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Thirty-five people who suspect they're descended from aliens are walking through Indian ruins on a Saturday night.
They're following Marcia Schafer, a petite 41-year-old Phoenix author and business consultant. Schafer leads her group down a trail that's adjacent to the Pueblo Grande Museum on East Washington Street. The dirt gives a gravelly crunch as they go, and everybody eyes the mysterious excavated crevasses of the preserved Hohokam village.
Schafer motions for her group to halt, then sprints ahead to a clearing on the ruins plateau. As she runs, her ankle-length coat flares up in the wind, a dark cape in starlight.
In 1995, Schafer was a self-described "corporate yuppie," an MBA-holding director of quality management for a health insurer, Mercy Care Plan.
Last year, Schafer wrote and published her book, Confessions of an Intergalactic Anthropologist, in which she claims a lengthy history of physical and psychic contact with several species of alien life forms. The aliens have told her that she has been chosen to help prepare mankind for interspecies contact. Several media interviews and speaking appearances followed.
The Hohokam ruins ceremony is part of Schafer's two-day "Understanding Pre-Millennium Syndrome" seminar, whose topics swing from heavenly beings' role in the "real" history of human evolution to DNA lectures to revelations from Schafer's most recent episodes of alien contact. Most of the participants are from out of town and have come to Phoenix exclusively for Schafer's weekend seminar ($159). A few have also signed up for one-on-one "intuitive counseling" sessions (starting at $300) with Schafer's one-woman Beyond Zebra consulting company, which teaches business professionals how to prepare for intergalactic commerce, learn the "coding of the universe" and how to send psychic e-mail.
Her fans appear to be a disparate group.
Robert Durand, 39, is a designer from Los Angeles: "I'm not into alien abductions, and I think The X-Files blows. I was never interested in all that stuff. Then I saw her, heard her speak, got her book, and I was blown away."
Dionne Eskelin, 44, is Durand's girlfriend, a photographer: "[Schafer's] very matter-of-fact. She's definitely been contacted, she's definitely been chosen. We knew we needed to be here."
Hans Holland, 69, is a retiree from Boulder, Colorado: "One of the first things you always ask yourself is, 'Is this person for real or are they scamming us?' But I read her book, I enjoyed it very much and wanted to come to this."
Out on the ruins plateau, Schafer has found a suitable spot for her ceremony and instructs the group to form a circle, join hands, close their eyes and imagine colors flowing through them. Everybody does and is silent.
The group is not, at this moment, expecting an alien spacecraft to land.
But it's safe to say that they would be the least surprised people in the Valley if one did.
As an accountant from Canada begins a ritualistic-sounding drum solo, Schafer leads the group in "toning" -- creating uniform vocal tone meant to bring about a vibrational field of energy.
One by one, the participants add their tones. Most tones are awkward and slight, stretching out a person's choice of vowels.
Schafer's toning, however, is amazing. It's a quality THX-job that sounds appropriately ethereal. Here on the dark ruins, beneath a clear, star-filled night, Schafer's eerie resonance almost makes you expect the paranormal.
And, suddenly, something does happen.
There's a roar from the night sky as a sleek ship with blinking lights appears from the east.
The silver craft touches down, in plain view of Schafer's group, only a few hundred feet behind the ruins.
Undeterred, the group ignores the ship, trying harder to concentrate. They are bothered by the distraction. It's a 747 landing at Sky Harbor International Airport.
It's the next morning, and Schafer's seminar group is frustrated.
Schafer, laser pointer in hand, is underlining facts about DNA, yeast mitochondria, nucleic acids, quantum language and other non-sexy details that eventually lead to her more exciting New Age theories.
This is the other Marcia Schafer. The non-toning, no-nonsense Schafer that appeals to potential converts, the Schafer who advances through attribution-laden presentations making fabulous use of clip art and PowerPoint software.
This is not the Marcia Schafer her fans want, however. In X-Files parlance, her fans want more Fox Mulder mode and less Dana Scully. They raise their hands to interrupt, asking: Why are aliens waiting to reveal themselves? How do we increase the frequency of our spiritual vibrations? Where does the soul come from? Was the Mars Polar Lander shot down by aliens last December? Why are we "programmed" to die in 100 years?
And Schafer answers the best she can, sometimes seeming like a guest lecturer who's embarrassed by her material. Those who knew Schafer from her 10 years as a health-care quality and risk management director would be surprised to see her now.
In 1996, Schafer left Mercy Care Plan, citing disillusionment with what she viewed as company profit-mongering at the expense of providing safe coverage. The year before, she had divorced her husband.