Inside New Zealand
Cults are making a comeback, according to some of the experts who study them.
How To Spot A Cult is an Inside NZ that gives viewers an intimate view of what life is like inside groups that some former followers say are cults, operating in New Zealand.
"These former members have consistent stories about how the different organisations actually work", says producer Gary Scott, "and the techniques they say were used to control them, even though the belief systems can be miles apart".
"The modern rise of cult-like groups is not something experts can easily quantify, but there is a proven trend away from mainstream churches, towards other forms of spirituality. There has been a lot of talk about Destiny Church, since the covenant of 700 followers".
The two-part documentary consists of ex-believers stories, and investigates what the similarities they say exist between groups including the Exclusive Brethren, Scientology, Centrepoint, Gloriavale, Avatar and the International Church of Christ.
The documentary includes abuse survivors who have never spoken before, including the first ever interview with a young woman born into the controversial Centrepoint commune, the first of her generation to speak out.
How To Spot A Cult also features a New Zealand survivor from Waco, Texas, where an FBI seige ended with the death of 86 followers of David Koresh in a devastating fire.
"As you would expect, the effects of something like Waco are deeply traumatic. Ualesei Vaegas story is even more powerful because he witnessed Koresh go down the path of collecting guns, having sex with young girls, and yet Ualesi came back to New Zealand even though people around him were too deeply brainwashed to make that key decision - to leave".
Ualesi Vaega lost his brother, sister in law and many good friends in the tragic fire. As the documentaries show, a similar armed stand-off was only narrowly avoided in New Zealand at Camp David, a walled compound north of Christchurch.
"The scary things about Camp David",says Scott, "is that when the police raided their weapons stockpile, the members were hidden and watching them arrive through rifle scopes. Many of those guys had military training. Even today, some say there is still a stockpile of weapons buried on the West Coast".
The documentary reveals the kind of tactics cult-watchers and academics say should warn people that a group may want total control of their followers lives.
"We dont judge people for what they chose to believe in", says Scott. "For some its aliens, or past lives, for others its Jesus coming back from the dead. The belief itself does not make a group dangerous. The control systems and brain-washing can though".
Scott says that many interesting stories come from non-Christian groups like Scientology and Avatar, and says experts all have slightly different definitions of the term cult. "There are common elements though. The charismatic leader. Controlling followers lives, to the point they say it is very difficult for them to leave, although the groups deny this. The people we have interviewed say they have experienced separation from their families, attempts to break their character, and unquestioning obedience to the leaders wishes, while being promised the only true path to heaven or to an enlightened planet".
"I'd never even heard of Avatar, but during the research we have run into New Zealanders with very concerning stories, most of which they did not want to share".
Avatar was founded by former Scientologist Harry Palmer. Scientology has been under scrutiny around the world with investigations in America alleging systematic violence by the world leader, and very heavy-handed treatment of dissenters or those trying to leave the church. Some European countries have anti-cult laws and several Scientology leaders were recently convicted of fraud in France, although that decision is under appeal.
Aired on Inside New Zealand TV3 On Air Wed 25th November and Wed 2nd December 2009 at 9.30pm