by Martians. Now, although he's been dead for three years, he has convinced more than a few Los Angelenos that their fair city will be devastated by a major earthquake in the near future, maybe even this week.

In 1981 Welles narrated a film titled The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a docudrama based on the life of Nostradamus, the 16th-century seer who is credited with predicting such events as Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the attack on Pearl Harbor and, quite possibly, the Minnesota Twins' World Series victory last year. In the film, Welles, who had a remarkable inability to pass up a tall tale when he found one, baldly stated that, according to Nostradamus, a major quake would shake L.A. in May 1988. The Man Who Saw Tomorrows as little seen or heard of by anyone when it was released. But after it ran recently on an L.A. cable channel, it registered a 10 on the Richter scale of local interest. Now a must-see video—eliciting nearly 2,000 orders a week, according to Warner Home Video—the movie has persuaded the substantial community of New Age-minded citizens that the Big Bopper is about to hit.

Their concern has been felt most strongly by astronomers at the Griffith Observatory, who have to field several dozen calls a day about Nostradamus. Fed up, the staff has issued a debunking press release, stating that not only is it impossible to precisely predict a quake, but that the Nostradamus prophecy quoted by Welles was taken out of context. "What all this means," says John Mosley, the observatory's program supervisor, "is that in California, which has a lot of crazy people, people are just getting crazier."

That is not exactly an earth-shattering statement—nor, as it turns out, a particularly effective one. Because even if Nostradamus' reputed forecast is on shaky ground, a whole chorus of contemporary Cassandras has jumped on the bandwagon with fresh quake auguries. Among the leading voices is that of noted psychic Hamilton Farmer, who claims to have predicted Mexico City's 1985 earthquake. Based on a recent channeling trance in which his body was visited by Lao-tzu—the Chinese philosopher who wrote Tao-te Ching in 600 B.C.—Farmer foresees "the big one arriving around May 8 and registering 8.5. I'm planning to communicate with Lao-tzu in the near future so I might get an update."

Other sources say Lao-tzu is in the ballpark, give or take a few days. Laura Des Jardins, director of the Southern California Astrology Network (SCAN), believes "the full moon on May 1 will be enormously powerful because of its conjunction with Pluto. It will have a tremendous gravitational pull." L.A. star-gazer James Baker sees "two major cycles of astrological stress situations between April 23 and May 1. It's an accumulation of incredible tensions."

Those tensions haven't gone unnoticed by the city's most visible residents, some of whom plan to vanish during tremor season. George Hamilton says, "I'm leaving on May 5, and I'm not coming back until July." Joan Collins, reportedly, has already left for London. Psychic Farmer will be out of town—on business, conveniently—but SCAN's Des Jardins is staying. "I'm a Scorpio, an adventurer," she says. "If my house goes, I want to watch it."

Most Angelenos, feeling that "L.A. is great despite its faults," as one radio station puts it, side with her. Yes, some travel agents are reporting an increase in out-of-town flight bookings for May, but most attribute it to lower airfares rather than quake panic. "I'm very much into psychic phenomena," says Hamilton's ex, Alana Stewart, "but I'm staying. I'm concerned, but not enough to take my three kids out of school." Though Tom Selleck is stoic—"I deal with tidal waves in Hawaii and earthquakes in L.A., they're part of life"—he admits to having emergency supplies, such as a lot of bottled water, stored in his home. Dudley Moore is also preparing. "We're getting in all that stuff, even buckets of bandages. My wife and I have to decide on a gathering spot in case we're separated when it hits."

Many others are following suit—stocking up on canned food and fresh batteries, tying down water heaters, planning to head for a doorway or under the nearest desk when the quake comes. This is welcome news to such agencies as the Governor's Office of Emergency Services which have been urging people to take these steps for years. "The great California earthquake will most likely occur anytime between the next 50 seconds and the next 50 years," says Cal Tech seismologist Kate Hutton. "So if this nonsense about prophecies frightens people at last into preparing for it, then all this earthquake fever will have served a useful purpose."

—By David Marlow

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