When Will Allen graduated from film school in 1985, the world seemed full of opportunities. He was young, gay and good-looking—but he was looking for something to give his life a deeper meaning.
Allen thought he’d found it when he met Michel, an ex-actor and ballet dancer who founded the Los Angeles-based spiritual community known as The Buddhafield.
Michel promised a lifetime of love and enlightenment. Allen joined the group as their official videographer (and Michel’s personal masseur) and quickly became a favorite pupil.
Their relationship eventually turned sexual, despite the fact that sex was ostensibly forbidden among group members.
“[Michel] resonated peace and beauty, he was educated, cultured, outspoken, extremely liberal and his teachings were very radical to me,” says Allen. “It also didn’t hurt that he was obviously a gay man and I needed a role model who would inspire me.”
Eventually, though, followers say they saw Michel’s darker side—paranoid, demanding, secretive—and The Buddhafield community began to fall apart.
After two decades, Allen escaped Buddhafield with footage from his years there, which, along with new interviews from former followers, became the basis of the new documentary Holy Hell, in select theaters now.
Allen spoke with NewNowNext about life inside The Buddhafield, his secret relationship with its charismatic leader and when he knew he had to escape.
As a bright young man fresh out of film school, the possibilities must have seemed endless. What led you to become involved in The Buddhafield?
I was looking for a deeper meaning to my existence. I was gay and trying to come out in 1985, when AIDS was the huge scare happening in our society. I came from a good family, but I still felt like there must be more to this life than what I had found so far. I was very confused after graduating film school and I remember thinking I needed to find the secret to happiness and how to live a meaningful life.
How did you first become aware of Michel?
My sister invited me to a small meditation meeting in West Hollywood in someone’s living room, and in walked this exotic, muscle-bound foreigner from Venezuela sharing about love and God and enlightenment. I was quite innocent at the time. And I felt an immediate sense of ease and acceptance.
So I’d say I was looking for meaning, for something to give myself to that would have a purpose. I think that’s common for many people—we wanted the promise of happiness. The fact that my sister was there and the people were lovely helped give me a sense of safety about getting involved more deeply.
Would you say being vulnerable was a common thread among Buddhafield followers?
I look back and see that I was indeed very vulnerable at that time and looking for guidance and answers. The commonality was both spiritual and community, as I discovered when I started to make Holy Hell years later.
I started to probe and ask my friends deeper questions about what they were thinking at the time. Some were seeking nirvana, some were just seeking a safe community of good people, and some had other spiritual or emotional needs.
I see now that the human condition is very complex and nothing prepares us for our life journey. At least my upbringing did not.
A lot of people would look at Michel with his Speedos and his plastic surgery and be skeptical. What was the appeal he held for you and other members?
I was there because Michel spoke as if he was enlightened. He would show me the secret of the universe. He resonated peace and beauty, he was educated, cultured, outspoken, extremely liberal and his teachings were very radical to me. It also didn’t hurt that he was obviously a gay man and I needed a role model who would inspire me.
He was also very flamboyant and had been an actor, dancer and acting teacher and hypnotherapist. He was a quadruple threat.
So you felt safe?
Michel accommodated everything I didn’t get at home, but spiritual enlightenment became my appeal for the group. He said he could reveal the experience of God, inner light and divine love. For him to work with us, we had to make a vow to ask for his guidance and then to follow it, otherwise we weren’t serious enough.
He explained there were many pitfalls along the way and he was there to guide us upon this razor’s edge. He also wanted us to fall in love with him and he wanted to be the highest symbol of divine love for us so then we could love something more than ourselves—something bigger than our small identity.
He promised me if I trusted him completely, he could take us beyond our minds and our confusion.
Did everyone fall under Michel’s spell?
Many, many people did not resonate with him at all. Lots of people were invited to meetings in the early days in West Hollywood and left mumbling, “What the hell is this cult? That man is an egomaniac!”
But the more time you spent around him and became influenced by his words, the better you’d feel. And then the more you wanted to be around.
He was borrowing teachings from dozens of places, but we didn’t know this. I could not personally see the red flags because I had nothing in America that I could compare him to. Plus my sister and all of us loved everything we were doing together and we grew to love him, too.
And it was the ’80’s. There was no Internet and no cell phones.
How did life change while you were living within the community?
The transformation I experienced immediately from being exposed to meditation was proof enough for me that this was a very practical and joyful way to live. I became happy and simple. Up until that point I had not been happy and nothing in my life had been simple.
Another thing that was popular in his teachings was not to care what other people think. And only listen to and try to please him.
So that was the beginning of not listening to our own guidance systems—because his “teachings” overrode anything we thought was right or wrong.
How did your relationship with Michel evolve into an intimate one?
After a couple years he noticed I was very willing to do service. Service is something you did not do for yourself, but did freely for others and with no need for anything in return. Service was a joyful action and I got a lot of mileage out of it.
I think he noticed this and pulled me in closer to him to do personal service for him and around him. I started to learn massage, and drive him everywhere. I helped him start his day. I loved being pulled in close to help him directly. I felt like it was very special, but he also made me feel like I had potential to become enlightened and that I was worth his time and effort. I didn’t realize I was also gay and pretty cute. That never registered to me until later.
How was this kept secret?
Everyone thought that he was their most trusted ally, both the teacher and the therapist. If he told you not to say something, it was done with the highest secrecy and you were meant to obey him. He trumped ever relationship you had. He manipulated all of us this way, without the other knowing, men and women alike.
I am not talking just about his sexual manipulations. Women were told not to be with their boyfriends, later to find out it was because he was seducing them himself. Now I also know, besides the controlling factors, people also didn’t speak for a number of other personal reasons, such as shame, guilt, or fear of him demonizing you.
Were you aware that Michel was also involved with some of the other young men?
I was aware of one boy, for sure, because I figured out he replaced me within a week. [Laughs] I was dumbfounded—although I was glad to be released from this fucked-up, manipulative relationship he was forcing on me, I also couldn’t believe how quickly he had seduced someone else.
I knew only because I lived with Michel and took care of him: One day I heard sexual noises coming from inside his room during a cleansing session. I said to him afterwards, “I could hear you. You were having sex in there during cleansing.” I felt I could talk to him sometimes like this, because I knew he had done it to me, and I was shocked. He said, “No no, that is your imagination. That is not what you heard.”
And then the next day one of his disciples, who was a carpenter, came to solve this problem by adding a second privacy door on the entryway to his room. So after that, there were two doors protecting him for the next 13 years while living in Austin [where the Buddhafield eventually moved.]. Who knows what went on in there? I can guarantee you it was not consensual. Not in the way that you and I know as “consensual.”
I never said anything after that or tried to interfere with my suspicions. I gave up and felt defeated. Now I would. Now I would expose that shit in a heartbeat.
What precipitated your making a break from the group?
It was when we, as a group, discovered more and more secrets and devastating lies that just shattered the perception people had of Michel and the truths he was trying to conceal. People were hurt spiritually, emotionally, mentally and sexually, for sure.
We realized he was more narcissistic than enlightened. And when so many people exposed their stories, how could you not pull away and stop this? It was exposed and now we could discuss more freely among ourselves. That is always a healthy thing, and people are not honest enough with each other. We should be concerned for each other in this society, against predators and sociopathic behaviors, because many people cannot speak out for themselves.
Do you know if Michel has seen the film?
He has somehow seen the film, I’ve heard. He is biding his time in Hawaii [where The Buddhafield is now located], hoping it will all go away. The people with him have spread out and become more incognito, like we used to do when he was threatened from the outside world. We always thought we were protecting the “Christ” figure, and I am sure he still spins that yarn to his people.
Actually I know for a fact he does, as I have read some emails from them. Oh, and there was the death threat that ended with a warrant for a boy’s arrest. His name was Samson, [Michel’s] bodyguard, but his actual name was something different.
Have there been threats against your life for making the documentary?
My life? No. But I have put myself in the line of his fire—he is not an honest man, in my humble opinion. He’s badmouthing our film anonymously in ways for which he cannot be held accountable. Remember he has a huge group of people who will do all of his dirty work for him—for free. They call it “service for the higher good.”
Is there more of this story to be told?
I’ve only told about 10% of what happened to us at The Buddhafield and the things Michel did. A friend who recently left the group told me he is doing something he calls “healings” for $100 a pop. He does about five a day, I am told, and works almost everyday. It’s all cash. He’s a goldmine for the IRS to discover.
Below, watch an exclusive clip from Holy Hell, in theaters now.