In hindsight, we probably could have found a less stupid way to spend an afternoon than dangling ourselves over the open jaws of a notoriously dangerous international cult. But it was a Tuesday in L.A. and my hotel didn’t have a swimming pool.
My friend and fellow comedy writer—we’ll call her “Ann”—and I were in town from New York for the week. I was here to visit my long-distance girlfriend at the time, and Ann was here to take “generals,” which is the word people in Hollywood use to describe television show meetings that don’t mean anything and are a deliberate waste of everyone’s time. (It’s like 96% of what people do here.)
And so, spurred on by an intoxicating blend of boredom and curiosity, we met for brunch to discuss how we would infiltrate Scientology.
Before I go on any further, a bit of disclosure: we’re certainly not the first smug Millennial assholes to try and tour the Scientology Center ironically. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s become something of a Los Angeles pastime. That being said, for us? This was Ocean’s Eleven. And we planned accordingly.
I’d been fascinated by the religion for years. From Tom Cruise’s unhinged appearance on Oprah’s couch-turned-trampoline, to South Park’s jaw-dropping reveal of the Xenu story, to the more recent story about, um, Neopets, I was hungry to know more about this batshit pyramid scheme that seemed to have conned half of Hollywood. In fact, in my very short time utilizing my now-useless journalism degree, I even wrote a two-part exposé of the Atlanta Scientology scene for the Gwinnett Daily Post.
But L.A. is the belly of the beast. You can’t round a corner in this city without running smack dab into another piece of L. Ron real estate: That infamous giant blue monolith on Fountain Avenue. A creepy, Tower-Of-Terror-ass-looking place on Franklin dubbed the “Celebrity Centre.” A mission-style building on Hillhurst. And, perhaps most ominously, a brand-new, Scientology-owned movie and television studio looming over my favorite Los Angeles bar, Tiki-Ti, on Sunset.
In a geographical sense, you literally cannot escape Scientology in Los Angeles. So, Ann and I figured, if you can’t beat ’em, why not pretend to join ’em?
Our plot began the way all great heists do: a strategy discussion over eggs Benedict. We gave ourselves fake names and a backstory: we were Charles and Jen (That’s right, her fake name had a fake name.), an engaged couple from New York. The “engaged” part was especially funny to us, as Ann and I have all the smoldering sexual chemistry of, well, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. We’d tell them we’d been approached on Hollywood Boulevard and asked if we wanted to take a “Personality Test,” which is the innocuous-sounding con members use to draw in newbies. In reality, the only “personality” they’re looking for is “desperate, malleable, and easily flattered.” I submit that it’s no coincidence that the cult has attracted so many actors.
It lent to the air of drama that we happened to be dining just across the street from the terrifying, sky-blue fortress we were about to impregnate. We were literally eating bacon in the shadow of evil. If you’ve seen the documentary Going Clear, you know the building I’m talking about: a towering architectural eyesore with the word “SCIENTOLOGY” garishly spelled out atop it in all caps, like it’s being shouted at you. It looks like something hilariously made-up, straight out of a Mel Brooks movie.
We paid our bill, and with zero liquid assistance (thanks to the restaurant’s unforgivable lack of a liquor license), we prepared to cross the street. It was the last moment we could have—and, frankly, should have—backed out, and so we traded one final glance, gauging each other’s mettle.
“We could just hike Griffith Observatory instead.”
“The Hollywood Sign seems fun.”
Instead, we pushed forward.
Inside the building’s street-facing double doors, our first introduction to the world of Scientology revealed something far more insidious than we ever could have imagined: a gift shop. Racks were lined with copies of Dianetics—L. Ron Hubbard’s first bestseller and successful initial foray into religious grifting—along with several of his D-list sci-fi novels, self-help tapes, t-shirts, and so on. Beyond that stood Jenna Elfman, looking for all the world like a Madame Tussauds wax version of herself. Dharma!
She appeared to be posing for a celebrity photo with a young woman who had just “gone clear.” The young woman beamed as the actress leaned in closer, holding an oversized certificate—a Publisher’s Clearing House check from Hell. It was a scene that so stereotypically screamed “Scientology!” that I half expected Leah Remini to run by us, fleeing out the back door as John Travolta chased after her in ceremonial robes.
Our sudden entrance seemed to cause a record-scratch moment for everyone else in the room. They all turned and stared at us in silence, like the mid-blow-job guy in the bear costume from The Shining. Suddenly the unwanted center of attention, we nervously muttered something about personality tests and shuffled our way through the surreal scene as fast as humanly possible.
To our growing horror, we realized we’d entered on the wrong side of the building (the tests were administered near the other entrance, on Sunset), and so we hustled through the length of the place as fast as we could, taking in all of the insane stimuli as best as we could while on the run.
About halfway through the lobby, we passed a help desk with a thick stack of paperwork sitting on it. Curious, I drew closer and inspected a copy. It was a pile of the infamous contracts for the Sea Organization—or Sea Org—promising one BILLION, with a B, years of service to Scientology, extending through not only this lifetime but countless ones after. Maybe you heard about these on South Park. I have seen them with my own eyes. They 100% exist, and no one thought to even stick them in a filing cabinet. I’ve never started a multilevel-marketing-scheme-turned-cult before, but if I had, this wouldn’t be something I would just leave out in the open for any old late-night television comedy writer to walk past. Just seems like bad business.
When we finally reached the end of the building we were supposed to be at and meekly stated our intentions to whomever around us would listen, we were introduced to our tour guide. He was someone I can only describe as Scientology Zach Woods: a gangly, friendly-looking white guy who resembled what would have happened if the Silicon Valley actor had been drafted into a different cult than the Upright Citizens Brigade. This poor kid never stood a chance. If Scientology hadn’t gotten him, Improv 201 would have.
Scientology Zach gently inquired about what brought us here (he’d clearly been burned before), so we made up some on-the-spot bullshit about being “spiritually open-minded” and looking for something to “fill that void.” Had we seen the South Park episode, he asked, eyeing us suspiciously. Sure, we said, but we knew it was just “satire or whatever” and wanted to check things out for ourselves. This answer seemed to satisfy him, and so he began our tour.
The “tour” consisted of a series of videos, each shown on a different screen in a different section of a fake library. Most detailed the allegedly incredible life of L. Ron Hubbard, featuring an impressive amount of spin, transmogrifying him from a portly, third-rate science-fiction writer into a preposterous combination of Ernest Hemingway, the Dalai Lama, and Paul Bunyan. Genius. Trailblazer. Sexual Dynamo. The deceptively History Channel-quality videos—artificially trumping up his time in the armed forces, his career as a writer, and his allegedly unfair defamation at the hands of the entire field of psychiatry—could all be easily debunked by one quick visit to his Wikipedia page, but our handlers seemed to assume that if you’ve walked into this building, you’re not super concerned with facts.
The real Hubbard—a blustery charlatan with an inferiority complex motivated purely by greed, ego, and spite—is so alarmingly familiar in the current political climate that it’s hilarious Donald Trump earlier this year vowed to go after Scientology himself. In a parallel universe, he’d be running the place.
The remaining videos focused more on the religion itself, taking care to keep it to the more secular, self-help-like aspects of Scientology while intentionally “yada yada”-ing over the loonier parts. Words like “Xenu,” “thetans,” “engrams,” and “DC-10s dropping H-bombs into volcanos” were never mentioned directly. But they did allude to “traumatic events in your distant past” that are “keeping you from achieving your full potential.” (It’s kinda shocking how reasonable the whole thing seems when you edit out the alien warlords.) The videos were unnervingly well-produced, with long, lingering shots of sunrises, waterfalls, and a youthful, attractive, multiethnic cast. If Scientology ever goes bankrupt, it will be because of their out-of-control stock footage budget.
After the videos ended, it was finally time to take the Personality Test. And here’s where things got decidedly Not Fun. First of all, they really mean the “Test” part. We’re talking Scantrons, #2 pencils, strict time limits, the whole nine yards. They shepherded us into a large, windowless room, and then separated us into different corners, so we couldn’t make eye contact or confer about leaving. They were basically the same tactics fraternities use to divide up sorority girls at a keg party.
I’ll spare you most of the gritty details of the actual test. Suffice it to say that it was such a slog that, for the first time, I really regretted what we were doing. This didn’t feel like a heist anymore. It felt like math class. There were multiple parts, and literally hundreds of questions. First came an IQ test. The next two parts focused on our personalities, with a series of questions so weirdly dissonant from each other (Question 7: “What’s your favorite thing about friendship?” Question 8: “How would torturing a squirrel make you FEEL?”) that I honestly couldn’t get an angle on what they were trying to get out of us. Was the goal to make us confess to a crime so they could blackmail us into joining? I wouldn’t put it past them.
All the while, we kept hearing occasional bouts of enthusiastic applause from an adjacent room. Whenever that happened, one of our handlers would look to the other and say something like, “Did you hear that? Nancy just went clear.” To this day I’m convinced there was a stereo sitting on the floor in the other room playing canned applause, and that this was staged entirely for our benefit.
After the test, they printed out our respective results and took us (again) into separate rooms to discuss them with us. Now, this might come as a huge shock to you, but it turns out, according to Scientologists, both our personalities were lacking, but! Thankfully, Scientology could help! I was shown a printout that looked like a plummeting stock-market graph, and told that in the areas of “Career,” “Relationships,” “Physical Wellbeing,” etc., that I had come up short. (I’ll go ahead and give them “Physical Wellbeing.”) The only area I did excel in was “Intelligence,” which caused the test-taker to eye me suspiciously, almost as if to say, “Dude, you’re too smart to be here.”
In our separate rooms, Ann and I were then given an “e-meter” reading, which is sort of like a lie-detector test, except even more bullshitty. It consisted of holding a literal metal can in each of our hands—attached by strings to a box with some hilariously non-functional kind of readout on it—while an infuriatingly young Scientology trainee sat across the table from us, asking intensely personal questions about our lives and pasts. (Perhaps succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome, I ended up divulging a surprising amount of information about an engagement I had called off, a past trauma that—surprise!—they said Scientology could help with.)
It was at this point that Ann and I—still separated—started to squirm like the ants under a magnifying glass that we were. When we’d started this adventure, we told our handlers we had about 45 minutes before we had to be at a friend’s place (which was, of course, a definite lie), and they’d managed to keep us for more than three hours. We started to think we’d never see the outside of this place again.
Gradually, I began to try and find an exit strategy. This was all very interesting, I said, but could we talk more about it at a later date? In the other room, Ann was attempting the same tactic. Our respective trainees smelled fear and dug their heels in. Would we at least consider buying a copy of Dianetics today, for the low, low price of $49.99? (I’d never paid that much for a book and I wasn’t about to start today.) Fumbling my words, I promised I would buy one at a later date—I’m from New York, and cash is tight on this vacation, you see—and invited them to please mail me as much Scientology literature as their hearts desired. Just send it to the address I’d provided—a fake amalgamation of my previous two addresses.
The wolves seemed, if not totally satisfied by their meal, at least tided over for the moment. Scientology Zach Woods re-entered stage left to ask us to please, before we leave, just watch this one last video. Back together and finally able to trade a wary glance once again, Ann and I conceded.
He led us out of Xenu’s Test-Taking Room From Hell and to one final wall screen, and pressed play. “I’ll leave you guys to it,” he said. “Please enjoy, and I’ll see you after it’s over.”
Poor Zach. As soon as Cult Victim Slenderman strided away, I anxiously scanned our surroundings, and saw the first thing that had brought me joy all day: an exit. I tugged at Ann’s sleeve and silently pointed to it. It was so perfect there might as well have been a beam of light shining down on it from the heavens. In fact, it almost looked like a trap. But it was our only chance. So, our friendly captor be damned, we darted for the door, and didn’t look back until we reached the end of the block—a truly impressive amount of physical exertion for two comedy writers.
I immediately ordered an Uber, and we spent five excruciating minutes waiting for the car to arrive, certain that David Miscavige would run out yelling that I’d dropped my wallet or something. Finally, our ride came, and we left that goddamn blue building in our literal rearview mirror, breathing a sigh of relief so deep I only just stopped sighing like 15 minutes ago.
So, we certainly found something to do on a Tuesday afternoon. But was it worth it? Definitely fucking not. However, the moral of the story is this: while my curiosity was satisfied, I learned to never poke the bear that is Scientology ever again.
Ah, I’m just kidding. Literally that same week, using the same fake name, I brought my girlfriend to the L. Ron Hubbard Museum in Hollywood (you simply must see their life-size sculptures of the characters from Battlefield Earth), and just a few months ago, I tempted fate yet again by checking out the Scientology-funded Psychiatry: An Industry Of Death, a hilarious museum that posits that psychiatrists are responsible for 9/11, the Holocaust, and the Columbine massacre.
I mean hell, I even moved to L.A., so clearly I’m not as scared of these people as I should be. I guess eventually I’ll learn my lesson—when I wake up in a bathtub with my kidneys having been donated to Tom Cruise—but until then, I just can’t quit messing with these guys. It’s like 96% of what I do here.