Filmmaker Ben Anthony visits the cult at the end of the world
“One Nil … to the Ars-e-nal…” I’m at the Emirates watching the match. There are few experiences as rooted in mundane reality as Bolton Wanderers hoofing the ball up the pitch, so it seems fitting that tomorrow I’ll be on a plane taking me to the opposite extreme: I’m going back to Strong City to film the end of the world.
A few months earlier I and my sound recordist, Eddie, spent three weeks filming a documentary for Channel 4 about a Messianic cult that lives in a remote corner of New Mexico. Their leader, Michael (formerly a Seventh Day Adventist minister called Wayne Bent), who claims to be the Son of God, had told his followers that once his prophecy had elapsed, on 31 October 2007, the world would be destroyed. We’d had an eventful three weeks; ex-members arriving at the cult to “rescue” their relatives, revelations about Michael having sex with other men’s wives (including his son Jeff’s) and then there was the business with the virgins…
And now I was going back to record the apocalypse.
29 October: Wake up early in my motel room in Clayton, New Mexico. Two days to go before the end of the world. Contemplate getting some laundry done. Have enough clean clothes left for three days. Decide to see how things go. After eggs, pancakes and coffee drive the 40 miles up unpaved track to Strong City. When we arrive Jeff, Michael’s long-suffering son, meets us at the gate.
“How is Michael?” I ask.
“Michael’s very solemn,” says Jeff, “his walk on this earth has come to an end.”
We go across to Michael’s house.
“Our unbelieving friends!” says Michael as we walk in. There’s laughter from his three “wives”.
Michael disappoints us by playing down the prospects for apocalypse and claiming instead that on the 31st he may merely receive a new body. We see some children we’d filmed leaving the cult in April. They have returned, unable to resist the draw back to their messiah. “My Mom said to me I’m brainwashed,” says Healed (her Messiah has changed her name from Lakeesha), “and I thought, ‘Yeah, Michael has washed my brain of all my impure thoughts’!”
I put it to Michael that this cult exists to serve his needs but he denies it, saying that he is the one who has sacrificed most. Michael tries a stare-off, but with one eye down the camera’s viewfinder, I easily win. It’s a tense atmosphere when we finish and as darkness falls we want to get out of there before Michael denounces us. After a few emotional goodbyes to the members (will they commit suicide?) we drive back to Clayton.
30 October: Michael has said we are not allowed in the compound again, so we spend some time standing outside a supermarket in Clayton asking passers-by if they are worried that the world may end in a day’s time. No one seems too bothered. The prospect doesn’t seem to affect the bulk purchase of potato chips and jars of ranch dressing.
31 October: Spend the day filming landscapes. We’re going back tonight to film outside the compound. We’re edgy; it’s hard to put thoughts of Jonestown and Waco out of your mind. We arrive at ten to twelve and wait by the gate in the moonlight. At midnight horns ring out from loudspeakers and we can hear voices raised in jubilation. “Liberty,” they shout. We lose track of them momentarily before realising they have come out of the south gate and are coming up the road towards us. Feel a bit freaked out. Who knows what state they’ll be in? For some reason the phrase “Kill the unbelievers!” keeps racing through my head. But they pass us by, calling out, “We no longer exist!” Is this really it? Give them some sparklers and it could be a bonfire night procession. They head off back inside the compound to a rousing rendition of “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart” (which is, spookily, sung to the tune of “one-nil to the Arsenal”).
1 November: At 9am, I call Jeff from the road outside.
“I was wondering if Michael has his new body?”
“I don’t believe so… ,“ says Jeff, “not yet.”