Holy Hell is a cult documentary unlike one you’ve ever seen. Though cults are often the subject of movies and books, we rarely see actual footage from the inside. An official 2016 Sundance selection with a limited release, many people may not have seen the film, had it not been for CNN. On Sept. 1, CNN premiered Holy Hell, and social media response to the documentary has been great. Holy Hell takes viewers inside the Buddhafield cult and sheds light on its mysterious guru Michel. The film provides an open and raw look at the people who devoted their lives to his message and spent decades loyal to his service, including Will Allen, who filmed the cult’s activities over 20 years. You may hear Will Allen discuss the film and how he joined the Buddhafield cult in the movie’s trailer below.
Something that separates Holy Hell from other cult documentaries is that you aren’t just hearing one man’s experience with the organization. Many cult films either present a historical overview from an outsider or relive one person’s account. Holy Hell interviews multiple former members. Their stories combined with Allen’s stunning footage presents a realistic look at life in the cult. It also shows how the connection to other members was used to keep people bound to the group. Though the Buddhafields spent every waking moment together, they were isolated by their secrets. That secrecy created a false atmosphere of peace, love, and enlightenment that ultimately blew up when the depravity of their leader was exposed.
Many people ask why someone would join a cult. It isn’t uncommon for people to become critical of those who have been in questionable religious movements. The Buddhafields were educated people. Many of them were stunningly beautiful and it is assumed could have done anything with their lives. Yet what we see in the footage is that while Michel held control over the group and used various mind control techniques commonly exhibited by cult leaders, the relationships between the cult members were strong. These were ideological people searching for peace and acceptance in life. They spent time together meditating and being free. They lowered their guards, not because they wanted to be controlled, but because they wanted to leave behind the negative forces of the world and embrace positive change.
Once it was learned that Michel had betrayed fellow members, they had enough. Even though individually they quieted any questions regarding Michel’s behavior or focus on self, they couldn’t deny what was happening to each other. Is it possible that group think bonded the group and ultimately led to their mass exodus?
The Buddhafields certainly weren’t the first group to try and carve out a life of peace on earth. They were, however; one of the few cults that didn’t practice reproduction. Several cults focus heavily on creating future generations as a way of building cult numbers. Women in cults such as the Children of God and FLDS believed they were to have as many children as possible. As children born into cults are ingrained with the group’s doctrines, it can be difficult for these children to recognize signs of abuse and leave.
Most cults, whether ones that believe members should have children or not, do not believe in the concept of family. Cult leaders break down the family unit and control the bonds and connections members have to each other. Families can be torn apart on a cult leader’s whim, and leaders often dictate intimate relationships. The Buddhafields had no family unit except for the group, and the focus on finding spiritual enlightenment shifted to meeting Michel’s every whim. Holy Hell reveals the group’s focus to meet every one of Michel’s needs, at their own expense. Though it may appear the cult has disbanded, one must ask if they simply didn’t put their loyalty to each other above their loyalty to their leader.
What’s most disturbing and troubling about Holy Hell is the status of the cult’s founder. Michel is believed to be in hiding in Hawaii with a new group of followers. He has never been held accountable for his actions or for the allegations made by former Buddhafields against him. While it seems Michel has gotten away with plenty, Holy Hell serves as a cautionary tale for all and ultimately exposes him. The film creates an awareness and is a warning that despite good intentions, idealistic goals, and a desire to create a peaceful community, no one is immune to the brainwashing cults and their leaders wield. Holy Hell is a powerful movie that everyone should watch.
[Image by WRC Productions, LLC.]