When Peter Alexander joined the Church of Scientology at age 29 in 1977, he didn't view it as religion. Like many others, he started with the church's life-improvement courses and counseling sessions.
He saw results immediately. He quit smoking, a habit he'd kept for 10 years. His chronic bronchitis disappeared. He felt euphoric.
''I thought, Wow, this stuff really works,'' said Alexander, now 58 and a theme park designer in Tampa. "It seemed very high-minded. It was all about communication and freeing people.''
Nearly 20 years and $1 million later, Alexander wondered what he'd gotten into. The counseling sessions, which involved a Scientologist asking Alexander question after question in a hypnotic repetition, took a bizarre turn. As he progressed to the highest levels of Scientology, Alexander said he was trained to communicate with dead space aliens, called body thetans.
''The fact that I couldn't find any space aliens started to bother me,'' Alexander said in a series of interviews with The Herald. "That kind of broke the bubble.''
Even then, Alexander said it took three years for him to leave Scientology.
The Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, bills itself as ''an applied religious philosophy'' and ''the fastest-growing religious movement on Earth.'' Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley say Scientology can cure addiction and depression.
Scientology's drug rehab program ''salvaged my life and began my acting career,'' Alley was quoted as saying in The Observer, a British newspaper.
Scientology boasts 5,200 churches, missions and groups worldwide, runs drug rehabilitation and education programs and claims some 9 million members, though critics count around 100,000.
Critics and some scholars say Scientology is as much a money-making machine as a religion. The Internal Revenue Service refused to grant a tax exemption to the church for 25 years, saying it was a commercial enterprise, not a religious organization. In 1993, however, the IRS reversed itself after a protracted battle with the Church of Scientology.
''Scientology is organized as franchises,'' said David Bromley, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who wrote about Scientology for the Encyclopedia of American Religion. "There is a central organization that licenses franchises. Individual local units then pay a fee to the church for the franchise.''
Members also pay a sliding scale of ''fixed donations.'' Under Scientology's structure, adherents pay prescribed amounts to reach each tier of the religion. The amounts range from $250 for a 12 ½-hour beginner's package to $22,0000 to complete the upper level, according to Scientology officials.
''This is how they suck you in, they offer these innocuous-seeming self-improvement courses for 40 bucks, then they start to interest you in Dianetic auditing,'' said Dave Touretzky, a Carnegie Mellon computer science researcher and expert on Scientology. "It's a kind of crack psychotherapy.''
Scientology is founded on the principles set forth in Hubbard's 1950 bestseller, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which has sold 20 million copies and has been translated into 53 languages.
''Hubbard developed Dianetics as an alternative to the kind of psychiatry that was prevalent in the 1940s,'' said J. Gordon Melvin, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
In 1954, Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles and began promoting Dianetics as part of a religious movement. Hubbard died in 1986 at age 74.
But its followers don't pray or worship a deity. Rather, they believe people are immortal spirits troubled by mental blocks, called engrams, which must be ''cleared'' in order to achieve spiritual awakening. Once cleared, a person would be healthier, happier, have a higher IQ, an improved memory and be free of addiction, Scientologists maintain.
These engrams are removed through a process called auditing. During an auditing session, Scientologists sit down with an auditor who asks them questions about their emotional history. By recalling traumatic and stressful events, the person being audited can erase engrams.
Progess is measured with an E-meter -- a machine invented by Hubbard with a vacillating needle that functions like a lie detector.
While Scientologists say this clears negative emotions, other say this process is akin to hypnosis.
''It's very clear that what they're doing is putting people into a light trance,'' Carnegie Mellon's Touretzky said.
Official Scientology materials dispute such claims, arguing that Scientology works to "free people and enable them to think for themselves.''
Alexander estimates he spent $300,000 to clear himself of mental blocks. Once he became ''clear,'' he progressed to the higher auditing levels, where one becomes a pure spirit or ``operating thetan.''
''It got more and more fanatical as I got higher up,'' Alexander said.
Before leaving Scientology in 1997, Alexander reached OT7. High level OT practitioners, whose members include Tom Cruise, number in the thousands, said Ben Shaw, director for external affairs for the Church of Scientology's Clearwater headquarters.
Shaw said he could not discuss the upper levels of Scientology. ''There are some practices which are confidential material,'' he said. "I can tell you that the upper levels of Scientology deal with gaining ability as a spiritual being.''
But the process doesn't stop there. At the higher levels of Scientology, adherents learn they are infested with ''spiritual parasites,'' Alexander and other former Scientologists say. To remove them, one must submit to expensive counseling -- $20,000 and higher. Scientologists call this level "The Wall of Fire.''
That's when Alexander first heard the story of Xenu. It goes something like this: 75 million years ago, the intergalactic overlord Xenu brought aliens from different planets to Earth, killed them with a hydrogen bomb and dispersed their bodies into the atmosphere. Their souls now afflict humanity with ``disconnected thoughts.''
''The first thing I thought was, this doesn't really apply to me,'' Alexander said. "But then I decided I'm here on this course, I paid a bunch of money, so I'm going to read this stuff and see if it works.''
For a while, it did. From 1993 to 1996, Alexander spent up to three hours a day on ''self auditing,'' solo counseling which he said made him feel "like you're floating on a cloud.''
During these sessions, he tried to communicate with the dead aliens to get them to leave his body. Using the E-meter, Alexander would sit in a room by himself and repeat the story of Xenu over and over in his mind.
He said he was told not to discuss the process with anyone, not even his wife or other Scientologists.
''You're sitting around all day for hours at a time,'' he said. "As a result you just don't connect with reality; you're basically talking to yourself all day.''
Melvin and Touretzky confirmed that the story of Xenu is part of Scientology's belief system, noting that it is only told to members at the organization's highest levels. Scientology officials say this protects people from being exposed to practices they are not ready for.
'You're not prepared as a spiritual being to understand that,' said Kathy Dillon, a spokeswoman at the Coral Gables Scientology center.
But now, much of the material is available on the Internet, leaked by former Scientologists.
One of the most publicized suits involved the 1995 death of a 36-year-old woman, Lisa McPherson, who died under the supervision of Scientologists in Clearwater. An autopsy revealed she had died from a blood clot due to ''severe dehydration'' and ''bed rest,'' according to news reports. Her family settled a wrongful death suit against the church for an undisclosed amount.
Touretzky, who published material about Xenu on the Internet, said the Web has made it harder for Scientologists to recruit new members. People who are curious can punch Scientology into a search engine and find scathing testimonies from ex-Scientologists, details about what Scientology teaches at the highest levels and accounts of the religion's legal troubles.
''It seems to be shrinking in part because of the Internet,'' said Touretzky.
But Scientology officials say their numbers have grown since the 1980s, when Hubbard's works became available in more languages and Hollywood celebrities like John Travolta began promoting the religion. Travolta attributes his professional success to Scientology.
Scientology's supporters say its methods help people lead happy, stress-free lives.
Maybel Mallens, 47, who attends the Scientology Center in Coral Gables, said Scientology helped her kick her cocaine habit.
After joining the organization in Puerto Rico in 1988, Mallens went through a ''purification rundown,'' a regimen that involves exercise, saunas and high doses of vitamins. Scientologists believe it rids the body of radiation, drugs and toxins. Within 33 days, she was off cocaine, said Mallens, who brought her 5-year-old daughter to the center on Wednesday night for an ''assist'' or healing to cure her cold. "I was in control.''
Don Meuse, 53, a Scientologist since 1972 and a resident of Coral Gables, said Scientology helps him in his career as a computer programmer and has improved his relationships.
''I have no doubt that I'm a spirit; I'm not just a meat body,'' said Meuse, who was in his early 20s when he joined the religion. "When you really know that, you get braver and you have more integrity.''
But former Scientologists say the benefits come at too high a price.
Alexander left Scientology in 1997 after the vice president of his company read about body thetans on the Internet and started teasing him. He began to doubt his practice and stopped going to the center.
He had already spent $1 million for courses and donations to get himself and his wife up to the higher levels of Scientology, but the financial cost wasn't what bothered him. During 20 years of counseling, he had given Scientologists private information about his past, which they had written down and kept in a file.
A release form he had signed stated his files were the exclusive property of the Church of Scientology. He could never recover the information.
The form also contains a clause stating that followers abandon the right to legal recourse against Scientology.
Dillon of the Coral Gables center, who showed a copy of the release form to a reporter, said it's designed to protect the church against antagonists.
''The church is offering total spiritual freedom, but there are people out there who do try to work against people who want to do good,'' she said. "In the 1970s there were people who were attacking the church.''
In 1977, the FBI raided Scientology centers in Los Angeles and Washington and found evidence that Scientologists had wiretapped the IRS and the FBI, according to news reports. Several top church officials were sent to prison.
Some followers of Scientology say the church leadership has strayed from Hubbard's original teachings. Many belong to the Free Zone, a group of Scientologists who believe in the religion's practices but not the organization.
Current Scientologists say they're still pursuing Hubbard's original goal: to clear the planet of war, insanity and criminals by ridding all people of mental disturbances.
Critics see a scam.
''The idea in Scientology is that you can buy your salvation,'' Alexander said. "They're supposed to be clearing the planet, but how many people on the planet have $400,000?''