Gary Haab was finishing a floor when a wall of fire rose beneath him. Hospitalized for five days with second-degree burns, the West Babylon, N.Y., builder began having nightmares, followed by sleepless nights. He was too frightened to return to work.

Haab was referred to a therapist who spent two sessions last year waving his fingers back and forth with hypnotic speed while the builder recalled the accident. After 180 minutes of therapy, his nightmares were gone.

Many managed care companies, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, now cover this controversial hand-waving therapy as a way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. In most plans, it has been added to the list of cognitive and behavioral treatments for psychological stress.

But to many traditional psychotherapists and academic scientists, it is a fringe therapy that has been allowed entrance through medicine's front door.

Treating trauma with a few hours of therapy seems, well, unimaginable, according to James Herbert, associate professor of psychology at Allegheny University of the Health Sciences in Philadelphia. "I found it preposterous that someone could wave their fingers and miraculously traumatic memories would just melt away."

"Desperate people believe in desperate things," said Jeffrey Lohr, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas.

The developer of the technique, called "eye movement desensitization reprocessing," or EMDR, is Francine Shapiro, a California psychologist who says that her method enables people to process unresolved trauma. The desensitization therapy takes sprinkles of information from a variety of time-honored therapies and merges them into one process.

"When I started teaching EMDR in 1990, I dubbed it experimental because I didn't want therapists using it without training and then hurting their patients," Shapiro said in a telephone interview. "But there's been eight years of research that shows that it effectively treats post-traumatic stress disorder better than anything out there."

Today, EMDR is being touted by its advocates as a miraculous and speedy solution to any number of traumatic events.

In this technique, the practitioner moves his or her fingers back and forth in front of the patient's eyes while asking the person to visualize the trauma. The theory is that the eye movements -- any repetitious movement or sound or object -- can dislodge the patient's memory and send it to more appropriate brain storage areas so it doesn't trigger a painful memory.

To many scientists the theory remains unproven. To some, such as James Herbert, Lohr and Rachel Yehuda, a psychologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, it's downright ridiculous.

"People say that it works by the power of suggestion," said Yehuda, who is an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. "I certainly don't understand the rationale," she added.

Since the eye movement method emerged about a decade ago, "reprocessing" training has become popular among mental health professionals. Shapiro says more than 23,000 therapists from 53 countries have been taught the technique and that most use it in their practices, adding it to other psychotherapy techniques.

Shapiro points to a dozen scientific studies supporting her claim that the rhythmic stimulus works like an external pacemaker to shuttle memories from one part of the brain to another. It doesn't matter whether the stimulus is hand-waving, a wand with moving red lights or a tone pumped from one ear to the other, she says.

Shapiro got the idea in the mid-'80s when she was studying for her doctoral degree at a small, now-defunct non-accredited psychological training institute. She says she had one of those "ah-ha" moments that every therapist longs to experience. She was walking by a pond, thinking troubling thoughts. She said she noticed that the feelings went away when she moved her eyes back and forth, much like people watching a fast and steady tennis match. She began testing this technique on her friends and colleagues and decided to make it the linchpin of her doctoral thesis.

Her first study of 22 patients with post-traumatic stress disorder was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 1989, and in record speed Shapiro began promoting the concept at psychiatric meetings and through private seminars.

"I initially thought of it as a desensitization technique," Shapiro said. "It was clear that disturbances lessened in a very short time, in two or three therapy sessions."

At the American Psychological Association meeting in 1994, Shapiro was joined by colleagues who presented evidence that the eye movement method was an extremely important and effective therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Recently the association added the technique to a list of "probable" treatments for the disorder. Other techniques in the "probable" category include relaxation and flooding, a method that re-exposes trauma victims to the stressful event to help them master their feelings.

Shapiro says in one of her training brochures that her method has had more published case reports and research to support it than any other method in the treatment of trauma.

In the fall 1997 issue of the Journal of Psychotherapy, clinicians from Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in California, compared EMDR to the standard care that trauma victims receive at the centers. Most patients had been suffering from a variety of traumas including assault, sexual abuse, rape, traffic accidents and earthquakes. Steven Marcus and his colleagues report that virtually all patients who were suffering from a single trauma got better after six 50-minute sessions compared with only half of those in regular psychotherapy treatment. Also in the last few months, the Journal of Traumatic Stress has published two studies of EMDR that suggest it works better than behavioral techniques that are commonly used to treat trauma.

In one of the studies, conducted by researchers at the University of Honolulu, 18 veterans were offered biofeedback relaxation techniques or EMDR. After 12 sessions, seven of the nine vets no longer had post-traumatic stress disorder compared with two of the vets who were trained in biofeedback. "We have all of these studies suggesting that the technique works, and better than what trauma specialists have, and it is amazing that some people dismiss this literature," Shapiro said.

Yehuda shakes her head. "It has taken on the aura of a charismatic cult," she said, adding that the marketing of EMDR has been frustrating for trauma clinicians, who have little to offer victims in the way of treatment.

She and other clinicians say the therapeutic tool is nothing more than repackaged behavioral therapy that is being sold as a new treatment for everything from battlefield and rape trauma to depression, and most recently as a booster for sports endurance and stress reduction.

"They are adding bells and whistles in the form of finger waving or lights or sounds," said Philadelphia's Herbert. "The research doesn't support that there is anything novel there." He said reprocessing clinicians are relying more on anecdotal reports of success rather than on scientific proof.

Roger Pitman, a coordinator of research and development at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., decided to put reprocessing to the test in his lab.

Pitman had a group of veterans with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder who didn't respond to any treatments. He had tried the flooding technique and had patients relive the traumatic events, but the results of the treatment study were not very good. He asked 17 veterans to enlist in his study and delivered treatment under two conditions: One group moved their eyes during the treatment, and the other didn't. Each patient received 12 sessions.

The results: a modest benefit in both groups. Eye movement didn't make a difference. The psychiatrist recently brought these patients back to the laboratory for a five-year follow-up and found they were back to where they had been before the reprocessing treatment.

To Shapiro, who has analyzed the Pitman paper, the disappointing results could be explained by the fact that the patients only worked on one traumatic memory, while combat veterans may have lots of unfinished business to process, she says.

To Pitman, EMDR is akin to exposure therapy, a variation of behavior therapy in which the patient is exposed again to the experience of the trauma. Exposure therapy has already been shown to have mild effects on stress disorder patients. "The eye movements create a physiologic mystique and have nothing to do with the treatment's success," Pitman said.

The eye-movement method is the latest in a short list of controversial therapies that include "neurolinguistic programming," "emotional freedom" techniques, "trauma incident reduction" and "thought field" therapy. These treatments have been advocated for trauma, stress, anxiety disorders and addiction, but none has taken off like reprocessing, experts say.

To therapists who practice the technique, it is "a standard treatment for trauma," said Mark Dworkin of East Meadow, N.Y., with EMDR International, an organization of practicing clinicians.

Their patients seem to agree.

Haab was referred to David Grand, a Bellmore, N.Y., social worker whose practice is now largely devoted to treating trauma. After two sessions of EMDR, his fear of fire was gone. By the time he was done, he said, he was looking at the red-hot basement in his mind and feeling okay about it. The floor finisher described the effects as "unbelievable."

Leslie Pihas of Lynbrook, N.Y., had the same experience. She had been in and out of therapy for years, gripped by an unsettling depression. With reprocessing, which some liken to a behavioral hypnosis, she said she finally got to the heart of her trouble. She had felt extraordinary guilt over her now-grown son's stay at a special school for children with Down's syndrome. She said she couldn't talk about her son without crying.

After the sessions she was able to put the guilt away and, at age 54, began reacting to life in a whole different way. The tears were gone.

When the American Psychological Association task force report entered EMDR in its nomenclature, the technique got a major boost of legitimacy.

"EMDR was very controversial in our study group," said Dianne Chambless, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and head of the task force on treatments. But she said the group decided to add it onto the APA's probable list of effective treatments because of two studies that found EMDR worked better than nothing. (They compared the therapy to people waiting for treatment.) There were not enough rigorous studies to boost it into the well-established list of therapies, like cognitive-behavior or psychotherapy, she said.

Nevertheless, a few respected scientists have become enamored with EMDR.

"I didn't believe anything until I took the {EMDR} training and began using it," said Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University. "Fine things started to happen." He agrees with detractors that the method looks like a very kooky treatment, generally too good to be true. But, he added, "I started seeing that people get better faster than anything else I had been doing."

Recently, van der Kolk conducted brain scans of eight trauma patients before and after reprocessing. Before the therapy, the brain scans showed activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate. This area is known to regulate the fear response. After treatment this area was no longer activated, van der Kolk said. "People get better, and their brains showed changes," he said. The frontal lobe also became more active after treatment, suggesting that people are processing information in the present rather than the past.

He admits his study suffers from lack of a control group. And it also remains unpublished. Still, he says, "I've practiced for 16 years, and nothing else has helped like this has. We still don't know why it works. It could be distraction. Only time will tell."

Recently, Shapiro and her proponents have begun to train therapists to work in inner cities in an attempt, she says, "to stop the cumulative effects of trauma," which leads to acts of violence, aggression and depression. Training sessions in Washington will begin in June. Similar training has already been conducted in areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Reprocessing psychotherapists have also volunteered their time to disaster relief. Within a month of the Oklahoma City bombing, EMDR specialists were on the scene to offer their services. They were also on hand after TWA flight 800 went down off the shores of Long Island. They've been to Florida to assist Hurricane Andrew victims. And to war-torn Bosnia. Last November, David Grand flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland, with two other American psychotherapists to train 80 people in the technique. "The healing of emotional trauma is the best prevention against future violence," said Grand, who is the chairman of Shapiro's EMDR disaster relief program.

Still, there are plenty of skeptics.

"I am particularly disturbed about the pseudoscientific nature of these things. The only consistent thing I see in EMDR is bad research," said Lohr of the University of Arkansas, who has become a major debunker of the technique.

"What appears to have happened is that Shapiro took existing elements from cognitive-behavioral therapies, added the unnecessary ingredient of finger-waving and then took the new technique on the road before science could catch up," Lohr and Seattle psychotherapist Gerald Rosen wrote in a commentary for the National Council Against Health Fraud.

Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally recently compared the eye movement method to an 18th-century technique developed by Franz Anton Mesmer heralded as a breakthrough for many ailments of his day. He posited that humans were endowed with magnetic fluid that became blocked, resulting in disease or emotional disability.

"Mesmerism therapists could identify, massage and tap those regions of the patient's body," McNally wrote in a paper in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. The Mesmerists would also induce therapeutic eye movements by having the patient track the therapist's finger, in much the way modern-day EMDR therapists do.

"The similarities between the two are striking," said McNally, who pointed out in the study that both Mesmer and Shapiro had their therapeutic epiphanies "while walking outdoors . . . had nontraditional backgrounds and entered the mainstream of the field from its periphery . . . established commercial training institutes . . . appeared to be charismatic leaders . . . provided pro bono treatment . . . had the endorsement of prominent individuals . . . used technical gadgets and made claims of global historic significance."

Such comparisons don't stop Shapiro from preaching. She has a training institute in Pacific Grove, Calif. She has written two books on her method, one for colleagues and the other for the general public, EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Trauma (Basic Books).

And for now, Shapiro's flock keeps growing. Jamie Talen is a medical writer. This story was adapted from one that appeared in Newsday. CAPTION: Gary Haab, displaying a photograph of the burns he suffered in a flash fire, says the controversial therapy helped him defeat his fear of fire in the wake of the blaze. CAPTION: David Grand, a social worker whose practice is now largely devoted to treating trauma, says EMDR can play a role in helping war and disaster victims.