IT'S 3 A.M. Those damn sleeping pills just aren't cutting it anymore. You stumble out of bed. Perhaps you light up a cigarette. Maybe you pop a brew or head for that pint of Haagen-Dazs. But no matter what else you do, you almost certainly turn on the tube. If so, it's a cinch you've seen Sam Meranto's Mind Power!, local TV's most hypnotic infomercial. Literally.

You think you've got problems? Get a load of the characters who routinely roam through Meranto's video den of dysfunction. Woe is we!

"They told me I'd never work again!" crows a 79-year-old man recovering from recent knee-replacement surgery. The studio audience breaks into wild applause when the spry septuagenarian reveals that thanks to the miracle of Mind Power, he's just landed a job--as a cowboy on a Mesa ranch.

The parents of a Bad Seed, meanwhile, describe how the rotten apple of their eye very nearly drove them crazy with her antisocial antics. Happily, after several Mind Power sessions, the 6-year-old kid has zoomed to the head of her class and won a kiddie beauty pageant to boot.

And on another show, a Vietnam vet with 50 arrests on his rap sheet attributes his violent temper to the fact that he was "programmed to kill" during the war. However, the onetime killing machine now leads a rich, rewarding and pacifist lifestyle after being "deprogrammed" by Sam Meranto's hypnotic audio tapes.

Life's biggest losers emerge as winners on Mind Power!. Alcoholics jump on the wagon. Drug addicts shrug off those monkeys on their backs. Wife-beaters hang up their gloves. The chronically depressed put on happy faces. Somewhere out in TV Land, no doubt, a nail-biter discovers quick relief.

And they owe it all to an ex-vacuum- cleaner salesman.

ON A RECENT weekday morning, a handful of Sam Meranto's followers has come to a modest stucco building on East Indian School Road for a dose of "mind power." Sporting headsets, they're lying on recliners in the Mind Power nerve center, a room that looks like a cross between a La-Z-Boy showroom and (thanks to a huge South Seas mural) a tanning-salon lobby. But right now all lights are extinguished, save for tiny disco lights flickering across the ceiling.

"I don't know who we've got in here today," says Meranto as he strains to identify the semi-slumbering bodies. "I think we've got a weight-loss over here," he says, indicating the snoring inhabitant of one chair. The person--apparently a heavyset woman--wears twinkling electric goggles said to increase relaxation. Prerecorded relaxation, it seems, appears to be a key element of Meranto's "mind power" therapy. Following a one-on-one evaluation session (a meeting which may or may not involve live hypnotism, depending on the problem), Meranto selects audio tapes from a vast library covering everything from fear of flying to bed-wetting. While soothing sound effects and music lull listeners into a daydreamy state believed to "open up" the subconscious mind, Meranto's prerecorded voice guides the subject through a variety of visualization exercises, dropping hypnotic suggestions and power-of-positive- thinking maxims every step of the way.

Well, not every step of the way. Clients who opt to listen to tapes at home also may wind up hearing a rather jarring reminder regarding copyright infringement. "I want no one to copy my tapes," commands Meranto's taped voice midway through the Re-Program From Womb audiocassette. "It's illegal. Thou shall not steal--it's written in the Bible. If someone wants my tapes, let 'em get 'em like you did . . . . If anyone gets 'em illegally, they'll work reverse for you. That's a good suggestion, right?"

If a lot of Meranto's patter has a religious ring (insomniacs are told there's no sleeping pill on earth "stronger than your faith in the Lord"), that's because Sam Meranto claims to work closely with the Man upstairs. "I believe I have what all churches dream of," says Meranto, who says he is an ordained minister in the Community Church of Truth. "All churches dream of getting their members to control their lives, to be closer to God and to lead better, happier lives. And I believe that's what I'm doing here."

If nobody knows the troubles Sam Meranto has seen, they're just not paying attention.

"Lemme tell you, the world is really in sad shape these days," says the 59-year-old Meranto, a Tom Jones look-alike with a heavy East Coast accent. "People today have got problems like you wouldn't believe."

Believe it.
To walk through the cramped offices of his Mind Control Faith Center is to be reminded of every misery that could possibly test the human spirit. A photograph of Meranto with Donny and Marie Osmond triggers a tale of stage fright. Another pose, this one with Yancy Derringer star Jock Mahoney, spurs memories of the actor's struggles with a stroke. A life-size statue of Meranto carved from a 400-pound tree trunk prompts a story about the sculptor, who suffered from chronic migraines. A terse label on a videocassette box ("SMOKER/RAPED DAUGHTER") provides a sordid clue to another client's demons. And everywhere there are photocopied testimonials, some of them more heartfelt than logical ("Since attending your office . . . I have made a complete 360-degree turnabout in my entire life.").