Why Is Pop Culture Still So Damn Obsessed with Scientology?
I discovered Scientology the same way I found out how quickly the wrath of my parents could strike fear into my soul: couch jumping. As Tom Cruise leapt onto Oprah’s sofa on May 23rd, 2005, he simultaneously offered the world a glimpse into his crazy life, dominated largely by the religion. By the time his indoctrination video surfaced in 2008, we were hooked. “When you’re a Scientologist, and you drive by an accident, you know you have to do something about it, because you know you’re the only one who can really help… We are the way to happiness. We can bring peace and unite cultures,” Cruise said, clad in a Steve Jobs-style, black turtleneck, and to the tune of the Mission Impossible theme music.
What began as a national fascination with the religion has rightfully blossomed into a decade-long obsession—and one that has bled over into the pop culture landscape. In addition to the many veiled references (to avoid threats from the lawsuit-happy leaders) by former Scientologists and people familiar with the religion, a number of documentaries have also been made in an attempt to break down the craziness.
On the heels of last year’s groundbreaking and superb HBO documentary Going Clear, British documentarian Louis Theroux is making our dreams (and his) come true with a new film on the organization, appropriately titled My Scientology Movie. If we’ve learned anything about Scientology from all of this, it’s that the religion is a gift that keeps on giving year after year. So what keeps us coming back for more despite David Miscavige’s bone-chilling wrath? It might have something to do with the fact that Scientology sounds less like a real religion and more like something that was ripped straight out of a TV movie made to be broadcast on Lifetime and SyFy simultaneously.
When a church is founded in the ’50s on a set of psychological principles created by an American science fiction author, it will inevitably struggle to convince people it’s not actually a cult. Scientology has not done a good job. Rather than providing clarity about how the organization works, the leaders (aka semi-human members of the Illuminati) have threatened legal actions and built towering walls of secrecy to protect themselves—a move that’s one step away from building a compound in a foreign country to hang out and drink cyanide.
Everyone loves a good crazy religion story that’s more fantasy than reality and since a giant arc full of animal couples is so yesterday, it was only natural that pop culture would latch onto Scientology over the last six decades. It’s a religion with a belief system so ridiculous, it ends up sounding like the synopsis for the next big Hollywood space drama, which is exactly why we can’t get enough.
Scientologists, for those of you who missed the South Park episode or Going Clear, believe that humans are immortal alien beings (thetans) who forgot their true nature and are trapped in human bodies. Further, humans’ souls can only achieve ultimate clarity through a series of classes and teachings (auditing) that, once completed, will allow them to escape these fleshy meat sacks and return to the kingdom of their alien overlord Xenu. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Xena, if the crazy cultish religion played the role of the alien, the Hollywood elite were the people being taken over, and the Warrior Princess had a crackpot brother who was an intergalactic con man.
The Church of Scientology hasn’t remained a steadfast object of curiosity for so many years just because it’s crazy, though. There are plenty of crazy cults in the world. What makes this one so special is that it has an intimate relationship with Hollywood that doesn’t start and end at Tom Cruise. Everyone from Kirstie Alley and Juliette Lewis to Elizabeth Moss and John Travolta has fallen into the religion’s web of spirituality. And as everyone knows, the only thing we love more than crazy alien cult stories are crazy alien cult stories that famous people are swept up in. Theroux’s premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival cannot come soon enough.
Stay tuned to Milk for more cults.
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