Pseudoscience and Psychedelics in the Church of Scientology
by Ian Murphy
“If you leave this room after seeing this film, and walk out and never mention Scientology again, you are perfectly free to do so. It would be stupid, but you can do it. You can also dive off a bridge, or blow your brains out; that is your choice.”
- From the Scientology recruitment film Orientation.
“Hulk want PARTY!!!”
- The Incredible Hulk, upon being denied entrance to the Scientology Halloween party.
“Hey! Do you want to watch a free movie?” a spry older woman shouted at my back, pouncing onto the sidewalk at the corner of Virginia and Main. For some time at The BEAST, we’d been toying with the idea of infiltrating The Church of Scientology. Recognizing an opportunity, I turned, cordially introduced myself as “Robert Stevens,” and told the woman that a free movie would be “awesome.” Smiling broadly, she said her name was Zonnie. I could feel the power of Scientology oozing from her chapped face. I would come to like Zonnie, an ex-choreographer from the west coast who curses abundantly when riled. After some small talk, I was led through an ornate, vaulted lobby to an intimate twenty-seat projection screen theater. Zonnie pushed a few buttons on a wall console and said she’d be back in about half an hour, leaving me alone in blackness. For a moment, panic washed over me as I imagined the room filling with poison gas. Then the movie started.
Accompanied by a frenetic chorus of tortured, synthesized moans, asteroids whirled toward me in the darkness. Planet earth entered the shot, and optimistic music overtook the terrifying cries. What followed resembled nothing more than a poorly produced infomercial for the prolific ravings of an oddly persuasive schizophrenic, with an unnerving emphasis on the Scientology’s legal status as a bona fide, tax-exempt religion. Even after his death, L. Ron Hubbard’s followers parrot his run-of-the-mill delusions of grandeur and persecution at the hands of a grab-bag of the usual shadowy enemies of siege mentality head cases. In fact, all of Hubbard’s gibberings against psychology seem to be nothing more than an elaborate justification for denying his own painfully obvious neuroses.
Hosted by an unnamed man in a cobalt suit and a late ‘70s haircut (I was amazed to learn the film was made in 1994), Orientation sets out to convince the viewer that L. Ron Hubbard was a genius, the preeminent author of the twentieth century, and a near-messiah sent to save humanity by battling government “mind-control programs” and psychiatric conspiracies. And of course, through the purchase of his writings, one can obtain a cosmic wisdom on par with Kirstie Ally or even John Travolta. And above all: you’re a loser if you don’t get it.
But some things don’t change: As the half-hour film approached its conclusion, the pitch man went into hard sell mode, offering the same heaven-or-hell choice religions have offered forever. I was “at the threshold of [my] next trillion years,” he said. I could live it “in shivering agonized darkness,” or “triumphantly in the light.”
Naturally, when the credits began to roll, Zonnie burst in carrying three of the books featured in the film. “What did you think of the movie? Do you have any questions?” she asked, arranging the books to display their titles.
“When do I learn about Xenu?” I asked impatiently. First revealed to the public in a 1991 Time cover story on Scientology and featured in a recent episode of “South Park,” the tale of Xenu is a strange one, unless you consider that Hubbard was a pulp sci-fi novelist by trade: 75 million years ago, Xenu, alien ruler of the “Galactic Confederacy,” flew billions of frozen alien spirits, or “thetans,” to earth in planes resembling the DC-8. The “thetans” were then stacked around volcanoes and blown up with hydrogen bombs. Upper level scientologists are taught this doctrine, and told the scattered “thetans” are the source of man’s troubles, as they cluster around us, and cloud our judgment. They are also told not to talk about it. The reason for this secrecy surrounding Scientology’s core mythology isn’t much of a mystery—it’s just so silly that you’d have to already be completely brainwashed to believe it.
For the first time, Zonnie broke her tentative gaze; her eyes shot to the carpet. She flatly denied knowledge of Xenu, but later told me “if it’s true, it’s true for you.” This solipsist adage, twice repeated in the movie I’d just seen, I would discover to be a main tenet of Scientology. Zonnie went to fetch someone who could be of more use, returning with a thin, neatly groomed man-animal wearing designer frames named Neil. Neil addressed my question by bashing “South Park” and ignoring more credible source material. Neil was similarly affected by the word “Xenu,” avoiding eye contact and becoming visibly irritated. I didn’t want to anger them quite yet, so I changed the subject. The conversation grew more casual, and eventually their super-abilities as Scientologists prevailed: I ponied up 7 dollars for “Scientology: The Fundamentals of Human Thought,” and got the hell out of there. I was assured the money would not go to charity. That night I cracked the spine and was blown away by the wisdom of L. Ron:
“Unlike yellow and brown people, the white does not usually believe he can get attention from matter or objects. The yellow and brown believe for the most part (and it is all a matter of consideration) that rocks, trees, walls, etc., can give them attention.”
Through this 183-page treasure, Scientology was beginning to make a whole lot of sense to me. Maybe it wasn’t all about making a buck; maybe it was also about helping people:
“When a man has a problem very thoroughly and can’t solve it, he really has too few problems. He needs more.”
Scientologists are none too shy about helping you find more problems, problems to which they alone have the solutions.
Half an inch behind my forehead
I returned to Scientology HQ the next evening, with an accomplice operating under the alias Lydia Thumbquist. After sitting through the tragically awful Orientation yet again, we were separated to prevent us from supporting each other’s common sense. I was administered a “free stress test,” and Ms. Thumbquist was to be probed for personal problems by a petit moon-faced being in a blue sweater.
Zonnie rattled questions as I grasped two aluminum tubes wired to an electronic device known as an “E-Meter.” I was prompted to think of the sources of stress in my life, and told the contraption could “weigh your thoughts” by passing a slight electrical current through the body. I concentrated hard, and sure enough the needle shot to the right, calculating the mass of my mental activity, and indicating my apparent stress. Amazing! My hands fidgeted and I altered my grip. The needle flung right again. “What was that?” asked Zonnie, primed to suck money from my newly discovered problem. “Nothing,” I replied, recognizing the device was reacting to my hands rather than impossibly measuring my thoughts. The “E-Meter” measures the electrical resistance of the skin, much like a lie detector. Unlike a standard lie detector however, the “E-Meter” makes no measure of heart rate, blood pressure or respiration, hence it is no more than a misleading pseudoscientific prop.
I was toured around the impressive lobby and made to read the principles of Scientology that were colorfully diagrammed on the paneled walls. Zonnie then took a hushed tone and asked me if I wanted to learn how to “walk a half inch behind my forehead.” That sounded like fun, whatever the hell it meant. She said it was “really cool,” and assumed a far off expression. After some prodding, she explained that the negative press concerning Scientology was the work of “antisocial” personalities, and that ex-Scientologists rarely speak out because the church “knows all their secrets.”
Meanwhile, Ms.Thumbquist was being sold a pamphlet to help in her interpersonal relationships. The small volume, entitled “The Emotional Tone Scale,” taught us many valuable lessons. For instance: when someone is smiling they are happy, when frowning they are sad, and when a person is near death it can be said they are in a state of “total apathy.”
Just do it
It was my third day in a row at the Church of Scientology, and the madness was beginning to affect me. It was time to purchase a class so I could really see what was going on here. I was again pawned off to the man-animal named Neil. Neil is an okay guy, in a used car salesman sort of way. He sat me down at a desk, delving into my personal life. It was soon determined I lack the self confidence to succeed. “This course is only $82.50,” he said, “and it will change your life.” I simply didn’t have the cash. After various sales techniques proved futile, Neil did his best Ben Stiller from Starsky and Hutch. “Do it,” he repeated over and over. “Do it.”
“But I…” “Do it.” “But…” “Do it.” “Bu…” “Do it.” “B…” “Do it.”
He said it nearly 20 times. For a man who promised he didn’t work on commission, he was pimping hard. My mind reeled; I needed to leave. But leaving a Scientology building is a challenge unto itself. Just as you break away from one of them, another pops out of nowhere and showers you with googly-eyed enthusiasm. I shot excuses like bullets, leaving disappointment in my wake. I was chased outside by the moon-faced sweater being. “Come back inside, there are some people you should meet.”
“No really,” I said. “I have plans. I’m already late.”
“Come back inside,” she persisted. “we can begin your courses right now.”
It was like she couldn’t hear me. This went on for way too long; I was forced to walk away while she was talking.
Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health: $8. Dianetics course: $35. My introductory membership to the International Association of Scientologists: worthless.
Fourth day in, my $80 BEAST expense account $60 lighter, and Robert Stevens was an official noob Scientologist. After signing some forms that declared my faith in Scientology, I was provided the course materials and ushered into an austere study area cordoned off with glass. A nervous man in a leather jacket entered; we made our introductions. Ray had been called down from the 6th floor where he was performing “guard duty.” After it was ascertained I’d had no alcohol or any kind of drugs (including aspirin, but not nicotine or caffeine) within the last 24 hours, school was in session.
I was an ideal student, churning through the course material and supplying written examples of Scientology concepts. My literacy impressed the instructor, though he insisted “Dianetics will raise your IQ.” I already felt like a freakin’ genius as the course booklet, with its large clipart graphics, seemed geared towards grade-schoolers. I was even given a pile of children’s and intermediate level dictionaries and told to look up any words I didn’t know. I was encouraged to “act out” any concepts I was unsure of, using brightly painted wood blocks; Ray demonstrated. I was tested periodically for my understanding of complicated words like “analytic” and “mission.”
I learned about the “reactive mind,” and how it can hold you back by recording nasty little “mental image pictures” called “engrams.” An engram is basically a freeze-frame of a physically traumatic event, recording every minute detail, no matter how insignificant. The idea here is that if you somehow get knocked out, and while you’re unconscious an ice cream truck passes, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” will torment you the rest of your days. You may even dump your girlfriend if she becomes too fond of ragtime and never know why.
I was now on the road to “clear,” a process Neil said costs about $40,000. Until that glorious day I would be a lowly “preclear,” or “pc.” Once clear, a Scientologist attains “OT,” or “operating thetan” level. OT levels range from 1 to 15, and the Xenu story is taught at OT3. Ray told me he has been a Scientologist for about 20 years, and he’s still not clear. You can’t rush these things, I guess.
The next day I would begin to “audit.”
No signs of intelligent life.
I took my seat two minutes before the scheduled time and casually began to speak, when I was harshly shushed by a schoolmarm clutching a clipboard. The only other person in the room was a lanky nerd laden with expensive volumes. The teacher watched the clock for the full two minutes, and then said she’d be taking “roll call.” “Steven?” she said, looking back and forth between us. The nerd raised his hand. “Robert?” she said, still scanning the room as if someone might pop his head out of a ventilation shaft and indicate his presence.
Some stragglers arrived and I was paired up with a dumpling of a woman, my “auditing twin.” Before we could begin in earnest, I was to hone my skills on an inanimate object. We sat opposite one another, and my twin was instructed to place a large Raggedy Ann-type doll on her lap. I read from the 10-step Dianetics auditing procedure card: I told the doll the session was beginning and that it should close its eyes. It did not comply. I made the cotton-stuffed preclear aware that “In the future, when I utter the word ‘cancelled,’ everything I have said to you while in a therapy session will be cancelled and will have no force with you.” At the behest of the human dumpling, the doll nodded its agreement. I prompted the doll the recall a traumatic incident, and continue repeating the details of the incident until either no more information was being revealed or the doll’s mood lightened. My twin, a full grown woman, made expressive gestures with the dolls arms, and spoke in an eerily regressive toddler voice. After hearing about the doll’s early childhood swing set accident numerous times, I said “cancelled,” asked “are you in present time?” and then said “When I count from five to one and snap my fingers you will feel alert. Five, four, three, two, one.” (Snap!)
I was told the auditing session was a “win.” The doll had successfully banished an engram from its reactive mind. It looked healthier to me.
I took turns reading from the procedure card and being read to by both the dumpling and a quiet, balding, middle-aged gent who had to stop recalling a minor childhood knee-scraping because it was too painful. “No more,” he bellowed, opening his moistened eyes and wringing his hands. That was enough auditing for the both of us. Both he and the dumpling, and the doll, for that matter, became distraught as their repetitive recall of events invariably led to deep-seated parental issues. Auditing, the main tool of Scientology, is more or less a Freudian psychoanalysis-based technique known as exposure therapy, only with a bunch of unnecessary convoluted jargon, a bit of clunky sci-fi, a pinch of hypnotic suggestion, and administration by unqualified practitioners. I talked to several local counselors who were appalled by this. “Exposure therapy has its benefits,” said one psychology professor I spoke to, “but when done by a nonprofessional it can be very dangerous, and at worst, could lead to a full psychotic break.” Coupled with the church’s instructions to avoid drugs, prescription or otherwise, “auditing” can and probably does cause more harm than good.
The schoolmarm, named Kathleen, kept me after class to talk engrams. She told me of the time she gave birth. Scientologists observe a ritual known as “silent birth,” ostensibly done for the safety of the child. If someone—a doctor, for instance—were to talk about, say, infant botulism, as happened to Kathleen, the child’s reactive mind would record an engram, and the infant would be afflicted with whatever illness was mentioned. Coincidentally, infant botulism can be a side effect of feeding a newborn infant Hubbard’s Barley Formula, which contains honey, and is preferred by Scientologists to breastfeeding. But, Kathleen averred, her baby’s botulism was caused by a doctor saying “botulism.”
My budget nearly depleted, there was but one chapter remaining in my adventure into sci-fi cultism: The Scientology Halloween party. I was encouraged by the church members to bring as many friends along as possible. I could only find one “thetan” brave enough to take the challenge.
Down With OT III
“If we’re going to do this,” said BEAST staffer Josh Bunting, divvying up a hefty pile of powerful blue-stemmed mushrooms, “we may as well do it right.” I couldn’t have agreed more. We choked down the decidedly unsavory psychedelics, rolled a joint, and started talking strategy.
“What do you think?” I asked, donning a latex alien mask and affixing a “Hello, my name is Xenu” sticker to my lapel. Bunting grunted his approval, then pulled an Incredible Hulk mask from a bag and started laughing maniacally. The fungi had begun to take hold. We quickly conceived and executed one last detail, designing and printing a stack of pro-Xenu educational leaflets to distribute at the party. We had our shtick, and we were out the door.
Traveling on foot, we put on our masks as the church entered sight. There was no evidence of a party. We crept around to the side entrance to see what we could see. A lone receptionist manned a wide desk in front of the elevators. She was not in costume. Her name was Tiffany, a very bone-able specimen I’d meet earlier in the week. We rushed in like kamikaze. “Hi!” she screeched with child-like exuberance, fixing her widened peepers on us and grinning ear to ear. As quickly as her expression reached its exalted apogee it came crashing down in a painful wince as her eyes panned across my nametag. “That’s real funny guys, real cute,” she sneered. Pleased by her obvious discomfort, we advanced insidiously on rubbery legs.
“RAAARGH! I’m Xenu!” I growled, fighting uncontrollable tremors and producing the pro-Xenu leaflets from my breast pocket. I handed her one over the desk, and asked where the party was. “Fifth floor,” she said curtly. “Is there booze up there?” I inquired. There wasn’t. Though it had been billed as a free party, she claimed there was a $5 cover in an effort to be rid of us. The Incredible Hulk fished through his wallet. I could tell he was getting angry. The scientologists wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. She told us to sign in. My rattled nervous system uncooperative, I made a mark resembling a seismic reading. Tiffany called upstairs and told us we needed to see Teresa’s “really great, really funny costume.” I helped myself to the candy dish, and we waited anxiously. Tiffany, meanwhile, wore a shit-eating grin, like she had just told on us and we were about to be grounded.
Bing went the elevator, and out rolled Teresa Reile Reger, president of the Buffalo Church of Scientology, accompanied by a small posse of well mannered drones. Dressed in a cartoonish 18th century aristocrat costume featuring an oversized powdered pink beehive and puffy bloomers, she shook a scolding finger while affecting an unconvincing British accent. Drugs and adrenaline coursed our veins. The scene was surreal, made even more so by Reger’s commitment to her role as a reject from Alice in Wonderland.
“What’s all this then? Do you think this is fun-nay?” she said, charging at us. “RAAARGH! I’m Lord Xenu!” I shouted through my mask, making monster hands to keep her at bay. Still in character, Reger asked if we believed everything we saw on television. She was strutting around like a chicken, hands at her hips, and none too pleased. Though the partygoers had slowly been finding their way down to the lobby to watch the spectacle, our goal was to get to the fifth floor and enjoy the most awkward situation we possibly could. That in mind, I made some conciliatory efforts. “It’s just a costume,” I said lifting my mask a bit. In my psychedelic naivety I believed that, once she knew were human, we would be on our way upstairs to hang with the hypnotized. To my horror, Teresa snatched the mask off my head and instructed an unnamed stooge to photograph us with her camera phone. I waved and smiled, then ripped the mask from her claws. She was stunned, and I tugged at her wig playfully. Putting the mask back on, I asked if she’d “heard the good news about Lord Xenu?” I pointed to our pro-Xenu literature.
“Okay. That’s it. Are you done?” she said, suddenly losing the accent. From my extensive study of the Emotional Tone Scale, I could tell she was angry. “RAAARGH! I’m Xenu!” I yelled once more, for good measure. More Scientologists were filtering downstairs. The mood was getting ugly as they inaudibly whispered for our imminent ouster. “This is really kind of funny,” she said, scanning the leaflet. She took some, saying she would hand them out. I was glad she was starting to appreciate our gestures—or so I thought. “Your intellectual property is quite stupid. Don’t you want to be taken seriously?” Teresa pleaded. I responded by dancing a vigorous jig.
“Okay, we’re done here,” she ordered. I kept asking Teresa about the party, and she kept saying we were “done.” If life is a game, as Scientologists are fond of saying, the clock was running out with no clear victor. “Are you telling me we’re not welcome here?” I asked, feigning dismay. “No you are not,” she said, driving a stake through our partying hearts. The room fell totally silent. We all seemed to be waiting for someone else to make the next move. Seizing the moment, Bunting raised his arms robotically, drawing everyone’s attention, and roared, “Hulk want PARTY!!!”
We left voluntarily soon after, having gotten our much needed fix of adrenaline and comedy. We strode off into the night, hyperventilating through our masks and watching our backs for assassins.
Ian Murphy is currently armed in expectation of full reprisal from the Church of Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard is currently rotting in fictional hell, not for being a greedy con artist, but for being such a terrible writer. The Incredible Hulk has established a safe house ”at awesome strip club.” He is still seeking the ultimate party.