Formed in London in the late ‘60s by former scientologists, husband and wife team Robert and Mary Ann DeGrimston, the Process Church of the Final Judgement has long been a source of mystery and fascination for me, and pretty much anyone else interested in counterculture movements, the occult, or even cult-based true crime, thanks to their perceived connection with the Manson Family. Viewed as dangerous Satanists — thanks to their black cloaks and turtlenecks, menacing stares, and knowingly provocative literature espousing an equal belief in Christ and Satan during the era of free love and flower power — the real fascination of the Process is that they lurked on the borders of public consciousness but remained just out of reach. Unlike the Manson Family, they were never convicted of any horrific crimes and unlike the Church of Satan, they generally avoided mainstream media.
Neil Edwards’ recent documentary, Sympathy for the Devil: The True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment (2015), is actually framed around the central question of “What is the Process?” There’s an awareness that this is an elusive concept that’s difficult to define and it’s a question the film essentially answers by highlighting the complexities of the group and asserting that there is no simple answer. In a sense, they were (and are, as they still exist in some form today) an apocalyptic cult formed by a charismatic leader (two, a subject the film delves into as part of its big reveal) who recruited members mostly from upper middle class backgrounds; in the words of one of the documentary’s interview subjects, they were “an organisation whose extremist satanic elements made Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan look like a Sunday school.”
Also described as “Dada meets Aleister Crowley,” the documentary reveals that they were almost equally as concerned with theatrics as they were with spirituality or the occult. While Sympathy for the Devil opens with an exploration of the sensational side of the Process Church — and later reveals that the members took part in everything from orgies, satanic rituals, and religious services they dubbed “Sabbath Assembles” — it is quick to move on the group’s more straightforward history: they formed in London in 1967, but didn’t officially adopt the name the Process Church of the Final Judgement until a relocation to New Orleans in 1968. The documentary recounts their disastrous trip to Mexico, where they were going to attempt to set up a commune of sorts, and their prolific cultural campaign, which included beautifully designed magazines, board games, Process-funded musical groups, educational courses, spiritual services, events like an “evening of flagellation,” and even, for a time, a restaurant they opened called Satan’s Cavern (!).
For a time — before bad publicity set in — they were connected to everyone from the Beatles (who employed what the film calls a “card-carrying Process member”) to singer Marianne Faithful, who posed as a model in a photography series featured in one of their magazines, and one of the film’s strongest elements is that Edwards was able to get a number of cult luminaries who were involved with the Process to speak to him on camera. In addition to filmmaker John Waters, who apparently met some of the Process members in the late ‘60s in New Orleans, occult expert and Throbbing Gristle-founder Genesis P. Orridge shares a lot of insight about the group (and narrates some of DeGrimston’s eerie writings). Edwards was also lucky enough to interview George Clinton. The latter has a close connection to the Process Church and Funkadelic’s album Maggot Brain even features liner notes from the Process; and fortunately some of these songs play an integral part in the film’s soundtrack.
More importantly, Edwards secured the participation of several former Process members who speak quite openly about their experiences: incredibly compelling figures like Fathers Malachi, Joab, and Micah (also known as Timothy Wyllie, who wrote an incredible book on the Process, which also served as the inspiration for the documentary), as well as Mother Greer, Brothers Luke and Mark, former member Sabrina Verney, and other individuals who flirted with the Church, like journalist Gaia Servadio. In the film, John Waters says he was attracted to the Process Church because he’s “drawn to eccentric behavior,” a sentiment that I think applies to a number of the interview subjects. Edwards manages to avoid what I consider to be one of the cardinal sins of documentary filmmaking: presenting a situation in stark moral contrasts, forcing interview subjects to one side or the other.
With a topic like the Process Church, it would be all too easy to do this, or to focus on the sensational aspects, but this isn’t remotely the case with Sympathy for the Devil. All of the interview subjects speak about the Process with a colorful mixture of nostalgia, enthusiasm, and even a healthy criticism. It becomes quite clear — at least to me, though it is probably only my dislike of socializing that has prevented me from joining a satanic cult thus far — why all the different personalities were attracted to the Process Church, how they became involved, and why they stayed, despite admissions of some negative experiences (like some unpleasant-sounding psychological exercises and instances of emotional abuse).
Surprisingly funny and warm, as well as endlessly fascinating — I actually enjoyed it even more the second time around and it’s on my list of contenders for best film of the year — Sympathy for the Devil’s real triumph is that revolves around a number of intelligent, charismatic figures. It’s easy to see how so many hangers on were drawn to them but, unlike other true crime or occult-themed interview subjects I’ve seen in other documentaries, they seem unfailingly honest and not interested in pursuing any specific agenda or quest of self-aggrandizement. This, combined with the film’s highly stylized approach — which includes archival footage, photographs, letters, and Gilliam-esque animation and collage work — take this far afield from the standard “talking heads” documentary. At roughly an hour and forty-five minutes, the running time flies by, and I wish we could have spent more time with Malachai, Micah, Luke, and company.
I had the very good fortune to see the film recently in Philadelphia, and its director, Neil Edwards, was kind enough to speak with me about the process of making the film.
Diabolique: How did you first come across the Process Church?
Neil Edwards: The first I heard of the mysterious cult was when I began to take an interest in the community/commune movement of the ‘60s and, like so many before, became drawn into the story of its maddest incarnation — the grisly Charles Manson Family, and their bloody murders of, amongst others, actress Sharon Tate and her friends.
The Process are mentioned in Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive book on the case, Helter Skelter, and the Prosecutor concludes that he is convinced that Manson “borrowed heavily from the Satanic cult.” Later, I would also discover the Ed Sanders book on the Manson Family with its spooky and lurid tales of an English Satanic cult to which he attributed “sleazo” influences on the ex-con turned cult-leader. Maury Terry’s dark, conspiracy-riddled book, The Ultimate Evil, talked of bloody sacrifices, assassinations, and devil worship, and described The Process as “one of the most dangerous Satanic cults in America.”
My interest was well and truly piqued while I was making a documentary about Manson. Chatting with a true crime writer, he revealed that, in the early ‘70s, he had been approached by Manson devotee Squeaky Fromme (later jailed for an assassination attempt on US president Gerald Ford). I asked the author if he was ever scared of Squeaky and the gang — after all, they had committed some dreadfully savage crimes and engaged in some downright weird and unnerving behaviour (I challenge you to sleep soundly after reading about their ‘creepy crawling’). “I was never scared of The Manson Family,” he replied, “but I’ll tell you who I was really scared of…The Process. They really freaked me out!”
I just had to learn more — and, if I could, capture this mysterious, mostly forgotten story from the furthest-out reaches of the ‘60s, before it disappeared forever.
Diabolique: Why did you decide that they would be a good subject for a documentary and how did the film get started?
NE: I read up about them – former member Timothy Wyllie’s book ‘Love, Sex, Fear, Death’ is a ripping yarn – and was fascinated by the contrast between the mythology and the reality. That itself I thought was a really interesting tale – let alone the amazing journey The Processeans went on. I wanted to know more – I’d have watched a documentary if it existed. It didn’t. So I thought, why not? I figured that even if I failed, it’d be a great adventure and I’d be sure to meet some interesting people. Hopefully I didn’t fail, but the other things certainly happened. It’s been a blast.
Diabolique: It seems like you managed to get an unusual amount of participation from not only former Process Church members, but from more public figures associated with the group. How did you manage to get contact with these people and why do you think they were so eager to be included in the documentary?
NE: I don’t know that all the former Processeans were immediately ‘eager’ to be included. They’ve been burned by the media so many times. But all the former members I’ve met have been exceedingly bright and have enquiring minds and, as is illustrated by what they got up to, a sense of fun and adventure. I have to assume they very soon intuited that I was sincere and interested in telling their story – not twisting and exploiting it for sensationalism. I was thrilled to get interviews with John Waters, George Clinton and Genesis Breyer P. Orridge, all of whom were kind and forthcoming. It was terribly exciting for me to have access to them and to chat. They, again, are all bright, adventurous people and so had an intelligent and often amusing take on extraordinary Process phenomenon.
Diabolique: I know that one of the Church leaders, Mary Ann DeGrimston, is conspicuously absent, though she’s a major focus of the documentary. Can you talk about how this affected the process of making the film and any resistance you had in general while working on the project?
NE: Mary Ann is no longer with us. By all accounts, she didn’t like the limelight. One leading member told me he only knew of two photos of her, one of which he doubted was even her! I was fortunate to unearth a few more, but it’s an indication of the level of secrecy that surrounded her.
The relationship between Mary Ann and her husband, Robert (the Christ figure of the cult), and the one between them both and the ‘disciples’ I find utterly compelling. I still ask myself: could I follow a guru? Could I allow a guru to call the shots with my sex-life? Choose who I marry? Could I ever voluntarily give myself over so completely to someone? It’s at the heart of the story I think.
A number of former members didn’t want to talk. That’s their choice and I respect that. I know many were unhappy about the idea of the film. Some have seen it, and I’m very happy to say their minds were changed and they’ve been extremely complimentary. To me that’s one of the most satisfying aspects of making the film.
Diabolique: I think the thing that surprised me the most is that while the introduction starts off with the more hearsay/sensational elements of the Process Church, you quickly humanize all the cult members and it seems like you really became close with a few of them. Did that change the way you initially envisioned the film?
NE: That structure is essentially the same as my route into the story – sensational, lurid rumours and conspiracy theories, followed by meeting the real people and hearing their story first-hand. That’s essentially the broad structure of the film.
I’m thankful you think I humanized them. Given that they are humans (or perhaps in some cases a charming mixture of human and extra-terrestrial), I guess all I had to do was point the camera at them. I can’t claim any credit for how terrifically engaging they are or how wonderful their storytelling skills are.
I really liked everyone I interviewed, as well as the many people I spoke to who declined to be on camera. I consider them friends, and I hope they think of me the same way. They’ve certainly made me think about the world in a new way.
Diabolique: I really loved the documentary and I’m excited for people to see it. What’s the easiest way for them to do that and is there a DVD/Blu-ray release on the horizon?
NE: I really hope to make it available by the end of the year. I’ve had some kind distributors keen to get involved. I just need to restrain myself from fiddling with it over and over again!
I’m relatively good at keeping the website, Facebook, and Twitter account up to date so they’re the first port of call for info about screenings and events. As soon as I have any release news, it’ll be announced on those sites. Next dates will be in Portland, OR, a couple of exciting events in London, and Melbourne, Australia before the year is out.
Diabolique: Thanks so much Neil and I can’t wait for everyone to have a chance to check out the documentary!