If you’ve heard one cult story, you’ve pretty much heard them all. An enigmatic and charismatic leader, dozens of lost souls who become avid devotees, dodgy spiritual practices and a depressing, sometimes tragic, end. Holy Hell (2016) tells that story, but it still like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Filmmaker Will Allen spent 22 years of his life in a cult, documenting almost every step with his camera. As a result, Holy Hell has more footage of the cult’s inner workings than any other documentary of this nature. There is footage of rituals, performances and inspirational messages from their leader, as well as casual everyday moments, group meetings and friends hanging out. Holy Hell is able to truly capture the cult from within, instead of from an arms length.
In 1985, Will was a recent college grad who was shunned by his parents for being gay. His older sister invited him to join a spiritual community group with her called the Buddhafield. The group was about finding the answers to life’s big questions. The Buddhafield seemed like a idyllic Californian hippie commune to its members, and almost a parody of a cult to the viewers — beautiful, tan young people hiking and meditating, hanging onto the every word of a man in a Speedo named Michel who promised to bring them the answers of the universe. The members themselves joked about the group’s cult-like nature, but found it so peaceful and benign it couldn’t be anything malicious.
Through a mix of footage and present-day talking heads, Will is able to capture the almost absurdity with which the member’s followed Michel’s every word. They would go into a trance when he touched them, they would perform “service” which could be anything from preparing him elaborate meals that he would not eat, to carrying a special chair everywhere for him to sit, to being an on-call masseuse like Will was. Time passes. The group did ballet lessons, because Michel used to be a dancer. They built him a theatre. More time passes. They take hypnotherapy classes with Michel for $50 a session. They uprooted their homes and lives to move multiple times when he become paranoid about outside intervention.
Despite all of that, the Buddhafield seemed to be a happy place. The members found genuine friendship and camaraderie with one another – some lived together, they all worked together and cooked together and put all their time, money and energy into making the Buddhafield a happy place for emotional and spiritual growth.
Of course, Michel had another idea. The film takes the unsettling turn the audience has been anticipating – in 2005, a former member emailed the group accusations about Michel — he was a former porn star and a failed actor, he was a fraud, he was sexually abusing members during hypnotherapy.
In present-day talking heads, former members describe the email as a “bomb going off.” People were shaken, disturbed, ready to defend Michel, despite every accusation being true and most members knowing it. The men all confirmed Michel had been abusing them for years. Women attested to Michel forcing them into abortions and threatening to having them killed. All members had been manipulated, lied to and forced to cut off from their family.
This is the only part where the story of Holy Hell deviates from so many other cult stories — the members left. The majority of Buddhafield members walked away from Michel and restarted their lives with whatever they could. Michel moved to Hawaii and began again with a new following, but Will and the dozens of former Buddhafield members featured in the movie have new lives and new beginnings, and hope their story can potentially save others. They are even look back on Buddhafield as a happy time of friendship and purpose. The tragedy of Buddhafield isn’t as bad as say, Jonestown, but there is still sadness in these people being robbed of decades of their lives, being sexually abused and never getting justice (no criminal charges have been levelled against Michel). They may have hope for the future and a fondness for the past, but as a viewer it’s hard to feel anything but horror.
Holy Hell is currently in limited release.