Cult or Commune? How Utopian Communities Turn Dangerous

From religious factions of the 1840s to the Buddahfield community profiled in this year's 'Holy Hell,' a look at how a community can cross a line

Michel Rostand, leader of the Buddhafield cult, as documented in 'Holy Hell.'
Cult or Commune? How Utopian Communities Turn Dangerous

In 1985, 22-year-old aspiring filmmaker Will Allen joined a community called Buddhafield at the suggestion of his sister, after his family didn't accept him when he came out as gay. For 22 years, Allen documented life inside the cult as their videographer. The resulting 35 hours of footage comprises the basis of the documentary Holy Hell, which provides audiences with an intimate look at life inside this non-traditional community.

In the beginning, at least, it appeared that Buddhafield was attempting to revive the 19th-century concept of a Utopian community: a group of people living together working towards enlightenment. The leader, Michel Rostand, kept his followers focused on healthy living (no alcohol, drugs, caffeine or red meat, along with mandatory exercise), abstaining from sex and meditating frequently.

The group appeared to be a positive force on its members – yet the documentary tells a story of sexual, psychological and emotional abuse that allegedly took place behind-the-scenes at Buddhafield. On the surface, it looked like Allen found his place in a group of happy, healthy, like-minded individuals – but underneath, the community had problematic secrets.

There have been no shortage of similar communities in America that came together under shared beliefs and the goal of enlightenment – yet few end up the subject of high-budget exposés. So what's the difference between a group of people that live and work together to achieve a certain standard of physical, mental and spiritual well-being, and a full-fledged cult? Some, like the Shakers or the Oneida Community, were focused on a specific religion, doctrine or set of morals, while others made health the primary draw, with significant overlapping interests. The moral component to these groups is significant – it goes beyond telling people how to eat or dress, but imposes a code of ethics on a group of willing participants, in many cases, without ties to a specific religion.

What's the difference between a group of people that live and work together to achieve well-being, and a full-fledged cult?

"Throughout history and across the world, pockets of people have organized because their desires were not accessible through dominant cultural, economic and social models," explains Adam Szetela, an assistant professor in the liberal arts department at Berklee College of Music whose research focuses on utopian ideals in 19th- and 20th-century American literature and culture. "I think communes will continue for this reason."

Yet communes, for many, evoke the potential for groups to become more controlling and sinister in nature. Many of the most notorious cults in America started in the mid-20th century yet remain vividly in the public consciousness because of their bizarre and sometimes violent practices. These groups originated as offshoots of established religions or were influenced by social and civil movements. For example the Branch Davidians and the Children of God – formed in 1955 and 1968, respectively – both have their roots in Christianity, but because of deceptive and charismatic leaders, they devolved into cults. In 1993, more than 80 people died during the Branch Davidians' standoff with the FBI in Waco, Texas, and the Children of God – also known as the Family – not only believed having sex with children was permissible, they claimed it was a divine right. Other cults like the Manson Family and the Peoples Temple – infamous for the Jonestown massacre of 1978 which left 909 people dead – attracted members based on social and cultural beliefs. In the case of the Manson Family, it was the fringe idea of inciting a race war, while the People's Temple drew more mainstream followers as a progressive organization advocating for civil rights.

According to psychologist and rehabilitation expert Steven Hassan – himself a former member of a cult-like community – there are four important elements of mind control to consider when attempting to determine whether a group can be considered a cult. Known as the BITE Model, it takes into account the group's control of an individual's behavior, intellect, thoughts and emotions (hence BITE) and can be applied to anything from religions to terrorism organizations to cults.

The BITE model includes something Hassan calls the Influence Continuum, providing examples of healthy and constructive – and unhealthy and destructive – actions for individuals, leaders, organizations and relationships. The continuum indicates that a person free from influence has an authentic self, capable of critical thinking, free will and creativity. On the other end of the spectrum is an individual with a false identity whose actions are motivated by fear, guilt and obedience.

The Influence Continuum and BITE Model can be applied to any situation – including Buddhafield – to determine the extent of mind control and whether the group can be considered a cult. Holy Hell documents Allen's experiences and features testimony from many former Buddhafield members who reveal that behind the clean living and meditation, all the signs indicating that they were in a cult were there: members taking on new names and identities on Rostand's insistence, "love" conditional upon following his strict doctrine, the constant fear that they would never receive highest level of enlightenment ("The Knowing") and absolute dependence on and obedience of their leader.

As a former member of the Unification Church – also known as "Moonies" after the founder Sun Myung Moon – Hassan has firsthand experience with the thought process behind both joining and ultimately leaving a closed community.

"When I first had [an intervention addressing his membership in the Moonies] it woke me up from my fanatical methods and I wanted to understand what happened to me," he says.

When he was finally pulled out of the organization, Hassan explains, he wanted to understand what happened to him. "So I started going to all the experts on brainwashing, reading what they wrote and talking to them,” he says. “I went through a many-year process of piecing together what I knew was going on inside the Moonies."

During more than 40 years of cult-awareness activism, Hassan authored several books on the subject of cults and founded the Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc., a human rights-based organization specializing in counseling, publishing materials exposing abuses of undue influence and promoting consumer awareness.

Yet it's not necessarily just cults that attract people in search of guidance, like Allen and Hassan. Disillusioned at 21, Sara Benincasa found herself drawn to a job at a spiritual retreat in eastern Pennsylvania that aims to combine modern influences with classical tradition and world cultures. Like many young people, Benincasa – now a 36-year-old writer and comedian – was under the impression that surrounding herself with the right people and ideas could help her find direction in her life.

"I thought enlightenment could be found in a rural area on a farm owned by white people with trust funds who took on spirituality that wasn't part of their culture," she says. Following challenges with her mental health, the lure of working someplace that provided "some kind of magical peace" was quite appealing to her.

"Just because something is a religious retreat center that doesn't engage in abusive practice doesn't necessarily mean that it's a great place," Benincasa says.

Benincasa, who wrote about her experience at a spiritual retreat she referred to as the “Blessed Sanctuary” in her 2012 memoir Agorafabulous, says her former place of employment differs from a cult in several ways, including the fact that there are no financial sacrifices or other restrictions on one's participation in conventional life. However, she notes that a group doesn't necessarily need to be considered a cult to be harmful.

"Just because something is a religious retreat center that doesn't engage in abusive practice doesn't necessarily mean that it's a great place," Benincasa says. "When you go to a place that promises some kind of peace, that's a really dangerous promise to make because everyone's peace is different. They can promise you quiet and uninterrupted time, but they can't promise you peace or happiness."

"No matter how shiny the brochure is, when you get to a place that's a spiritual retreat center, it's inevitably run by a real human being and there are political mechanisms that are happening. It's not people just sitting on hilltop in the sunshine," Benincasa adds.

Those drawn to these idealistic communities typically enter with the best of intentions. "It's abnormal for young people not to want to make the world a better place," Hassan says. "But the vast majority of the public, when watching cult documentaries think, 'What's wrong with these people? Why couldn't they see?'"

The 1840s was a heyday of American utopian communities – more than 80 were founded in that decade alone, including the Brook Farm Community, which existed in Massachusetts from 1841 to 1847, Fruitlands, formed in 1843, and the Oneida Community, which lasted from 1848 to 1880. Reacting to the Industrial Revolution, these groups attempted to create ideal economic and moral societies through communal living, sharing labor to build more egalitarian social structures – though some were more successful than others. Fruitlands, built on the tenet of eating only foods grown on trees or vines, only lasted seven months because of the lack of food; the Oneida Community, however, lasted for 32 years and still has a presence in the form of the tableware manufacturing company.

"Many of the communes of the 19th-century, especially in the tradition of transcendentalism, arose as responses to rapid industrialization and a deepening rift between people and the natural world, as well as between people and people," Szetela, the Berklee professor, explains.

These early examples, however, are not necessarily cults. Applying Hassan's Influence Continuum and BITE Model, it is evident that groups like the Brook Farm and Oneida Communities don't fit into this category. While they may exhibit some types of behavioral control – including regulating an individual’s physical reality and imposing rigid rules and regulations – these groups typically do not include other crucial cult components, like thought and emotional control. In fact, some of these utopian communities disbanded as a direct results of the lack of leadership – a key component of a cult. The linchpin of Buddhafield, however, was the authoritarian leadership of Rostand.

For Hassan, the difference comes down to undue influence and informed consent: "Part of what I'm trying to say to folks is don't be constrained. Listen to your conscience. Listen to your critical thoughts. If there's a dissonance between you and strangers, go with you."