A closer look at the doomsday group at the center of the new docuseries Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults—and why organizations like it (hello, QAnon) have long found a welcoming home in the United States.
A little more than two weeks after 39 bodies were discovered in a Rancho Santa Fe, California, mansion in 1997, the dead were being mocked onSaturday Night Live.Will Ferrellplayed Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, transmitting from outer space as if he and his followers had successfully boarded the alien spacecraft they believed trailed the Hale-Bopp comet—and had tried to reach by ingesting phenobarbital, then wrapping plastic bags around their heads.
A clip from the sketch appears in the fourth and final episode ofHeaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,a new documentary series on HBO Max. While researching the cult and its grisly conclusion, directorClay Tweelwas surprised by the glut of punch lines. “This is suicide. This is dark. Within days, they were the butt of so many jokes,” he said in an interview.
For years, the members of Heaven’s Gate were discounted as kooks. The HBO Max series, and the 2018 podcast byGlynn Washingtonon which it’s based, push back against that assessment with an in-depth, empathetic investigation into the group’s 22-year journey from innocuous New Age movement to isolated doomsday cult.
Through interviews with scholars, former cult members, and children of the deceased, viewers gain an understanding of how these 39 people came to believe a UFO was swinging by to take them to heaven, and why they needed to shed their earthly vehicles in order to hitch the ride. The series also contextualizes Heaven’s Gate as an offshoot of a far more familia phenomenon: Christian apocalypticism.
Applewhite, the son of a Presbyterian minister, founded the group with Bonnie Nettles. They believed they were the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and that their bodies would literally transform into ascended beings when they were picked up by the UFO. Later, Applewhite determined he was the second coming of Jesus—and that the turn of the millennium was the time to take his group to the “next level,” as they called it.
Heaven’s Gate developed in the mid 1970s, around the time of the end of the Vietnam War and Nixon impeachment. Times of turmoil, transition, and uncertainty are often accompanied by increases in apocalyptic movements, saidLorne Dawson, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Waterloo. “People lose their sense of bearing in the world, and then the apocalyptic scenario provides a clean, simple answer.” For example: God has a plan; there’s a clear demarcation between who’s good and evil; following a specific set of behaviors will ensure that good triumphs; and since it’s God’s plan, extreme actions are justified.
The public clings to its own beliefs that doomsday cult members are outliers—that getting suckered into one would never happen to me. In truth, though, most of us are much closer to embracing those beliefs than we think. The Pilgrims and Puritans, for instance, were apocalyptic thinkers themselves. Overt doomsday groups have proliferated in America since at least as far back as Johannes Kelpius’s Society of the Woman in the Wilderness—which believed the world would end in 1694. “Part of the vision was to go to the new promised land,” Dawson said. “It’s all in the early discourse: the destiny of America to be a special nation that will save the world.”
Tweel started makingHeaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cultsin 2018, smack in the middle of another time of turmoil, transition, and uncertainty. While watching the news, he heard echoes of the scholars he was interviewing for the film: the scenario of one leader claiming to have sole access to truth, that everything else is fake news and only he knows what’s really going on, and that he’s the only person who can fix anything. “As the cult of personality aroundDonald Trumphas grown, the parallels become stronger,” he said.
Although the series does not address current events, the present social and political division were part of what motivated Tweel to clarify the group’s extreme beliefs. “Seeing other people’s ideas broken down to something [viewers] can relate to is important,” he said. Recent phenomena like QAnon share disturbing similarities with the doomsday groups that have preceded them, including Heaven’s Gate. “The same language is there,” Dawson said. “‘Trust the plan. Enjoy the show.’ The idea that it’s all about to wrap up and the bad guys will be punished. Trump is a Messiah figure here to drain the swamp.”
These groups have rarely ended in violence; often, when a predicted end date passes without consequence, followers simply disperse. But sometimes they dig in their heels. InHeaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults, religion scholarReza Aslanexplains the theory of cognitive dissonance as it applies to failed prophecies. Basically, since the brain doesn’t like holding contradictory beliefs, it will bring divergent ideas back into consonance—either by accepting that a prophecy was false, or by creating an explanation for why the end will come later instead or in a different way. The latter happened in the case of Heaven’s Gate.
In 1985 Nettles succumbed to cancer. How can a body turn into an alien if the body no longer exists? “When Nettles dies, it undermines the entire point of the bodily transformation,” Aslan says in the series. “And now it’s a spiritual transformation. We are going to leave our bodies behind.” He speculates that the group would not have ended in mass suicide if she’d lived. Just as the members of Heaven’s Gate looked to Applewhite for direction, so Applewhite looked to Nettles. Once he stopped receiving her guidance, the group changed in fundamental, extreme ways.
Such cognitive dissonance is happening now in the QAnon community. Its leader, the anonymous Q, had predicted a red wave—but then Trump lost the election. And QAnon went silent for 11 days. “People were freaking out,” Dawson said, “like, ‘We need our prophetic leader to explain this disconcerting stuff.’” Now it’s been 26 days and counting since a Q drop. Will followers accept the prophecy as false—or dig in their heels? Q, though silent, appears not to have backed down yet. Two of its last three posts include this ominous prediction: “Nothing can stop what is coming.”
7 creepy things we learned about cult leader and former UA teacher Marshall Applewhite
Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, is shown in an undated image. Applewhite and 38 followers died in a mass suicide in 1997. They believed they would abandon their “human containers” and their souls would be transported via comet Hale-Bopp, soaring through space to a better and more enlightened place.(AP Photo/APTV)
The story of the Heaven’s Gate cult is bizarre, fascinating and ultimately, extremely sad.
Thirty-nine people, including cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite, participated in a mass suicide in 1997, convinced that their souls would leave their “human containers” and be transformed into enlightened alien beings. Hitching a ride on comet Hale-Bopp, they would soar through space to a better place, known as “the Next Level.”
For folks back on Earth, though, their demise was baffling as well as tragic. How could anyone believe such a thing? How could anyone go through with it?
News reports of the time attempted to unravel the thinking of the cult, and explain the philosophies espoused by its leader. Applewhite, who died at age 65, evidently was a charismatic figure — an apocalyptic Pied Piper, of sorts — who could convince his followers to leave their homes, abandon their families and adopt a mindset that fused principles of Christian religion with “Star Trek”-style science fiction.
Now, a new documentary series on HBO Max takes another look at the origins, development and shocking culmination of Heaven’s Gate. The four-part series, “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” made its streaming debut on Dec. 3.
The project, directed by Clay Tweel, relies on the testimony of former cult members — some of whom still believe in the concepts Heaven’s Gate espoused — as well as family members and friends of those who died, sociologists, researchers who specialize in alternative religious movements and more.
Viewers in Alabama may have a special interest in the series, courtesy of alink to our state. Applewhite, the cult’s guru, was a former music teacher at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His tenure at the school was brief — about two years in the early 1960s — and took place about 12 years before Heaven’s Gate was formed.
The new docuseries indicates, however, that Applewhite’s music background played a role in the Heaven’s Gate cult. Also, the traits he exhibited at UA — his talent as a performer, his ability to engage students — were early touchstones on his path to cult leader.
There’s plenty more to unpack in “Heaven’s Gate,” which explores and illuminates about two decades in the cult’s history, roughly 1975-1997. Applewhite looms large, of course, and although viewers aren’t likely to sympathize with him, they’ll certainly know more about his ideas and motivations when the final credits roll.
Here are seven things we learned about Applewhite by watching the series — all of them specific, all important to the cult and all rather creepy in retrospect.
1. Applewhite was a follower before he was a leader.
Applewhite was not the original mastermind of the Heaven’s Gate cult. According to the docuseries, he was recruited by Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse he encountered in a Texas hospital in the early 1970s. Nettles had a mystical bent; she was interested in astrology, UFOs and various New Age philosophies.
“I think most people don’t think of (Nettles) as the real leader of the group, but she met (Applewhite) when he was obviously at a vulnerable point,” says sociologist Janja Lalich. “She convinced him that he was her soulmate. (Nettles) really recruited (Applewhite), and (Applewhite) was her follower. … She was very much the force behind the founding of the group, and the way the group functioned.”
Benjamin Zeller, a religious scholar and the author of “Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion,” agrees.
“She deduces that they are fated to work together on some grand project,” Zeller says in the series. “They are destined to be spiritual partners.”
Nettles and Applewhite grew close, although they were never romantically involved, the docuseries says. After an “awakening” in the mid-70s, they decided they were “the Two,” alien beings in human “vehicles” who would teach others about the Next Level and lead followers into outer space.
2. Applewhite’s music background was a factor in the cult, where he and Nettles were known as “Do” and “Ti.”
At various points in cult history, Applewhite and Nettles were known as “the Two,” “Bo” and “Peep,” and “Do” and “Ti.” The names “Do” and “Ti” were linked to their fondness for musical theater and in particular, Nettles’ admiration for “The Sound of Music.” The show includes the song “Do-Re-Mi,” performed as the main character, the free-spirited governess Maria, teaches her young charges about the musical scale.
To please Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate members sang their own version of “Do-Re-Mi,” altering the lyrics to suit cult lore. A performance of the tune, “When You Know Ti and Do,” was filmed about three months before the group committed suicide.
“Do’s first love was music,” author Zeller says in the docuseries. “Before he got into religion and spirituality, it was music.”
In the first episode of the series, titled “The Awakening,” composer Neely Bruce, a former student of Applewhite’s, offers his recollections of Applewhite at the University of Alabama.
“It’s very disorienting when you call him Marshall,” Bruce says. “Nobody called him Marshall; everybody called him Herff. So when Herff Applewhite came to the University of Alabama, he didn’t look at all like a professor. He was very casual, very laid-back. There was no hint that all this catastrophe was looming in his future. He had a fantastic voice. He had a lot of charisma. He was such a natural performer. He would have the audience in the palm of his hand.
“But it was widely rumored that he was having an affair with one of the male graduate students, and his father was a very, very hard-nosed Presbyterian minister who did not like the fact that he had a gay son. His wife divorced him. I remember her very well, very nice family,” Bruce says. “Then that seems to put him in a bit of a tailspin, and so on. He left Alabama for Houston. I got a call, telling me that this notorious couple in the news was actually, you know, Herff Applewhite and his former nurse.
“This is the story that I heard: He was going to attempt a career on the opera stage in Houston Grand Opera. He was going to do his biggest role there, which was the role of Olin Blitch. He’s a traveling preacher who seduces Susannah in the opera ‘Susannah.’ He was in rehearsal, and he has some sort of a psychotic episode, and was actually hospitalized,” Bruce says.
At this point, the docuseries indicates, Applewhite had his fateful encounter with Nettles. They forged a strong connection, and a cult was born.
3. Applewhite and Nettles gave cult members new names, all of which ended in “ODY.”
New names were part of the cult’s indoctrination, which aimed to separate followers from their previous lives.
“What cults need to do is to turn you into a conformist, to get you to hopefully become a true believer,” sociologist Lalich says in the docuseries. “They need to break down ‘you,’ and create a new you.”
Names chosen for Heaven’s Gate members had six letters: three letters plus “ODY,” all of which were capitalized. Examples included MLLODY, SRRODY, TLLODY, RTHODY, CHKODY and ALXODY.
“Ti and Do said that the Next Level was adopting us into their family,” explains Sawyer, a longtime cult member known as SWYODY(pronounced “soy-oh-dee”). “So the family name was O-D-Y.”
Applewhite and Nettles said the “ODY” names identified their followers as children of the Next Level.
“When we became adults, they would drop the Y so we would be the family of OD,” Sawyer says, “which was like a little Next Level humor, because we were kind of odd.”
4. Applewhite, in crisis, reformulated the cult’s philosophy after Nettles died in 1985.
Initially, Applewhite and Nettles preached that followers would undergo a biological transformation and become perfect alien beings. (The docuseries compares this to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.) When the time was right, Applewhite and Nettles said, everyone in the group would physically travel on a UFO to an outer-space version of heaven.
The two said they’d already reached a state of alien perfection, and were now existing in human “vehicles” to help others achieve the miraculous change. Reality intruded, however, when Nettles became ill with cancer. Her death in 1985 — which did not resemble a glorious alien rebirth — was in direct conflict with Heaven’s Gate teachings.
“We were all devastated, most of all Do,” recalls Frank Lyford, a former member known as ANDODY. “How could this happen? This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were all supposed to graduate together.”
To make sense of this, Applewhite altered the cult’s philosophy. He announced that death was actually necessary for the alien transformation. Their souls, not their bodies, would evolve into alien beings and be whisked away to outer-space nirvana. Nettles had left her body behind and was waiting for them.
This crucial shift in thinking, the docuseries says, led to the mass suicide in 1997.
5. Applewhite, as sole leader of the cult, asked members to marry him in a group ceremony.
Applewhite had always deferred to Nettles and called her the “older member.” She leaned to metaphysical philosophies, and Applewhite followed her lead. But in her absence, Applewhite’s ideas about religion and spirituality came to the fore, and the cult became more biblical in its outlook.
“It’s no more than a decade after her death that Do publicly declares himself Jesus returned to Earth and declares that Ti was the one known as God the Father,” author Zeller says in the docuseries.
Applewhite also designed a loyalty test, asking his followers: If each of you had $100 to spend on yourself, what would you buy? The correct answer, it turned out, was a wedding ring — a simple gold band that symbolized commitment and devotion.
“Do became even more obsessed with control after (Nettles) passed on,” Lyford, a former cult member, says in the docuseries.
“And so he had a little ceremony, to where we were marrying him,” Sawyer says. “He was birthing students into the next level.”
6. Applewhite and several other members of the cult were castrated.
Heaven’s Gate required its members to adopt a uniform — unisex shirt-and pants ensembles — and a blunt pixie haircut. Sensuality and sexual contact were outlawed, because Next Level aliens were said to be asexual.
“Since we are moving into a world that is genderless, we are doing everything that we can do to not identify with gender,” Applewhite said in a training video.
The concept was heightened after Applewhite took control of the cult — so much so that he said the men of Heaven’s Gate should consider castration. Sex was a powerful drug, Applewhite said, and cult members had to go through a withdrawal process to overcome it.
“Marshall Applewhite didn’t like his homosexuality, so he created a myth around that piece that he didn’t like,” a former cult member says in the docuseries. “He came to a conclusion about his body, that it was abhorrent.”
“Do held a meeting and he said that he had a nocturnal emission, and he was investigating having himself castrated,” Sawyer says in the docuseries. “Would any of you have reservations of having the same procedure done?”
The cult attempted its own castrations, but the first try resulted in a hospital visit for Steven McCarter, known as SRRODY. (Sawyer says he threw SRRODY’s testicles off a pier, to get rid of the evidence.) After that, Sawyer says, the cult found doctors to perform the surgery, and Applewhite was among those who were castrated.
“Eventually, there were, depending on which source you look to, between seven and nine men within the group that had been castrated,” author Zeller says in the docuseries. “But most of the men were not interested in having the surgery done.”
7. Applewhite committed suicide with his followers, and was not the last to die.
By the mid-1990s, cult membership had dwindled and efforts to recruit others — via a website, radio interviews and other methods — were finding little success. Applewhite decided it was time to leave the planet. The group needed a sign from above, however, and found it in comet Hale-Bopp, which appeared in the sky in 1996 and burned brightly overhead in early 1997.
Rumor had it that a giant spaceship was hiding behind the comet, but the members of Heaven’s Gate said that was irrelevant.
“The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is the ‘marker’ we’ve been waiting for — the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World’ — in the literal Heavens,” the Heaven’s Gate website said. “Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”
At this point, members of Heaven’s Gate were living in a large house in Rancho Santa Fe, California. To prompt their exit, Applewhite and 38 followers ingested a lethal concoction of phenobarbital and vodka, mixed into applesauce or pudding.
Their bodies were found by police on March 26, 1997. All cult members were wearing black uniforms and black Nike sneakers with a white swoosh, and most were covered with purple shrouds. Applewhite’s body was separate from the others, lying on a king-size bed in the master bedroom.
According to the docuseries, members of the group “laid down their vehicles” in three shifts on March 23, with each shift cleaning up after the preceding one. Applewhite joined the second group, instead of waiting for all of his followers to die.
“One last thing we’d like to say is, ‘39 to beam up,’ cult member Denise Thurman says in a farewell video.
Keith Raniere targeted wealthy and seemingly happy women. But by preying on their insecurities, he got them to do things they never imagined
There was a method to the branding. It was supposed to be precisely seven strokes — one line across, and two diagonal lines down to form the sideways K; then four smaller lines to form the sideways R beneath, the little spoon to the big spoon of the K. The women were supposed to be naked. They were supposed to be videotaped. They were supposed to be held down on a table, arms above the head, legs spread, ankles and wrists bound; helpless, vulnerable, exposed. And they were supposed to say the following: “Please brand me. It would be an honor. An honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.”
This last part was the most important. “They should probably say that before they’re held down, so it doesn’t seem like they were being coerced,” Keith Raniere told actress Allison Mack, his lover, disciple, and slave.
“OK,” Mack responded in a soft voice. She already knew most of this, because she had already been branded.
Later, Raniere instructs Mack what to tell the women unwittingly being branded with his initials: “Pain is how we know how much we love. We know the depth of our love through pain. When they feel the pain, they think of that love.”
A recording of this January 9, 2016 conversation was presented as evidence in the criminal trial against Raniere, the 59-year-old head of NXIVM, a company offering self-improvement seminars and workshops that was based in Clifton Park, an Albany, New York, suburb dappled with shopping centers and two-story colonials. NXIVM was founded by Raniere and Nancy Salzman, a former registered nurse with schoolmarm glasses and a sensible haircut; he was called “Vanguard,” while she was known as “Prefect.” Recruits paid more than $7,500 for grueling, 12-hour “intensives” featuring NXIVM’s patented Executive Success Program (ESP) technology, a patchwork of various self-help programs, religious ideologies, and hypnosis techniques. They could also take classes through the smaller companies under the NXIVM umbrella: the Source, a workshop for actors led by Mack; Delegates, a Task Rabbit-esque startup primarily staffed by younger, female members; and JNESS, a female empowerment group whose Facebook wall features Martin Luther King Jr. quotes juxtaposed against a pastel-pink template.
At the head of all of these companies was Raniere, 59, a self-proclaimed former-child-prodigy-turned-guru, who stood trial last summer on sex trafficking, racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy charges. Raniere was accused, among other things, of using NXIVM as a recruitment network for DOS, which prosecutors referred to as a secret “sex cult” within NXIVM. Mack and other female NXIVM members were the “masters,” while Raniere was the “grandmaster” at the head of the group, instructing women in DOS to recruit “slaves” for the purpose of his sexual pleasure. The branding Raniere described in the January 2016 conversation with Mack was part of the slaves’ initiation ritual.
The women recruited as DOS slaves, as they recounted on the stand, were told to give up “collateral” as the price of entry, such as videos of themselves masturbating or postmarked “confessions” that relatives or loved ones had sexually abused them. They were told to text their “masters” up-close photos of their unshaven vulvas, always keeping their faces in the shot so they were fully identifiable. They were told to stick to low-calorie diets, to wake up in the middle of the night to respond to “readiness drills” or texts from their “masters” or risk being paddled, and to abstain from sexual activity with anyone but Raniere. They talked about how they were instructed to buy BDSM sex toys as part of a “dungeon” to be built in the basement of DOS headquarters that would include cages, vibrating rubber paddles, and “puppy plugs … perfect for puppy play or naughty slaves.” (Plans for the dungeon were scrapped when the Feds started closing in.) Many, though not all of them, were branded, and they talked about how excruciatingly painful it was: how you could hear the cauterizing pen sizzle against raw skin, how one woman squealed and screamed so loud and so long that the women gave her a cloth to bite on.
DOS slaves weren’t told that they were being branded with Raniere’s initials, nor were they told that Raniere was the mastermind behind the group. Instead, they were told by Mack and other top-line “masters” that DOS was a badass, if slightly unorthodox, feminist group meant to help women build discipline and overcome their intimacy issues. As assistant U.S. attorney Tanya Hajaar put it during opening remarks, “The defendant maintained a charade: Even though he controlled the victims’ lives, it was about female empowerment.” Through it all, Raniere sat quietly, occasionally scribbling notes on Post-Its to his attorney. On most days, he wore a jewel-toned crewneck and khakis, looking less like the head of a BDSM sex cult than a Latin instructor at a New England prep school.
This contrast between Raniere’s nebbishy, avuncular appearance and his seduction abilities was the second-most frequent topic of conversation among the press during breaks in the trial.
By far the most popular topic of discussion, however, was how these women could have possibly convinced themselves they were signing up for a female-oriented wellness and empowerment group in the first place. No one went so far as to blame the women or accuse them of perpetuating their trauma — as journalists covering sensitive subjects like abuse and consent, we ostensibly knew better than that. Yet on days when the testimony was particularly brutal, the tenor of the discussions would come uncomfortably close. The branding, the nude photos, the seduction tasks, the sexually explicit collateral: Why would they agree to do these things? How could they have not suspected that the man they were being tasked to seduce, ostensibly as a sort of Abrahamic test of faith, was the one pulling the strings all along? How could this endless parade of smart, attractive, accomplished women so easily have given up their freedom and their bodies to this hairy, middle-aged guy who looked like an extra on the set ofRushmore?How could they not have known?
Raniere’s ability to persuadedozens of beautiful women to send him photos of their genitalia was arguably without precedent. But otherwise, very little about him or NXIVM was original.
Executive Success Program (ESP), the patented “technology” that served as the basis of its curriculum, was little more than a mélange of psychotherapeutic and self-help teachings, with a dash of early wellness industry-speak thrown in. It has been referred to as a combination of the 1970s self-help program EST and Objectivism, the ideological system founded by neoliberal icon Ayn Rand.
NXIVM “was an old bag of tricks, repackaged,” regurgitating “universal truths about how to improve yourself and how to look closer at the things that are getting in your way of success and your fears,” says Diane Benscoter, a cult expert who has closely worked with former members. Indeed, Teah Banks, a former NXIVM member in its early years, says that after she left the group, she recognized many ESP techniques in the book Stress Management for Dummies.
Raniere’s taste for kink — the conflation of love with pain as heard on his call with Mack about DOS — was arguably derivative, too. According to Toni Natalie, Raniere’s ex-girlfriend and an early NXIVM whistleblower, Raniere had little interest in BDSM while they were dating in the 1990s, crediting the popularity ofFifty Shades of Greywith inspiring Raniere’s taste for sadomasochism — or, at the very least, co-opting the language of the consensual-kink community to further his own desires to exploit and control women. “Like I’ve always said, the man is not capable of having an original thought,” Natalie says dryly.
A dark-haired woman in her early sixties with wide eyes and a predilection for understated silver, tribal jewelry, Natalie has spent the past two decades of her life vacillating between trying to fight her ex-boyfriend in court and trying to get people to understand him. Her new bookThe Program: Inside the Mind of Keith Raniere and the Rise and Fall of NXIVM,co-written with journalist Chet Hardin, documents both efforts, detailing her relationship with Raniere and her lengthy legal battles with NXIVM.
Natalie met Raniere in the early 1990s while he was running Consumers’ Buyline, a multilevel marketing scheme. At the time, Raniere was being branded by the company as the “smartest man in the world,” a label that stemmed from the results of a take-home IQ test he took in the 1980s that led to him being included inThe Guinness Book of World Records(albeit just one Australian edition).
At the time she met Raniere, Natalie was 29 and in what she describes as a sexless marriage to her third husband, a tanning-salon owner. Raniere, she says, made her feel special — but perhaps more importantly, he made her feel smart. She’d left high school to get married for the first time at 17, and she was deeply self-conscious about her lack of formal education. “What Keith was able to do was immediately ascertain your weak points and insecurities,” Natalie says. “And then he takes those insecurities and convinces you he’s helping you with them. But it’s just things he uses to hold you hostage.”
For eight years, Raniere and Natalie lived together, with him serving as a father figure of sorts to her young son. All the while, Raniere was surrounded by a cohort of women who worked for his company, including Pam Cafritz, Karen Unterreiner, and Kristin Keeffe. These women, whom Raniere referred to as “the girls,” came from a wide range of backgrounds: Cafritz was the daughter of D.C. Republican socialites, while Keeffe was a former waitress who had met Raniere while waiting tables in Albany. All, however, were united in their fierce devotion to him.
Following the failure of Consumers’ Buyline, Raniere and Natalie opened a health-food store and cafe in upstate New York. It was through this business that Natalie met Salzman, who visited the store to find relief for her chronic constipation (“she was, quite literally, full of shit,” as Natalie puts it). Salzman touted herself as an expert in NLP (neurolinguistic programming), a form of therapy that uses tactics such as body language mirroring and hypnotherapy to help followers overcome personal obstacles. (It haslargely been dismissed as pseudoscience.) She offered to give Raniere and Natalie private NLP sessions to help them with their relationship issues, which led to Raniere taking private meetings with Salzman in the back of the health-food store.
The result of their collaboration, Natalie writes, was “like putting two volatile chemicals together in a mad scientist’s lab: The resulting compound was both explosive and dangerous.” Disillusioned by what Natalie viewed as the exploitative NLP method and Raniere’s increasingly arrogant behavior, the two broke up in 1999. Almost immediately, “the girls” jumped into offense mode, urging Natalie to take him back; when that failed, she says, they stole her mail, hacked into her hard drives, and filed multiple lawsuits accusing her of stealing money from Raniere, strategies they would use against Natalie and any other perceived Raniere enemies for almost two decades.
In 2000, Raniere filed a patent for the “rational inquiry method,” which would serve as the basis for ESP. Raniere’s reputation as the “smartest man alive,” combined with Salzman’s credentials as a nurse and NLP expert, allowed the group to rack up many high-profile supporters fairly early on, most notably Clare and Sara Bronfman, the heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, who would later go on to spend nearly $140 million bankrolling the group’s lawsuits against Natalie and other detractors. The patented ESP “technology” allowed Raniere to “couch” the group’s methods by basing them in “rational thought,” says Josh Bloch, an investigative journalist and host of the CBC podcast Escaping NXIVM: “I could see how that would sound very attractive to someone who might be turned off by flaky or nonscientific messaging.”
Underneath that thin patina of pseudoscience, however, the leader of NXIVM had some pretty strange ideas. Chief among them were his theories about gender, which emerged into sharper relief as the group gained influence. “One thing that was [taught] was that men biologically, by their nature are primitive. They want to propagate. They want to create more children to create a tribe,” says Barbara Bouchey, a former Raniere girlfriend and high-ranking NXIVM member who left the group in 2009. “So men and their biological chemistry were prone to want to have multiple partners, whereas women based on their biological nature were at home in the cave caring for people.”
During the trial, it was often argued by the prosecution that such teachings served as a way to justify Raniere’s polyamorous lifestyle. But this is not exactly true. Only the highest-ranking NXIVM members were aware that Raniere was sleeping with most of the female board members, with most of the group’s lower-ranking members believing him to be something akin to a renunciate. The group “operated in silos,” says Bloch. “[The leadership] did a very good job with the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.” Indeed, both Bouchey and Natalie deny having had any knowledge of Raniere’s extracurricular sexual activities while they were involved with him; when Natalie discovered graphic nude photos of “the girls” after their breakup, she said she felt devastated by the betrayal, particularly by Cafritz, whom she had considered “like a sister.”
But as NXIVM grew and Raniere expanded his reach, his views on the biological differences between men and women became more difficult to ignore. JNESS, the women’s group co-founded by Cafritz in 2007, taught that men inherently had more character and fortitude than women, who were more prone to flightiness and “game-playing,” a Raniere term for deceit and manipulation. The male equivalent to JNESS, the Society of Protectors (SOP), took these theories to the next level: according to one former member who testified at the trial, a coed SOP module gave female members tiaras or princess wands for being too “princess-y,” while one woman wearing a low-cut top to a meeting was given a blue ribbon for showing off her “udders.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what attracted women to this type of messaging. Part of its success was attributable to the fact that Raniere was well-versed enough in the language of corporate female empowerment for his misogyny to escape notice. Indeed, a large part of what attracted women to NXIVM was Raniere openly advocating for women in leadership roles. “His thing was always that the company would be better if there were women in power, because women are stronger, women are this, women are that,” Natalie says. Of course, Raniere did not install women in high-ranking positions within NXIVM because he thought they were smarter or stronger or better qualified; he did it says Natalie, because he believed “women were easier to control.” But it’s easy to see how a female recruit could see the largely female executive board and assume that the company promoted the interests of women.
Yet the misogyny inherent in Raniere’s teachings also appealed to some women on a much deeper level. Some of the women in NXIVM had come of age in an era of body-positive Dove ads and girl-power messaging, and had largely felt failed by its promises. Having sampled all of the wellness industry’s offerings on their path to enlightenment — the teas, the classes, the pastel-hued self-help paperbacks , the meditation apps, the rose-quartz vagina-tightening sticks — many felt disillusioned and more spiritually depleted than before. For many of these women, the goal wasn’t so much toward enlightenment or even fulfillment so much as it was feeling some semblance of OK. But the journey toward self-love proved so exhausting that the prospect of simply accepting their biological fate and ceding all of their power to men proved not just alluring, but irresistible.
This seemed to have been especially true for women like Mack, whom a friend described to the New York Times as someone “constantly searching for something that was missing in her life.” (Mack did not return Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.) Mack started taking NXIVM classes in 2006 when she was 23, in the hopes that she could learn to become a better actress; after Smallville ended in 2011, she struggled to find work and began to immerse herself even deeper into NXIVM, withdrawing from her friends and family members. One of the witnesses at trial, former board member Mark Vicente, testified that he viewed Mack as “unbalanced,” and became concerned about her mental health during this time.
But Mack felt otherwise. In an email to Raniere read at trial, she explained how grateful she was to be deep in his thrall, how disappointing her own strides toward self-empowerment had been, how nothing made her feel so powerful as to be made by him to feel powerless. “I spent so much time throughout my life listening to music about being ‘beautiful without doing anything,’ being ‘an independent woman,’ being every woman,” Mack lamented. “The ‘fierce’ and phenomenal woman’ lie is so encouraged and pervasive. It is the root of such pride, such violence, such prejudice.”” She then thanked Raniere for the threesome they had with another NXIVM member the night before.
Prior to NXIVM, Raniere’s weapon of choice was his small group of “girls” — namely, Unterreiner, Keeffe, and most importantly, Cafritz. But as NXIVM grew, so too did what prosecutors referred to during the trial as Raniere’s “inner circle.” There was Mack, Bouchey, Cafritz, Unterreiner, Keeffe, and Bronfman, but also Lauren Salzman, the daughter of “Prefect” Nancy, a wan, frail woman with dark circles under her eyes; Nicki Clyne, the saucer-eyed blond Canadian Battlestar Galactica actress; and Rosa Laura Junco, the improbably pretty daughter of a powerful Mexican publisher, who was so devoted to Raniere that she offered him her teenage daughter Lauris as his DOS slave and virgin successor.
The women all looked somewhat similar: in their early thirties to mid-forties, dark-eyed, tastefully dressed. Above all else, they were slender, almost painfully so: Raniere was obsessed with controlling women’s weight, to the degree that some of their fingers became stained with the color of the carrots and squash they exclusively ate at dinner. He was unabashed about weaponizing their insecurities about weight, telling one partner that the extra 10 pounds she’d gained “hurts my heart physically” and refusing to sleep with her till she shed them.
Within the “inner circle,” sex with Raniere was positioned as a crucial step toward achieving enlightenment, a spiritual reward in and of itself, and women who were having sex with Raniere were said to be “working with” him. Unsurprisingly, this idea was primarily propagated by Raniere himself, who claimed that women who swallowed his semen sometimes saw an ethereal “blue light,” and that those who refused to participate in a group oral sex session weren’t “committed to [their] personal growth.”
The NXIVM inner circle was not just a source of sexual gratification for Raniere. It was also his ultimate weapon. If one girlfriend was unhappy with Raniere, or had committed what was perceived as an ethical “breach” (NXIVM jargon for an act that ran counter to the group’s values), other members of the inner circle, primarily Cafritz, were tasked to bring them back into the fold.
They were tasked with going after NXIVM “enemies,” an ever-growing cast of journalists, defectors, and Raniere ex-girlfriends perceived as threats to the organization. “Alone, he would’ve just been a man,” U.S. attorney Marc Lesko said during closing. “Within his inner circle, he was the ruler of the universe in Clifton Park.”
Bronfman led the charge on this front, funneling $150 million into the group’s legal efforts. A former champion equestrian, Bronfman rose in the ranks to become Raniere’s capo, patron, and arguably most cutthroat defender. “Keith took her and put her on a pedestal. He made her important in the community and gave her a leadership role. She’d never had that before,” Bouchey tells me. The Bronfman-funded lawsuits were intended to, and ultimately did, completely decimate NXIVM critics like Natalie, whose own mother was forced to file for bankruptcy when she could no longer afford to help her daughter fight the suits. “Financially, how do you go up against the Bronfmans? They wiped us out,” Natalie says. “There’s no equalizer there.”
As the inner circle expanded, Raniere exerted ultimate control over his followers. He dictated everything from what they ate to who they slept with (no one but him and other women in the inner circle), and how they groomed their pubic hair. He was particularly skilled at capitalizing on the insecurities shared by many women of mid-to-late childbearing age: whether they were thin enough, whether they were sexual enough, whether they would be able to balance career with family. This was especially true for Salzman, who testified that she desperately wanted to have a child with Raniere, and spent 15 years with him dangling this over her head, only to have it abruptly yanked away after a perceived “ethical breach.” “I committed to stay with nothing. No relationship, no baby. Nothing,” she testified through choked sobs.
Bouchey, who left the group in 2009 and has also been embroiled for years in legal battles with Raniere and NXIVM, believes that the women who were willing to sacrifice so much for Raniere, only to get so little in return, had one trait in common. “They were what I would call weak-willed women,” she says. “They were smart, they were sensitive, they were caring. But were they confident? No.” Raniere, she says, went out of his way to surround himself with women who were successful by societal standards — privileged, attractive, well-educated — but who did not have the financial independence nor street smarts to assert themselves and their own autonomy.
Natalie has a similar theory. While the women in Raniere’s inner circle were all extremely bright, they tended to lack substantive family ties, and all were “insecure and damaged in some fundamental way,” making them easier to control. “He convinces you that your successes are not your own. Your successes are only because he exists,” she says.
Both of these theories, however, actually contradict much of the available research on cults. Aside from a few general demographic traits, such as being white, middle-to-upper-middle-class, and having an above-average IQ, there is no one set of characteristics that differentiates people who join cults from people who don’t, says Dr. Steve Eichel, one of the world’s foremost cult-studies experts. Cult leaders don’t look for people who are any more “broken” than most of the population. What they look for, he says, is people who are in transition, who have just lost a job or ended a marriage or had a child. “You look for people who are vulnerable. And the problem is we are all vulnerable to cultic influence at various times in our lives,” he says. “[The] primary cause of cult membership is bad luck.”
It’s fair to be skeptical about this explanation. After all, in the grand scheme of things, very few people join a cult; even fewer people (about 16,000) actually took NXIVM classes, and fewer still joined DOS. It seems like a bit of a stretch to say that anyone is vulnerable to joining a cult when so few people actually do. But when you consider all of the women who spend thousands on spin classes or serums or pastel-branded all-female co-working startups, who whittle themselves down to nothing to run a race that has no finish line in sight, who are told to surrender all of their power in order to ostensibly build up their own, then, of course, it makes sense that women would feel empowered by Keith Raniere. When you’re taught for years that pain is love and love is pain and one is the only way to measure the depths of the other, it doesn’t make a difference if the person telling you that is your boyfriend or your spin instructor or an Instagram ad for laxative tea or a fleshy-cheeked, nebbishy, middle-aged guy with a seemingly endless supply of crewneck sweaters. It’s the same message from a different messenger. It’s an old bag of tricks, repackaged.
In November 2016, Cafritz died after a lengthy battle with cancer. Her death was devastating for NXIVM members, some of whom shared a meme on Facebook memorializing her work with JNESS, with the quote: “If we want to have more women’s empowerment, we need to have a core essence of what it means to be female and how to uphold the female principle within ourselves.”
But it was arguably more devastating to Raniere, who had been involved with Cafritz for nearly 30 years and who relied on her as a fixer of sorts. She was the one Raniere dispatched to calm down angry girlfriends, and she became such a frequent presence at the local Planned Parenthood, where Raniere would send his partners to get abortions, that the staff recognized her. Natalie, who knew her former best friend had been sick and had been waiting for her to call toward the end of her life, believes Cafritz was both one of Raniere’s last ties to humanity, and one of his most tragic victims. “I wonder what he did to Pam. I wonder why she did the things that she did,” Natalie tells me. “It still haunts me.”
During the trial, both the defense and the prosecution framed Cafritz’s death as formative in Raniere’s decision to create DOS, albeit in totally different ways. Raniere’s lead attorney, Marc Agnifilo, said Cafritz’s death prompted Raniere to consider his “legacy” and what he hoped to leave behind, eventually settling on DOS, which he created with “the best of intentions” as a support system for women. Assistant U.S. district attorney Moira Penza argued that DOS was created to fulfill the role that Cafritz had always played: a pimp for Raniere. She cited 2016 texts between Raniere and a DOS slave named Camilla, in which he tells her it would be good for her “to own a fuck toy slave for me that you could groom as a tool.” The texts were sent in 2015, a year before Cafritz died of cancer.
On paper, the goal of DOS was the same as set forth by Cafritz in JNESS: female empowerment. “It was pitched as women getting together, women supporting women, that kind of thing,” says a a 43-year-old writer whom Mack attempted to recruit to DOS in 2016. (She asked that Rolling Stone keep her anonymous, citing a concern over any potential ties to NXIVM threatening her job security.) “It was not specific at all in terms of the mission,” she says. Raniere wanted to create a worldwide network of female “slaves” and “masters,” using NXIVM’s marketing tools and high-profile members like Mack to cultivate women of influence, such as Emma Watson, Beverley Mitchell, and Jill Filipovic, to join the group. (None ever did.) His vision was dizzyingly ambitious: in one recorded call played during the trial, Raniere envisioned the organization becoming so powerful it would sway the U.S. 2020 general election.
Raniere had a few requirements for admission. You had to be attractive, young, and thin (or at least, willing to become thin in a short period of time). And with a few exceptions, you had to be single, with the logic being it’s easier to persuade women to send you photos of their vulvas if their spouses aren’t around to get in the way. But this criterion also helped winnow down the applicant pool to a specific kind of woman, the type of woman who had felt failed by the “fierce and phenomenal woman” stereotype Mack had maligned in her email, the type of woman who had not yet ticked off the requisite wife and mother and career boxes society demands women to check off one by one, and whose perceived failure to do so likely made her insecure, and therefore more pliable.
Nicole, an aspiring actress with glossy brown hair and the craniofacial structure of a baby sparrow, was one of these women. Unlike Mack, she still believed in the concept of the fierce and phenomenal woman. In fact, as she testified, she dreamed of playing a role like Wonder Woman. “That was the kind of woman I wanted to become,” she said. A Los Angeles transplant in her late twenties who’d moved to New York to kick-start her acting career, Nicole had taken a few classes with the Source, NXIVM’s company for actors. Nicole was in transition: She’d just broken up with her boyfriend, her career was in a downslide, and she was regretting her move to New York to the point that she was borderline suicidal, as she confided in Mack, whom she considered a mentor. A concerned Mack invited her to coffee, where she pitched her on an “an intense, growing empowerment group where women pushed each other to be stronger physically [and] mentally.”
Nicole was intrigued. Her curiosity was further piqued when Mack promised Nicole this secret group would help her live the kind of life she wanted and build the kind of career she wanted; it could, she told her, help her become Wonder Woman. A few days later, Nicole supplied Mack with her collateral: a video of herself masturbating, as well as a letter falsely claiming her father had sexually abused her. A few months later, she would be instructed by Mack to seduce Raniere; a few months after that, she would be branded.
DOS was predicated on the illusion that Raniere had absolutely nothing to do with the organization. “I thought I was getting into a women’s empowerment group,” Nicole testified on the stand through sobs. “[Somehow], I’d become a man’s sex slave.” But even though Raniere’s involvement in DOS was a secret known only to top-line slaves like Mack, so great was his ego that he simply couldn’t help but drop the occasional hint that he was behind it all. Once, while they were in his library together, Raniere told Nicole about how, in the army, recruits would be tasked with scrubbing a tank with a toothbrush, then told they needed to do it all over again when they were done.
When Nicole asked him about the relevance of this anecdote, Raniere responded that just like in the military, “he needed to break me in order to build me back up into a strong woman.”
A man was behind the creation of NXIVM’s secret female empowerment organization.But it took multiple women to help bring it down: Sarah Edmondson, a Vancouver-based actress who had been recruited to DOS by Salzman, then left the group when she was told Raniere was behind it all; and Catherine Oxenberg, theDynastystar and concerned mother of India Oxenberg, who worked for the NXIVM company Delegates and had also been recruited to DOS by Mack.
In the fall of 2017, former NXIVM employee and whistleblower Frank Parlato published a series of articles about DOS on his website, followed byTheNew York Timespublishing a bombshell investigation into the group, featuring photos of Edmondson showing her brand. Oxenberg, too, went to the press, telling Megyn Kelly in November 2017 that India had been branded and instructed to go on a near-starvation diet.
The revelation that the women of NXIVM were running a secret sex cult came as a shock to most within the organization, who had little knowledge of such unsavory activities in the upper ranks. Raniere had, in fact, been so skilled at keeping church and state separate that not even NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman knew about DOS, and she was furious that her daughter and other women “went out and got Keith’s initials branded next to their vaginas,” Lauren testified.
Ever the student of 21st-century feminist discourse, Raniere drafted a statement in his defense to the Times, accusing it of waging a “primitive, covertly misogynistic” campaign to shame his female acolytes for their “alternative lifestyles.” At one point, he compared DOS slaves to the authors of the Declaration of Independence. But the damage had already been done. Disgusted by the report, longtime members started slowly peeling off one by one.
True to form, the “inner circle” stayed strong, even after FBI investigators closed in and Raniere fled to Mexico in late 2017, staying in a lavish home in a gated community outside Puerto Vallarta. Somehow, DOS was still active during this time, with Raniere asking a number of the first-line slaves to join him in Mexico for a “recommitment ceremony” — essentially, a group blow job.
The recommitment ceremony never happened. In March 2018, Mexican federales arrested Raniere at the plush mansion where he was staying; as Salzman testified, when they arrived, he tried to hide in a closet. Video footage of the arrest shows the women trailing behind the police as they push Raniere into a car; Mack, looking ever the gringa tourist in a black tank and floral drawstring pants, leads the pack, in a daze. Mack, Salzman, her mother Nancy, bookkeeper Kathy Russell, and Bronfman would be arrested later that spring. All of them would enter guilty pleas rather than stand trial with Raniere.
Every once in a while, during the trial, NXIVM members would show up at the courthouse. Though they rarely sat in the defense’s section, it was easy to pick them out in the crowd: They were clean-cut, tanned, and almost eerily handsome. One of them, Mark Elliott, an inspirational speaker who credits Raniere with curing his Tourette’s syndrome, posted an ad on Instagram for a lecture, “Who’s Next? [TM]. The Rise of Character Assassination and Loss of Human Decency,” which promised to tell the true story behind the media’s attacks on NXIVM. After the media caught wind of it, it was quietly deleted. (Elliott, and all others believed to be current NXIVM members that RS reached out to, declined to be interviewed.)
In light of the evidence presented at trial, the fact that Raniere still had his supporters baffled everyone in the press corps. Vicente, the former board member, a rakishly handsome man in his fifties with thick gray hair and a fondness for profanity, says the NXIVM true believers think that despite the paddlings and the brandings and the calorie-counting and the abuse, the good that Raniere did outweighed the bad. He summarized their line of thinking: “Let’s not focus on what happened in the ovens. Let’s focus on what happened on the train on the way there.”
But it’s not just current members who swear that they got something out of NXIVM. Banks told me that ESP taught her to forgive her parents, who had ignored her as a child when she said she was molested. Bouchey spoke highly of Salzman’s skills as a therapist, and told me a story about a woman in NXIVM with stage fright whom Raniere encouraged to participate in NXIVM’s a cappella group. “In order for him to have gotten away with the bad things he did, there had to be a lot of good people doing a lot of good things,” Bouchey told me.
A few days before Raniere was convicted on all charges, the author Jessica Knoll wrote an op-ed on the wellness industry forThe New York Timesthat quickly went viral. The wellness industry, Knoll argued, is a “function of the patriarchal beauty standard under which women either punish themselves to become smaller or are punished for failing to comply.” “When you have to deprive, punish, and isolate yourself to look ‘good,’ it is impossible tofeelgood,” she notes. Wellness, she wrote, isn’t about being freer or stronger. It isn’t about loosening the shackles of oppression and throwing them to the wind. It’s about slipping them onto our wrists and letting someone else tighten the screws. It’s about powerlessness. It’s about surrender. It’s about love, and pain, and letting people tell us we don’t know the difference. What Knoll’s piece exposed wasn’t so much the stark truth of the wellness industry, but the brutal truth about the condition of womanhood in general, which is that so many of us hate ourselves so intensely and so often that there is no limit to the amount of pain we are willing to endure to change that.
Keith Raniere was wrong about a lot of things. He was right about one: Women are raised to believe that their ability to solve all of their problems is directly correlated with their proximity to a man. And when you are raised to believe that men carry with them the solutions to all of your problems, it isn’t so much of a stretch to conclude that this could mean any man: that one with the ring, or that one with the job offer, or that one with the soft patient voice and the floppy hair and seemingly endless supply of crewneck sweaters, who looks at you like you are his breakfast and tells you, in a soft, patient voice, that breaking you down is the only way for you to become stronger.
“Wild Wild Country” is earning strong buzz on Netflix for investigating the rise and fall of a spiritual cult that made headlines in Oregon throughout the 1980s. The documentary is one of many titles in the fascinating subgenre of controversial religious documentaries.
RAJNEESH MOVEMENT, “WILD WILD COUNTRY”
Netflix’s six-part series chronicles the rise and fall of the Rajneesh movement, founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s. The cult established Rajneeshpuram, a 64,000-acre Oregon ranch, and poisoned the local community in order to win a political election.
BUDDHAFIELD CULT, “HOLY HELL”
Will Allen was a member of the Buddhafield movement for 22 years and the footage he recorded inside the cult provides the basis for “Holy Hell.” Allen also shot interviews of ex-members to paint a chilling portrait of group founder Michel Rostand.
SCIENTOLOGY, “GOING CLEAR”
Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear” is considered the definitive Scientology documentary with a thorough history of the religion, founder L. Ron Hubbard, and its manipulative and life-threatening policies under current leader David Miscavige.
FLDS, “PROPHET’S PREY”
Amy Berg’s film takes aim at Warren Jeffs, leader of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jeffs currently runs the cult from prison, where he’s serving a life sentence for raping two teenage girls.
PEOPLES TEMPLE, “THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE”
Stanley Nelson’s Tribeca-winning documentary centers on Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones, who established the Jonestown settlement in Guyana. Jones famously carried out a mass suicide, poisoning 918 members in 1978.
THE FAMILY, “CHILDREN OF GOD”
John Smithson’s 1994 “Children of God” interviews one family about being raised in The Family, a cult in which sexually abusing children was common practice. Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix were born into The Family, but fled with relatives when they were children.
BRANCH DAVIDIANS, “WACO: THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
William Gazecki’s 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary looks at the 1993 Waco incident with the Branch Davidians, a religious cult run by David Koresh. An ATF raid led to a shootout and a 51-day FBI standoff that resulted in the deaths of Koresh and 82 of his followers.
MANSON FAMILY, “MANSON”
Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick’s 1973 Oscar-nominated documentary provides an intimate look at the Manson Family with interviews with Charles Manson and his former members, plus footage that takes viewers inside the family’s Devil’s Canyon compound.
HEAVEN’S GATE, “HEAVEN’S GATE: THE UNTOLD TRUE STORY”
“Haven’s Gate” was a San Diego-based UFO religious cult founded in 1974 by Marshall Applewhite. Sergio Myers’ film tells the origin story leading up to March 1997, when 39 members participated in a mass suicide in order to reach an extraterrestrial spacecraft.
THE SOURCE FAMILY, “THE SOURCE FAMILY”
Jodi Wille’s 2012 documentary tells the story of Father Yod, who founded the group and created a commune in the Hollywood Hills. After clashes with Los Angeles authorities, the cult ultimately fled to Hawaii.
AUM SHINRIKYO CULT, “A”
Tatsuya Mori’s 1998 documentary about the Aum Shinrikyo cult follows a 28-year-old group spokesperson who had to sever all family ties to join the sect. The cult carried out the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, which killed 12 people and affected over 1,000 others.
STRONG CITY, “THE CULT AT THE END OF THE WORLD”
Strong City, aka the Lord Our Righteousness Church, was a remote religious community in New Mexico founded by Michael Travesser. Directed by Ben Anthony, the 2007 film follows the cult in real time as Travesser tells his followers that the world will end in October 2007.
SYMBIONESE LIBERATION ARMY, “GUERRILLA: THE TAKING OF PATTY HEARST”
The Symbionese Liberation Army was a domestic terrorist organization active between 1973 and 1975. Robert Stone’s PBS documentary investigates the SLA’s kidnapping of Patty Hearst when she was 19, where she was sexually assaulted and brainwashed.
Secret societies likethe Illuminati and the Freemasonsalways seem to get the limelight. However, a good number of lesser-known groups have their own strange stories to tell that make them just as interesting as their more famous counterparts.
10: The Order Of Chaeronea
The Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. saw the defeat of the Sacred Band Of Thebes, an elite ancient Greek fighting unit consisting of 150 soldiers and their male lovers. Years later, in 1899, Chaeronea lent its name to a slightly related but very different group—the Order of Chaeronea, an English political organization for gay men.
Cecil Ives founded the group as a means to communicate without fear of persecution. He patterned the order like a true secret society, devising ceremonies and passwords for its members. He also devised a strict set of rules, which kept members from using the society for sexual meet-ups.
Many prominent gay intellectuals joined—Oscar Wilde was reportedly a member. The organization soon spread around the world, enabling Ives to promote gay rights through books and numerous lectures. The order became a modern precursor to 20th-century rights organizations. After Ives’s death, the movement faltered, gaining steam again during the 1990s, especially in the US, and inspiring several offshoots.
9: The Knights Of The Apocalypse
This group formed in 1693 to protect the Catholic Church against the supposed coming of the Antichrist. Members were noted for their peculiar habits, such as bringing swords to work and wearing clothing with an elaborately drawn star on the breast.
The society’s strange behavior could be blamed on the founder himself, a merchant’s son by the name of Agostino Gabrino. A certifiably insane man, Gabrino was known to have disrupted two church masses by waving a sword and proclaiming he was the “King Of Glory.” At his group’s founding, he declared himself a “Monarch of the Holy Trinity” and devised a bizarre set of rules for his knights, which included the practice of polygamy and exclusive marriage to virgins.
A year after the group began, one knight betrayed its existence to the Inquisition. The order was disbanded, and its knights were thrown into prison.
8: The Order Of The Occult Hand
This group had just one goal. Its members inserted one particular phrase—“it was as if an occult hand had“—into newspapers and other publications.
The group had its beginnings when Joseph Flanders, a reporter for the Charlotte News, innocently used the phrase in a report. His friends liked the wording so much that they conspired to copy it as often as possible. Pretty soon, other reporters and journalists from all over the world began using the phrase in their own stories.
The conspiracy was undone in 2004, when James Fanega, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, managed to track down the perpetrators and list the publications they had infiltrated. However, the group bounced back in 2006 when leader Paul Greenberg and the chief members announced that they had picked a new phrase to carry on the tradition. So far, no one has succeeded in finding out the new phrase, which Greenberg claims has already appeared in many major outlets.
7: The Calves’ Head Club
Shortly after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, his opponents formed the Calves’ Head Club to mock his memory. Members met once a year on January 30—the execution’s anniversary—and celebrated a very bizarre dinner, replete with a symbolic axe hung high over the dining room. The menu itself included calves’ heads (which represented the king’s royal office and supporters), a cod’s head (which represented the king himself), and a large pike and boar’s head stuffed with a smaller pike and an apple respectively (which represented the king’s tyranny).
The members had their own anthem that praised the king’s death, and they toasted it with wine from cups made of calf skulls. They also burned a copy of the king’s autobiography while swearing by John Milton’s treatise supporting his execution—Milton himself allegedly founded the group.
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, The Calves’ Head Club had to meet secretly. The club finally met its demise in February 1735, when a mob invaded a meeting and almost lynched several members.
6: The Arioi
The Arioi was a secret society that existed in Tahiti well before any Europeans found their way to the island. The group dedicated itself to the worship of its patron deity Oro, and it traveled extensively in search of new recruits.
To attract new applicants, members did elaborate ritual dances. Anyone could ask to join, but only the most handsome and beautiful were eventually selected, since the society linked beauty to spiritual prowess.
Members had to memorize their rituals perfectly to be recognized; otherwise, they were mocked mercilessly. In addition, the society preached a very free lifestyle, as evidenced by some of their sexually charged rituals. Their behavior evidently disgusted Christian missionaries assigned to the place, with one describing them as “privileged libertines who engaged in abominable, unutterable, and obscene exhibitions.”
For all their profligate habits, the Arioi had a strict rule that forbade childbirth; children would interfere with members’ duties. They routinely aborted the unborn and killed infants. Parents whose children did survive were demoted within the society.
Christian proselytizing eventually put an end to the Arioi by the 19th century.
5: The Scotch Cattle
In response to unfair working conditions, Welsh miners in the 1820s formed a secret union called the Scotch Cattle, named for the fearsome breed of Highland cattle. Each mining town in the region had its own chapter, led by a leader called “the Bull.” Together, members intimidated and attacked those perceived to oppose their cause. Their targets were not limited to oppressive bosses; scabs were also fair prey.
The group usually first sent a warning letter to the offending party. If it was ignored, the members—with blackened faces and dressed in cowskins—would invade the unlucky man’s home at midnight and destroy his property. Sometimes, the members would also beat the man; before leaving, the group would always paint a red bull’s head on the vicitm’s front door.
The Scotch Cattle continued its operations until the 1840s, when more organized trade unions took its place.
4: The Order Of The Peacock Angel
This secret society first formed in Britain in the 1960s, founded on the ancient religious beliefs of the Yezidis—a group that has faced accusations of devil worship from Muslims and Christians alike. The group actually worshiped Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, represented by either a stone statue of a peacock or by a real live bird.
Members believe that the Peacock Angel has the power to answer prayers, and they revere it accordingly. Their meeting room is usually filled with hallowed images of the Peacock Angel; the altar itself is placed in the middle and contains the main symbol of veneration. Members often do a slow ritual dance around the altar while they silently express their wishes. The dance gradually takes on a frenzied pace as religious fervor builds. It ends in ecstatic bliss, with the members satisfied that they are now filled with the Peacock Angel’s divine power.
3: The Leopard Society
Although it had adherents in East Africa, the age-old bloodthirsty Leopard Society thrived mainly in West African nations such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Members of this cult engaged in ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism. Dressed up in a leopard skin and armed with sharp metal claws and teeth, a member would ambush and maul an unwary victim to death. Afterward, the leopard-man collected the victim’s blood and used it to make a potion that he believed would give him supernatural powers.
Following a spate of killings after World War I, colonial authorities in Sierra Leone and Nigeria wrongly thought they had successfully suppressed the cult. The Leopard Society again reared its ugly head after the Second World War, killing more than 40 people. Locals refused to provide any information about the cult because they believed in the leopard-men’s invulnerability. Only after the authorities managed to kill a member in 1948 did several witnesses express their willingness to help.
That breakthrough allowed authorities to find the cult’s hideout, imprison 34 members, and hang another 39. To spread the story that the members were just human, the authorities allowed several local chiefs to view the executions.
2: The Bald Knobbers
This secret vigilante group sprang up in response to the rampant crime and lawlessness that plagued southwest Missouri after the Civil War. Led by their founder, a hulking veteran named Nat Kinney, the Bald Knobbers of Taney Count—so-called because they held secret meetings above bare mountaintops—proceeded to take the law into their own hands. Wearing their coats backward and sporting odd, horned masks, the Bald Knobbers employed such heavy-handed tactics as whipping, beating, and even killing suspected criminals. Eventually, some Bald Knobbers began to use their membership to protect their own criminal activities.
The group’s notoriety peaked in 1887 when they killed two critics and injured their families. Authorities arrested 20 members and executed four others. A year later, Kinney—who had already left the group before the shootings—was killed by an opponent of the organization. Although minor conflicts continued after that, the Bald Knobbers had effectively reached their end by 1889.
1: The Secte Rouge
According to Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American author who traveled to Haiti in the 1930s, the Secte Rouge—also known as Cochon Gris or Vinbrindingue—was a secret society that practiced ritual cannibalism and grave robbing. Although she had no firsthand experience with the society, she had three indirect encounters with the cult.
The first occurred in 1936, when Hurston heard an odd beating of drums late one evening. She wanted to go out to investigate, but her house girl warned her to stay inside, or else they’d risk the cult’s wrath. The second time happened when she questioned a man burning rubber tires near her house. The man explained that the tire smoke was to deter the cult members from abducting his child. Finally, she saw militiamen on a secret operation to suppress an unknown group in a remote area of the island.
All this, plus accounts from locals who swore of the group’s existence, painted the portrait of a murderous cult that met at night in a cemetery and engaged in macabre rituals, including waylaying travelers for human sacrifices.
+: The Skoptsy
In line with some of the craziest rituals ever performed in the name of religion, the Skoptsy of Russia castrated themselves in the belief that it would lead to salvation. Founded in the mid-18th century by two peasants named Andrei Ivanov and Kondratii Selivanov, the Skoptsy believed that genitals and breasts appeared only after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit; consequently, these organs must be removed to live a perfect life.
Shortly after the group’s founding, authorities arrested the two leaders and exiled them to Siberia. Selivanov managed to escape and traveled to St. Petersburg, where he titled himself the Messiah and claimed to be the reincarnation of Tsar Peter III. His preaching attracted many followers. It also attracted renewed attention from the authorities, who arrested him repeatedly and finally locked him up in a monastery for good.
Selivanov’s incarceration and subsequent death did nothing to dampen the sect’s growth. At its height, the Skoptsy were believed to number more than 100,000 and included members of the Russian elite. Following the Communist revolution, the sect’s numbers drastically declined. Today, it is estimated that there are just over 100 left, most located in the sect’s birthplace.
In 1985, recent film-school graduate Will Allen found what appeared to be an exciting alternative community in Los Angeles. Always curious about the meaning of life, Allen was lured by a charismatic South American-born guru known as Michel, who seemed able to answers his questions. With little hesitation, he joined Buddhafield, a group where love and enlightenment flowed in abundance.
It wasn’t until 22 years later that Allen realized he belonged to a cult.
When Will Allen, then 22, was forced to leave home in 1985 after his mother learned he was gay, his sister invited him to join a local alternative community and meditation group in West Hollywood, California she had been attending for nine months. The group, led by Michel Rostand, eventually grew to one hundred members and began calling itself Buddhafield.
The group leader, Michel Rostand—a well-tanned disciplinarian who rarely wore more than Speedos or tight gym shorts—claimed that he could put people directly in touch with god.
Before he became an enigmatic leader to a group of hippies, Rostand was searching for fame in Hollywood. His biggest role was as an extra in the Roman Polanski classic, and a handful of gay porn. He also fancied himself a dancer, and told people he performed in the ballet.
His accomplishments weren’t much, but to him they were monumental. To him, he was a star.
Rostand utilized his acting talent to create a powerful persona that would capture the minds of more than 100 vulnerable souls. He started by holding weekly yoga and meditation sessions at a studio in West Hollywood, and soon the group grew.
Attracted to Michel’s messages of healing and self-fulfillment, newcomers often gave themselves over to Buddhafield readily. Calling him “The Teacher,” they ditched functioning society and moved into one of Buddhafield’s several houses together. Rape survivors, for example, felt cleansed, and lost souls found salvation through Michel’s tutelage and their newfound family. In joining Buddhafield, some sought to escape society’s authoritative decrees or replace drug habits with spiritual highs. Others were tossed out of their homes or contending with trauma or battling disillusionment with their respective religions. Most maintained low-end jobs to pay rent, but they rarely communicated with people who were not part of the roughly 100-member organization. Life as they knew it ended. And for more than two decades, they loved it.
“It somehow felt good to be elite,” Coquet said of his 25 years in the organization. “There was something about it.”
Allen, Coquet and Cheiffo realized that, once they took the plunge, nothing could be halfhearted. Michel, who is also a well-read ballet dancer trained in hypnotherapy, led activities on six nights of the week. If anyone said they’d rather not attend, a friend would question their devotion, insisting that person was stuck inside their own muddled headspace. Supposed enlightenment waited beyond every doubt.
“We all thought we were going to be with him until we died,” Coquet said.
Sometimes the guidelines were more specific. Michel would hand down dictums on an individual basis. His biggest hangups were sexual, as the group later discovered in a dark way. He banned most members from fornicating, citing the release of energy that comes with an orgasm as an inferior high. Often seen in nothing but a Speedo and Ray-Bans, Michel was particularly interested in recruiting attractive young men. Even better if they were virgins. (He was raised Catholic and probably feared the AIDS epidemic that was sweeping the country, Coquet pointed out.) In truth, “everybody was fucking everybody” surreptitiously, one ex-member says in the movie.
Buddhafielders told themselves lies about what was going on, and they fed lies to outsiders too. When the mob appeared in public together, they fibbed about their affiliations. At a movie theater, they would claim to be a “movie club.” While on hikes, they were an “ecological group.” They had T-shirts to prove it.
The rare times anyone conversed with strangers about their personal lives, Buddhafielders lied about where they resided, fearing potential exposure. “Society is not going to understand it, so just don’t even try,” Coquet said of the Buddhafield groupthink.
Barring fleeting skepticism, no insiders questioned Michel’s rules. They’d found tranquility. “There was truth in all of it,” Coquet said. “There were lies and weird manipulations, but they were based on something we really believed in.”
And for a long time, no one would rather return to normal society, anyway.
“‘This [was] such a great way to live, to see life from this way,'” Allen said, describing their justification.
When we think of cults, we picture murder and nutty religious practices. But in Buddhafield, positivity abounded, and they kept up with current events throughout. “There was a lot of humor in everything we did,” Allen recalled. “[Michel] was very funny, and we laughed and laughed and laughed a lot.”
Everyone lived, cooked, did yoga, meditated and attended seminars (including acting and ballet lessons) together. Some worked together too. Allen, Coquet and Cheiffo said they were temporarily employed at an Indian restaurant whose clientele included Barbra Streisand, Ally Sheedy and Michael Jackson. A cultlike faction of Sikhs apparently hired the trio to pose on their behalf because “people in that cult were too spacey to be waiters.” They donned traditional Sikh turbans to appear authentic.
Members paid Michel $50 for weekly hypnotherapy sessions called “cleansings.” Coquet, in fact, was a licensed therapist himself. Michel hired him to give non-hypnotic counsel, while Michel oversaw the sessions oriented toward metaphysical growth. Working closely with Michel lent Coquet and Allen unprecedented access to their teacher.
For his finest act, Michel performed what he called “the knowing.” Promising the most intimate connection to God possible, only privileged disciples were granted “the knowing.” No one wanted to leave before they’d experienced it. Cheiffo, a self-described “punk-rocker” who was loyal for 27 years and received “the knowing” seven months after arriving, said some waited 18 years hoping they’d be selected. The documentary’s subjects liken “the knowing” to an LSD trip: colors swirl, trees sway and divinity presents itself. Today, Allen, Coquet and Cheiffo recognize the manipulativeness of the practice. Michel would employ an ancient Hindu technique, pressing his fingers to the recipients’ eyes in such a way that intense beams of light would form. Using the spiritual teachings they’d been fed, members fixed deep meanings to the experience, often calling it, at most, “God” or, at least, “intoxication.” If it was ineffective, Michel claimed that person wasn’t spiritually prepared to receive “the knowing.”
“When I was actually revealed ‘the knowing,’ I was screaming bloody murder,” Coquet said. “It was so painful to me, and everything in my being was saying, ‘Get out of this house. Leave now.’ And I did everything I could do to just stay there and stick with it. There were other times when it was just amazing. I would put my hands on my eyes and have there be a light show.”
The warning signs were always there, but the tribe’s bond both strengthened and splintered after the FBI raided a Texas cult led by David Koresh in 1993. The standoff ended in flames, killing 76 affiliates of the Branch Davidians sect. Michel panicked. He changed his name to Andreas, effectively creating a new character for himself. Fearing a similar fate, he relocated Buddhafield to Austin. Mutual support within the institution fortified, yet somewhere in that process, a shift occurred. For those who’d been around since the beginning, Andreas’ purpose went from imparting enlightenment to ensuring the group stayed afloat. He was convinced he was a Christlike figure, and history tells us that most Christlike figures are executed.
Members had to derive positivity among themselves. Many were at Andreas’ every beck and call. They got little sleep, yet they were expected to remain alert at all times. One guy made Andreas ornate fruit salads every morning — they were mostly thrown away, but he continued nonetheless. Allen, who lived with The Teacher for 18 of his 22 years in Buddhafield, was tantamount to a personal servant, reading to Andreas and tucking him in nightly, among other tasks. As if being worshiped weren’t enough (some members called him “my lord”), Andreas’ “Howard Hughes neurosis” — Allen’s words — was satisfied at all hours.
Because his role as therapist provided unique access to the mysterious leader, Coquet learned things few did. According to Coquet, Andreas claimed a “persecution complex” as a result of being molested as a young boy. Members later learned that, despite his sex regulations, Andreas was manipulating male Buddhafielders into sleeping with him. Advised never to say no to their teacher, disciples — gay and straight — would receive spiritual awakenings during “cleansings” and then convince themselves to give their bodies to Andreas. They were effectively being raped, but it carried the guise of consent.
No one talked about it. “You’re just a sack of meat to this person,” one man says in the movie. “That’s when I began to hate him.”
Through it all, no one outright confronted Andreas — at least not to Allen, Coquet and Cheiffo’s knowledge. When someone was tempted to raise concerns, another member would encourage them to return to their spiritual center. Those who actually left were forced to “disconnect” from the group, just like in Scientology. (Buddhafielders were sometimes ordered to maintain ostensible friendships with these people to keep tabs on them, should anyone choose to contact the authorities.) But in 2006, a nostalgic apostate returned to Buddhafield after a decade. Unlike some of the current insiders, he was able to spot the change in Michel/Andreas’ spirit. He wasn’t a teacher anymore — he was a master, and a fussy one at that.
Then the returnee heard from his friends that Andreas was a sexual predator. This “character,” as Allen described him, barged into his wife’s cleansing session — a strict no-no — and accused Andreas of hurting his disciples. Andreas denied it and later blamed Cheiffo for not being there to “protect” him. But the damage was done: Before leaving again, the former member wrote an email to the group outlining all of the abuse allegations. More victims came forward. A steady implosion set in.
A few Buddhafielders had already planted seeds toward exiting. Allen, for example, who’d been a kept man, got a job in 2003 so he could save money in case he decided to leave. Most were facing an uphill battle if they chose to reboot their lives, so they didn’t jump ship immediately upon learning of Andreas’ wrongdoings. Even some who had suffered his advances didn’t quit right away. In fact, some victims refuted the allegations altogether, still hoping to protect The Teacher. Instead, Buddhafield saw a gradual wave of departures as people accepted that they belonged to a cult. Andreas left for Hawaii, starting a new clan. Certain loyalists followed him, and he rounded out his numbers with locals who are devoted to him today. Now charging $100 a pop for therapy sessions, Andreas still has all his financial and personal needs secured. “Holy Hell” shows Allen and other ex-Buddhafielders confronting him on a Hawaiian beach.
“He used to say, ‘In the world, but not of it,'” Cheiffo recalled. “Now, when this thing was over, we were not in the world. My God, it’s been so hard to get back into life. I feel like I was in a frickin’ convent — or jail, really.”
With few marketable skills, minimal income and intense intimacy issues, displaced Buddhafielders have had to piece their lives together. Legal recourse is not easy, so Allen hopes “Holy Hell” will draw attention to the darker side of Andreas’ actions — if he can get the movie distributed in Hawaii. But Allen, Coquet and Cheiffo say people they introduced to the group are still following Andreas, which means attacking from the inside would be like harming their own family. Andreas covered enough of his tracks to eliminate a potential criminal case. That’s why he called his therapy sessions “cleansings” and ensured his sexual encounters had a semblance of consent. They could bring civil cases for harassment or duress, but is it worth the effort and money?
Allen, Coquet and Cheiffo were in their 50s when they were forced to hit that bitter “reboot” button. They felt like “gypsy” 20-somethings. They were building careers, exploring relationships and learning how to be self-sufficient adults — things that enlightenment alone cannot accomplish. The struggle was roughest for Cheiffo, whose partner left her when she quit Buddhafield. Her dear friend of 17 years, who is still one of Andreas’ pupils, will no longer speak to her.
“Later, we had to use humor to heal this whole thing,” Allen said of their 10 years outside of the cult. “We said, ‘We were laughing then — why aren’t we laughing now? Let’s get through this one step at a time, one day at a time.’ There was a lot of crying, a lot of tears and frustration and confusion, but eventually, after that, you have to laugh. You have to. Otherwise, what? You’re going to be a victim your whole life? You’re always going to suffer. It is funny to step back and laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously because that’s a problem
CULT WARNINGS AFTER WATCHING “HOLY HELL” DOCUMENTARY
Imagine spending over twenty-two years of your life believing you are one of the select few who knows the secrets of the universe– only to discover the world that you live in is really a brainwashing cult. This is the story behind Holy Hell. Will Allen, the filmmaker who made this documentary from 20 years of recording cult activities, woke up and decided to expose his former guru.
Unfortunately for this story, the Buddhafield cult still operates. Relocated to Hawaii, Gomez continues to manipulate new and old followers under his new moniker Reyji (God-King). Though he reportedly often travels in disguise it appears his influence has reached many in the area who are involved in yoga and other new age pursuits. This documentary seeks to provide not only closure for those who helped make it, but also serves as a warning for those who may be exposed to the group.
After watching, I was very disturbed at the ending as it did not seem to me that the former members had done their recovery “homework” by making the effort to really learn about unethical hypnosis and mind control. I was left to wonder if ex-members are still allowing cult-programmed phobias against cult experts to keep them from getting the help they might need to truly heal from the years of mind control abuse.
I encourage anyone interested in how cults work to watch this documentary.