What is it about Californians’ disposition/DNA that makes them so susceptible to cults? Whether it’s a documentary like Going Clear or a far-fetched thriller like The Invitation, I always get the sense that a California setting is downright essential for a fertile cult breeding ground. The recent CNN documentary Holy Hell only strengthens that argument. When its cult subject The Buddhafield begins in California it flourishes, offering a spiritual utopia for college educated depressives in the midst of Reagan-era yuppiedom. It isn’t until the cult moves from California to Austin, TX that its promise of inner peace starts to fall apart in favor of the cult culture cliché of serving an enigmatic leader as a Master. Not far from the atrocity of Waco, The Buddhafield miserably & deservedly crumbled. In West Hollywood it looked like The Garden of Eden, except with the unusual uniform of Raybans & Speedos.
One of the stranger aspects of Holy Hell as a cult life expose is its ungodly wealth of access. Documentation Will Allen was a film school student nursing childhood obsessions with Death & “The Truth” when he entered The Buddhafield cult on the ground floor, so he poured his filmmaking passion into documenting the “truth” that he found with his new “family” for the decades he was hypnotized under his Master’s spell. It’s rare (I hope) that a cult as contemporary as The Buddhafield would be this unknown & this under the radar, but Holy Hell’s hook is how intimately associated & submerged its documentarian was in the menacing organization’s trenches. Allen knows exactly how to make a cult look inviting & attractive to an outsider because he lived through it himself. He initially portrays The Buddhafield as an oasis of young, attractive, talented people losing touch with reality in the wilderness as they begin to feel “Alive” for the first time & revel in “freedom from self.” He then slowly introduces the more disconcerting aspects of life at The Buddhafield, like a ritual where members are hypnotized into “knowing,” “seeing,” and “tasting” God & the gradual realization that their “spiritual leader” is a selfish, life-destroying monster that permanently damages the very victims he dares call family. At the beginning of Holy Hell, members of The Buddhafield rationalize “If this is a cult, at least it’s a really good cult.” By the end they’re left empty & permanently scarred by a human monster who still abuses young, malleable minds today (back in the holy mecca of California, of course) . . . if they were able to escape his mental grasp in the first place.
It’s tempting to get hung up on the weirder aspects of Holy Hell and treat it like a tale of curiosity like Tickled or Finders Keepers, but the abuse at the center of this documentary runs even deeper than that of those deceptively dark human interest stories. It’d be easy to reduce this story down to its weirder details, like a cult member who’s convinced that he’s making fruit salads “for God” or The Buddhafield’s strange abstinence policy or the fact that although individual members essentially work as the cult leader Michel’s employees they were still charged money for their weekly hypnotherapy sessions. There’s a lot of very specific detail to get distracted by here. However, the film’s main function is as an expose of Michel’s inhumane crimes and abuses. Holy Hell’s real life horrors are way too grave for the film to be treated as an arm’s length curiosity. It’s not a flashy documentary; it doesn’t feel too different from what you’d normally expect form a CNN production. Yet, its intimacy & the ongoing atrocity of its subject makes for a fascinating watch. At the very least I’d recommend it as a double feature to drive home the severity of Karyn Kusama’s recent thriller The Invitation. As a pair the films call into question the dangers & menace of faux spirituality, not to mention make California look like a hellscape below its sunshine & bare skin surface.