Initially perceived as a New York cult, the religion of Scientology boasts a great many things. At first, it insists that if members give the church all of their money, the group will make anything possible – which is quite an enticing offer. It’s also pitched as the path to a world without criminality or insanity or war, and an ethos where joy is the major operative concept. Through confessing troubling or traumatic memories to an “auditor” with an electrically charged meter, a participant can supposedly reduce the pain of past incidents – essentially completely purging oneself of bad memories.
Girlfriend-turned-wife Sara Northrup sheds some light (through writings) on her negative experiences with the occasionally homicidal man who founded Scientology: L. Ron Hubbard. He began his prolific career as a pulp fiction author before finding greater success with the Astounding Science Fiction magazine (churning out stories so fast that he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for most published writings). He also served, rather disastrously, aboard a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific. Sara proceeds to reveal that he confessed to her his hopes for creating a religion (for which he would be a self-proclaimed god) so that he could make money – while avoiding taxes. After shooting to fame with his book “Dianetics” in 1950, profiting handsomely from charlatan-like psychiatrist sessions (and also exhibiting paranoid, psychopathic behaviors toward his wife and child), Hubbard repackaged the soon waning interest in “Dianetics” as the religion of Scientology.
But spiritual satisfaction comes with a significant cost. New members pay hefty sums to get deeper and deeper into the intricate belief system (which is eventually revealed to involve an evil galactic overlord, lost souls or disembodied spirits that attach themselves to human beings, and volcanic eruptions topped off by A-bombs), until they’re wizened to the apparent lunacy of the whole operation (typically when a locked briefcase of handwritten notes on Scientology is shown, containing what sounds like pure science-fiction – but only after they sign a billion-year contract). And it’s just as difficult to get out. One woman, Public Relations consultant Spanky Taylor, had to arrange a harrowing escape when she was virtually kidnapped by the group. In time, especially through luring celebrities to use as spokespeople (John Travolta was the first big catch), Scientology picked up so much steam that it became (and still is) a formidable, wealthy, controlling organization (preying, quite successfully, on the weak-minded).
“All Scientologists are full of sh–,” insists celebrity Jason Beghe, who was a Scientologist for 13 years. This eye-opening documentary walks the viewer through Hubbard’s career, the origins of the religion, the process of signing up, and how members can progress through the various steps and upper levels of the belief system. What began as an assemblage of goodhearted, idealistic people drawn into a strangely manipulative ideology takes on the shape of an abusive (physically and mentally), exploitative cult, hellbent on blackmailing or brainwashing its members (especially the famous ones) into remaining faithful. It’s at turns shocking, mystifying, and curious – but predominantly horrifying.
From a technical standpoint, the documentary keeps a swift pace, unveiling detail after dirty detail of Scientology’s quirks and corruptions. Unfortunately, the introduction to the religion is told out of order, darting back and forth between interviewees and chronological events, marginally muddying the potent particulars of Hubbard’s fractured mentality. But the talking heads (including Paul Haggis, the multiple-Oscar-winning writer of “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash”) spout such fascinating revelations about the cryptic association that artistic flaws are quickly forgotten in favor of the absorbing, alarming insights.