The Church of Scientology New York stands right in the center of New York’s Theatre District on West 46th Street. The building blends into the glitzy fare, as loud in its own right as its neighbors—such mainstays of the famously fabulous New York theater scene as _In the Heights_ and _My Big Gay Italian Wedding_. Its architecture follows that imposing sort of neoclassical-meets-art deco style that so many bad (and some better) writers of dystopian science-fiction have come to fetishize over the years, with a striking combination of ionic columns and stark facades, and windows like so many horrible eyes. It’s as if a chunk of the set of _Brazil_ teleported from its studio lot and materialized in Midtown.
Now, in my high school days, I knew of the Church of Scientology as those stress test guys in the subway and had some knowledge of their beliefs and practices. As a matter of fact a couple of my friends and I chipped in to purchase a copy of _Dianetics_, one of Scientology’s canonical works, in some sort of defiant, blasphemous act against our collective Catholic schooling. However, as we found much to our dismay, the experience of trying to read it can only be approximated by repeatedly hitting oneself over the head with a rubber chicken studded with thumbtacks. The book soon got lost somewhere in the locker room.
By the time I got to college, I had accidentally seen _Battlefield Earth_ on HBO and had read all about the mythos of Scientology on Wikipedia. Soul volcanoes? The alien Thetan soul trapped in my human “meat body”? Aliens riding rocket-powered DC-10s?! Pardon me, but that shit’s crazy! I was fascinated that a religious system so obviously based on old Flash Gordon comics could have such a wide appeal. That a religious system so obviously based on old Flash Gordon comics could claim millions of constituents, many of whom are famous celebrities. That a religious system so obviously based on old Flash Gordon comics could manage to act like it wasn’t. I had to know more.
It was freshman year when I finally approached the church on 227 West 46th Street. I was with a friend from school and we decided to walk in for no other reason than to waste an hour or so. We were ushered into the lobby, which was like the bastard child of the gift shop at the Liberty Science Center and the Waldorf-Astoria, in consonance with the building’s exterior. There were stacks and stacks of books bearing L. Ron Hubbard’s name, plasma TVs bearing the Great Auditor’s likeness—the place seemed more museum or clearinghouse than temple of worship.
We walked up to the front desk, trying hard to act like we weren’t freaked the fuck out, were asked to sign in (of course we put false names and addresses), and were led up to a claustrophobic padded room with a projector (who knows if there was or wasn’t someone watching from behind the projector screen?). The door was closed and the projector flickered to life. The word “Orientation” flashed onto the screen, as we looked on, wondering what we had got ourselves into. The film vaguely and confusingly outlined some of Scientology’s beliefs, but for the most part consisted of testimonials from some of their more widely-known followers, including Isaac Hayes, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, interspersed with shots of an actor-MC walking through some sort of grand hall. The people on the film seemed to glow so garishly that I was convinced it had been shot on stock made from pure gold. Although benign for the most part, at its creepiest the actor-MC (who apparently left the church in 2009) would directly address the audience in a monotone reminiscent of the hypnotist that came to visit my grammar school with remarks on how Scientology would “improve your life” and “reduce stress,” concluding the experience with the following evangelization/veiled threat:
_If you leave this room after seeing this film, and walk out and never mention Scientology again, you are perfectly free to do so. It would be stupid, but you can do it._ You can also dive off a bridge or blow your brains out. That is your choice. _But, if you_ don’t _walk out that way, if you continue with Scientology, we will be very happy with you. And,_ you _will be very happy with you. You will have proven that you are a friend of yours._
I could not make this up.
We ran for the door of the room (which, much to our surprise, was unlocked) and briskly walked out the door, looking over our shoulders until we got a couple of blocks away. In retrospect, this fear was somewhat irrational—after all, there were no men in suits following us to inject us with Scientology’s Kool-Aid, trying to force us into the fold. However, to this day, I still try my best to avoid that bit of street between 7th and 8th Avenues.