Persistence of “Deprogramming” Stereotypes in Film

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 3(2/3), 2004, pages 202-225

Persistence of “Deprogramming” Stereotypes in Film

Joseph P. Szimhart


This paper reviews dramatic portrayals of deprogramming, a neologism that appeared several decades ago to identify the process of de-converting members from eccentric groups or "cults."[1] My interest in this subject stems from experience as both a participant and observer—I made my living as a deprogrammer for over a decade until 1997. In my experience deprogramming covered an array of intervention models from non-coercive educational discussions to the imposition of dialogue after a kidnapping or involuntary confinement of a cult member. Although the vast majority of interventions were of the former model, the high drama of the latter “abduction” model as the remedy for a condition called "brainwashed" attracted media attention. By 1980 several films and television specials about coercive deprogramming were in production stages. Since 1980 a regular stream of productions has continued to represent intervention with cultists as coercive; rarely have non-coercive interventions received even cursory dramatic attention. This paper reviews significant productions through 2000 that have influenced public perception and argues that a stereotype has appeared in the public mind as a result. The paper also argues that this trend will not change because non-coercive interventions are ostensibly difficult to dramatize, lack violent interaction and therefore have little monetary potential.

Early in the 1970s, “deprogramming” appeared as a term to describe efforts to break someone’s allegiance to or obsession with a controversial new religion, religious leader or cult.[2] Specifically, deprogrammers allegedly worked to undo the false beliefs and odd behaviors induced by what is popularly called “brainwashing.” By 1980, the general public often identified deprogramming events with abduction and confinement. The general outrage about some “cults” tacitly condoned radical remedies to rescue cult “victims.”[3] Media coverage of cults, including the Charles Manson Family murders in 1969 and the tragedy at Jonestown in Guyana where over 900 People’s Temple members died from mass murder/suicide in 1978, etched an extreme notion of cult activity into the public mind. Cultists appeared “programmed,” hypnotized, and potentially in harm’s way—only radical remedies could snap them out of it in time to prevent tragedy or, at the very least, a wasted life serving a spurious cause. Deprogramming movies that reinforced and may have shaped public perception of the remedy appeared. This paper will question the validity of this perception of deprogramming, and will describe many of the visual images that helped to form it. The paper will also address who most benefits from sustaining stereotypes.

Public Perception and Cult Propaganda

Many eccentric social movements, or “cults”, engage their devotees or followers in controversial lifestyles that invite intense reactions from unsympathetic family and friends, if not from the normative society. If family efforts to “reason” with the devotee fail to come to a mutual understanding or to successfully dissuade, frustrated persons may seek professional or radical remedies. In recent history, especially since the early 1970s, families have turned to self-defined intervention helpers, also known as “deprogrammers” and “exit counselors,” to influence someone to leave a cult, marginal group or destructive relationship. Strategies by interventionists to encourage disengagement from marginal groups have ranged from polite argument in non-coercive settings to the notorious “kidnap/deprogramming” incidents.

The public perception of intervention or “deprogramming” has been molded by the tense propaganda between cultic groups, their sympathizers, and critics, and by the images and story lines in the media. Interventions that have received serious attention from the media (newspapers and television news) are almost always the kidnap/deprogram variety, especially when such incidents fail and result in litigation or prosecution. Kidnap style deprogramming in the United States has declined radically since the early 1990s despite evidence that hundreds of such potentially illegal interventions occurred during the 1970s through 1980s. My contention is that coercive approaches to intervention have always been only a small fraction of overall attempts at intervention, but the perception of deprogramming, or cult intervention, with kidnapping as the primary intervention strategy persists among the general public.[4]

This perception is fueled not so much from the critics of cultic groups, but remains within the propaganda generated by embattled cults or new religious movements themselves.[5] The hated deprogrammer and his alleged brutality serve to distance group members from their antagonistic or less than sympathetic families who might hire such a person. Deprogrammers also fulfill the role of a Satan or dark force par excellence that would steal one’s soul or “light.” These perceptions, often fueled by group propaganda,[6] make it difficult for families to openly introduce any critic or ex-member to a cult member in non-coercive settings—especially since the late 1970s.[7] From the controversial group member’s viewpoint all interventions are suspected as not only possible avenues for disturbing or “evil” information, but also for what might degenerate into a brutal deprogramming once it begins. This “fear” can be a powerful prophylactic against participation in a family discussion of even the most benign proportions with a counselor or consultant—a horrible deprogrammer might appear by surprise in a family arranged setting.[8]

The public perception that the deprogrammer is a necessary mercenary on one hand, or a hero willing to risk jail on the other, is a result of selective attention to kidnap/ deprogramming in newspaper, magazine and television reporting, especially in cases that fail.[9] Litigation and criminal charges are news that become public domain, whereas success stories from interventions rarely make news as the families of ex-members and ex-members prefer privacy.[10] Successful intervention dramas, however, are presented to the public in another format—the movie or television special. These productions, whether journalistic, fictional, or dramatized “true stories,” have focused on the kidnap/ deprogramming approach as the “last resort” intervention strategy of a desperate family. All of the significant productions that we review in this paper end with the group member leaving the group after a dramatic intervention that involves some kind of coercion. Never is the group member presented as returning to the “cult” after intervention despite evidence in my awareness that nearly half did.

Twice movie producers have approached me to advise them about deprogramming—one film aired as an NBC TV special in 1994 and many times thereafter on cable TV. The story was based on two 1988 cases about which I had intimate knowledge. O’Hara-Horowitz Productions purchased the rights to my story and hired me as a consultant. My experience with that production company and their script writer led me to ponder why the producers gravitated to this one approach to intervention—the physically coercive one—despite my best efforts to offer them an interesting non-coercive intervention story. The answer was ratings—producers are worried about who might watch their story. Stories that portray crime, violence, sex, and suspense attract a wider audience.[11] I knew that within this specific theme of a deprogramming and a cult, most of these attractive, sensational elements can and have occurred to some degree, and a kidnapping scene adds to the suspense.[12] The producers could, therefore, claim to represent “reality.”

Certainly, many former members of some of the more abusive or manipulative groups can identify with the way that such films portray cults. And, certainly, some cultic group members who have “survived” deprogramming attempts, will identify with the emotionally charged, physically coercive tactics used by deprogrammers in film, whether they were abused or not.[13] Cult members hear the atrocity tales about intervention survivors.

These movie stories often portray the cult or cult leader as villainous, deceptive or dangerous, and the deprogrammer as an eccentric entrepreneur. The distressed family almost always appears as the primary victim. The movie family pays expensive fees, suffers the hate of the cult member, and risks retribution from the cult or a prosecutor if the intervention fails. In my reality, families have not been so easily duped by “mercenary” deprogrammers, dedicated deprogrammers have rarely made a good living, and families have known that prosecutors are loath to press criminal charges against them. My contention is that none of these film stereotypes represent the usual family experience in the more common, non-coercive, or less common coercive intervention, nor do they portray the average group member’s experience in most groups that carry the “cult” label.

Many of the films I review, except for A Mother’s Deception and Holy Smoke, portray groups that resemble the Unification Church or “Moonies.” The movie cult has an authoritarian male leader with anti-social traits, a distorted Biblical doctrine, and controls members in a communal environment. The group devalues the dissenting family as “satanic,” and members use deceptive fundraising and recruiting tactics. All of these films represent families that have been cut off by the group member, families that are now desperate to restore the member to his or her “proper” personality outside of the controlling group.

Ticket To Heaven

In 1981 the Canadian Film Development Corporation and the Guardian Trust Company released one of the first feature films about a cult deprogramming. Ticket To Heaven derived its title from the cult fund-raiser’s belief that whenever someone bought a product that supported a cult cause, even under a ruse, that contributor was buying a “ticket to heaven.” This movie, starring Nick Mancuso as David, the cult recruit, and R.H. Thomson as Linc the deprogrammer, mimics the experience of former Unification Church members. The UC had gained the dubious distinction of being the model cult in public perception throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In Ticket to Heaven the concerned family hires a deprogrammer after trying in various ways to dissuade David from group influence. They arrange and execute a clumsy, illegal abduction of David. They take him to a “safe house” where he remains under guard for two or more days until the deprogrammer, Linc, shows up. David remains unmoved from his faith despite all family efforts until Linc arrives. No one in the family seems to know Linc save by reputation. He arrives dressed casually in jeans, cowboy boots and a black leather jacket. He carries a small briefcase.

After the family and guard cautiously admit this mysterious Lone Ranger, his first utterance is brief: “Where is he?” He repeats the question, not bothering to greet the stunned people he meets. Linc silently walks to the doorway of the room where David is sitting on a mattress with his sister. Linc orders the sister out of the room with a motion of his hand. As she passes him he glances approvingly at her backside. Then Linc slowly approaches David and stands above him. David is staring blankly, showing signs of nervousness. Linc drops to his knees and stares into David’s eyes. The family and a security man huddle in the doorway, watching intently. Suddenly, Linc shoves David back onto the mattress and pins him by the shoulders. With his nose practically touching David’s, Linc exclaims, “Love me, David. I’m Satan.”

In the ensuing deprogramming scenes, Linc’s strategies include shocking jargon, continual questioning, condescension toward cult practices, and desecration of the cult’s doctrine—the latter accomplished in one scene when Linc steps on the sacred book of the group. These tactics are mixed with genuine concern, comparative Bible passage discussion, and gentle prodding until David seems to snap out of his cult personality after a few days. Flash back scenes portray the group members as highly motivated missionaries who strictly obey conniving mid-managers and revere the leader almost as a living god. Despite the stereotypes many former members of similar groups, view the depiction of cult life in Ticket To Heaven as generally accurate. Understandably, devotees of cult groups are not satisfied with many representations about group life in the film.

In contrast, deprogrammers I had personally interviewed (at least 20) did not approve of the coercive interaction tactics used by Linc—none, for instance, approved of physically shoving or striking a client, nor would they callously step on a group member’s sacred book.[14] Those deprogrammers, whether active or not today as “exit counselors,” view these tactics as counterproductive during an intervention. This does not mean that some deprogrammers have not tried such tactics.[15] In the end David de-converts and reunites with his family.


The 1981 Annie Makepeace production of Moonchild is unique among cult/deprogramming films in that most of the actors are former cult members who were either deprogrammed or walked away from the group represented. The story revolves around the actual experience of Chris Carlson, who plays himself as a “Moonie” of the late 1970s. In this case, his abduction was by court order as the family obtained a legal guardianship to hold him until he finished meeting with deprogrammers. The intervention itself was accurately portrayed, avoiding all gratuitous or sensational action. In this movie, the deprogrammers accomplished their task with logical argument and friendliness. Despite its amateur style, Moonchild succeeds where most films of this genre fail, in its relatively accurate and fair description of that group life. Still, the film offers the impression that coercive tactics are required to begin and/or sustain a successful intervention.

Thy Will Be Done

Not a movie, this TV series called “Thy Will Be Done” from Minnesota was a special investigation by The Moore Report about the cult controversy around 1980. Most seasoned deprogrammers, exit counselors, and anti-cultists are aware of this series that chooses to document an actual deprogramming as one theme in the report. In the first segment, the report documents a distressed family whose minor daughter, 17, they legally remove from the home of a family devoted to a Christian sect led by Rama Behara. Deprogrammers, much as in Moonchild, work without abusive tactics in a safe house to accomplish their goal mostly through talk and logical argument. The strong impression again is that “cult” indoctrination is so powerful that some coercion is needed to facilitate a successful intervention. At a rehab center for former members, the young lady states at the end of the report that she is “glad” that she was deprogrammed. The cult leader and members refused to be interviewed for the piece, so we are left with an incomplete and sinister impression of them.

Split Image

This 1982, F.P.S., Incorporated production called Split Image stars Peter Fonda as Neal Kirklander, a leader of a rural, communal cult called Homeland. The story is of a young college student named Danny (actor Michael O’Keefe) who falls in love with a recruiter from Homeland and joins the group. Danny comes from a wealthy, materialistic family. His parents have no sensitivity for social causes and maintain an elitist posture toward those less fortunate. After a failed attempt to personally remove Danny (newly named Joshua during a group initiation) from the commune, the frustrated father, played by Brian Dennehy, has a run-in with the police for refusing to leave the commune. He is arrested. The news of this famous man’s arrest reaches Pratt, a rude deprogrammer nervously played by James Woods. Pratt quickly approaches the family, not unlike a caricature of an ambulance-chasing lawyer. Pratt shows up uninvited at their home, and readily convinces them to hire him and his team.[16]

Split Image treats us to a horrific example of an abduction that includes handcuffing and duct-taping Danny until he is carried into the family home and locked in a boarded-up room. Pratt uses even more physical and condescending tactics on his client than Linc attempts in Ticket To Heaven. The bickering and arguing between Pratt and the parents leaves the viewer sympathizing with Danny only. He is the embattled son looking for meaning outside of his neurotic family, and later, outside Homeland.

After he leaves the cult, Danny rejects Pratt’s attempt to get his story on television to help debunk the cult and to educate the public. Danny states that some of his experience was “good.” He does not want to play into Pratt’s cult hating agenda. In the end, Danny convinces Amy (the girl he loves) to leave Homeland during a final, dramatic confrontation with the cult leader, Neal. In the last scene we see Danny and Amy running happily together. We are left with the image of two innocent souls running away from a sick family system, a derisive deprogrammer, cynical police officers and a most noxious cult. Long-time deprogrammer, Cliff Daniels, claimed he was a consultant for this movie. He told me that he was furious with the way the producers portrayed the entire event, and he quit in the middle of the production.[17]

48 Hours: “The Deprogramming” and TV Journalism

To my knowledge, for nearly a decade no new movies appeared regarding cult/deprogramming events, although news stories and television talk shows or magazine programs did mention them. In May of 1989 the CBS television program 48 Hours featured deprogrammer Rick Ross who helps a family deprogram a high school-age boy from a Bible-based sect. In this case, the young man unwittingly walks into a deprogramming set-up. He soon discovers he is not allowed to leave for several days when his brother and a guard physically keep him from going out a door. The legal intervention works to convince the young man to leave the sect. A year before this production aired, CBS had been searching for a deprogramming event to film. They contacted many deprogrammers and exit counselors including me. CBS was not interested in a non-coercive version of an intervention had one even been available to them. The excuse to me was “ratings.”

“Hippies and Cults” on NBC

NBC television aired something about deprogramming in their The 20th Century special “Hippies and Cults” in 1995 that aired many times in subsequent years. Mike Wallace hosted the program. The only mention of an intervention is of the deprogramming/kidnap variety. The show presents little in-depth information about any one cult or new religion.

Drop Squad

Universal City Studios released this film in 1994 about a paramilitary organization of African Americans, the Drop Squad, D.R.O.P. being an acronym for "Deprogramming and Restoration of Pride." The Squad decides to abduct an African American ad executive for selling out his race and attempt to deprogram him. Directed by David Johnson it features Spike Lee as an actor. Lee also helped to produce the film. The film is now on DVD and it is one I have yet to see.

MTV and “The Cult Problem”

“The Cult Problem,” was an MTV (Music Television Videos) special first aired in August of 1995. Although MTV did a credible job in the less than half-hour program, when it came to intervention they chose to feature only a 1993 newspaper photo of handcuffed deprogrammer, Galen Kelly. Prosecutors arrested him after a failed deprogramming attempt. The image appears when the question of what to do to help someone leave a cult came up. Narrator Kurt Loder immediately points to deprogrammers and their potentially illegal tactics, but he never mentions the then more prevalent, non-coercive “exit counseling” style of intervention. In that same show, MTV mentions another failed abduction case that involved deprogrammer Rick Ross. The show discusses many groups including Scientology, Church Universal and Triumphant, the Räelians, and the International Church of Christ (the Boston Movement), giving each a fair if critical representation.[18] The viewer is left to ponder that intervention means coercive deprogramming.


Around 1995 I caught an episode of the television series Sisters that featured the “cult” involvement of an adult daughter of one of the series’ lead characters. This mother manages to deeply affect her entranced daughter after one, intense discussion that leads to her eventual choice to leave the cult. This interaction with a successful “exit” from a cultic group probably happens in most cases of defection from such involvement, but it is rarely depicted or observed on television. Many studies show that the majority of cult members defect without professional intervention.[19] The show reinforces a view that some form of intervention is potentially valuable for those loyal to destructive or manipulative groups.

The Today Show “Moonie”

On November 8, 1993 the morning television Today Show provided film footage of a family trying to reconnect with their daughter who “joined” the Unification Church. NBC TV’s film crew followed the family of a new recruit, Catherine, whose mother, brother and step-father were anxious to find her. She was mysteriously unavailable to her mother for the first time after she left for college in New York. Once the mother, Cynthia, discovered that her daughter was in the Moonies, she searched fitfully for help. Through this discovery process, an NBC producer offered her services. The family chose non-coercive, legal means to reconnect with Catherine. Through days of difficult, on-site communication with evasive UC representatives and subsequent legal pressure, Catherine’s family convinced the UC to send her home for a visit. There she met with exit counselors who convinced her to stay away from the group. Catherine also needed therapy for symptoms of depression.

NBC later aired (February 17, 1994) an interview with Catherine after she had recovered from Unification Church influence. On the Today Show Catherine explains how she was conditioned by “cult” influence to loath her family and anyone who criticized the group, thus her initial numb reaction when her mother first reconnected with her at a UC household. She also stated how she was deceived into joining the group. She accused the UC of using “mind control” techniques on her. On the first program, a UC representative claims that the family had hired “deprogrammers” to advise them, when, in fact, the advice was to approach the situation legally and to avoid coercive deprogramming.

It is interesting to note that a UC female leader accuses the NBC crew of being with the “Cult Awareness Network” in one scene. There was no connection. That same Cult Awareness Network was taken over in 1996 by Scientology after a series of lawsuits. The old CAN carried a stigma of being a referral avenue for deprogrammers.

Deprogramming on Lou Grant and Saturday Night Live

We digress here to describe two television broadcasts about deprogramming that amount to parodies--one serious, the other not. The Lou Grant television series included one episode with deprogrammers around 1978. It happened that Lou Grant’s colleagues had a son who joined the Hare Krishna sect. In the episode the young man is highly devoted to the group and alienated from his family. The young man’s father meets and hires deprogrammers who promise to get his son out. “As the show progresses, the deprogrammers are revealed as thugs who will kidnap the boy and deprogram him with forceful, violent methods.”[20] After Lou Grant realizes that his house was chosen for a “violent” intervention, he throws the deprogrammers out. He convinces his colleague that deprogramming is wrong and that the son should be allowed to choose for himself. Father and son then take a walk in the rain to talk it over.

A Saturday Night Live television comedy skit about a deprogramming repeated sometime in 1987.[21] The skit begins with a haggard young woman tied to a chair where she is subjected to taunts and arguments from two male deprogrammers. The woman wears a plain dress and has dark circles around her eyes, thus enhancing a zombie-like trance. While the agitated deprogrammers work, a number of cult members crash into the place through windows and doors. John Belushi plays the cult leader. The cultists walk slowly, imitating characters from the old horror film, The Body Snatchers, hollow-eyed with arms outstretched while handing out brochures. As one deprogrammer looks at a brochure, the other one yells, “Don’t read it, man!” or something to that effect--too late. The deprogrammer suddenly transforms into a cult member, his eyes turn dark and he behaves in a robotic way. While the remaining deprogrammer struggles to avoid the cultists, the police led by comedian Bill Murray, storm onto the scene and proceed to shoot everyone in sight. After the mayhem the camera focuses on the deprogramee as she rises slowly from the floor to crawl eerily toward the audience. Even bullets cannot stop the brainwashed. In any case, back to the movies.…

A Mother’s Deception

An NBC special, aired initially on October 17, 1994, is titled Moment of Truth: A Mother’s Deception. It depicts Nora, a middle-aged woman who got caught up in a psychotherapy cult that convinced her to leave her family. The group leader, a psychiatrist played by Daniel Hugh Kelly, convinces Nora under hypnosis that her husband had abused her. Starring Joan Van Ark as Nora and Tom Kurlander as reluctant deprogrammer Ben Jacoby, the story composites two similar cases from information I provided to the production staff while working with the writer. Although the events and characters in the story were fictionalized, most were derived from actual interventions I helped to conduct in 1988. My efforts to persuade the writer to design the story around a non-coercive intervention worked temporarily until the producers demanded that the writer insert some kind of abduction and confinement.

Based on events I provided that actually occurred in other cases, the writer described an initial attempt at a non-coercive meeting that failed. After first agreeing to the meeting with Ben, Nora declined to meet with him after her cult leader shows her news clippings from Jacoby’s past as a busted deprogrammer. A non-violent “abduction” scene ensues as the daughter and husband convince Ben to do just one more. The writer invents an off-duty policeman, whose son Ben had helped out of a cult in years gone by, who tricks Nora to go with him to the intervention site. In collusion with the daughter who is driving, the uniformed officer pulls them over. He informs them that the car is “reported as stolen.” The officer then transports them to the safe house in his squad car.

A twist in the image of a deprogrammer shows Ben Jacoby as a youthful but respected history professor who had retired from deprogramming. Nora’s husband and daughter convince Ben to help them despite his promise to the college that he would do no more deprogramming work. Jacoby comes across as an intelligent, sensitive man, but one who is deeply scarred by his own cult experience in his youth. Toward the end of the intervention he uses the scars on his wrists from a suicide attempt to impress Nora about the dangers of The Path. The story ends after a dramatic scene that pits the group leader against the deprogrammer and the family. Nora has to decide what the truth really is. She realizes that her “memory” of abuse from her husband is false. She goes back to her family. The story, narrated by the daughter, mentions that Nora went to a clinic to recover and was still in therapy after several months, but things were “getting better.”

Signs and Wonders

The next significant movie we will consider is Signs and Wonders, a British Broadcasting Company production from 1994. It aired in America in 1995 and several times thereafter. This long movie portrays a dysfunctional British family with a daughter who joins a communal, American sect headed by an Asian man. The father is a struggling Anglican minister with a drinking problem and doubts about his faith. The older son is a skeptical philosopher caught up in the fringe “deconstructionist” world-views of a charismatic German scholar. The mother, Elizabeth, convincingly played by Prunella Scales, is characteristic of strong, dedicated mothers like the one in Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck—an unselfish person who loves and helps everyone in her distressed family. Her primary concern is to help rescue from the cult her daughter, Claire, played by Jodhi May in a solid performance.

In this endeavor, Elizabeth is essentially alone as her son and husband are not so concerned. She contacts an “exit counselor” called Diamond, a role rigorously interpreted by James Earl Jones. Elizabeth engages him to monitor and hopefully to exit her daughter out of the group. While Elizabeth prepares to travel to America, Diamond orders one of his crew to infiltrate the group. Group life appears similar to that in Split Image and Ticket to Heaven: Every one is kept busy either praying, tending to chores, going to meetings, recruiting new members, or fundraising. Diamond’s edgy crewmember must escape from the commune and from the psychological pressure he feels to stay and join. He reports that the daughter is in deeper than they thought, and that she is being prepared for a special “task” for the leader.

In a crucial scene on a beach Diamond and his two-man, one-woman crew, discuss the possibilities of contact with Claire. The crew wants to kidnap her. Diamond argues against their radical suggestion. He says it violates his non-coercive way of intervention. But, true to the film industry’s need to dramatize these encounters, Diamond breaks his code and agrees to abduct the young lady. Now we are back to the familiar coercive deprogram style again. The crew manages to abduct the daughter while she is fund-raising on the street by dragging her into a black van. They do all of this rather professionally for a team that supposedly works only non-coercively, and they work, uncharacteristically for deprogrammers, without a family member present.

The mother arrives after the team has the daughter in a hotel. In a bizarre series of scenes, Diamond, dressed as a blind person to avoid the police, secretly meets the confused mother in a public square. They get in his car where he explains what they had to do to get Claire. On their way to the hotel Diamond educates Elizabeth about “mind control” and cults while interviewing her about her knowledge of brainwashing. He gets very upset with her when she states that she feels responsible for her daughter’s joining the group, and that she expects him to deprogram Claire out of it. Diamond suddenly stops the car and commands Elizabeth to get out! As they stand on a sidewalk, he emphatically lectures that he “does not unbrainwash the brainwashed”, that he is an “exit counselor” not a deprogrammer--“Never use that term with me”-- who educates his clients and does not coerce them. Diamond also convinces the mother that anyone joins cults, that there is no family profile of cult recruits.

To my knowledge this was the first introduction of the term “exit counselor” in a film of this genre. Unfortunately, little of an exit counselor’s educational style makes it into the dramatic intervention scenes. The story reverts to the old deprogramming stereotype in every way, just as it portrays the now classic version of a “Moonie” cult household.

The Simpsons: Homer Joins a Cult in 1998

On February 8, 1998, Fox TV aired an episode of "The Simpsons," a witty cartoon parody of a contemporary American family, in which the father, Homer, joins a cult called the Movementarians. Homer recruits his entire family, but his wife, Marge, soon has doubts and escapes from the cult compound. She hires a Scottish deprogrammer, Willie Kilt, who kidnaps Homer and the children by enticing them into a limousine that looks like the cult leader's vehicle. In funny deprogramming scenes, Homer and the children sit entranced and tied to chairs as Marge and Willie work on them. Homer inadvertently converts the deprogrammer into a devotee of The Leader during the intervention.

Homer snaps out of his cultic spell after he tastes a drop of beer. The children reject the cult for trick "hover bikes" offered them by Marge. They hang from nearly invisible fishing lines and come crashing to the floor as the kids attempt to mount them. The episode touches nearly every stereotype associated with cults, cult leaders, and deprogramming. It even includes a floating sphere device, from "The Prisoner," a decades-old British TV series, that tries to keep Marge from escaping. Anyone familiar with cults and cult films should find humor at every turn.

Holy Smoke: A Dark, Twisted Parody of Deprogramming in 2000

The provocative moviemaker Jane Campion gained worldwide recognition for her award winning film, The Piano. Rich imagery, surreal plots and feminist themes characterize Campion’s films. This production, co-written with her sister, Anna Campion, distributed by Miramax Films, has attracted mixed reviews. Holy Smoke is a quirky, rite-of-passage story about Ruth (Kate Winslet) who goes to India, converts to a Hindu sect after meeting the guru, changes her name and chooses not to return to her dysfunctional family in Australia. The family consults a cult expert who advises them to hire P. J. Waters (Harvey Keitel, who also starred in The Piano), the best “exit counselor” America has to offer. Waters appears in Sydney at the airport in dark sunglasses, black sport coat, blue jeans and black cowboy boots. His assistant is unavailable, so he goes it alone to deprogram Ruth after the family tricks her to come to a remote desert cabin located on site at the arid Flinders Ranges. The male family members and hired guards surround Ruth in a scene reminiscent of rustlers corralling a wild horse.

Unlike a real exit counselor who requires the presence of at least one family member, Waters is essentially alone with Ruth for several days. He proves to be smart, pompous, and sleazy. He engages Ruth’s sister-in-law in oral sex after she comes on to him like a groupie with a crush. His mind-games with Ruth take a surprising twist after Ruth seduces him during a particularly bizarre scene outside of the cabin. Waters resists her sexual invitation, though she is stark naked in the desert night, until she urinates down her legs in a transitional scene. Thereafter, Ruth cruelly manipulates her smitten exit counselor and orders him to put on a tight red dress. Then she directs him to pleasure her orally. They sleep together, but she finesses an escape in the morning. She could not get away on the sharp desert terrain (bull dust) because Waters took her shoes. She makes shoes out of Waters books tied to her feet with plastic bags. Waters awakes and tries to stop her. They fight and he knocks her out, but he believes he may have killed her.

He stuffs her inside the boot of an old sedan with large antlers mounted on front. As he drives down a rural road, Ruth’s family members and guards in a truck stop him—he says he’s looking for Ruth. The sister-in-law hears knocking from the boot and lets Ruth out. The men beat Waters senseless and leave him in the desert. In his delirium Waters has a vision of Ruth as a Hindu goddess.

Later, Ruth and company have a change of heart and pick him up. Waters still wears the red dress and one boot. The encounter transforms both deprogrammer and deprogrammee, and mutual transformation appears to be Campion’s intent. Both Waters and Ruth experience a rite of passage. At the end, the plot segues one year later into resolved lives. Waters is married to his black assistant and they have twin babies. He writes to Ruth who is in India with her mother at a mission where they work. Ruth’s father divorced to marry his secretary. Waters tells Ruth that he is now a novel writer and that he still loves her.

Ironically, I saw Holy Smoke in Australia in January of 2000 just after an exit counseling case—I had been to Australia 13 times on similar cases since 1987. There was no way I could be objective about this film, but I can say that only 9 other people were in the large, plush theater besides myself, my cousin and my niece. My Aussie relatives were more confused and insulted by the movie than I was. I saw it as a sometimes provocative but often clumsy film, moving the plot from a dark comedy in one scene, to a serious quest for meaning in the next, to a shallow parody of an Australian family in another, and so on. I know some of the consultants Campion used for the film, and I recognized the sources for many of her ideas—she obviously did her research. I believe the film meant a lot to her and her sister personally, but they bit off more than they could chew on this one.

But I’m a Cheerleader

This 2000 comedy/drama starring Clea Duvall tells a story about Megan, a confident and opinionated 17-year-old whose parents worry that she is a lesbian. They send her against her will to “True Directions,” a rehabilitation camp to deprogram her from her alleged sexual orientation. At the fundamentalist camp Megan meets Mary Brown, a homophobic counselor, and befriends Graham who is an equally defiant resident. I have not seen this film but one reviewer said: ‘Promising premise, stupid film.” (’m_a_Cheerleader.html)


Most observers of intervention report that the coercive variety of deprogramming lost momentum in North America by the mid-1980s, and it was practically non-existent save for isolated incidents by the early 1990s.[22] Both the propaganda about deprogramming and the need to represent the kidnap/deprogram paradigm in movies, magazine features, and news reports, feed the social myth that “brainwashed” persons need to be coerced for an exit counseling session to succeed, when, in fact, they do not. Today, this exceptional paradigm benefits only those who would vilify anti-cult efforts, those who would instill fear of family intervention among their members, or those who wish to attract an audience.[23] Old patterns change slowly, but my hope is that some daring filmmaker can someday create an entertaining, intelligent story about the sorely neglected drama of non-coercive intervention.


Black, Laurie, A. 1992. I AM the Witness: A Battle of Mind and Heart. Summit Lighthouse [Church Universal & Triumphant] Pearls of Wisdom, June 14, Vol. 35, No. 24.

Brenner, Ellie with Remenick, Joan. 1997. “Trying to Save Josh.” Good Housekeeping, July.

Colwell, John. 1994. “Under The Influence?” Eastsideweek. Kirkland, WA. February 9.

Disend, Michael. 1991.“The New Age Exorcist” DETAILs. September.

Dubrow-Eichel, Steve. 1989, 1990. “Deprogramming: A Case Study.” Cultic Studies Journal Vol.6 No. 9, and part 2, Vol. 7 No. 2

Freedom editors. 1995. A Special Report from FREEDOM: Cult Awareness Network: The serpent of greed, hatred, intolerance, violence and death. Los Angeles, Church of Scientology. Vol.27, Issue 2, January.

French, Ron. 1990. “Case may deter ‘deprogramming’ Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Indiana. November 21, 27 and December 8.

Giambalvo, Carol. 1991, 1995. Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention. American Family Foundation, PO Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 33959.

Goodstein, Laurie. 1996. “Anti-Cult Group Dismembered As Former Foes Buy Its Assets” The Washington Post. December 1.

Hassan, Steve. 1988. Combatting Cult Mind Control. Rochester, VT: Park St. Press.

Hall, Charles W. 1995. “U.S. Seeks to Fire Prosecutor in Va. For Alleged Misconduct in Cult Kidnapping Case.” The Washington Post, October 4.

Heller, Kenneth, et al. 1984. Psychology and Community Change. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Henslin, James M. 1995. Down to Earth Sociology. New York: The Free Press.

Kaslow, Florence & Sussman, Marvin B., ed. 1982. Cults and the Family. NY: Hawthorn Press.

Kim, Byong-suh. 1979. “Religious Deprogramming and Subjective Reality” Sociological Analysis. Vol. ??

Langone, Michael. 1993. Recovery From Cults. New York: W.W. Norton Company.

Martin, Stephen. 1996. “Survey of Evangelicals’ Views on Cults.” The Cult Observer [an American Family Foundation newsletter], March/April.

Muster, Nori J. 1997. Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life Behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement. Chicago:University of Illinois Press.

Ostrander, Kathleen. 1992. “Four face kidnapping charges.” Wisconsin State Journal. March 17.

Patrick, Ted with Dulack, Tom. 1976. Let Our Children Go. New York: E.P. Dutton, Thomas Congdon Books.

Pratkanis, Anthony & Aronson, Elliot. 1991. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Shinn, Larry D. 1992. “Cult Conversions and the Courts: Some Ethical Issues in Academic Testimony.”Sociological Analysis, Vol. 53, No. 3, Fall.

Singer, Margaret T. with Lalich, Janja.1995. Cults In Our Midst. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Threlkeld, Melanie. 1993. “Jury acquits two in deprogramming case” The Idaho Statesman. April 24.

Tomson, Ellen. 1997. “Free Your Mind.” Saint Paul Pioneer EXPRESS, June 8.

Valentine, Chuck et al. 1983. “The Reality of Deprogramming: Recovery from the Moonies.” March pamphlet by Argenta Friends Press, Argenta, BC, Canada V0G 1B0.

Wright, Stuart A. 1987. Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection. Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Monograph Series, No. 7.

Movie References

But I’m a Cheerleader. 2000. Lions Gate Films.

Drop Squad. 1994. A Spike Lee presentation. Universal City Studios, Inc.

Holy Smoke. 2000. A Jane Campion Production. Miramax Films.

Moonchild. 1981. Annie Makepeace Productions

Moment of Truth: A Mother’s Deception. 1994. National Broadcasting Network

Signs and Wonders. 1994. British Broadcasting Company

Split Image. 1982. F.P.S. Incorporated, Dallas, Texas

Ticket To Heaven. 1981. Canadian Film Development Corporation & Guardian Trust Company

Television Feature References

[Homer Joins a Cult] 1998. The Simpsons. Gracie Films, 20th Century Fox television Network

The Cult Problem. 1995. MTV

48 Hours: The Deprogramming. May, 1989. CBS

Lou Grant. 1978.*

Saturday Night Live (deprogramming skit). Repeat-1987. NBC

Sisters. circa 1994.*

Today Show. November 8, 1993; February 17, 1994. NBC

The Twentieth Century: Hippies and Cults. 1995. CBS

The Moore Report: Thy Will Be Done. circa 1980. Minneapolis, MN.*

*Network information not found or available at time of writing

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 3, No.2/3, 2004, Page

[1] A working definition from The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd Edition) of cult for the purposes of this paper does not exclude the primary meaning as: “A system of religious worship and ritual.” The paper does however rely more heavily on the second and third entries: “2. A religion or sect considered extremist or false. 3.a. Obsessive devotion to a person or principle. b. The object of such devotion.”

[2] Singer, p 286, summarizes this history.

As to my use of the “cult” word to describe controversial, new or marginal groups, I am aware of its proper meaning in good scholarship as well as the conventional, popular one that carries a pejorative load. I intend it as descriptive, not explanatory or derogatory. I find the sociological convention of “New Religious Movement” used by sensitive academics to be overly restrictive, as not all cult activity is religious.

[3] One survey reported in 1996 that 87% of respondents among Evangelicals “do not agree that rescuing and deprogramming sons and daughters from cults is an infringement upon their freedom of religion.” See Martin, 1996.

[4] In my considerable experience with cult-related interventions since the early 1980s, I consistently meet people with a superficial knowledge of deprogramming who assume that a deprogrammer's work almost always includes coercion. My first non-professional, non-coercive deprogramming came at the end of 1980 when I dissuaded several members of Church Universal and Triumphant to defect one month after I rejected CUT teachings. At that time I also helped a young lady reassess and leave her small “Bible” cult, a voluntary “intervention” that led to her reunion with her family. My career as an exit counselor/ deprogrammer was launched. My continuing interest and studies in the field led to my first “professional” (first time I was paid professional fees) intervention in January of 1986. Until 1992, in a low percentage of my cases, I included situations in which families elected to confine and sometimes abduct a “cultist” for a deprogramming. At the time, however reluctantly, I saw it as part of my job, a view I have since rejected as of 1992. I, like many of my colleagues in exit counseling, refuse to work with anyone who has been illegally coerced or confined by their family or a deprogrammer. In April 1993 I withstood a jury trial in Idaho over a failed 1991 intervention that was initiated by an abduction days before I arrived on the case. I was acquitted of all charges. (Idaho vs. Szimhart, et al, Case No. 18597, April 27, 1993)

[5] See Freedom in references. Another example of anti-deprogramming propaganda was distributed by Church Universal and Triumphant in 1992 through several articles in their newsletters. Black, 1992, writes of a case that involved me.

[6] Many controversial new religions and cults have reacted to the anti-cultists with harsh propaganda about deprogramming. In 1995 Scientology published a magazine: A Special Report from FREEDOM about “Cult Awareness Network, The serpent of hatred, intolerance, violence and death.” This magazine is a prime example of anti-deprogramming propaganda in its more egregious form. Ironically, as a result of a successful civil suit Scientology managed to take over the CAN business. See Goodstein. “Anti-Cult Group Dismembered As Former Foes Buy Its Assets” and endnote 21.

[7] From interviews with many colleagues who work non-coercively in the “exit counselor/deprogrammer” milieu, all have noted that most “cult” members who avoid their families do so partially to avoid an abusive deprogramming. This “phobia” even exists toward families that would never use coercion

[8] Nearly all families (many hundreds) who have called the author over the years seek non-coercive means to dissuade loved ones from any alleged cult. Those that elected to use coercive means to initiate deprogramming knew that abuse of the client in any way (sleep deprivation, assault, drugs, lying, constant haranguing, etc.) was not permitted, nor would they accept it, beyond the initial abduction or prevention from escape. Typical coercive deprogrammings, in the author’s experience and from gathered information, were most like that described in Dubrow-Eichel. Also see Valentine. In these presentations, any initial “trauma” to the deprogramee is generally over-ridden by a “joy” in a new sense of freedom. Respect, caring and intelligent conversation were the most effective tools used by deprogrammers in these settings.

[9] During the early 1990s a spate of stories about failed deprogrammings that involved illegal coercion made the news. Litigants included deprogrammers Galen Kelly, Rick Ross, Mary Alice Chrnalogar, Randall Burkey, the author (myself), and a few others in at least five incidents. For examples see: French, re. Ted Patrick; Ostrander, re: R. Burkey; Threlkeld re: author and M. A. Chrnalogar; Orth, Mellillo, re. Galen Kelly who served 16 months of his sentence before charges were overturned by an appellate court. See: Hall, Colwell re: Rick Ross.

[10] In rare circumstances a family will allow a thorough reconstruction of a successful deprogramming that involved some coercion or an abduction. In the author’s experience a feature writer for DETAILs Magazine followed the author over a year (1990-1991) on several non-coercive interventions. The magazine editor/publisher refused to accept the article unless a kidnap-style intervention was described. The author managed to bring the writer in on one such case that did not involve a kidnapping, but did involve a security team that would not allow the deprogramee to leave the premises after talks began. This intervention became the central theme of the 5000 word feature. See Disend, 1991. Non-coercive interventions have been mentioned, but not described in depth, recently in at least two articles. See Brenner; Tomson.

[11] Pratkanis & Aronson, 1991. See chapter 33 for effects of news reports and the need for action and violence for news reporters to show any interest. Also, see chapter 35: “How to become a Cult Leader.”

[12] See Patrick with Dulack. Patrick’s opinion that cult members must be held or contained for deprogramming to work, added to the media myth.

[13] Studies by scholars interested in or attracted to the cult/deprogramming controversy added to the sense of prevalence of the kidnap/deprogram approach. For instance, a by now obscure study, but containing representative sociological and psychological notions about “mind control” or “coercive persuasion” in such studies by Kim, pp. 40,3:197-207, gives no indication that anyone used non-coercive means to “deprogram.” Kim’s sample of 17 who were deprogrammed (four returned to their group) reportedly experienced the very styles of “rude” intervention depicted in the movies Split Image and Ticket To Heaven.

[14] My interviews amount to discussions over these tactics during interventions as well as prior to and after. As “deprogrammers” I include around 10 who made part or all of their living as deprogrammers at the time. The others were former members of groups who worked on a few “kidnap” cases only.

[15] The Kim, 1979, study concentrates on tactics attributed to Ted Patrick, whose fading but legendary status as the “idealized” deprogrammer most influenced deprogramming techniques in the movies Ticket To Heaven, Split Image, and Signs and Wonders. I never worked with Patrick, nor have I interviewed him. I have interviewed many persons who have worked with Patrick. See Ted Patrick, 1976, for his version of his techniques.

[16] I have never known a deprogrammer or exit counselor to approach a family first to convince them to do an intervention as this movie portrays.

[17] Telephone discussion with Cliff Daniels by the author in 1990.

[18] The credits in this MTV special mention many consultants including the author of this paper.

[19] For example, Wright, 1987, indicates that the vast majority of defectors leave cultic groups without professional help or intervention of any kind. By the early to mid-1980s non-coercive interventions (labeled “exit counseling”) received formalized attention as the alternative to coercive deprogramming. See Hassan 1988 and Giambalvo 1991, 1995. There is an interesting distinction between Giambalvo and Hassan in that the former “invites” change in a cultist, whereas Hassan is described (Giambalvo 1995:57-61) as an approach that “finesses” or “effects” change.

[20] Filming of this episode was experienced by Nori J. Muster, pp. 19-20. Muster’s autobiographical account of her 10 years as a Hari Krishna publicist includes passages about her open relationship with her father. They met often during her “cult” career, but he never seriously attempted to “exit” her. Like many parents in similar situations, he elected to let his daughter’s journey to take its course while trying his best to remain friends with her.

[21] I have not recovered the date of its original broadcast.

[22] Langone, p 35; Singer, p 286

[23] This concentration of propaganda against anti-cult groups that allegedly promote kidnapping reached bizarre proportions in one of dozens of civil suits against the original Cult Awareness Network. Some believe that many of these suits were “engineered” by a Scientology lawyer [Jason Scott vs. Ross and CAN in Washington state, 1996. See Goodstein cited above] in which the plaintiff enlisted the testimony of cult-apologist scholars. See statement by Indiana-Purdue sociology professor Anson Shupe “Beware Alleged Experts’ Doomsday Warnings” in Scientology’s Freedom magazine, 1995 special issue. Shupe testified in behalf of Scott and against R. Ross and the original Cult Awareness Network. The “new CAN” has sympathetic connections to Scientology as it had taken over the CAN logo, phone number [773-267-7777 now changed to 800-556-3055 Pacific time] and business.

Another example is in Shinn, 1992, who aligns with Shupe in his reactionary stance to “anti-cultists.” Shinn’s studies about the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) and New Religious Movements are extensive. In this paper, Shinn’s unfortunate comparison of Mother Teresa’s “100%” career as a nun to how anti-cult experts view “programmed” members of some NRMs, indicates a lack of insight into the distinctions that the named anti-cult scholars make (pp. 284-85). This sort of apologetic propaganda regarding courtroom testimony adds to the same distortions displayed by mass media and by certain elements of the anti-cult groups.

Joseph Szimhart. began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his two-year devotion to a New Age sect called Church Universal and Triumphant. He began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986 on an international scale. From 1985 through 1992, he was chairman of an interdenominational, cult information organization in New Mexico and lectured throughout the state. He has written many reviews and articles about cultic issues for Skeptical Inquirer, Cultic Studies Journal, and other publications. He continues to consult for the media and maintains a website for information about cults: For family reasons, he minimized his exit counseling work since 1998 to take a position with a psychiatric emergency hospital. Mr. Szimhart continues to pursue his fine art career, currently working on several commissions. (