Aside from being a buzzword used in oh-so-many Twitter feuds or one of many memes taken from Tom Cruise interviews, Scientology still exists in many people’s minds as a slightly confusing and worrisome chapter. While most will have heard the countless stories of celebrity run-ins, the extravagant events and, of course, the church’s exclusive Celebrity Centre based smack bang in the middle of Hollywood, there’s much more to be said about this infamous religious organisation.
Most notably, its proven ability to place itself at the centre of modern-day online discourse and internet culture. So, in order to understand more about this global movement, we’ve broken it down into three of the most significant aspects of its influence.
The Church of Scientology was first brought into the public forum by founder L Ron. Hubbard in the mid-1950s. As of right now, according to the official Scientology website, there are more than “11,000 churches, missions and groups in 184 nations,” with its Churches also being held virtually in every major city. They claim their primary goal to be “true spiritual enlightenment and freedom for all.”
The Church has been under media scrutiny for decades. Alongside negative personal testimonies, some of the most scathing reports focus on a sub-section of the group named the Sea Organisation (or Sea Org).
The Church deems the Sea Org a collection of the “singularly most dedicated Scientologists,” those who have “committed their lives to the volunteer service of their religion.” However, in 2015, The Washington Post released an article wherein a previous member of the Church, Tracy Ekstrand, compared the group to the “marines in its rigorous discipline” and spoke at great length of the poor conditions she witnessed during her time within the cadre. As expected, the Church immediately disputed these accusations.
The internet undoubtedly proved an obstacle to the Church’s reputation and although journalists have been reporting on Scientology since the 1980s, online media quickly and massively disrupted the flow of information and catapulted new stories to the forefront. With all this in mind, strategies had to be re-evaluated. Succinctly put by The Atlantic, “the group has overwhelmingly entrusted its public-relations work to celebrities.”
Scientology has without a doubt made a name for itself in Los Angeles’ glamourous entertainment industry, Hollywood. With its own Wikipedia page, the Church’s links to the inner sanctum of celebrity circles is relatively transparent. The biggest names to be publicly supportive of the Church are of course Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Elisabeth Moss. The Handmaid’s Tale star’s involvement with the Church has only recently become a highly sought after media story. During an interview with The New Yorker in May 2022, Moss divulged that her “godfather was a long-time Scientologist” as well as her parents.
She went on to say how “it’s not really a closed-off religion. It’s a place that is very open to, like, welcoming in someone who wants to learn more about it. I think that’s the thing that is probably most misunderstood.” Rounding up the interview, the actress was asked how she felt Scientology had helped her while growing up. She responded with communication, “The power of just being able to listen to somebody, of making somebody feel heard, of not belittling them for what they think or believe, even if you think it’s wrong.”
With Moss and so many other global stars publicly praising Scientology’s methods and teachings, the Church’s enthusiasm for these personalities as spokespeople is unsurprising. However, with a competing list of celebrities coming forward with their own negative portrayals of the Church, such as Leah Remini and Laura Prepon, it seems like the time has come for the organisation to revisit its public relations game plan.
With so much focus on how Scientology fits into celebrity culture, the massive influence it has on ordinary people within online spaces is often overlooked. For example, Reddit’s r/scientology has over 32,800 members. Within the page, topics range from questions on how members are able to move up the ranks to management positions to Scientology-themed music recommendations. There are also personal anecdotes about connections to the Church and conspiracy theories about lead ranking members. Overall, it’s an overwhelming stream of information posted by members of the public who feel compelled to discuss this particular topic.
Naturally, TikTok also has its own piece of the pie. Towards the end of 2021, Rolling Stone featured an article about a TikTok video that was trending at the time. In the clip, 22-year-old Jordana Victor was seen jokingly filming herself completing a Scientology personality test to see how compatible she was with the religion and its teachings.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the Church subsequently “embraced the video” with one member “posting that it had led to several hundred OCA tests being submitted to German Scientology centres,” as reported by Rolling Stone. In this instance, the video-sharing platform indirectly aided the Church’s recruitment process.
A number of other creators have contributed to online discourse surrounding the Church of Scientology. @Reckless_ben has made a number of videos on the organisation. Most significantly, he’s posted content of him secretly filming Church meetings with “spy camera glasses.” Even more recently, the host of a popular true-crime podcast The Red Room posted a TikTok which has had almost 50,000 views detailing her experience of the Church indirectly reaching out to her after she interviewed a former member and wrote an article detailing that encounter.
Whether through fascination or fear, Scientology’s reach is undeniable. Its influence both in Hollywood and online is obvious and yet completely unpredictable. There are so many more questions to be asked with regards to this group, most importantly, what will it do next? And how will the rest of the world respond?
Depending on which generation you were born into, you might know the American actor and musician Jared Leto for a wide array of reasons. I personally remember him from Requiem for a Dream and the absolute trauma that movie caused my 15-year-old self. Some may also associate Leto with Fight Club’s Angel Face character while for others his face brings forth unwanted flashbacks from the car crash that was his performance as Suicide Squad’s Joker. Heck, if you’re not much of a movie buff but know a thing or two about fashion, then Leto can only represent one thing to you: Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele’s most favoured muse, placed even before Harry Styles and Lana Del Rey on the pedestal.
But Leto should be known for more than his surprisingly long-lasting acting career or the name he’s made for himself in the music industry with his band Thirty Seconds To Mars—fronted by the man himself along with his brother Shannon Leto on drums. It’s time for Leto to be dragged for more than his embarrassingly meme-worthy acting attempt in House of Gucci—it’s about time we addressed the problematic behaviour he’s been displaying for years without ever facing the repercussions. From accusations of paedophilia and rape to his bizarre cult island, we’ve gathered all the receipts.
View this post on Instagram
When the Leto brothers formed their rock band in 1998, they probably never imagined the fan base it would accumulate over the years. Thirty Seconds To Mars (also known as 30STM) went on to consistently enjoy sold-out tours and even headline numerous festivals. Known for its energetic live performances, fused elements from a wide variety of genres, its use of philosophical and spiritual lyrics, concept albums, and experimental music, the band took a strange turn when it started holding cult-like “summer camps” for its audience in 2015.
What seemed to have started as an ironic comment—in 2013, Leto told The New York Times Magazine that it was “a joke, a response to journalists saying, ‘You have such a cult following.’”—quickly turned into a golden opportunity to fleece their audience. In August 2019, while on yet another island retreat they’d held in Croatia for hundreds of fans, Thirty Seconds To Mars tweeted, “Yes, it’s a cult,” sending the internet into an understandable frenzy.
As reported by KQED in September 2019, the band’s fans “collectively refer to themselves as ‘the Echelon’, and are a group that seems overwhelmingly immersed not [just] in music nerd-dom, but rather a more general sort of love for the community surrounding the band.” I mean, just watch 10 seconds of the fan-made video below and you’ll get an idea of the megachurch vibes 30STM is giving off:
Oh, and in case you’re still not convinced, keep in mind that the Echelon also seems more than happy to don all-white uniforms and worship Leto’s feet. No biggie.
KQED further noted, “Like many cults, the Echelon espouses an us vs. them mentality via the hashtag #YouWouldntUnderstand, a refrain Leto repeats often. That idea has pushed supporters to ever more fervent degrees of devotion any time the band receives any degree of criticism.”
Looking into the band’s eyebrow-raising trips, the publication revealed that its Camp Mars event, which was held between 7 and 9 September 2019, charged $999 for two nights of outdoor camping, where you had to bring your own tent and supplies, Fyre Festival-style. The getaway also included daytime outdoor activities like rock-climbing and archery, plus two Thirty Seconds To Mars concerts, which the band called ‘Church of Mars’. More expensive dorm options were also offered, but the only way to sleep in a space that wasn’t shared with strangers was to pay $6,499 for a “VIP experience.” Neat.
But that’s all fine, because Leto declared the band “anti-greed” back in 2013. Whether the whole cult aspect surrounding 30STM started as a joke or not, what certainly seems to be serious is how aware Leto is of his fans’ dedication to him. This thirst for devotion has most definitely played a part in the worrying accusations the celebrity has faced both before and after.
In May 2018, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, Dylan Sprouse—yep, that’s the twin brother of Cole Sprouse who is best known for his role as Zack Martin on the Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and its spin-off, The Suite Life on Deck—posted a tweet accusing Leto of sending DMs to every model aged 18 to 25.
It quickly escalated when Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn tweeted the following as an answer to Sprouse’s initial tweet, “He starts at 18 on the internet?” Though the tweet has since been deleted, many netizens managed to grab a screenshot beforehand:
This was not the first time Gunn tried speaking up about Leto’s predatory behaviour either. In June of 2015, the director reportedly did a live stream on the video app Periscope in which he made similar remarks about the actor’s habits of sleeping with underage girls. SCREENSHOT did not manage to locate a copy of the video in question.
In that same year, the New York Post reported that the 30STM frontman had been pursuing teen models. “He’s been approaching all the girls and inviting them to his shows,” an anonymous source told the paper. “He’s a serial texter. He is constantly texting these 16- and 17-year-old girls. It’s really kind of creepy.”
For a man who openly held a competition in which the prize was a night sleeping in his bed and who fronts a band that is known to specifically request their fans get tattoos in their honour, to be accused of such things should have been enough to eventually lead the actor to face at least some kind of consequence. And yet, not much happened to the cult leader in 2018, even after a worrying number of allegations, some from years before then, started appearing online.
Though the article has since been wiped clean from the internet, in July 2015, pop culture writer for the now-vanished media criticism site Contemptor, Evangeline Van Houten, made some waves for her piece titled Another Cosby? A Reminder That Several Women Have Accused Jared Leto Of Sexual Assault. In it, the journalist collected several confronting allegations of sexual misconduct from fans of 30STM.
A number of victims, as young as 15, described having sex with Leto and some of the allegations suggested the singer acted despite a lack of consent or continued even when asked to stop. One account stated, “He was very pushy into coercing me to do sexual acts with him and he was quite rough and forceful. Once he was unnecessarily rough and when I told him it hurt he didn’t stop—he never did anything slowly or for my pleasure… And no, he never asked me if I was ever ok or comfortable with anything he wanted to do, simply because he is not the person to care.”
The 50-year-old actor never tried to respond to such accusations, and let’s be honest, it never seemed like he really had to, especially since barely anyone even made the effort to shed light on his alleged predatory behaviour. A Reddit thread based on the article mentioned above includes many more shocking accounts, in case you’re wondering exactly how many victims we’re looking at here.
In 2014, a Star Magazine print issue featured an interview with former adult film star Vicki Marie Taylor claiming that, back when Leto dated Cameron Diaz, she and three other strip dancers had been invited to a post-concert get-together one night in April 2002.
“The other girls and I stripped down to bikinis and hung out with Jared and the band backstage,” Taylor told Star. “After a while, Jared invited me onto his tour bus. His brother, Shannon, the band’s drummer, was already on it and the three of us were the only people there. I gave Jared a lap dance for just a minute, but then he asked me to do the same for his brother, who was sitting on a couch. As I started to dance for Shannon, Jared suddenly grabbed me around the throat from behind and said to me, ‘I can reach pure sexual enjoyment in 30 seconds just by looking into your eyes’. Obviously, it was kind of a weird situation.”
She went on to say that Leto then sat back down and watched Taylor lap dance his brother for ten minutes until a roadie announced it was time for them to leave for their next gig.
The internet is home to many (many, many) more accounts of Leto allegedly sexually assaulting (sometimes underage) victims. However, some internet users have suggested that such online accusations are not to be taken seriously due to the fact that they never actually evolved into sexual assault and rape police cases—a very stupid and uneducated way of looking at the situation.
How many times do we have to say it? The fear of not being believed makes it even harder for victims to come forward, so imagine how frightening it must be for anyone facing Leto and his somewhat invincible yet invisible team of lawyers. Almost 90 per cent of sexual assault survivors will never go to the police.
And it’s not only that victims are worried people won’t believe them, they also worry they will face horrific repercussions for coming forward with their story—whether personally, professionally or from the perpetrator themselves—especially if they go on to report the assault to concerned authorities. Seeing how much of an expert Leto is at emptying his fans’ pockets, it’s not hard to think of the many options he has under his belt when trying to silence his victims.