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.

43 thoughts on “Holy Hell (2016)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    is that you in the picture, Alex? Is it?

    So this seems topical enough, in that we have a cult leader in hiding right now who played the verboten Hitler card by telling his base what they wanted to hear, even if the rest of us knew it wasn’t true. He found 70 million willing converts, and it’s a minor, rarely-spoken of miracle that 80 million were found to stop him. But the rules have been broken, and democracy is under threat. And if nothing else, scores of potential cult-leaders will be emboldened by his actions, and his lack of accountability….

    1. Alex Good

      I’m way better developed than the guy in the picture. Though I’ll admit he’s probably a better dancer.
      You can go really far in this world by telling people what they want to hear. And there are a lot of people who don’t want to hear the truth. What I always wonder about is how conscious their followers are of this, as opposed to being fooled by it. Or maybe some of them are motivated by levels of hate. It’s a mad world.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        The cult leader is a proven, tested baddie in all number of films, but I can see the attraction in being a follower and having someone tell you that you’re going somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s rarely anywhere good, but certainly it’s taking a lot to deprogramme the lies out of the Trump zealots. Abdication of personal responsibility seems to be a key element….a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth gets its pants on, and other phrases spring to mind…

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I think in the case of Trump you have all the social, political, economic conditions that allowed for him still in place, so if none of that changes the attraction or even need people have for someone like him is going to continue. And people always believe what they need to believe, which isn’t always or often the truth.

      3. tensecondsfromnow

        Yup, I was reading some of your writings on Trump, which I found insightful. Fortunately, this man’s level of competance and ability was so low, his schemes backfired, but anyone with an once of nous could easily have capitalised on what Trump cultivated. It’s been a close shave for democracy, but we’ve scotched the snake rather than killed it.

      4. Alex Good Post author

        Yes, I think the world was very lucky that Trump was such a buffoon. People make a big deal about how the center or institutions “held.” They didn’t. They collapsed. A demagogue with any competence could have dismantled the system entirely.

      5. tensecondsfromnow

        Totally. I hear the same thing, the system held. Nope, the system didn’t. If 80 million people hadn’t come out to stop this, we would be looking at living under what our grandfathers fought against. And if that election had been close, that Capitol riot would have been the short fuse to the end of the USA, and potentially the free world as we know it. Fortunately, Trump is a half-witted game-show host who couldn’t stop himself from tripping himself up at every opportunity, but not enough is being done to counter the movement that brought him to power…

    1. Alex Good

      Well, I think a psychologist might say that these gurus fill a need that their followers have. They’re all looking for something. Though in this case the leader was such a weirdo it’s hard for outsiders to see. Then again, he wasn’t as weird as Applewhite.

      1. Over-The-Shoulder

        Lucky, it isn’t for me. No, these people – I believe they call themselves Shedley and the Bash Street Kids – are interested in joining. Travelling all the way down from Scotland.

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        He’s got the same good looks as Davros from all accounts. No, Booky has a similar interest in late Pertwee/early Baker, ie the good bit of the silly sci-fi programme.

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