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."
Mary Lou Johnson is a psychiatric nurse in her 40s from Vancouver, Canada: "I took the book home, read it, then read it again, and I knew I needed to come. I think she's going to be really popular."
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.
Abruptly alone, 38 and between jobs, Schafer says she turned inward.
She did not find a desire to take up a long-lost hobby or enroll in classes at a community college or learn Tae Bo.
What Schafer found was a desire to become further acquainted with the extraterrestrial beings whom she says have visited her since birth. The next year, during the Phoenix Lights incident, she says she had an incident of contact that prompted her to write her book and "go public." (Despite widespread media concurrence that a 1998 New Times article debunked the Phoenix Lights sighting, Schafer and others in the Phoenix UFO community continue to believe it was an alien flyby.)
"[The Phoenix Lights] was a deliberate display to wake up people and to get people like me to step forward," Schafer says. "Do you think I would have come forward even three years ago? I'm a very bright woman, I'm not stupid. And even now I'm not so sure [I've made the right choice]."
Schafer explains this during a meeting with a reporter at a coffee shop. After several unsuccessful attempts to get the server's attention, Schafer quips, "You can see how difficult it is just to communicate with members of our own species."
It's these sort of self-effacing comments that make Schafer difficult to peg. She's witty and articulate, delivering every word with care and firm eye contact. She records press interviews to prevent being misquoted and drives a convertible black BMW between her intuitive counseling sessions at a rented office and her South Mountain home. She stresses that she doesn't consider herself part of the "UFO community."
When asked why aliens would choose her to be a student of their galactic teachings, Schafer rattles off her qualifications -- a bachelor's degree in nursing, a master's in business administration and undergraduate studies in anthropology.
"I'm a credible representative, and my professional background has allowed me to understand a lot more of the experiences that have happened to me," she says. "I have medical, biological, psychological and anatomical [training]. I have the systems and organization experience from the business background, and then my early years of anthropology studies have given me understanding of cultures and civilizations."
Since her book was published last year, she's sold 2,500 copies and has prophesied her message at UFO conferences and on Art Bell's syndicated radio show devoted to all things paranormal. Schafer understands that many find her claims suspect, and says she also considers herself a skeptic.
"It's like if you've never had an orgasm and you tried to explain it to somebody," she says. "If you've never had that experience, you either accept it as real, deny it, or say 'maybe.'"
One of the first people Schafer spoke to about her experiences was longtime friend and former co-worker Lisa Bryant.
"We did not like each other at first," recalls Bryant, now a clinical director for the Maricopa Medical Society. "[Schafer] was very rigid, everything had to be proved and written down -- a by-the-book kind of person. So I had to just believe her experiences were true. She's never lied to me."
Bryant adds that Schafer is an extremely private person and feels her experiences must be very real to her if she's risking ridicule.
"I worked with her every day, closely, and it was months into her divorce before anybody knew anything was going on," Bryant says. "That's how private she is. I think she feels that she needs to share this for the good of all people."
Schafer's businesslike presence is so confident and grounded, and her presentation is so detailed, that it's easy to see why fans would pick up Confessions of an Intergalactic Anthropologist and give Schafer's tale the benefit of the doubt.
But then you read it.
Schafer's book is a first-person account of years of communication with an assortment of alien beings right out of the cantina scene in Star Wars. Unlike fact-heavy alien-abduction accounts such as Whitley Strieber's Communion, where the author tries to accumulate substantive evidence to prove one or two paranormal experiences, Schafer's encounters are presented at face value.
In the first half of the book, Schafer details her adventures in interstellar and interdimensional travel, how aliens have amassed in her bedroom. She relates how an otherworldly being once communicated through her cat.
And then the book gets weird.
The second half is devoted to the teachings of the "Others," which Schafer says were recorded during channeling sessions. The teachings are all in rhyme.
I remembered the days in Egypt, ahh, yea
when they tinkered with man from the beginning day
for here was I to restart the race once more, and we again begin the days of lore
One reader posted this review of Schafer's book on Amazon.com: "This woman is a coo-coo [sic] clock. She presumes to be some kind of prophet just because she says so. To think that an intelligent alien race would communicate with her through third-grade nursery rhymes is ludicrous."
Schafer says she contacted Amazon and had the review removed by insisting it was inaccurate; that no reader who actually read her book could have reached such a conclusion.
"I have no doubt [my encounters are] real," she says firmly. "I've had contact, face-to-face, this close" -- she holds her hand a few inches from her eyes -- "with another life form that's not human, whose mind doesn't work like a human. It's not a question of if -- the rest of the world is grappling with if. To me, the greatest mystery is why we have been allowed to believe we're alone in the universe for so long."
Schafer says her new career isn't profit-driven, that she had a far better income in health care. But her newest venture, Beyond Zebra (www.beyondzebra.com), is definitely business-oriented. You've heard of e-commerce? Schafer says she can help companies prepare for g-commerce.
"Look how fast the Internet has grown in the past few years," she says. "The same thing is going to happen in terms of galactic commerce. There are certain ways you need to think differently to be on the forefront. Look at the eBay and Amazon.com. If you can establish a presence in certain key areas, it makes a difference. There's a potential for many Microsofts to be out there right now."
Her intuitive business consulting hasn't taken off as well as Schafer would like. Not like similar consulting companies in Japan, where it's common for businesses to employ psychics. But Schafer is hopeful.
"Look at all that's happening -- computer chips in the mind, telomere studies to slow aging -- there's a lot going on. You cannot deny our lives are going to be very different within three to five years."
So what, then, are these new niche markets going to be?
"You gotta pay me for that," she says, then laughs, a bit shocked at herself.
If Schafer's ideas seem too on-the-fringe to be popular, it may come as a surprise that Schafer is tapping into a powerful niche market herself.
The new wave of New Age -- as touted in books such as Art Bell's The Quickening, on dozens of Web sites, in national seminars such as the Prophets Conference and by Marcia Schafer -- combines two seemingly contrary belief systems.
The first involves outer space. Mainly, belief in the existence of extraterrestrials, alien abductions and in the alien ancestry theory -- a creation myth first popularized by Sumerian scholar Zecharia Sitchin in 1976 that maintains that an alien race called the Anunnaki created humans by merging their genes with Homo erectus to create Homo sapiens. (See accompanying story)
The second belief system concerns the conquest of inner space -- traditional New Age consciousness raising through meditation, where one attempts to accelerate spiritual evolution and obtain psychic ability.
These belief systems have been combined and are now frequently infused with millennial anxiety about the recent rapid advances of technology, such as genetic engineering, virtual reality, modern surveillance and nano- and bio-technology.
For further pop-culture examples, New Age futurists point to films such as The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Pleasantville, The Thirteenth Floor and The Truman Show, wherein protagonists challenge their traditional view of conscious reality, and films like Mission to Mars, Stargate, Contact and, of course, The X-Files, which either promote the alien ancestry theory or assert that we are, as Schafer puts it, "in the middle of an evolutionary growth spurt."
The idea is to turn away from dependence on technology and materialism, and toward developing untapped spiritual potential. Schafer and other proponents say that most humans use only 10 percent of their brains (a widely disputed figure), and that 97 percent of human DNA is inactive (likewise).
"The human condition can ascend to a higher plane faster than many other biological life conditions," says Schafer during her seminar. "So it's almost like a high-speed elevator; we have a flip-switch in humans that a lot of other species have to work harder to reach."
In other words, human beings -- like computers -- are eminently upgradeable.
"We definitely are evolving," says Dionne Eskelin, one of Schafer's fans. "And I definitely don't want to be left in the dust."
Part of the imaginative appeal of such beliefs is reminiscent of the science fiction boom during the Mercury space program. Suddenly, so many things that had once seemed impossible are real. Tales of cloning humans or radar-evading aircraft or cyborgs are now on the cover of Wired. So who's to say, for instance, that we weren't genetically engineered if anthropologists still can't find the missing link?
"These beliefs are very common now," says Paul Saffo, director of the Silicon Valley forecasting group Institute for the Future. "Technology has invaded people's lives to the point that modern religion has been left blocks and blocks behind. People are desperate for meaning, so they're inventing new religions of their own. At the turn of the last century in Japan, they were being assaulted by new technologies and there was an explosion of new religions. So I think what we're seeing are new, secular religions."
The most extreme and tragic manifestation of New Age futurism occurred in 1997, when 39 members of the Heaven's Gate UFO cult in San Diego committed suicide upon hearing on Art Bell's radio show that a UFO was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
Schafer's fans are not cultish or dogmatic, and she emphasizes "finding your own truth." Professional skeptics, however, still find Schafer's dispensing of such pop mysticism troubling.
"People should be in constant touch with reality," says Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which publishes Skeptical Inquirer. "It's one thing to enjoy novels or science fiction, it's another to believe that it's true. I think it is harmful when you have a modern, technology-advanced society given to a whole number of myths and superstitions and have a religious commitment to them."
Kurtz continues: "[It's most common in] places with a heavy influx of population. When people are moving, they don't have roots, so they tend to flock to [non-traditional beliefs]. You used to get them in California, now you get them in Arizona and New Mexico and Boulder, Colorado."
If a person has disturbing beliefs about alien contact or advancing technology and they live in the Valley, they might get referred to psychologist Ruth Hover, a fellow believer who hosts a monthly support group for alien abductees (or "experiencers," as the less-traumatized like to call themselves).
"It's a huge amount of people in the population -- it's absolutely staggering," Hover says. "Depending on your point of view, we're either on the fringe or the leading edge.
"Most of them who come in would like you to give them a psychiatric diagnostic; they would dearly love for you to say they're crazy. Because then you could just give them a pill and make them feel better, but you can't. We also get a lot of people with delusional disorders, but that's partly a result of getting referrals -- because if you're just a hypnotherapist, you can't screen out the flakes."
At a recent support-group meeting, about a dozen patients that Hover considers bona fide experiencers shared their memories, compared "implant marks" as though they were showing off tattoos and viewed a Fox News segment of a January UFO sighting in Illinois.
One participant, Cindy Robinson, is a nurse who also attended Schafer's seminar and claims a history of government harassment and surveillance.
"Back in the '60s, they were institutionalizing people who talked about this," Robinson says. "Nowadays at least we can talk about it [in a support group], take it apart and figure out that something else happened or whatnot."
All the participants, like the audience at Schafer's seminar and Schafer herself, have a strong feeling of impending "disclosure" -- that social acceptance and public validation is just around the corner, and they remind each other that Art Bell declared this the year of no more government cover-ups.
"I always think of Columbus, when he first decided the world's not flat, it's round," Hover says to her group. "That was a very painful position for him to be in. Just like you all are in the very painful position where if you share your thinking, or your experience, none of you would have jobs. You'd all be on Art Bell, you'd all be ridiculed."
On Art Bell and ridiculed -- like Marcia Schafer.
Except Schafer claims her contact experiences are very different than those described in Hover's support group. Her aliens are teaching her about the universe, she says, and empowering her to be a smarter and more spiritual person.
Such contact sessions usually occur at Schafer's home.
Schafer lives along an outer edge of South Phoenix sprawl, among a group of tract homes where all the streets have two-word compound nature names such as Foxfire and Ambercreek. From her bedroom, she has a view of the South Mountain antennae array that looks so much like a UFO from downtown Phoenix at night.
Her decor is disappointingly fashionable and practical. There are no black-velvet unicorn paintings or power pyramids, just New York Times wrappers and home-office software. In her backyard, however, there are smooth river rocks positioned on each corner of her patio table. When asked what the rocks do, Schafer gives an amused look.
"They keep the tablecloth on," she says.
Schafer's cats, Galileo and Socrates, play on the patio. Both are named after revolutionary thinkers who were persecuted for their beliefs, something Schafer says had never occurred to her.
There are no witnesses to Schafer's nocturnal extraterrestrial encounters. Her boyfriend -- longtime Phoenix UFO figurehead Bob Dean -- has a separate room.
Dean says that many in the UFO community who claim paranormal experiences are not credible, they're fooling themselves -- but not Schafer.
"When I first met Marcia, I was impressed by her bottom-line stability. She's not one of those airy-fairy people," Dean says. "And so I listen to what she tells me, and I don't snicker, and I don't put her down. I think what she's getting is legitimate."
For years the phenomena of alien abductions perplexed psychologists and researchers, who failed to find a suitable explanation for obviously traumatized patients claiming such similar experiences. Today most therapists consider abductions to be a condition called sleep paralysis, where a person awakes, unable to move, and experiences strange sounds and flashing lights. In last year's publication of The Abduction Enigma: The Truth Behind the Mass Alien Abductions of the Late 20th Century, the authors concluded that most so-called alien abductees are rather imaginative folks who are suffering from sleep paralysis after watching one too many sci-fi films.
Schafer's alleged experiences cannot be explained so simply, as she claims to be able to contact aliens during bedtime channeling sessions and reports many varied encounters without a sensation of physical restraint.
Another possibility is that Schafer is lying, though those who meet her or watch her presentations tend to doubt it. Her mixture of confidence, relative normalcy, detailed recollection and occasional apprehension make her seem credible.
Most likely, Schafer is describing experiences that are true to her -- which is not the same as saying they are true.
Out of her contact sessions come ideas that are in touch with the current New Age zeitgeist. The messages, and her fans, provide Schafer reassurance that, no, she is not alone. Yes, she is special. And full of purpose, and once again able to help others.
And if she makes a profit from being a prophet, well, she'll take that, too.
Sometimes, when Schafer lays awake at night, she imagines different colors of light.
She lays in her bed, imagines the colors, and waits.
Contact James Hibberd at his online address: [email protected]