How to turn cult-watching into a cult


How to turn cult-watching into a cult

ALI VAN WYK developed an obsession over the past year while watching every available documentary series about the phenomenon. Here are nine of the best.


HOW can one person gain complete control over someone else's mind, or even worse, over groups of other people, sometimes thousands of them, and even from a distance? After watching one show after another on cults, I have greater insight into the psychological workings of brainwashing, deception, undue influence and the power structures needed to establish and operate a cult. But in my heart, I still do not understand.

How can anyone put their mind, body and choices in the hands of another person?

Equally notable is that almost every documentary I could find was about American or Canadian cults. Maybe it's because the streaming networks are American, but it remains true that cults thrive in North America, and even though they are by definition extreme, many are extreme beyond the boundaries of extremity.

Another thing that struck me is that most cults are no longer related to the Christian faith or even religion in general. A kind of self-improvement trend arose in mid-20th century America, on the backs of rehab gurus like Charles Dederich and Synanon, an organisation he founded in 1958 for drug rehabilitation.

Synanon, which eventually developed into a painfully dangerous cult, is at the root of a singular number of questionable organisations and cultures in America. It provided the blueprint for the operation, at a huge profit, of so-called tough-love drug clinics based on terrifying “psychiatric" practices, and spawned a rehabilitation industry worth billions of dollars.

It also led to a whole string of unregulated reform schools for rebellious teenagers, while self-improvement clinics and cults have mushroomed.

It is striking how many of these cults end up revolving around a man (usually physically quite unattractive) who gains control over a variety of women so he can eventually have sex with all of them, in most cases over a single period, and in many cases all together in one bed.

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Here are nine documentaries about cult groups.

Stolen Youth

Hulu / Disney
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Three episodes

Stolen Youth is disturbing. I have a stomach for violence, mutilated bodies and horror, but here you will be watching extraordinary physical and emotional abuse.

A group of dorm friends at the idyllic Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, moved into a commune during their second year. It was a humanities college which spontaneously developed into a haven for  genteel students who felt rejected at school. Here, intelligent and mild-mannered people could be freer and enjoy each other.

Initially all was hunky-dory in the house and beautiful friendships and romantic relationships developed. However, one day Larry showed up. Lawrence Ray. He was the father of Talia, one of the students.

He'd just been released from prison and needed a place to sleep for a few nights. He said he used to be a marine and an FBI agent, and that he was innocent when sent to prison due to a political plot.

But Larry refused to mosey on. He stayed, offering free emotional support to one after another of the insecure adolescents around him, to the point where he developed a hold over them. And then it got weird.

Brilliant journalism with startling audio and video recordings of real events.

The Vow

HBO / Showmax
Executive producers: Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
Two seasons, 15 episodes

The Vow is long and slow. This is by design, letting the audience get a feel for the gradual pace of the decades of mass manipulation. If you are interested in cult groups, this is a must-see.

It concerns the infamous NXIVM (pronounced “nexium") in the Albany area of New York state. NXIVM was a multi-level marketing organisation which offered courses for “human potential development" called “executive success programs".

It was based on big man Keith Raniere's pseudo-philosophy called “rational inquiry". Part of the marketing strategy was to use glamorous personalities such as Allison Mack, an actress in the Smallville television series. A large part of Raniere's financing came from Clare Bronfman, an heir to the Seagrams fortune built on billions of dollars in alcohol sales.

Raniere's partner was a naive and hardworking corporate management type, Nancy Salzman. As his sales soared, Raniere presented himself as a mystical guru, embarking with determination and startling frequency on visits to the beds of various women in the group, some as young as 15.

Raniere eventually descended so deeply into a cesspool of absurd morality that the judicial authorities initially failed to believe the movement's deserters and whistleblowers.

You, too, will have a hard time believing it.

The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping

Director: Katherine Kubler
Three episodes

I admire millennials' confidence and casual subversion of authority.

Director Katherine Kubler's cutting-edge, intuitive journalism calls an evil multinational company, WWASP, to account almost playfully. It's something even US senators couldn't pull off.

America is riddled with unregulated private reform schools in the “troubled teen" industry. At 16, Katherine, a bubbly, bright-eyed teenager, was caught with a bottle of alcopop. She was a little rebellious towards her dragon stepmother. Her father summarily sent her off to Academy at Ivy Ridge in Ogdensburg, New York, which advertised itself as a resort where unhappy teenagers could ride horses, swim and hike.

However, it was a prison, with solitary confinement and physical constraints. Children were not allowed to talk to each other or look out of a window. Katherine was cut off from her parents but after 15 months she finally got through to her father and he came to rescue her.

Seventeen years later, as a filmmaker, she gathers a bunch of her former classmates and returns to the abandoned school building that was closed in 2010, with the entire contents left as is. There they revive their erstwhile sojourn. They lie on the floor in the isolation cell, wear the uniforms, read the personal ledgers kept about them, make the meaningless hand gestures they had to repeat for 12 hours on end. They drink the same alcopops and laugh and roll around.

They do research into the flow of money in this multinational network of dodgy companies, and let the big boss, Robert Lichfield, know that they are on their way to put the screws on him.

Raël: The Alien Prophet

Director: Antoine Baldassari and Manuel Guillon
Four seasons, 17 episodes

Of all cult leaders, Raël was the strangest and most elusive. It is hard to work out whether he is a deeply deluded man or a master clown who is taking the whole world for a ride.

Raël is actually the French journalist and racing driver Claude Vorilhon. In 1973, he apparently met an unearthly being, Yahweh, and this changed his life. He founded the Raëlian religion, a worship of extraterrestrial beings, or aliens, the Elohim, who are supposed to have created man.

He wears clichéd Star Trek-style uniforms and uses images and pictures of flying saucers that would not be out of place in the décor of Laerskool Perdekop's annual operetta. Yet his following has grown worldwide by thousands of people over the decades.

His “religion" is basically a hippie-like philosophy of meditation and sexual experimentation. He claims he has visited the Elohim on a planet and has met Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Mohammed. In 2003, Raël claimed that he and a French chemist, Brigitte Boisellier, had successfully cloned a human being. However, the baby, Eve, never emerged in public.

Allegations of paedophilia follow him wherever he goes and he moves his operations from country to country to stay ahead of the law. First France, then Canada, and nowadays Japan. Raëlism's badge is a swastika set in the star of David. Try to figure out how you feel about that.

Escaping Twin Flames

Director: Cecilia Peck
Three episodes

It was meant to be: a cult group that is almost entirely online. The cyber community Twin Flames Universe is run by Jeff and Shaiela Divine, and the basic idea they sell is that everyone has a “twin flame” — a person with whom they have a heavenly connection, one they just need to discover.

Step one to finding your “twin flame" is to purchase Jeff and Shaiela's online course and online consultations for $220 a month. Jeff and Shaiela usually start by quizzing you until they can determine who you are in love with, and in most cases they initially let the idea take hold that this person is your “twin flame".

As in all classic cult movements, you and sometimes your initial “twin flame" become ever more involved and slowly isolated. The mind control and manipulation soon become absurd. To a heterosexual woman, it is revealed that her “twin flame" is another woman and that she is really a “divine male". She is instructed to change her gender, complete with hormone treatments and surgery. It goes without saying that she must continue to buy new courses.

The documentary follows the sad story of Paula Hardy, whose twin sister Stephanie ends up in the clutches of the cult.

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey

Directors: Rachel Dretzin and Grace McNally
Four episodes

This series about a radical branch of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons) will make your jaw hit the floor.

The polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an ultra-conservative patriarchal sect under the iron control of Warren S Jeffs and before him his father, Rulon Jeffs. The men with all the power in the village of Short Creek each marry various approved and submissive women.

Dretzin and McNally interview some of the women who escaped from the movement with great difficulty, as well as investigative journalists and legal professionals. Scenes are recreated with actors playing the roles of Jeffs and others involved.

Just when you think you are getting to the macabre core of the story, Dretzin and McNally peel off another dark lobe of the horrific truth. Fraud, rape, violence, betrayal, greed … the list of sins is long.

Waco: American Apocalypse

Director: Tiller Russell
Participants: David Thibodeau, Chris Whitcomb, Lee Hancock, Bob Ricks, Kathy Schroeder
Three episodes

I didn't think I needed to see another documentary about the 1993 Waco siege in Texas that lasted 51 days and in which 86 people eventually died. But Tiller Russell's miniseries is so much better than anything else done before about Waco and the leader of the Branch Davidians cult, David Koresh, and should be considered the definitive journalistic work on the saga.

Almost all the materials used are new and of higher quality. We see amazing footage, probably from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,  Firearms and Explosives (ATF) archive, about their first assault on the building. We also see fresh news footage, video from the FBI's hostage negotiation control post, and we listen to FBI wiretaps.

Where we previously heard interviews with renegades from the Branch Davidians cult, now there are interviews with one of David Koresh's “spiritual women", the last child to come out of the building alive, an FBI sniper who was an eyewitness to everything that happened, the FBI's negotiator, the first journalists to cover the story up close and members of the ATF tactical team.

It is an impressive piece of work.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator

Director: Eva Orner
1 hour 26 min

The roots of one of the most popular forms of yoga in the West, Bikram — a form of “hot yoga" in 26 positions practised in 40˚C heat — unfortunately do not make for a pretty story. Instead, it's another classic example of what the cult of personality and unbridled power can do to a person who already shows narcissistic tendencies.

After emigrating from India, Bikram opened his first yoga studio in Los Angeles in 1972. His studios and franchises quickly grew around the world and he made millions of dollars from licensing his style and training yoga teachers.

Then rumours began to circulate about his treatment of students, his near-torture of people on the yoga floor, and especially his sexual assault and rape of numerous women who would do almost anything to win his favour.

Eva Orner starts the documentary with wholesome images but strips away the facade layer by layer. As The Times in London said: never trust a guy who desires a Rolls-Royce.

Wild Wild Country

Directors: Maclain Way and Chapman Way
Six episodes

This is not only a good documentary about a cult, it is one of the best documentaries of the last decade.

It shows what happens when a complete Indian ashram with its members, the Orange People and all, its flamboyant and questionable yogi, Osho, or Bhagran Shree Rajneesh, and all the bells and whistles that come with such a thing, is transplanted from India to a site near a rural town, Antelope, in the state of Oregon on the American northwest coast. It's chaos.

It shows you the good and bad side of fundamentalist Christian America, and the good and bad side of an Indian ashram.

♦ VWB ♦

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