Suddenly, crop circles are hot. They're hip. They're not just for New Age neo-Druid saucer freaks anymore.

"Signs," the new Mel Gibson movie, has caused a stampede of media interest in the mysterious markings that have appeared in farm fields all over the world. But Colin Andrews, the crop circle researcher who served as a consultant to the filmmakers, isn't too thrilled with the flick.

"I was personally just a wee bit disappointed," he says.

"Signs" is entertaining, Andrews admits, but it's not nearly as interesting as the real story of crop circles.

He may be right. The movie has Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix and a couple of cute kids and some aliens. But the real story has hoaxers, hustlers, mystics, scientists, pseudo-scientists, avant-garde artists, Stonehenge, UFOs and mysterious energy balls, as well as the eccentric nonagenarian philanthropist Laurance S. Rockefeller.

It also has Andrews, 56, a British electrical engineer who has written two books on crop circles and whose dogged research methods include using Rockefeller's money to hire private detectives to chase conceptual artists across the British countryside by the light of the silvery moon.

A movie that told the real story of crop circles would be a zany farce. Mel Gibson wouldn't be right for it. He's far too serious.

Mike Myers, call your agent.

It all began in the late 1970s, when strange circles began appearing in fields of grain in the countryside of southern England, not far from Stonehenge.

Inside the circles, crops -- usually wheat or barley or oats -- were flattened to the ground by some mysterious force that bent but did not kill the plants. At first, nobody paid much attention. But by the early 1980s, the circles were getting larger -- 20, 50, 100 feet across -- and sometimes clusters of a half-dozen or more would appear in the same field overnight.

The media took notice, and the resulting publicity attracted scads of mystics and scientists. The mystics claimed the circles were caused by UFOs or by cosmic energy or by Gaea, the goddess of Mother Earth. The scientists claimed they were caused by freak weather conditions or, believe it or not, by the mating dance of sex-crazed hedgehogs running in frenzied circles.

Both groups agreed on one thing: The circles couldn't have been created by humans working under cover of darkness during a short British night.

In the late 1980s, Terrence Meaden, a physics professor and amateur meteorologist, advanced a theory that seemed to explain the phenomenon. The circles were caused, Meaden said, by plasma vortexes -- electrified whirlwinds that formed high in the atmosphere, then swooped down to the ground, spinning the grain into flattened circles.

Meaden's theory seemed plausible for a while. But then crop circles changed. The newer ones were far more complex. Farmers arose to find their fields decorated with squares, stars, peace symbols and elaborate designs that looked like keys or IUDs or that weird glyph that rock singer Prince adopted as his new, unpronounceable name.

Meaden insisted that even these ornate "agriglyphs" could have been caused by his plasma whirlwinds. But that seemed so implausible that he found himself viciously mocked by the British media.

"He was so ridiculed," Andrews says. "I did feel a certain sympathy for him as a human being. But his theory was not a credible solution to the mystery."

As the crop circles grew more elaborate, they became tourist attractions. Travelers visiting Stonehenge detoured for helicopter rides over the mysterious glyphs. Farmers began charging admission to the circles, and tourists with a mystical bent would sit cross-legged in them, meditating.

Some people reported that they heard weird "trilling" sounds and saw saucers or balls of light while sitting in the glyphs at night. Other folks reported that proximity to the circles caused their cameras to malfunction and their dogs to panic and vomit.

As the mystery deepened, crop circles were discussed in Parliament and debated on television. They were the subject of dozens of books and countless magazine articles. And they began appearing outside England -- in Holland, Germany, Japan, Canada. A few appeared in the United States, too, but not many, especially when you consider our fabled stretches of amber waves of grain. Even today, more than 90 percent of the 10,000 reported crop circles have appeared within 50 miles of Stonehenge.

Then, in 1991, two elderly chaps told the British newspaper Today that they were responsible for the crop circles. Doug Bower and Dave Chorley claimed they'd started making the circles as a prank one Friday night in 1978 after downing a few pints at a pub in Wiltshire, near Stonehenge. Over 13 years, they'd created more than 1,000 glyphs, they said, and copycats had done the rest.

To prove their point, they created a crop circle while a reporter watched. It was a simple process. They set up a pole with a string attached to the top. They pulled the string taut and walked in a circle. That created the perimeter. Then they flattened the grain inside the circle by pushing wooden planks around.

When they finished, the newspaper summoned Patrick Delgado, a prominent crop circle researcher. Delgado inspected the circle and issued his learned opinion:

"No human being could have done this," he said. "These crops are laid down in these sensational patterns by an energy that remains unexplained and is of a high level of intelligence."

Delgado, like Meaden before him, became a laughingstock. And "Doug and Dave" -- as the pranksters are invariably called -- became national folk heroes.

But many people -- including Andrews -- didn't believe the mystery was solved.

"Doug and Dave certainly did make some of them," Andrews says. "But we know they didn't make them all. Many farmers tell you they had circles in the '60s. An elderly man told me he had circles in his field in 1923 and 1924 -- as noted in his diary."

So the circles kept their hold on the public imagination. Mystics and scientists continued to visit them. Artists got into the act. So did Laurance Rockefeller.

Enter the Artists

"Unlike UFOs, crop circles are tactile," says John Lundberg. "You can go stand in them. You can touch them. You can't touch a UFO."

Lundberg, 33, is a London-based conceptual artist who specializes in crop circles. His group, Circlemakers, has made dozens of elaborate agriglyphs in southern England over the last 11 years, he says, most of them created secretly, under cover of darkness.

First, the artists create elaborate patterns on a computer -- "like architectural drawings" -- then, working in teams of as many as 10 people, they re-create them on some unsuspecting farmer's field. Their biggest was more than 500 feet long, Lundberg says. He won't say where it was. The Circlemakers refuse to identify any individual crop circle as their creation.

"That," he says, "would drain it of all its mystery."

He prefers that people who see the circle dream up their own stories of how it was made. That way, he says, they are collaborating in the project.

"It's a mass-participation artwork," he explains. "It's not just the pattern-making, it's the whole reaction to it. We collaborate with the media and the public. . . . The circles have become huge Rorschach tests writ large on the fields of England."

Lundberg and the Circlemakers are eager to take crop circles into pop culture. They maintain an elaborate Web site (www.circlemakers.org), and they've created crop circles for use in ads for Weetabix crackers and Mountain Dew. They also sell crop circle postcards, T-shirts and how-to manuals.

This activity is regarded as blasphemy by mystics who see crop circles as religious objects. Consequently, Lundberg says, he has received hundreds of nasty e-mails.

"I'm a heretic," he says. "I'm attacking their belief system."

The mystics aren't the only folks who dislike Lundberg's shtick. Andrews sees the Circlemakers as hoaxers who trivialize crop circles by making people believe that they are all human creations.

"I wish John and his band of merry men would just disappear," Andrews says.

Four years ago, Andrews received a grant from Rockefeller to fund his research on crop circles. The grant was in the "five-figure range," says Rockefeller spokesman Fraser Seitel. Andrews promptly spent a chunk of it to hire private detectives to tail Lundberg's group.

Andrews wanted to find out if the Circlemakers were really making circles. The detectives put the artists under surveillance, followed them into a farmer's field in the dead of night and filmed them as they went about their work.

"These individuals were monitored," Andrews says, "and there is no doubt that they created some extremely complex and beautiful designs."

Back to the Vortex

"Think of a great big plastic beach ball," Nancy Talbott says. "Now picture a bunch of tennis balls inside it."

Talbott is explaining her theory about crop circles. She used to be a country music promoter, but now she's the president of BLT Research Team Inc., a Massachusetts-based group that studies crop circles. BLT has collected plant and soil samples from around the world, she says, and its scientists concluded that the circles were caused by some mysterious heat source -- possibly "an energy that's completely unknown to science now."

Talbott, 63, touts a theory that's close to Meaden's much-mocked plasma whirlwind hypothesis. If you ask how whirlwinds can create complex glyph shapes, she talks about the beach ball with the tennis balls inside.

The beach ball is a swirling vortex of electrified air. The tennis balls are smaller swirling vortexes inside the bigger one. As they all spin around atop a field of grain, she postulates, you get those glorious glyphs.

In 1999, BLT received a grant from Rockefeller. BLT's grant -- like the one given to Andrews -- was in the "five-figure range," says Seitel, Rockefeller's spokesman. Now 92, Rockefeller declined to discuss the grants, but Seitel explains that they are part of the philanthropist's "eclectic" interests.

"He's interested in spiritual matters like this," Seitel says. "He funded a study of UFOs that was done by a group led by the wife of a former ambassador to England from the Reagan administration -- or maybe it was the Ford administration."

Meanwhile, Talbott says that BLT has studied 300 crop circles and concluded that 92 percent of them were created not by humans but by the mysterious energy force.

That's balderdash, says Joe Nickell, 57, a researcher for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

"Approximately 100 percent of crop circles are man-made," Nickell says. "Note that I said approximately. I haven't inspected every one, and we have to allow for dogs chasing their tails and other phenomena."

When dueling crop circle theorists start talking numbers, Colin Andrews comes down in the middle. He estimates that about 80 percent of the circles are created by humans.

"Eighty percent are complete nonsense," he says. "But there's still 20 percent, in my estimation, that we haven't been able to determine. Those 20 percent are almost always simple designs, and there are no footprints and no damage to the plants. . . . In some of these, there was a mind involved, a thought process involved."

Does that mean aliens?

"I can't say that it's extraterrestrials," he says. "I don't know who the being is."

When it comes to extraterrestrials, Andrews gets some support from an unexpected source -- his old nemesis, John Lundberg, the Circlemaker artist.

"I'm just as much a believer as the next man," Lundberg writes in an e-mail. "In fact, we did see a classic UFO -- a dark, silent, cigar-shaped craft with tiny strobe lights at each end -- whilst out making circles in Wiltshire a couple of years ago. Four of us witnessed it as it slowly arced across a clear star-lit sky."

So the controversy continues. Now, with "Signs" packing movie theaters across the country, we can expect to find more circles dotting the U.S. landscape.

If you absolutely must make a glyph in your neighbor's grain, Lundberg has some advice: "Don't get too complex. Do something simple. Take your time. Do it right so it's not just a mess."

And one other thing: No drinking. "You have to be stone-cold sober to create a crop circle," he says. "Otherwise you get wonky lines."

Researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.

An elaborate crop circle found in 1999 in Wiltshire, England, near Stonehenge, where the mysterious markings first appeared in the late '70s.Crop circle researcher Colin Andrews served as a consultant on "Signs," the new Mel Gibson movie based on the phenomenon."Signs," a new movie starring Mel Gibson, above, has caused a stampede of media interest in crop circles. London-based conceptual artist John Lundberg, left, and his Circlemakers group have created dozens of such glyphs.While most circles have been found near Stonehenge, these appeared in rural North Carolina, above, in 1997 and near Montreal, left, on Sunday.