Holy Hell is a documentary chronicling the gathering and dispersement of a group of cult members under the power of a guru from the mid-1980s until the mid-2000s. The film alternates between footage shot by the film’s director, Will Allen, during his time in the cult and present-day interviews with other cult members who, like Allen, are now free. Though the film begins a little cheezy—conceivably to capture the loopy spirit of the yuppie 1980s out of which the cult arose—it quickly becomes a much richer film that captures both the heights (the “holy”) and depths (the “hell”) of being involved in this community for the freed members.
Most remarkably, this group of people does not seem like the kind of people who get sucked into a cult. They are all intelligent and appear to be well-adjusted. As one of the former members told me after the film, “Well, that’s who we are now.” One of the film’s points is that everyone searches for meaning, purpose, and community, and that makes people vulnerable to this kind of abuse. Holy Hell wants us to be vigilant to not be sublimated by similarly narcissistic and abusive personalities. “Cults are everywhere,” one interviewee says in the film. Holy Hell doesn’t want you to forget it.
The leader of this cult—he goes by many names over the years out of a growing sense of paranoia—is a strange character. From a distance, there is nothing attractive about him at all. He’s obviously disturbed. That anyone could ever invest so much of their own hopes and dreams in him, is hard to believe. But people did and many still do. (He currently has a group gathered around him in Hawaii.) But all of us have insecurities and emotional needs. Abusive personalities like this cult leader encourage those insecurities and create a climate of secrecy that forbids followers from talking to each other about what it going on in their own lives. He made himself the source of their emotional, mental, and spiritual heath. To leave was to invite death. 120 of the 150 members of the group were finally freed when they began to tell the truth to each other about the mental and sexual abuse that had been ongoing for decades.
Shockingly, these women and men who were able to break loose from the cult are not mired in cynicism. They are generous, open, and forgiving individuals. They realize that everyone else was being smothered by the same lies. They’ve forgiven each other for the ways they helped keep each other in the cult for so many years. They don’t have anything positive to say about their abuser—nor should they—but they are only supportive of each other. That communal support was what drew them into the group in the first place. It continues to be a source of life for them. Many of them are oddly grateful for the time they spent in the cult even as they despair of what it cost them. Almost none of them have children, for example, because they spent their child-bearing years in the cult where sexual activity was forbidden.
Films like this always circle around the cult leader. That’s natural, I suppose, since the leader is the one around whom the life of cult circled as well. And while we get to know the cult members, we never get to know the leader. He remains a mystery. I would love to see a documentary one day about a cult leader in which we actually learn what drives him. Perhaps that could only happen if a cult leader somehow realizes the error of his ways and abandons his own cult.
For the rest of us not involved in a cult, Holy Hell provides an example of the kinds of things we need to watch for in our own institutions and personal religious lives. There should be transparency in every institution. No one but God is due our worship. The people next to us and below us are more important to our health than the people above us. In all things, we should look out for one another rather than seeking our own fulfillment. In that way we avoid the hell and find the holy instead.