A Qualitative autoethnographic research exploration of the potential cult dangers at a spiritualist camp

October 30, 2012


This article describes my qualitative autoethnographic research methods to determine the potential cult dangers at a Spiritualist camp in Maine, USA. Over the course of four summers I have participated in various Spiritualist camp activities, inclusive of séances, workshops and group sessions with mediums, church services, and individual sessions ("sittings") with mediums. My first-hand experiences are conveyed in a variety of contexts, followed by a discussion and assimilation of my relevant experiences. In addition, I make use of an experiential rating scale of cult dangers to give a numerical analysis of my experiences with this Spiritualist camp that pertains to its potential cult dangers. My conclusion, based upon my experiences in an autoethnographic research context, is that although in this Spiritualist camp environment there are strong authoritarian and social influence factors, there are also significant non-coercive, friendly, and humorous factors, and that based upon my experiential research there are not significant cult dangers in this group to be concerned about.


In my study of the cult dangers of various modern religious/spiritual groups, I have given qualitative autoethnographic experiential accounts of my experiences (Benjamin, 2004, 2005a, 2011a), and I have also conveyed my experiences in a more concrete way, utilizing three different cult danger rating scales (Benjamin, 2005b, 2007, 2008, 2011a). The development of the field of autoethnography was highly influenced by the work of sociologist Carolyn Ellis, and focuses upon the social dynamics and context that the researcher is investigating, while extending participant observation research through placing a tremendous reliance upon the feelings, thoughts, perspectives, experiences, reflections, insights, and personal stories of the researcher (Chang, 2008; Ellis, 2004, 2009). In the past few years I have applied my autoethnographic experiential accounts and my cult danger scales experiential analysis to examine the cult dangers of a number of currently active religious/spiritual and philosophical groups, including Scientology,

The Unification Church, A Course in Miracles, Conversations with God, Avatar, Eckankar, Self-Realization Fellowship, Divine Light Mission, and Ken Wilber's Integral Institute (Benjamin, 2005a, 2005b, 2007, 2008, 2011a). In addition, for the past four summers I have done experiential research with "mediums" at Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp in Northport, Maine. I initially conducted my research as a precursor to my Ph.D psychology dissertation at Saybrook University, entitled An Experiential Exploration of the Possibility of Life after Death through the Ostensible Communications of Mediums with Deceased Persons (Benjamin, 2012).

In the context of the qualitative autoethnographic research methodology of my dissertation (which also included heuristic inquiry and intuitive inquiry, all of which I refer to as "researcher-based experiential research"; see Benjamin, 2011b, 2012; Braud & Anderson, 2011; Moustakas, 1990; Sela-Smith, 2002), I have described a number of my personal experiences in various individual and group sessions with mediums who were involved with Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp (Benjamin, 2009a, 2009b, 2012). During this process of heuristic immersion (Moustakas, 1990; Sela-Smith, 2002), I also gained experiences that have direct bearing on the question of whether there are significant cult dangers at this Spiritualist camp. A number of excerpts from my above articles and dissertation that pertain to my experiences regarding the potential cult danger characteristics at Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp are given below, in the context of an autoethnographic experiential account. My objective in portraying my experiences in this regard is to shed some light on the question of potential cult dangers of this Spiritualist camp, and I will discuss my experiential accounts, inclusive of giving a cult danger scale analysis of them, in the last two sections of this article.

Autoethnographic Descriptions of Potential Cult Dangers at a Spiritualist Camp

The following excerpts from my aforementioned articles and dissertation describe some of the relevant experiences I have had at Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp during the summers of 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, that relate to potential cult dangers of this Spiritualist camp. Brief descriptions will be given to introduce each of these excerpts. The first excerpt is from a "séance," which involves a group of people giving each other messages that are believed to be sent from the "spirit world."

During this whole séance I must say that I was not very impressed. There were strong social expectations to express one's images and associations of other people in the circle, and view it as messages from the spirit world. The whole session seemed to me to be a textbook case of how belief in mediumship and the spirit world is highly correlated with environmental expectations, peer group influence, and hypnosis scales and measures of fantasy proneness. (Benjamin, 2009a, pp. 29-30).

My next excerpt was written soon after one of my first workshops at Temple Heights, in which the medium leading the workshop described his strong beliefs in reincarnation, inclusive of his own experiences of his past lives.

But what had the most impact for me is the influence of the group consciousness of belief in soul survival upon the people who attend the various Spiritualist functions at this camp. Everyone who attends these Spiritualist functions, with the exception of myself, appears to be fully convinced of the reality of the spirit world and the ability of their loved ones to communicate with them. People at the Spiritualist camp frequently talk about their experiences of reincarnation, including my own workshop presenter who discussed some of his many past lives. He believes that this is his last incarnation, meaning that he will be attaining spiritual self-fulfillment or Nirvana along the lines of Eastern religious and spiritual beliefs....I am by no means any more convinced of the reality of soul survival or reincarnation than I was before I started my experiential mediumship research activities a few months ago. But I believe that I have gained significantly in my understanding and appreciation of the sociocognitive perspective on the channeling of mediums. (Benjamin, 2009a, pp. 32-33).

My excerpt that follows demonstrates the differences in perspectives in Temple Heights mediums in regard to reincarnation, as the medium who led a different workshop I attended did not think there was any firm evidence to establish that reincarnation is a reality.

I found it interesting that the medium/lecturer did not feel comfortable with the notion of reincarnation, saying that he did not think there was any viable evidence to firmly establish the reality of reincarnation. His rationale for considering the evidence for life after death to be undeniable is not something I agreed with, but I knew this was the sacred cow of Spiritualism, and was not something I should be publicly questioning at this Spiritualist camp; certainly not if I have any hopes of getting the Spiritualist camp to approve me doing my eventual Ph.D. dissertation research studying them. (Benjamin, 2009a, p. 36).

In my next excerpt, I give an account of how comfortable and welcomed I felt by one of the primary administrators in the camp, as this administrator approved me leaving my counseling brochures at the camp, we discussed my work with cults in regard to Temple Heights, and I settled into what felt to me like a safe, warm, and homey atmosphere.

Before the church service began, I had asked the administrator if she minded if I left some of my counseling brochures and business cards out with the other various advertisements, and she read through my brochures carefully and asked me about my study of cults. I was somewhat taken aback but explained to her how I did not view the Spiritualist camp as a cult and I sincerely complimented the camp in its openness, non-manipulation, and genuineness. She seemed satisfied, and she approved me leaving my business cards and brochures in the camp....I felt this calm and relaxed feeling as we talked, and I honestly conveyed to her about my personal/professional research interests, which she seemed to take in stride....I honestly conveyed to the administrator how I was an agnostic and wanted to believe in life after death, but needed to experience this for myself. She was very understanding and non-judgmental. (Benjamin, 2009a, pp. 41-42).

In my next excerpt, written after attending another workshop, I describe how I felt able to contribute to the discussion with my own perspectives and questions about how one is able to determine that a life after death experience is bona fide. I also describe my awareness that I need to be very careful with how far I go in my questioning of Spiritualism's beliefs in life after death, in order to be accepted by the camp and to be able to continue doing my research.

I found myself frequently contributing to the group discussion, often interjecting my own perspectives and questions regarding how one can distinguish between a veritable life after death experience vs. a "super-psi" psychic parapsychological interpretation.... I remembered back to the "sacred cow" of the Spiritualist church belief that they had "proof" of the certainty of life after death, and the guest medium frequently alluded to her church's beliefs in this regard. This medium was active in the National Spiritualist Church and frequently wrote articles in Spiritualist publications, but from my experience she had retained her modesty and genuineness. I realized that I needed to be careful to not overdo my questioning of her beliefs, as I did not want to come off as a skeptical academic researcher who was unable to appreciate an authentic spiritual experience. At one point the woman sitting next to me remarked that she did not understand how anyone could doubt the truth of an afterlife, based upon so many people's experiences. This stimulated me to again explain the variety of interpretations as alternatives to a bona fide experience of life after death. However, I also realized that I needed to discipline myself to go easy on how much intellectual knowledge I shared regarding all the research I had learned about in this context. (Benjamin, 2009b, pp. 9-10).

In my next excerpt, once again written after I attended a workshop, I describe my feeling of comfort and authenticity with the medium leading the workshop, as I felt able to voice my need to continue to question the veracity of the belief in life after death, though admitting that I too hoped there was life after death.

We concluded in an amicable manner with the medium telling me that although there may be various interpretations of the afterlife experience, she hopes that there is life after death and she feels best to believe in this. I found myself spontaneously replying that I also hoped there is life after death, but that there is a strong part of me that has the need to continue questioning this and that I cannot easily believe. The medium smiled and we said goodbye as I thanked her for a wonderful workshop. (Benjamin, 2009b, p. 14).

In the excerpt that follows, I describe my experience of participating in a church service at Temple Heights, in which the comforting dogma of the service for Temple Heights participants left me feeling removed and distant from everyone attending this service.

But one of our prayer book recitations emphasized the "scientific proof of the fact of life after death." I remembered back to the interesting discussion and my disagreement with "the fact is proven" afterlife beliefs of the church at my medium workshop last week, but I felt able to express my disagreement at that medium workshop. However, last night I felt like I was in a rigid doctrinaire church, where people were enjoying the familiar and comforting church services from their childhoods. It seemed to me that these people were using the crutch of being able to relieve themselves of the existential reality of their deaths by believing in the church dogma that claimed to prove the existence of an afterlife. (Benjamin, 2009b, p. 17).

My next excerpt describes my experience of attending a "transfiguration" workshop, in which it is believed that various spirits temporarily reside in the medium leading the workshop, and that one can see physical changes take place in the medium's physical features, displaying various spirits of people who have died.

The medium strongly encouraged us to talk continuously about whatever images we saw once the lights were turned off. He also advised us to sing and laugh and make merry, saying that silence was not conducive to seeing spirits materialize. This medium was very personable, good-looking, and had a charm that appeared to me to be an uncanny mixture of spiritual medium and used car salesman. The lights were soon turned off, the medium sat in a chair in front of us, the whole group recited various Christian prayers (except for me), and some of the people were continuously saying hello to their departed loved ones, as the medium responded to whatever form of deceased spirit they expected him to be. The medium had a mesmerizing way of bobbing his head back and forth, and speaking in a low hollow voice that sounded like some sort of communication from another realm. I don't know much about light mechanisms, but gradually we could see the features and outlines of the medium take shape, and then people were excitedly saying how they saw all kinds of visions of dead loved ones, old and young, male and female. Me-I saw only the medium "nearly" the whole time. However, I must admit that for a brief period of time I did seem to visualize a much older person in white hair....The power of suggestion from the group was tremendously strong, and through all my consciousness studies readings I was well acquainted with how the power of suggestion could affect one's awareness of physical perception. (Benjamin, 2009b, p. 25).

The two excerpts that follow are included to give a glimpse of the humor that frequently accompanies the varied activities at the camp.

At any rate, I proceeded to enter the medium circle, to a group of thirteen women (including the elderly medium leading the session) loudly and vivaciously singing "Old McDonald Had A Farm." (Benjamin, 2009b, p. 33).

The workshop leader/medium was personable and funny; one of her unforgettable remarks after describing the healing techniques we would momentarily be practicing of blowing healing breath energy into our co-participants' ailing body places, was that after her own intense experience of receiving this healing breath energy from twenty-two workshop co-participants, she had told her significant other that she had received a "psychic blow job." Yes-my workshop leader/medium was funny and charming. (Benjamin, 2009b, pp. 30-31).

This next excerpt gives a brief description of a workshop I attended with an interesting medium who subsequently became one of the mediums I interviewed and experienced an individual experiential session with for my Ph.D. dissertation.

Medium #1 was certainly a character, as she identified herself in the context of being united in soul with Albert Einstein and the Islam founder Mohammed. She was also light and humorous, and her presentation and facilitation made the group atmosphere into an enjoyable and comfortable space, from my own experience and from what I perceived of the experiences of the other participants....I was quite outspoken in my questioning of a long channeling the medium read to us that was related to the truth and value of faith....The medium, as well as some of the group participants, liked my interpretation and analysis, and the medium thanked me sincerely for bringing this to her attention. (Benjamin, 2012. pp. 351-352)

The following excerpt describes my experience in a workshop I attended near the end of my research, in which the medium strongly advocated for mediums to conduct themselves in an ethical manner with their clients.

I greatly appreciated Medium #3's personal realization and his impactful way of conveying to the audience of current mediums and future mediums that it was important to be truthful with yourself as a medium and not allow yourself to cater to your ego to impress your clients through fabricating material that you know deep down you are not truly sensing. Medium #3 spoke passionately about the lack of ethics of many mediums, and how important it was for mediums to offer their services in a sincerely devoted and honest spiritual context. (Benjamin, 2012, p. 357)

My next excerpt once again describes my experience at a workshop toward the end of my research, this workshop being a table-tipping session.

A week later I attended a Temple Heights table-tipping session....It appeared to me that the two mediums (who were husband and wife) were physically moving the two lightweight tables all over the room of their own accord, with the two groups of willing participants eagerly helping the transport, while everyone was constantly singing children's songs..... happily feeling tables moving effortlessly under their fingertips, supposedly through the activities of spirit. (Benjamin, 2012, pp. 299-300).

My final excerpt describes my experience after attending two sessions of a mediumship development class, once again toward the end of my research, in which the medium leading the class strongly encouraged me to attend the remaining eight weeks of the class.

And this is exactly where I must remember that I am a "scientist," as I persistently affirm the legitimacy of my researcher-based experiential research methodology. Yes I have been able to step back and view the class atmosphere with all its social influence pitfalls. I have no interest in putting myself in this atmosphere for an extended period of time. I have learned about the inner workings of a mediumship development class, and I could not have learned about this in such a deep personal way without having fully taken part experientially in the class as a participant. Medium X sincerely expressed to me his wish that I continue in the class, and it is tempting for me, but this is exactly where the self-awareness part of doing researcher-based experiential research becomes crucial....I know that I have gotten all that I need to get out of this class, and I have no interest and intention of becoming a medium. I will therefore move on to other vehicles for my autoethnographic observations and reflections at Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp. (Benjamin, 2012, pp. 320-321).

Discussion of my Experiential Accounts of the Potential Cult Dangers at a Spiritualist Camp

Based upon my experiences as described above, Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp is dogmatic, inflexible, and convinced of the absolute truth in regard to their beliefs in the veracity of life after death and the ability of their mediums to communicate with departed spirits. However, these qualities in themselves do not necessarily warrant the conclusion that a group possesses significant cult dangers. From my experiences, this Spiritualist camp has little or no involvement with such factors as recruiting new members, dropout control, sexual manipulation, or endorsement of violence, all of which are factors that are prevalent in the most notorious modern religious/spiritual groups (Benjamin, 2005b, 2011a; Langone, 1993; Muster, 1997; Singer & Lalich, 1996; see Tables 2 and 3 below for a more concrete description of how I experienced cult dangers at Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp and how this compares to my experiences with some other relatively modern religious organizations). As can be seen from the variety of the above experiential accounts I have given that have bearing on the potential cult dangers of this Spiritualist camp, there is both an authoritarian and social influence context as well as a non-coercive, friendly, and humorous context in this Spiritualist camp environment, from my own experiential perspective (see in particular Table 2 below). The authoritarian nature of their beliefs and how they influentially portray their beliefs to others is in many ways similar to other groups that I have rated highly on these variables, and was a significant factor in my evaluation of a group possessing mild, moderate, or high cult dangers, once again all of which was based upon my own experiences in a qualitative autoethnographic research methodology context (Benjamin, 2005b, 2011a; see Tables 1 and 3 below). However, the non-coercive nature of the Spiritualist camp's interactions with participants, inclusive of my accounts of their light humor and genuine friendliness, are characteristics that are shared with my evaluation of groups that I experientially rated as being in neutral territory regarding cult dangers, or as beneficial in regard to one's personal growth and spiritual development (Benjamin, 2005b, 2011a; see Table 3 below). Therefore, I must give Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp the benefit of the doubt, as based upon my experiences with this organization over the course of four summers I do not believe that there are significant cult dangers in this group to be concerned about.

Bonewits Cult Danger Scale Analysis and Comparisons for Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp

To give a more concrete illustration of my cult danger related experiences from Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp, I will now make use of what I refer to as the Bonewits Cult Danger Scale (Benjamin, 2012; Bonewits, 1971). The Bonewits Cult Danger Scale was formulated by Isaac Bonewits (1971) initially as the Cult Danger Evaluation Frame, and is a rating scale from 1 to 10 (1 is lowest and 10 is highest) for a participant's level of agreement with 15 statements that describe cult danger characteristics of religious organizations, including items such as internal control, dogma, recruitment, censorship, sexual manipulation, and endorsement of violence (see Table 1 below). This scale can be utilized as a numerical subjective measure of a researcher's participant observation experiences, and in this regard I believe it is a useful quantitative description of the experiential autoethnographic accounts that I have conveyed in the previous two sections. However, it is important to note that this scale is not meant to convey any kind of objectively determined analysis of cult dangers; rather it is a numerical description that can be considered as a quantitative summary of a researcher's qualitative autoethnographic participant observation experiences. The numerical scores that I have given are averaged over the 15 categories in a simplified manner, without specifying different weights given to different categories, as my intention at this point is merely to supplement my preceding qualitative autoethnographic accounts in a relatively simple quantitative manner that is consistent with my preceding discussion.

My numerical cult danger ratings are classified into five divisions: high cult danger, moderate cult danger, mild cult danger, neutral, and favorable (see Benjamin, 2011a for a more detailed explanation in regard to my analysis and classification scheme).

Table 1

Bonewits Cult Danger Scale
  1. INTERNAL CONTROL: amount of internal political power exercised by leader(s) over members.
  2. WISDOM CLAIMED: by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared about decisions.
  3. WISDOM CREDITED: to leaders by members; amount of trust in decisions made by leader(s).
  4. DOGMA: rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility.
  5. RECRUITING: emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing.
  6. FRONT GROUPS: number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group.
  7. WEALTH: amount of money and/or property desired or obtained; emphasis on members' donations.
  8. POLITICAL POWER: amount of external political influence desired or obtained.
  9. SEXUAL MANIPULATION: of members by leader(s); amount of control over the lives of members.
  10. CENSORSHIP: amount of control over members' access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s).
  11. DROPOUT CONTROL: intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
  12. ENDORSEMENT OF VIOLENCE: when used by or for the group or its leader(s).
  13. PARANOIA: amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; perceived power of opponents.
  14. GRIMNESS: amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or leaders(s).
  15. SURRENDER OF WILL: emphasis on members not having to be responsible for personal decisions.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Table 2

Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp Cult Danger Ratings

Internal Control 1
Wisdom Claimed 10
Wisdom Credited 9
Dogma 9
Recruiting 3
Front Groups 1
Wealth 3
Political Power 1
Sexual Manipulation 1
Censorship 1
Dropout Control 1
Endorsement of Violence 1
Paranoia 2
Grimness 2
Surrender of Will 5

Table 3

Cult Danger Ratings for Selected Groups

The Unification Church 9.0 High
Scientology 8.7 High
Avatar 5.4 Moderate
Divine Light Mission 5.1 Moderate
Twelve Step Support Groups 4.4 Minimal
Eckankar 4.3 Minimal
Gurdjieff 4.3 Minimal
Integral Institute 3.9 Neutral
Conversations with God 3.7 Neutral
A Course in Miracles 3.5 Neutral
Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp 3.3 Neutral
Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health 2.6 Favorable
Human Awareness Institute 2. Favorable


As can be seen from the variety of the above experiential descriptions and numerical cult danger ratings that I have given that have bearing on the potential cult dangers of Temple Heights Spiritualist camp, there is both an authoritarian and social influence context as well as a non-coercive, friendly, and humorous context in the Spiritualist camp environment. The authoritarian nature of the Spiritualist camp belief system and how they influentially portray their beliefs to others is in many ways similar to other groups that I have rated highly on these variables, and was a significant factor in my evaluation of a group possessing mild, moderate, or high cult dangers (see Table 3 above and Benjamin, 2011a), once again all of which being based upon my own participant observation research experiences using an autoethnographic research methodology. However, the non-coercive nature of the Spiritualist camp's interactions with participants, inclusive of my experiential descriptions of their light humor and genuine friendliness, are characteristics that are shared with my evaluation of groups that I experientially rated as being in neutral territory regarding cult dangers or as beneficial in regard to one's personal growth and spiritual development (see Table 3 above and Benjamin, 2011a). Thus in conclusion, I must give Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp the benefit of the doubt, as based upon my participant observation research experiences with this organization over the course of four summers in the context of my qualitative autoethnographic research exploration, I do not believe that there are significant cult dangers in this group to be concerned about.


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