The most intriguing movie of 2004 has nothing to do with George W. Bush, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or killer zombies. No, the topic is metaphysics--and the movie is What the Bleep Do We Know?
Shot in Portland, the film stars deaf actress Marlee Matlin as a Xanax-gobbling photographer whose world turns inside out after a chance encounter on a basketball court. Her story is punctuated by a Greek chorus of physicists, philosophers, psychologists and mystics slinging soundbites about quantum mechanics.
Think Stephen Hawking on an acid trip.
The premise may sound outlandish, but the film has become a cult classic. More than 60,000 people saw it at the Bagdad Theater, where it played for 18 weeks. "It's been a huge success," says Peter Boicourt, the film buyer for McMenamins theaters. "We've never played a film that long before."
The Chicago Tribune called it "modern science for dummies." The Dallas Morning News described it as "a film that dares to treat people as smart and deeply curious rather than dumb and deeply cynical."
"It's the best movie I've ever seen," declared teacher Brooke Kaye-Albright, who attended an event with one of the film's directors at the New Renaissance Bookstore last week. "It helps me realize what I'm really capable of."
"I loved it," added Leisa Vandehey, an office worker for Multnomah County. "I wish I could bring everyone I know to see it."
To date, the film has drawn more than a million viewers and grossed $9.6 million--piddling by Hollywood standards (Spider-Man 2 grossed $373 million) but a smash hit for an indie film.
What most viewers don't realize is that What the Bleep (which also screens as What the #$*! Do We Know?) is the work of a strange sect headquartered a couple of hours north of Portland in the prairie town of Yelm, Wash.
The sect is dedicated to Ramtha, a mighty warrior-spirit from Atlantis, who speaks in a hokey English accent through his channeler, a former cable-TV saleswoman named JZ Knight, who plays herself in What the Bleep.
On the surface, Ramtha's message sounds like a cross between New Age spirituality and Amway optimism. Everything happens for a reason. Take charge of your life. Don't be a victim.
But delve a little deeper, and you find some strange, even disturbing ideas. Ramtha says mirrors are portals to a parallel universe. Ramtha says children with Down syndrome have "chosen" their condition. Ramtha says you can read minds, alter your own DNA, reverse aging, teleport, travel through time, and prolong your life with Twinkies.
All religions have an article of faith. Mormons believe the angel Moroni spoke to Joseph Smith. Catholics believe the wafer and wine become the body and blood of Christ. And "Ramsters" (as they're known in Yelm) believe that when a 58-year-old woman strides on stage, settles into her ceremonial chair, and speaks in a low, strange voice, she is no longer a blue-eyed grandmother named JZ Knight but an enlightened being named Ramtha, who flourished 35,000 years ago.
In 1997, parapsychologists from the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco measured Knight's pulse, respiration and other vital signs before and after channeling Ramtha.
"The type of results we got from the psychological and physiological tests are so unique that it's beyond my ability to imagine how someone could fake them," says researcher Stanley Krippner.
Knight refused to speak to WW, but her autobiography describes a difficult childhood. Born in Roswell, N.M. (a year before the infamous Roswell Incident), she grew up dirt-poor in a family with nine children. Her father was an alcoholic who beat her mother. She married a gas-station attendant and had two boys before leaving her husband and moving to Washington state.
She was just another Tacoma housewife until a Sunday afternoon in 1977, when she put a cardboard pyramid on her head and was startled by a shining apparition, 7 feet tall, with "black dancing eyes" standing in her kitchen.
"My name is Ramtha the Enlightened One," he intoned. "And I have come to help you over the ditch."
Whatever Ramtha's reasons for slumbering through the millennia, his timing--in commercial terms--was impeccable. The Age of Aquarius was dawning, channeling was all the rage, and Ramtha's gospel of self-empowerment seemed to strike a chord, especially among women (celebrity fans include Salma Hayek, Linda Evans and Shirley MacLaine.)
Ramtha's disciples (known as "masters") have now swelled to an estimated 5,000 people around the globe, who plunk down $1,000 for a weeklong spell of ancient wisdom every year. To cater to this spiritual hunger, Knight employs 60 people churning out books, tapes, CDs, videos, posters, scents, lotions, candles and elvish capes.
Her company, JZK Inc., refuses to divulge any financial information, but one observer pegs its annual income at $10 million at least. Whatever the figure, it is substantial enough that the girl who was born in a one-room shack now lives in a 12,000-square-foot French-style chateau with six bedrooms, seven fireplaces, a spiral staircase and an indoor pool.
Driving through Yelm (population 3,300) you can't help but feel that the town seems miscast as a mecca. Set 20 miles southeast of Olympia, where the Nisqually River wends its way from the jagged peak of Mount Rainier, Yelm is the kind of place where men wear overalls to work, green moss sprouts on the roofs, and the Christmas parade is front-page news.
On the edge of town, behind a high stone wall, sits the Ranch, a.k.a. Ramtha's School of Enlightenment--a 49-acre spread that functions as a sort of intergalactic headquarters. Here, in an indoor horse ring dubbed the Great Hall, Ramtha holds court before audiences of a thousand masters or more, who sit cross-legged on a floor paved with Astroturf.
WW was barred from attending any of Ramtha's appearances, which typically occur a couple of times a month. But videos and eyewitness accounts depict a charismatic woman thundering from the stage, sometimes challenging the masters, sometimes lecturing them, sometimes leading them in "wine ceremonies" where the entire assembly gets plowed.
On a recent visit, my tour guide was Greg Simmons, RSE's marketing director. With his blue jeans, black wool sweater fraying at the elbows and piercing gaze, Simmons somehow broadcasts both intensity and calm, like a transistor radio tuned to two stations at once.
Simmons' first audience with Ramtha was 22 years ago. He was so awestruck that he eventually quit his job and moved to Yelm.
Ramtha's appeal is plain to see. Stripped to its essentials, the idea is that you possess untapped hidden powers. If you could just channel your own potential, all your problems--your depression, your coke habit, your crummy marriage--would melt away.
This idea is hardly unique--ask your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. But Ramtha takes it one step further. By creating your own reality, Ramsters believe, you can violate the laws of physics. Ramtha teaches that with proper training, you can learn to see in the infrared wavelength, transmit thought or predict the future. To hone their mental powers, disciples wander through a vast outdoor labyrinth with blindfolds duct-taped to their heads for up to eight hours at a time, concentrating on the "void" at the center of the maze. "It builds focus within," says Simmons. "It's just a question of mind over matter."
They also practice telepathy. One will take a scrap of paper, sketch an image--a canoe, for example--and focus on transmission. A second will sit, blindfolded, across the Great Hall, and sketch what they receive. Hundreds of apparently successful transmissions are taped up on the walls, side by side: bicycles, numbers, triplets of colors. "These people don't even speak the same language," Simmons says.
We have lunch together at Annie's Bistro, a well-known Ramster joint in Yelm. He orders the calamari. I choose the stroganoff. Afterwards, we walk out to the parking lot, where I discover that I somehow left my headlights on. My battery is dead. We string a pair of jumper cables from Simmons' immense pickup to my Honda, which fires right up.
"I probably could have done that by just touching the battery," he smiles. "But I didn't want to freak you out."
Approximately 2,000 masters now reside in the Yelm area (only JZ Knight actually lives at the Ranch). While there is no overt hostility, the spiritual immigration has created some friction. The mayor of Yelm refused to make any comments about Ramtha, and local residents roll their eyes at talk of telepathy and quantum potentials.
The fact is that Ramtha has become a significant part of the Yelm economy. The School of Enlightenment draws thousands of masters every year--some of whom have set up cafes, bookstores, galleries and auto shops.
Most of these businesses would seem at home in the dreadlock district of any American city. But deep in the woods between Yelm and Rainier, masters have also set up an operation that would raise a few eyebrows on Hawthorne Boulevard--a private school where 40 children learn, along with the three Rs, how to read minds and sense the unseen.
Sitting on a minuscule blue chair in the first-grade classroom of the Children's School of Excellence, teacher Cheryl Nichols spreads a deck of cards face-down, invites me to choose one--and then guess what it is.
I pull a card from the deck and lay it down on the table, staring at the yellow smiley face on the reverse. Focus. After 30 seconds, the face starts to shimmer. It seems to float up off the table, mocking me.
"Think about it this way," Nichols says. "You've already chosen the card. Now imagine that you've already turned it over. You just have to look and see what it is."
Suddenly, a card appears in my mind's eye--the Seven of Diamonds. I write it down in my notebook, then turn the card over.
It's the Six of Diamonds.
Suddenly, my pulse is racing. Nichols looks at me and smiles.
In 1988, David McCarthy's life was falling apart. A musician and cabinetmaker living in New Zealand, he was stretched to the breaking point by the pressures of raising two daughters, paying a mortgage, and the suicide of his best friend. "I felt like if I stopped for a day, everything would fall apart," he says. "I had to find some answers."
Then he stumbled across a book by Ramtha. "A lot of it rang true for me," he says. "It said, 'Love yourself into life,' and I thought that sounded pretty good."
McCarthy came to Yelm in 1990--and was blown away. "When you're with a thousand kindred spirits, all seeking enlightenment, from all over the world, there's an enthusiasm and camaraderie that's very powerful," he says.
He signed up for classes, workshops and retreats, generally immersing himself in Ramtha's world. To advance through the school and join elite groups such as the Blue College, the Red Guard or the Comrades, masters are required to attend at least two events every year. Skip a mandatory event and you're busted back down to the bottom rank.
Year after year, McCarthy kept coming back, working at his disciplines, seduced by the promise that his new powers were right around the corner. He suppressed his doubts. "You're taught that doubt is your problem," he says. "We are sleeping Gods, and Ramtha will wake us up."
One day, McCarthy and other masters were working on "manifesting"--creating a physical object out of nothing by focusing on a mental image, like a gold coin, a rose, or a blue feather. "After several days, I'd not created anything solid," he says.
Then, across the Great Hall, he heard people shouting. He saw a woman walking through the crowd holding a blue feather over her head. Pandemonium broke out. Over roars of appreciation, the woman took her place next to McCarthy. He leaned over and asked her how she did it.
"She says she went into the store and bought it. I said, 'That's not creating something out of nothing!' And she said, 'Yes it is!--I've created my own reality.' And I thought, 'I have to get out of here.'"
McCarthy, who still lives in Yelm, is now fiercely critical of Knight. "It was a scam," he says. "I have no doubt but that JZ is a fraud."
Another former student, who asked that she be identified only as "Stephanie," spent hours every day following the school's disciplines--focused breathing, meditation, and concentrating on a list of positive thoughts, such as I am fabulously wealthy, I am radiantly healthy, I am 20 years younger, I never age. She believed that she could heal her own illnesses by generating a high-frequency force field where decay could not survive. If she got sick, she thought it was because she wasn't disciplined enough.
Then, one day, she developed a toothache. She went to the dentist for the first time in 10 years and had to get two teeth extracted. "That was my first indication that something was wrong," she says. "I did the disciplines every day for years. But it didn't work. I thought, 'I did not maintain my teeth. I did not reverse aging.'"
"The whole thing is rigged," she says. "I just don't want to do it anymore."
Stories like these sound familiar to Robert Menna, who started collecting information about Ramtha 12 years ago, after his teenage daughter, Alex, ran away to Yelm (she has since quit the group.)
"These are not stupid people," says Menna, who is working on a book about Ramtha. "They're open-minded, idealistic. They want to change the world. But the longer you're in, the harder it is to get out."
Menna says masters follow Ramtha's every pronouncement--no matter how bizarre. In the '80s, when his teachings were filled with tales of UFOs and alien abduction, Ramtha declared that copper could ward off extraterrestrial attacks. Masters lined their ceilings with copper strips and copper pennies. Ramtha warned of apocalyptic battles, or a catastrophic flood. Masters built underground shelters by the score. Ramtha said drinking seawater could boost psychic powers. Masters actually flew to the Dead Sea to scoop up buckets of brine.
In September, Ramtha revealed that Hostess Twinkies contain an ingredient that can prolong life. Masters cleared the nutritious treats from grocery-store shelves. "Ramtha made some kind of announcement, and now everybody's going nuts about Twinkies," says a manager at the Yelm QFC.
"This is a future Heaven's Gate," Menna says.
Simmons dismisses the criticism. "A 'cult' is a dirty little four-letter word you call people you don't like," he says. "The school is too difficult, too scientific, and too wonderful to be a cult."
The most intriguing concept in What the Bleep--and in Ramtha's teachings--is the idea that quantum mechanics is the ultimate proof that the universe is a sort of metaphysical putty we shape with our minds. But one of the experts quoted in the film says this claim is nonsense.
Philosopher David Albert, who runs the Philosophical Foundations of Physics program at Columbia University, says the filmmakers totally misrepresented him. "They must have filmed me for four hours," he told WW. "It became clear to me they believe that...by positive thinking we can alter the structure of the world around us. I spent a long time explaining why that isn't true, going into great detail. But in the movie, my views are turned around 180 degrees."
"The film is pushing a claim that quantum mechanics shows that consciousness is the basis of external reality," he continues. "And that's not an accurate representation."
Back at the Ranch, the masters don't worry too much about the skeptics. They are convinced their "disciplines" produce authentic miracles. They boast of incredible healings--tumors shrunk, T-cell counts restored, cancer destroyed.
"It's all been documented," says Simmons, who personally claims to have levitated (something about counter-rotating magnetic fields spinning fast enough to create an anti-gravity matrix).
Pressed for evidence, however, Simmons demurred. "We're not interested in convincing people," he says finally. "It's not about trying to convince anybody--we're not in the convincing business. We know we have the proof."
It's hard to know whether to be amused or alarmed by the Ramtha phenomenon. History is replete with prophets claiming miraculous powers. Some soar to spectacular heights. Others barely clear the runway. Some genuinely believe they are appointed by God--others are basically con artists in cloaks.
Which is Ramtha? Only JZ Knight knows. Certainly, she has achieved some spectacular results. Since she started channeling Ramtha, she has gone from being a Tacoma nobody to a million-dollar prophet who commands thousands of followers. Whether by divine inspiration or savvy marketing, she has given birth to a creed, a cult or a circus--or maybe, if you go for the quantum outlook, all three.
Film's "experts" boast intriguing résumés.
Several authorities appear in What the Bleep Do We Know? offering mind-bending insights about reality and perception. But who are they, really? Here's a look at some of the more controversial speakers.
David Albert (above) is a professor and the director of the Philosophical Foundations of Physics program at Columbia University. He says the film completely misrepresented his views.
Dr. Joseph Dispenza is a chiropractor and a master teacher at Ramtha's School of Enlightenment.
Dr. Masaru Emoto is a doctor of alternative medicine who has written three books about messages from water.
Amit Goswami (above) is professor emeritus (in theoretical physics) at the University of Oregon and member of its Institute of Theoretical Science, as well as author of a slew of New Age books. He also lectures at Ramtha's School of Enlightenment.
John Hagelin is a physicist and fan of Transcendental Meditation. He is the director of the Maharishi University of Management's Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy, and has twice run for president as the candidate of the Natural Law Party (whose platform included natural health care, deep tax cuts and "conflict-free politics").
Mgr. Miceal Ledwith is a Catholic priest and former president of Maynooth College in Ireland who resigned after a seminarian accused Ledwith of abusing him as a boy. He is also a master teacher at Ramtha's School of Enlightenment.
Dr. Jeffrey Satinover is a psychiatrist, physicist and author of several books (The Quantum Brain and Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth) who supports reparative therapy for homosexuality and lists Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as one of his heroes.