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'Join Us' explores how people get caught in cults

Why in the weird-world would anyone join a cult? How is it that so many everyday, ordinary, seemingly normal people get so caught up in such apparent mind control that "drinking the Kool-Aid" has become slang for any kind of herdinstinct behavior?

In "Join Us," filmmaker Ondi Timoner goes into one of what her Web site says are thousands of cults that captivate small and large groups of people around America. This one, the Mountain Rock Church in South Carolina, includes four suburban families around a pastor, Raimund Melz, and his devoted wife. The families have realized - some more decisively than others - that they have allowed themselves to get into a form of brain washing. They break away and spend two weeks at a live-in cult-treatment center in Ohio. But then what?

Timoner has had extraordinary access and has raw footage from scenes in the pastor's home and at rehab. The most touching segments involve the children, who were frequently beaten bloody by Melz, a tall, dapper, white-haired man with leftovers of an accent from his youth in Germany. The beatings, he says, are necessary to "get the rebellion" and the "demons" out of the children.

The parents - who built houses in the development but had to rent them from Melz - range from confused and lost to guilty and furious. But how did they let this happen? How does one know the difference between a cult and a utopian community, or an economic commune, or a religion?

The borders between definitions are soft, and they remain awfully squishy here. As some of the families try to sue Melz for "economic exploitation," at least one mother wavers, wondering if it isn't better to see the children hurt "than to see them burning in hell?"

One of Melz's former followers admits, "I never would have known I was in a cult." And we appreciate her confusion. An expert in "psychological totalitarianism" - that is, brain washing - lists ways to identify a cult with such specificity that his certainty seems, well, almost cultlike.



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