Visiting Melbourne’s Church of Scientology is like being trapped in a terrible PowerPoint. Forced to endure a series of gaudy videos, inspirational quotes and strange hovering symbols. You are shuffled along with alarming speed, when you just want to stop and take a closer look at the tacky mess that surrounds you. Then, you’re hurried on to the next slide.
The Ascot Vale property that houses the controversial religion is giant and imposing, an old nunnery of some kind that has been disemboweled. The courtyard converted into a car park and the cloisters into private rooms. I go with my friend Josh, who out of all my friends is the most indulgent of my love for conspiracies and cults.
From the moment we walk past the gates, a small throng of Scientologists is watching us. One of them, a large older man in a Leonard Cohen t-shirt, intercepts us as we go through the main gate. “I haven’t taken it off since he died,” he admits, and for a second, I am nervous that I am going to find this whole experience too relatable, the people too normal.
I need not have worried. From the moment we are escorted into the front door the full ridiculous tackiness of Scientology sinks in. The décor is heinous beyond belief, everything is beige, and covered in little bronze busts of L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology), strange plaster iconography, and giant quotes about ‘saving yourself from moral decay’ emblazoned on every wall. The foyer is a layed out like a maze of flashing screens and as soon as we step in we are handballed between Scientology officials, about seven or eight different people in a single minute, a bombardment of middle-aged women in heavy makeup and awkward-looking young people in cheap suits and gold ties. So this is the Scientology demographic, I think to myself. Mums and misfits.
Before we know it we have been deposited at the feet of Tim, our guide for the day, an ocker young guy with a patchy beard. Tim asks for our names and, having heard a million stories of people hounded by Scientologists who have their details, I go with Fiona. Josh, inexplicably, comes out with ‘Justice’, a decision I can see surprises him as much as it does me.
Tim guides us swiftly between a number of ‘panels’ – little booths playing videos about Scientology. The seats are uncomfortably close to the screen. With our noses practically to the glass, Josh and I are subjected to a series of short films that are weirdly reminiscent of shitty 80s film trailers, like Jerry Maguire on acid. In between the pulsing Enya-esque music, stock footage of businessmen giving confident handshakes and little girls picking flowers, I learn of the 8 dynamics, ARC triangle and 80-stage emotional tone scale, all of which sail gently over my head.
The vision of fulfilment feels a bit old school in a daggy neoliberal way, too, all ‘success’ and ‘prosperity’ and ‘realising your ultimate self’, men in ties power-stancing on cliff faces. No wonder this stuff isn’t popular with the kids these days.
Like many young men of the scientific persuasion, Josh is very prone to scoffing. Ten minutes deep into a fanciful propaganda video about L. Ron Hubbard’s life, I can hear a faint scoffing coming from Josh’s direction, and I can see his eyes wobble around, restraining themselves from a full roll. I have to subdue him with a “shush, Justice.” After all, we are being watched.
In the reflection of the screen I get a little chill seeing a small group of church members watching our backs, arms folded. Before each video ends, the sound of footsteps accelerates behind us, so that at the exact close of each clip we are moved on by the dutiful Tim.
We are whisked around the building and I feel a bit sad to see what has become of the old heritage site. What must have once been a religious space of a much more solemn kind of now looks like a film set for the worst fantasy movie ever. I really can’t overstate the ugliness of it all. ‘Life is an adventure’, the walls yell at me. Tim gestures vaguely to a corridor where church members are taken for auditing, the Scientological version of counselling. I’m keen to take a closer look, but before I can open my mouth, we are ushered in the opposite direction. Next slide.
Tim is a very chilled out young guy with what is obviously a very cushy day job. He says he was born into the Church and it has helped him ‘to communicate better’ (Communication being the third factor of Scientology), but that he never found auditing that helpful. He seems very casual about the whole thing.
Later, as we enter the Purification Centre, he points out a blonde middle-aged woman sitting at a table – ‘that’s my Mum, hi Mum!’ For a second there I envy him – he can’t be more than twenty three and he appears to have a stable nine-to-five job doing nothing much except for kicking it around the Church and giving tours to suspicious outsiders. A cursory glance around the Purification Centre destroys that envy for good.
The Purification Centre is essentially a rehabilitation centre, but it looks a bit more like the site of some terrifying medical experiment. The room is filled with young people on treadmills waving exhaustedly to us as we pass, little chalky spoons in help-yourself bowls of potassium and salt tablets, and corridor of saunas so hot you can feel them from outside the door. It might be my natural aversion to exercise, but I’m harrowed by what I see.
Tim tells us that one of his friends took a purification course in these saunas, and all the Ritalin he had taken in his life started to ooze out of his skin like a purple slime. I take this with a grain of salt, especially as it comes from a man who ten minutes prior informed us with wide-eyed earnestness that Scientology alone reduced the Colombian crime rate by 82 per cent, “but of course, they don’t tell you that stuff in the news.”
Behind the purification centre is a large truck that looks like the delivery van for a haunted amusement ride – the side reads “Psychiatry: The industry of death” in dripping red letters.
As we wander around, there are people everywhere, gesturing enthusiastically to each other in what I assume must be the highest level of Communication. There are 200 people working here every day. All the same, I get the overall feeling that no one here is doing much work – everyone is lounging around in their gaudy gold and black ties, drinking coffee and goofing off.
The other side of the building is closed to visitors, although Tim points to some shadowy figures through the window. “You can probably see some faces over there,” he explains, “they’re being tested”. We are neatly deposited into the car park at the end of our visit, facing the gate out. I sense that we are approaching the thin end of our welcome.
I feel not much more enlightened about who these people actually are, or why this butchered heritage gem in Ascot Vale pulls such a crowd every day for courses with vague names like ‘Personal Efficiency’. Josh waxes philosophical on the relief that Scientology must provide to very vulnerable, spiritually unmoored people. Yet, I can’t get my head around what kind of relief this assault of slogans and galaxy graphics could provide. I leave with a free DVD and a burgeoning migraine.