Daily Archives: April 12, 2021

Holy Hell (2016)

*. It’s the same question outsiders always ask about a cult, or indeed any story of a con man: How did people fall for this? Or, as one of the interviewees in Holy Hell tearfully puts it, “What is the scientific, rational explanation for this madness?” Yes, they were young men and women looking for a personal Jesus and there are always plenty of them around. But when you see people taken in by the likes of Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate cult you feel like Carl Sandburg when he responded to the preacher Billy Sunday in his poem “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter.” “I like to watch a good four-flusher work . . . I like a man that’s got nerve and can pull off a great original performance, but you — you’re only a bug-house peddler of second-hand gospel.”
*. Applewhite is an extreme example, but Michel/Andreas/The Teacher/Reyji (born Jaime Gomez), leader of the Buddhafield movement wasn’t far off that same mark. A failed actor and dancer turned guru of a vaguely New Age cult (as if “New Age” theology wasn’t vague enough already), Michel seemed to live in bikini Speedo swimsuits and sunglasses. A narcissist who took his self-obsession beyond parody, Michel was obsessed with his own image. There’s a scene here where he gazes at a peacock fanning its tail that captures this perfectly. Meanwhile, as the years of Californian and then Texan sun took their inevitable toll, cosmetics and surgery would attempt to make up for the damage done, turning him into something grotesque. And yet still no one twigged to his scam. Personally, I would have been alarmed at his not liking dogs. That’s always a bad sign.
*. Ultimately he would be (partially) undone by reports of his sexual predations among a group known as “body workers.” The beautiful young men he had entranced weren’t just literally fucked, but had to pay for the privilege. One of them being Will Allen, who put together this documentary out of the hours of footage he shot while a member of the Buddhafield group for over a period of twenty-plus years.
*. The structure of the story follows a predictable arc, which further underlines how obvious a scam it all was. We know without any hints even being dropped what the “body workers” were really being used for. The brief clips from Michel’s gay porn appearances barely register as a shock. Indeed, the only surprise is how laid-back Allen seems to be about all that happened. When he finally meets up with Michel on the beach some time after leaving the group it’s not a confrontation at all. Indeed, even after the final credits roll it’s hard to read just how Allen now feels about Michel. Of course he (Michel) objected to the film, but overall I think he escapes from it far better than I would have expected.
*. What do we learn? By coincidence the same week I saw this I was watching The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler where the following is said: “Charisma does not exist on its own in anyone. It exists only in an interaction between an individual and an audience. An individual like Hitler who’s telling an audience what they wanted to hear.” This is drawing from the work of Max Weber, and a similar point is made in Holy Hell by one of the former cultists: “You can’t have a leader without followers.” The difference between the two Leaders (Hitler and Michel) is that Michel was more self-absorbed. Buddhafield was a cult of the self, worshipping beauty and the body. Allen’s film speaks in a language that didn’t have a clear analogy in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, that of narcissists and codependents.
*. The cult members here were not stupid. Nor were they exceptional in wanting something more out of life than material rewards. Instead, something good in them, the desire to help others and perform service, was taken advantage of by someone who saw this as a weakness he could exploit. There are few moments in Holy Hell that are really scary, but one comes at the very end when Allen tracks Michel (now Reyji) to Hawaii where he is shown being followed about by people who might be zombies. It’s not remarkable how people fall into this pattern of self-destructive behaviour, but the results are still so tragic and depressing. For a while some of Michel’s followers found, or said they found happiness. That’s not how anyone looks at the end. They look like they’re already walking circles in hell.