For over twenty years Will Allen was the in-house videographer for the Buddhafield—a religious group, eventually numbering over a hundred members, that mixed meditation, ecstatic experience, and ballet. In 2007 the group shattered amid accusations of emotional and sexual abuse. The title of Allen's new documentary shows which side he ended up on: It's called Holy Hell.

Holy Hell confirms some stereotypes of cults and challenges others. The Buddhafield offered much that our churches don’t offer but should; it offered much that they do offer and shouldn't. The biggest draw of the Buddhafield, the element that confirmed its place at the center of its members' lives, is something many Christians long for and must accept that our religion does not provide.

The Big Salad Bowl

Allen knows that one of the biggest questions for outsiders is, “Why on earth would somebody join a cult?” The answers his interviewees give are surprisingly diverse. An interviewee who suggests that her rigid Catholic upbringing didn't satisfy her longing for truth is immediately followed by one who says that his ruleless upbringing left him longing for structure and guidance. There is no “average” backstory for a Buddhafield member—although you'll notice, and this will become important later, that almost all of them are attractive white people.

Holy Hell is a catalog of human needs. The Buddhafield took advantage of our need to work and to serve: We see the members' genuine smiles as they perform manual labor, or “service.” Outside of recovery circles, few Americans discuss how deeply humans long to work and to serve one another. There was also the need for physical touch. The worship practices of the Buddhafield were hands-on, full of embraces. (Officially, members weren't supposed to hook up with each other; unofficially, they nicknamed the group “the Bootyfield.”) And there was the human need to worship. One man recalls, “I am a very devotional person. I love to honor. And I started putting all of that onto [the cult leader].”

The cult played on the need for family—one woman speaks movingly about her abusive family of origin, and how she found in the Buddhafield a huge family who all seemed to care about her well-being. Perhaps the most moving shot in the movie is an image of an enormous wooden salad bowl brimming with greens: Every night, the bowl says, there are so many brethren who share this table with you.

I go to the cathedral here in Washington, DC, and in the past year the priests have started opening every Mass by saying something like, “We are a family here, so please greet the person next to you and welcome them.” And we all nod at each other and shake hands in awkward embarrassment. Few experiences could be more unlike the New Testament church, with its intimate knowledge of its members, its total sharing of wealth, its mutual discipline and mutual care. I prefer the lurker-friendly church but I have to admit that in this respect the Buddhafield looks more like the Book of Acts than my home church does.

All That Glitters Is Not God

Holy Hell also explores the human needs for beauty and art. The film is competently made (it's Allen's first mainstream film), but what gives it an aesthetic edge is the use of footage Allen made while he was still a believer.

The cult's aesthetics were ultra-'80s, glitzy and campy. The Buddhafield's leader, the mysterious Michel Rostand, was an actor who brought a Bela Lugosi intensity to “hypnotherapy” sessions and fireside chats. Rostand blurred the lines between soul and persona, until he could evoke religious ecstasy in his followers even when they knew they were following a science-fiction script.

The Buddhafield used art to recruit, to celebrate (we see footage of elaborate ballets, which the members prepared for a full year before performing only once, for one another), and even to punish. Allen made a sub-sub-Madonna music video about a “Femme Fatale,” which is cute until you realize its covert purpose was to shame one of the women in the cult for disobedience.

Rostand surrounded himself with hand-picked attractive youths. That was good for the recruit; it was good for other things as well. One way in which my cathedral does better than the Buddhafield at resembling the early Church is that lots of us are homely—and many of us are old, disabled, homeless, or otherwise unglamorous.

A Sense of Enlightenment

The aesthetic uniformity of the members might have been one red flag. There were others: The Buddhafield was deracinated. Members learned too late that their leader did not have his own guru; he had no ties to a tradition and no accountability to a broader community. The Buddhafield gave its members a new family—but encouraged them to cut ties with their old one. One woman notes sadly, after recounting how she was pressured into abortion, “In all the years that we were together, not one child was born.”

As a Catholic I obviously have no standing to view my religion as a refuge from the kind of abuses that took place in the Buddhafield. The atomistic structure and familial intensity of the Buddhafield make the allegations of rape and cruelty easy to believe, but such abuses take place everywhere the human need for authority is met—in prep schools and sports teams, temples and churches.

Perhaps the most notable need Rostand filled, however, was the need for an undeniable experience of God. Catholic tradition takes a deflationary attitude toward the ecstasies of prayer. You're not supposed to expect them, they're not the point of prayer, God showers these experiences seemingly randomly and unjustly like coins among beggars. The experience of mystical union with God is real, the feeling of His presence is immensely consoling, but all the literature about it emphasizes that “dryness” is the more normal spiritual state.

Not so in the Buddhafield. Rostand offers hot and cold running ecstasy. He cements his authority in the cult by means of acid-trip enlightenment: At his command members see strange colors, feel an indescribable contact with ultimate truth. He quizzes them, and when they are ready for “the Knowing,” the Knowing is exactly what they get.

The writer James Poulos notes how often we say we want “a sense of X” when what we actually want is X. The Buddhafield offered a sense of family, of service, of truth. The story of the cult's collapse is the story of the replacement of the sense of things by the things themselves.

Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel. She is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C., and blogs at Patheos.

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