Unprecedented Access Provides Intimate Portrayal of Life in Strong City Cult as Members Worship Self-Proclaimed Messiah and His Message that the World Will End.
"I took off my clothes and I lay naked on my bed and he held me and a whole new picture opened up to me of God." -- Cult Member
It's believed that more than 3,000 cults exist in America today. But as recent news events of a polygamist sect in Texas have reminded us, we seldom get to see what exactly goes on inside -- from the benign to the abusive. Who joins cults or renegade sects? What drives their beliefs? How is sex used to ensure devotion to cult leaders? And is it all just a pretext for more earthly desires?
Michael Travesser claims he is the Messiah, and the members of his Strong City cult in New Mexico believe him. For 20 years, Travesser has told his Strong City followers to prepare for the end of the world. And now, according to his prophecy, Judgment Day will come at midnight on October 31, 2007.
Convinced the world was going to end, Strong City's 56 members allowed NGC cameras unprecedented access to their world for seven months prior to the expected Judgment Day. Combining intimate discussions with current and former cult members, detailed testimony from their leader, home movies, expert analysis and comparison to other cults of similar extremes, the film details a world rarely seen.
Understanding Strong City
"I am the embodiment of God. I am divinity and humanity combined."
Strong City is a religious cult that adheres to an end-time prophecy.NGC introduces us to the man at its heart: 66-year-old Michael Travesser, who led his acolytes to New Mexico seven years ago and declared himself the Messiah.
"One day by myself I was in my trailer just relaxing and there was nothing on my mind in particular and then God said to me you are the Messiah," explains Travesser in the film. He goes on to describe how two women came forward to bear witness, and that God commanded him to have sex with them to consummate their relationship -- despite both being married to men in the cult. Travesser convinced their husbands he was following God's instructions and that they should direct their misery heavenward.
With the exception of their leader, members of the cult do not engage in sexual activity. Travesser has told his followers all emotional ties with anyone but him must be broken.
"A cult leader wants absolute control," explains Rachel Bernstein, psychotherapist and cult expert. "And one of the main sources of threat to the leader is a member's family."
But not all family connections are shunned. We also meet Jeff Bent, Travesser's son, a former San Francisco police officer and Travesser's trusted lieutenant, who handles much of the daily operation of the cult.
Ex-Members of Strong City
There are no dissenting voices inside Strong City. Like members of many cults before it, Strong City's followers are unswerving in their loyalty to their Messiah and are convinced the end of the world is coming. Those who have shown any doubt have left the group.
Those who have stayed include numerous teenagers who have little or no life experience outside the cult. None of the Strong City children attend public school, as Travesser believes it is a bad influence.
But some of those who have left the cult are troubled by what they left behind. NGC cameras are there as one family of a former cult member returns with the aid of the local sheriff to get their 14-year-old daughter (named Healed) who had stayed behind with relatives in the cult. She eventually leaves with her parents, but cult members are confident she'll return.
The Ceremony of Seven Virgins
Healed's parents are not the only ex-members worried about what is going on inside Strong City. One deeply troubling rumor is of a ceremony with seven virgins to mark the forthcoming destruction of earth -- and even more disturbing, that Travesser has lain in bed naked with these virgins.
"I took off my clothes and I lay naked on my bed and he held me and a whole new picture opened up to me of God," explains Danielle, a follower.
Surprisingly, Travesser is very open about the event on camera: "Well, it was God. God came down on them and told them to do it. Nakedness is another symbol of our relationship with God. We are naked and unashamed."
Desperate to get even closer to God, the virgins pleaded with Michael for a full sexual experience. One of the virgins even wrote that her urging was so strong she would kill herself if it were not fulfilled. Then, just when it looked like Michael would do as the virgins desired, he says God told him it was all just a test of faith. But this was little comfort to some family members on the outside.
Numerous end-day cults have had disastrous experiences. On March 26, 1997, after a more than 20-year wait for the world's end, Marshall Applewhite and his 38 followers ingested poison to speed their journey to the next life. On November 18, 1978, members of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple were persuaded to drink poisoned fruit punch. Among the 909 who died, 276 were children.
What happens inside Strong City on October 31, 2007? The cult would not allow NGC cameras into the compound as the faithful waited for the end to come. But we are outside the compound looking in as the cult marches down to the entrance of their compound at the stroke of midnight. Will this be the end? And if not, what is next?
Compelling and often disturbing, Inside a Cult is a fascinating view inside a world many have wondered about, but don't get to experience firsthand.
Inside a Cult is produced by Produced by Firefly Film and Television Productions in association with Channel 4 for National Geographic Channel. The producer for Firefly is Eddie Stafford. The director and cinematographer is Ben Anthony. For the National Geographic Channel, executive producer is Chris Valentini, senior vice president, special programming is Michael Cascio, executive in charge of production is Steve Burns.