Film review: My Scientology Movie (2015)

I am both fascinated and disturbed by cults. Fascinated because of my interest in the psychology of the kind of people who are drawn to cults and then get indoctrinated, and disturbed because of the often tragic consequences that ensue to them and their loved ones. One of the most pernicious cults is the highly secretive Church of Scientology, notorious for the reports of how they exploit and abuse cult members and viciously attack anyone who manages to escape from their clutches, not to mention anyone that seeks to shine a light on them. As a result, even some of the people who have escaped are too frightened to talk publicly about what they went through.

This article in Vice gives the account of someone who managed to escape the church and describes the methods they use to suck people into it and what life was like once you had been recruited. The person is disguised and has their voice altered because of fear of being recognized by the church and hounded.

More comprehensive treatments can be found in the 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright and the 2015 Alex Gibney documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief based on that book. I wrote about this cult before and reviewed both the book and the film.

In an interview at the Sundance Film Festival where the film was screened, Gibney and Wright discuss how they were fascinated by the question of how it could be that people who were smart and idealistic and caring, by no means simpletons, could get sucked into an organization that was so exploitative and abusive. These people, once they left, were themselves shocked at how they did not see what was so obvious to them now.

A few days ago, I came across another interesting documentary My Scientology Movie (2015) by BBC documentarian Louis Theroux. In his earlier two documentaries on the Westboro Baptist Church titled America’s Most Hated Family (2007) and America’s Most Hated Family IN CRISIS (2011), he chronicled the decline of the Phelps family and their single-minded hostility to homosexuality. Those two showed Theroux’s gonzo journalistic style where, unlike Gibney who is a usually unseen and unheard presence behind the camera, Theroux is right in there, engaging with his subjects.

Theroux tried to go through the normal channels and sought access to interview Scientology spokespeople and officials and got repeatedly rebuffed or ignored. He realized that he was not going to get any cooperation at all from the church who would not even let him enter their premises or talk to any of their people. So he decided on an alternative approach, of deliberately provoking them and taking advantage of their notorious scorched-Earth responses to anyone whom they think is not going to show them in a flattering light where they resort to stalking and in-your-face harassment.

He let it be known that he was making a documentary on the church and he posted advertisements in trade publications in LA recruiting actors so that he could recreate scenes of what went on inside. The auditions were for, among others, the roles of the authoritarian leader David Miscavige, notorious because of all the reports of his controlling behavior, his eruptions of furious anger, and violence against church members, and Tom Cruise, the church’s most high profile member,

He got the reaction he expected, leading to some pretty surreal encounters with Scientology members.

The church’s reaction was predicted by Theroux, who said, “They have a habit of tailing, filming, questioning and investigating those who do stories on them.” Within a couple of months of the start of filming, the film-makers found themselves under constant surveillance. The church mounted a campaign of harassment against the film-makers which drew “all kinds of stalker-ish emissaries and cranks out of the woodwork, not one of them doing much to reassure us that Scientology is in fact cuddly, socially progressive or misunderstood.” They found themselves pursued “in broad daylight by mysterious cars with tinted windows”. Occasionally they had face-to-face confrontations with camera-toting pursuers which they filmed in turn, so that “half the film consists of cameras pointing at other cameras, like an absurdist gunfight at dawn, with neither side willing to holster.” They also received numerous letters from Scientology lawyers. Theroux found this behavior very strange: “They are behaving in a way that is so obviously pathological—you would think they would realize that other people would see that and think this is a religion of lunatics.”

He would engage with the people who came to film him, asking them their names and why they were filming him, and they would refuse to answer. When he was on a street near the entrance to one of their properties, a woman would come out and aggressively ask him to leave or that she would call the police. She would refuse to listen to him or look at the permit that he said he had, nor would she give her name.

The Scientology compounds are surrounded by razor-wire topped fences and cameras and motion-detecting lights, possibly to prevent people from trying to sneak in but also possibly to prevent disillusioned cult members from trying to escape. Theroux does speak to a few top people who did leave and they describe their experiences within the church and what they experienced after they left. Leaving the church meant that you were declared a ‘suppressive person’ and leaving your family and friends (even wives and children) since they were now forbidden to have any contact with you.

The film also describes what was known as ‘The Hole‘ where senior Scientology members who for whatever reason had fallen afoul of Miscavige would be placed into and then berated and even beaten by him.

Dozens of its senior executives have been confined within the building for months or years. It consists of a set of double-wide trailers within a Scientology compound, joined together to form a suite of offices which were formerly used by the Church’s international management team. According to former members of Scientology and media reports, from 2004, the Church’s leader David Miscavige sent dozens of senior Scientology executives to the Hole. The Tampa Bay Times described it in a January 2013 article as:

a place of confinement and humiliation where Scientology’s management culture—always demanding—grew extreme. Inside, a who’s who of Scientology leadership went at each other with brutal tongue lashings, and even hands and fists. They intimidated each other into crawling on their knees and standing in trash cans and confessing to things they hadn’t done. They lived in degrading conditions, eating and sleeping in cramped spaces designed for office use.

The executives confined at the Hole are reported to have numbered up to 100 of the most senior figures in Scientology’s management, including the Church of Scientology International’s President, Heber Jentzsch. Individuals are said to have spent months or even years there. After a few managed to escape the Hole and Scientology, they gave accounts of their experiences to the media, the courts and the FBI, leading to widespread publicity about the harsh conditions that they had allegedly endured. The Church of Scientology has denied those accounts. It says that “the Hole does not exist and never has” and states that nobody had been held against their will. However, it acknowledges that its members are subjected to “religious discipline, a program of ethics and correction entered into voluntarily as part of their religious observances”.

The ritual humiliations and beatings remind me somewhat of the practices during China’s Cultural Revolution and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, where high-level people were subjected to degrading behavior.

The experiences shown in the film are surreal and while some of the encounters are amusing, what it reveals about the abusive and coercive structure of Scientology is disturbing. It sheds light on the psychology of people in cults, who can be persuaded to abandon their sense of agency and submit themselves to the whims of the cult and its leaders.

Here is the trailer.


  1. jenorafeuer says

    There’s an old joke that the difference between a cult and a religion is that in a cult, there’s someone at the top who knows that it’s all a scam and is actively maintaining it that way, whereas in a religion that person is dead.

    In that sense, Scientology is unusual in that it, if anything, got more actively cult-like under Miscavige, who apparently thought Hubbard wasn’t nasty or controlling enough as a cult leader and has shown himself determined to play Stalin to Hubbard’s Lenin.

  2. says

    $cientology isn’t that unusual: Hubbard knew he was creating a new religion as both a joke and a tax-dodge; and Miscavige — a scammer who’d been attracted to something he knew was a scam — carried that scam even further.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    True, it just seems to me that, historically, most cults either die out after the founder dies because there was too much cult of personality and there weren’t any heirs with enough force of personality to wrest the cult to themselves (often because the founder had too much ego to allow it), or go ‘honest’ because the people who take over the cult later were actually true believers not in on the scam.

    (Of course, going honest isn’t always a good thing; as the modern Republican party shows, replacing people who knew it was a scam with true believers can often lead to going entirely off the deep end because the people running things no longer have reality as a backstop.)

  4. John Morales says

    One of my best friends was a Scientologist.

    Once, back in the day, at a party, we got together to argue.
    We argued from around lunchtime until around 5am, non-stop.
    16 or 17 hours of full-bore confrontational disputation.
    It was glorious!

    (They train hard for that sort of thing (cf., whereas for me, it comes naturally)

    Gotta give them credit for some stuff, though. Dictionary training is one, for example.

  5. Silentbob says

    @ 4 Morales

    Hubbard said, “THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN CONTROL PEOPLE IS TO LIE TO THEM…, because the second you start telling anybody close to the truth, you start releasing him and he gets tougher and tougher to control.” -- Technique 88

    Yes, I can see from your link why a troll would think it worthy of credit.

  6. John Morales says

    I can tell from your comment that you know fuck-all about actual Scientologists, Bob the unsilent.

    Yes, credit where credit is due. To you, trolling, to me, fairness.

    But I was not crediting them for being able to cope with argument (unlike certain people whose backs ruff and who get all upset and stuff) due to their training, I was noting how I didn’t need such discipline and training montages. It’s innate with me.

    The actual credit was to the way they advocate studying language — and yes, I’m fully aware of how they coopt many terms into their jargon and overload their semantic attributes — unlike regular people.

    Typical people, such as those who have a problem with me commenting, where a lot of the time they either don’t get what I’m expressing or they don’t understand the various senses of my terminology.

    Here is to what I refer:

    See, they may be religious, and they may believe stupid shit, but at least they study words as a discipline.

    Hey, did you notice how your only comment here (as is often the case) is about me, rather than the topic of the post?

    (I doubt it)

  7. John Morales says

    Yeah, Silentbob. You often X-D just kidding whatnot.

    But, since you want to belabour the allusion to phallocephaly, I concede that the barbaric practice of circumcision was not applied to me, and so I am perfect in that regard.
    Pristine, other than the usual wear and tear of an active sexual life.

    So, I will grant you that circumcision is more akin to scalping — the victim can often survive, but the mutilation is permanent.

    So, tell me more about my snowflake fragility, Silentbob.

    My meltdown.

  8. John Morales says

    Since you are so interested in me, bob the Unsilent, let me gift you an anecdote to repay you for your jocular interjection.

    Back in the days — around 1979 — Scientology had a place of business in Adelaide, in the CBD.
    They often had people there trolling (heh) for victims, and one of their tools was their “personality test”.
    That was the <checks> the Oxford Capacity Analysis test.

    So I did it. Bored, curious, young, lots of free time.
    You can imagine how it went… I’d look at a question and tell them “depends”, they’d say “just go with it” (obs, paraphrasing here).

    At the end, they told me (again, paraphrasing — good as I might be, I don’t have eidetic recollection of decades-old convos) that I had issues and was holding myself back and that if I paid for courses they could help me achieve my potential.

    I argued with them. I explained how they were wrong about their perception of me, how those problems were incorrectly diagnosed, and so forth. You know the drill.

    Point of the story?

    Just as Scientology utterly misperceives me, so do you. bob. 🙂

    And remember, when you try to harass a delicate, fragile snowflake such as I, especially when they are melting down (20th anniversary of my meltdown is — depending on criteria — November 2005, when I first commented at Pharyngula, you are punching down.

    tsk — or were you also X-D joking about my fragility? In which case, also tsk.

    How many years now have you been sniping at me? I make it almost 5, so you do have endurance.

    (No worries, I have more)

  9. Silentbob says

    @ 4

    Morales: SpewGarglerBob is evil because he calls me a troll and I am not a troll.

    Also Morales: Hey did I ever tell you about the time I harassed some poor fucker for 17 hours straight? They need to be trained, but provoking pointless endless fights that I don’t actually care about for shits ‘n’ giggles just seems to come naturally to me.


  10. John Morales says

    Well, loquaciousbub, you sure try super-hard to entirely misapprehend what I write, then you write something entirely different to what I have written and pretend you are paraphrasing me.

    Doesn’t work; anyone can see what I’ve written and compare that to your attempted framing.

    Hey did I ever tell you about the time I harassed some poor fucker for 17 hours straight?

    A good friend for decades, both before and after. Still.

    Unlike your attempted pestiferation of me, it was fully consensual.
    A most enjoyable exchange of opinions, which we both enjoyed immensely.

    You are the one who harasses, not I. Well, attempts to harass, as you are doing here.

    (Your every accusation is a confession; your psychological projection is evident)



    SpewGarglerBob is evil

    Whatever makes you imagine that? You’re no more evil than a yapping chihuahua.

    You just can’t help yourself, your obsession has become an idée fixe, and my very presence irritates you. So you break into threads to spew your dislike, and occasionally even try to dispute something I’ve written. Your flailing failures are quite satisfactory. But right now you’re just yapping.

    Anyway, point being is that, unlike regular religions, at least Scientologists go through the gauntlet of criticism, and have a chance at sustaining an argument with me. You, not so much.

    And the point is that, unlike you, I have a damn good idea of how Scientology works and how their adherents adhere; I’ve interacted with him and others quite a bit. How I know about the dictionary thing, for example.

  11. file thirteen says

    @Mano #6:

    😄, yes, you could even award it a post of its own for those that haven’t seen it (sorry, I don’t know who came up with it though). Better than those horrible puns!

  12. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    The long-running podcast, “Oh No! Ross and Carrie” ran a lengthy series in 2016 recounting their experiences being inducted into Scientology. They got pretty deep before being outed as journalists and banned from the Org.

    Their site does not provide a convenient group of those episodes, but I found that the following search does produce the 10 main episodes:

  13. says

    Silentbob @13: Yeah, and I also notice Morales never specified what he and his $cientology friend were “full-bore confrontational disputatin'” ABOUT for all those hours. If I were inclined to brag about getting into a long “full-bore confrontational disputation” with someone, I’d want to tell everyone what awesome winning points I had made and why it was soooo important.

  14. John Morales says

    You gotta work a bit more on your theory of mind, Arbee.

    Yeah, and I also notice Morales never specified what he and his $cientology friend were “full-bore confrontational disputatin’” ABOUT for all those hours.

    Scientology. I was a New Atheist before the term was coined, and remain one.
    Religion is silly.

    If I were inclined to brag about getting into a long “full-bore confrontational disputation” with someone

    You imagine that was bragging? You thought it was about me, rather than about Scientologists and their training?

    (Way to miss the point!)

    I’d want to tell everyone what awesome winning points I had made and why it was soooo important.

    The disputation was its own reward. Have I not mentioned we both immensely enjoyed it?

    (This mindset you have about winning and losing totally misses the point)


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