Cult Theater: Brainwashing Experience Tests the Line Between Fantasy and Reality

Cult Theater: Brainwashing Experience Tests the Line Between Fantasy and Reality
"Jody" in "The Lost Children" performance
(Courtesy Phillip May)

The room was dimly lit. Men in suits circled around us, quietly greeting the 20 or so visitors patiently sitting in chairs. Wine was served, and we were repeatedly told, in hushed tones, to relax. A television screen flashed in front of us and a phrase kept repeating itself: “Energy. Impact. Change.” A man with a camera conspicuously hid in the corner, snapping pictures. “Nice group of people,” a man behind me whispered. I was taking notes, and I’m pretty sure the man was trying to peer over my shoulder to see what I was writing. When I noticed, he quickly turned away.

What had I gotten myself into?

Even though the event was advertised as a performance, and I was aware that actors surrounded me, paranoia still crept in. “The Lost Children,” a transmedia project by Mark Harris held Tuesday evening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, puts the audience through a series of exercises stemming from a fake group called URLIFE (Universal Radical Life Improvement for Everyone), a fictional self-help organization that promises to aid “travelers and seekers” in finding their “true potential.” URLIFE’s doctrine is an amalgamation of ideas ranging from L. Ron Hubbard to Carl Sagan, combining psychotherapy with crackpot space theories. The idea of the performance was to break the audience down and push the limits of what was real and what was fantasy – the more time you spent in a small room with the group, the more you agreed to participate in their exercises, the more that line became blurred.

The first scenario was a recruitment seminar kicked of by Chance Sturges, the self-appointed leader of URLIFE. A middle-aged bald man with a soul patch, he glided around the room commenting on the beauty of the universe with an occasional dramatic pause for effect. He then led us in a chant that became a familiar one throughout the night: “We are one,” repeated over and over again.

In the next room, a faculty member of Columbia University’s Astronomy Outreach program was giving a lecture about comets, meant to provide a contradictory position to what the members of URLIFE were preaching. Tellingly, when I peaked in the lecture hall, there were only two or three people sitting down. Everyone was more interested in the seminar, the wine, and “reaching their potential,” I suppose.

Next up was Kate, a struggling writer who told the group her story of waiting tables, being poor, and struggling with writer’s block. She invited people up to participate in breathing exercises, complementing them through the process. Kate would eventually pull me aside and invite me to experience the next level of the URLIFE experience. That was how I got roped into to something called “advanced study.”

Kate walked me outside the conference room and sat me down on a bench nearby. Completely ignoring the boundaries of personal space typically observed by strangers (but “we aren’t strangers,” would have been the argument if I’d raised the point, because “we are one”), Kate and I got very close – basically face to face – while she made me rub a pendant that was around her neck. It was uncomfortable. This exercise was supposed to align our psychic energies, or something to that effect, while Kate tapped into what she claimed to be the things inside me that were blocking me from reaching my full potential. I was smart, she said (thanks Kate!), but not happy and wanted more with my life. She told me I was a charismatic leader in a past life, but I was looking for some guidance in this life. Wait, I thought this was all fake?

Significantly freaked out, I was not invited for further advanced testing, which, based on the recollection of another audience member I spoke to, involved drinking a mysterious juice (shades of Heaven’s Gate) and getting a Tarot-like card reading.

Next, participants were ushered into a theater for a screening of a film called “Lost Children,” about a woman named Evelyn Hamilton, a member of URLIFE who disappeared under unusual circumstances, and a “cult deprogrammer” named Jared Allen Tyler. The film, at different points, asked the audience members if they believed what they were just shown and then proceeded down different paths, choose-your-own-adventure style, depending on the answers. Presented as a documentary, it offered a brief and disturbing history of Chance Sturges, the man we met earlier in the night, and focused on the Tyler’s crusade to find Hamilton and rid her of the brainwashing she incurred at the hands of URLIFE. The film forced the audience to question our own acceptance of what we had participated in during the first part of the seminar.  

Then the lights came up and, in a way, the curtain was raised. Harris, the creator of the entire project, came out on stage and answered questions as all the actors sat in the audience around us. He said he was interested in the immersive qualities of the project, and how, when forced to enter an environment instead of just watching a film as a distanced observer, people become more wrapped up in the questions he sought to raise about faith and reason, fantasy and reality. But I left with only one question, ultimately: what was the point?

If it was to cause me to continuously look over my shoulder for the rest of the night, then they succeeded.