Some spiritual journeys are healing and empowering. Some aren’t. CBC Radio’s excellent Sunday afternoon series Tapestry covers the former very well. R.L. Thomas’ 1981 film Ticket to Heaven is about the latter. One of the best English-Canadian productions of the Eighties (winner of 1982 Genie awards for Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor), Ticket to Heaven remains a powerful cautionary tale. At certain moments of our lives, we are all vulnerable to forces which are ready to fill a spiritual void with a manufactured truth. The ultimate purpose of this truth is not to heal but to subsume. Strangely enough, in this present age which seems to relish conspiracy theories and the Byzantine paranoid fantasies of TV shows such as X-Files and Millennium, religion seems to have emerged remarkably unscathed. The optimistic label “New Age” is applied to dozens of spiritual systems drawing from every historical age, geographical setting, and cultural tradition. Like the soundtrack for Titanic, this new spiritual landscape seems gentled by lilting Celtic harmonies. Popular culture, once denounced from the pulpit for hedonistic disdain for traditional moral values, now seems just as likely to provide a stage for the kinds of morality plays that John Bunyan might have admired. Touched by an Angel was the number four show on TV last week. Even as dark a show as Millennium (and they don’t come any darker) has a theological agenda. Can mini-series based on Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost be far behind? Even Fidel Castro, the Last Unrepentant Communist, is asking for the Pope’s blessing these days.
So who wants to argue with all this ecumenism and religious tolerance? Well…
How about someone who remembers when one of the dominant features of the urban landscape in the mid-Seventies was the sight of miscellaneously-robed young people begging on street corners in the name of religious groups with sometimes dubious histories? Were all these young people living out the fulfilment of their spiritual dreams, or were some of them tools in the hands of leaders who spent as much time reading studies such as “The Chinese Indoctrination Program for Prisoners of War” or “Pavlovian Strategy as a Weapon of Menticide” as they did any kind of established scripture? Menticide? You won’t find the word in your dictionary. From the Latin “mens” meaning “mind” and “-cidere” meaning “to cut down, kill.” However pleasant it may have been to be accosted by a bright-eyed, pretty girl carrying a flower and a religious tract, and be invited for discussion and a vegetarian supper with her friends, these converts made me nervous. It probably didn’t help that two formative books of my late teenage years were William Sargant’s Battle for the Mind and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. In Sargant’s own words, his book was “not concerned with the truth or falsity of any particular religious or political belief. Its purpose is to examine some of the mechanisms involved in the fixing or destroying of such beliefs in the brain.” Koestler’s novel is an unforgettable portrait of a Soviet victim of the kinds of mechanisms Sargant described. At the same time I was standing on that Vancouver street chatting with the girl with the flower, I was wondering about whose path had led her there. Her own, or one which had been engineered to carry her to a predetermined destination?
The word “cult” is thrown around so carelessly nowadays, and is such a cheap way of dismissing beliefs one finds objectionable, that I hesitate to say that Ticket to Heaven tells the story of a young man’s involvement with a barely-fictional religious cult known as the Family. Like Sargant’s book, the movie’s screenplay, written by R.L. Thomas and Anne Cameron, is not about labelling any particular group as false or extremist. It focusses on the techniques of indoctrination, which under the right circumstances can make believers of any of us.
The central character of the movie is a young Toronto schoolteacher named David (Nick Mancuso). At the beginning of the film he’s on the down side of an up- and-down relationship with his girlfriend. It’s the summer holidays and he decides to head down to California to clear his head and spend time with an old friend. That friend, Karl (Stephen Markle), is involved with what he describes as a charitable, spiritual community (the Family) working out of an remote centre called Liberty City. Suddenly, David is shoulder to shoulder with an attractive cheerleader (Kim Cattrall) for the Family who’s urging him to hop on a bus and spend a little refreshing time out in the country. David is drawn in both by Ruthie’s enthusiasm (the irrepressible kind that’s unfailingly present in very young children but rarely survives puberty) and her potential for making him forget the woman he’s left behind in Toronto. As if Ruthie and Carl weren’t enough, David is also prodded on his way by two other pretty campers. He’s got no interest in religion, but he can think of worse company with which to spend his holidays. That afternoon he’s on a bus, sitting next to Ruthie, surrounding by people singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” the way we used to do on elementary school field trips. The first sign that things might not be quite as they seem comes when David tries to casually put his arm around Ruthie’s shoulder. She suddenly finds the need to get up and lead the chorus at the back of the bus.
They arrive at Liberty City late at night. Everyone is given a sleeping space together in one large room. It is the last time for weeks that David will ever be alone. It is the last time he will have a full night’s sleep. It is the last time he will eat a nutritionally-balanced meal. Reveille’s at 6:30. It’s “Get up, you sleepyhead!” to musical accompaniment and more campfire songs. The first time David goes to the bathroom he’s accompanied by a typical young convert named Greg (Timothy Webber). Greg breathlessly asks David, still barely conscious, how he’s enjoying himself so far. Like Ruthie’s, Greg’s devotion is unfeigned (the Family has saved him from a soulless career that saw him wreck a close friend’s life for the sake of a Stock Market coup). David’s first days at Liberty City unfold like a Boy Scout summer camp run by the youth wing of the CIA. It’s an unbroken round of morning calisthenics, strenuous outdoor games, chanting (“Bomb with Love!” is one of the slogans), singing, camaraderie, campfire storytelling & confessions, and sessions with charismatic teachers who expound on the community’s “vision”. David is skeptical. He quickly discovers that the sexual teasing masks a fierce sexual prurience. He says the whole lifestyle smacks of something out of B.F. Skinner’s theories of operant conditioning. But his friend Carl keeps him hanging in for a few more days, telling him there isn’t a bus out, telling him he’s got to get to know the community better. Fatigue, frenetic activity, diet, and unremitting intimacy take their toll. David makes a last break for freedom, but js gathered back into arms of the collective. He has become one of the Heavenly Children.- He’s ushered to a locked phone booth to call home to explain to his parents that he has important business to complete in California before he sees them again.
The next time we see him he’s in-a van heading for San Francisco. Everyone in the van’s singing, pounding the roof, yelling “Bring in the money, stay awake, smash out Satan!” They’re “Bonkers for God.” David has a hard time staying awake, but there’s someone right there to remind him that the less he sleeps the stronger he becomes. Then he’s out on the streets soliciting money. He’s at first shocked when his companion blatantly lies to a passerby, claiming they’re part of a Christian group raising money for a drug rehabilitation centre. The rationalization is quick to follow: “It’s only Satan’s money we’re taking. Suppose that man was dying in a fire—wouldn’t you do anything to save him? Well, that man is dying, spiritually dying. And we just sold him a ticket to heaven.” David must cast out doubt. A questioning mind is Satan’s mind.
In the second half of the film, David’s parents and his friends come down to California to rescue him from what they see as an incomprehensible servitude. Setting up a deliberate contrast with the Family’s ruthless efficiency in recruitment, the director shows the rescue attempt as bumbling and naive, verging almost on slapstick. David’s parents wind up kidnapping their own son, and then sitting in jail while his friends attempt to reconnect with the sullen, hostile stranger who’s taken David’s place. David acts like a prisoner of war. He’s been taught that the people he once loved and trusted are Satan’s tools. Baffled, desperate, they resort to the services of a professional “de-programmer”—an ex-Family member turned exorcist.
If any of this seems beyond the pale, think again. The dynamics of psychological abduction are explored in detail in Flo Conway & Jim Seligman’s Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change. Many of the organizations whose “children” were out in the streets in the Seventies are still in existence. Some are larger and more influential than ever. Waco, the fiery Solar Temple suicides in Quebec and France, and the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate community in San Diego, are recent reminders of the kind of price we can be convinced to pay for our personal ticket to heaven. It’s time R.L. Thomas’s film finds a new audience.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“Bring in the money! Stay awake! Smash out Satan!”
“The less you sleep, the stronger you become.”
How times change. In the early and mid ‘70s a main topic of discussion centered around religious cults and mind control. There was a blurring of the lines between the lethal leaderships of the Peoples Temple & the Manson “Family,” youth-oriented movements like the Jesus Freaks and the International Society of for Krishna Consciousness, and powerful organizations like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church &L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. Fundamentalist Christian writers like Walter Martin, in The Kingdom of the Cults, rode the wave to point fingers at any world religious movement that wasn’t Christian. Classic techniques of mind control were used both by the so-called cults and by those who acted on behalf of family & friends of cult members to “deprogram” those they saw as victims of a new kind of slavery. Ticket to Heaven arose out of those fervent clashes of ideologies.
It’s a bit strange that the controversies seem to have almost entirely disappeared from the news, even as many of the movements involved continue to thrive. The current focus of concern is on conversion therapy, targeted at the LGBTQ community. As I’m writing this in early 2020, the Canadian government is putting forth legislation to make this kind of sex-based “deprogramming” illegal. The only group from the ‘70s that has continued to be the subject of some recent high-profile assaults has been Scientology, likely because actor & Scientologist Tom Cruise makes for a high-profile target. Does the fact that we’re not hearing a lot about cults these days means that they’re using more benign recruitment & retention methods? Does it mean that some of these movements have gained credibility as bone fide religions, in the same way that the Mormon faith has established itself worldwide? I’d say that an affirmative answer could be given to the second question. Unfortunately, the answer to the first is negative.
That’s why Ticket to Heaven remains a worthwhile cautionary tale. What happens to David and Lisa in the film continues to be the lived experience of both young & old who are unlucky enough to cross paths with spiritual predators. And make no mistake—underneath the veneer of bonhomie and campfire camaraderie is a predatory mindset. We need to keep spotlighting the hunters, and bringing their victims back into the light. Director Joel Edgerton did it for conversion therapy with Boy Erased in 2018. Ari Aster’s rustic hippie commune in Midsommar (2019) made the Spanish Inquisition look warm & fuzzy. Another Canadian film, Mario Azzopardi’s Savage Messiah (2002) focused on the real-life story of a nightmarish commune in Quebec in the 1980s.
This time around I was disturbed by the final look that David, surrounded by family & friends, gives to the cult members who have come to offer him a chance to run back into the arms of his other “Family.” Is it a look of triumph over the strangers who have tried to steal his soul & body, or is some of his “programming” kicking back in and his look one of renewed complicity. With Lisa’s attempted suicide, we’ve seen how brutally effective this organization is in reclaiming its lost sheep.
The best book on mind-control I’ve come across is William Sargant’s Battle for the Mind, covering religious conversion, Pavlovian conditioning, brainwashing during the Korean War, Stalinist interrogation techniques, and political mind games. Sargant’s book was written in 1959. Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman’s Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change came out in 1978.
On the lighter side, Ticket to Heaven features a pre-Sex in the City Kim Cattrall as a kind of cheerleader from hell, and Saul Rubinek dressed as a carrot and a tomato. Lead actor Nick Mancuso has turned out to be one of the hardest-working actors in the movies, with 156 acting credits on Imdb as of early 2020 and five films in production. Take that, you slackers. The screenplay for Ticket was co-written by one of B.C.’s finest writers, novelist & poet Anne Cameron. Ms. Cameron was born in Nanaimo.