For anyone obsessed with true crime and cults, then Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo is a series you do not want to miss. The striking and powerful documentary series is screening on Sundance TV and the final episode airs this Wednesday.
The four-part series traces the beginnings of the Susan Alamo Christian Foundation in the 60s and how that evolved into the Tony Alamo empire and how sheer evil, child abuse and sexual abuse happened within his cult for decades.
The series comes from documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato who recently won both an Emmy Award and Producers Guild Award for their series RuPaul’s Drag Race. Ministry Of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo takes the filmmakers back to their documentary roots as former cult members revisit their personal and often traumatic experiences with Alamo. I caught up with them to discuss America’s obsession with cult worship and the striking parallels between Tony Alamo and Donald Trump.
I love true crime stories and yet somehow, I missed out on this whole story unfolding. I’m curious when you began making this how much of the story did you already know?
Fenton Bailey: It was just like you. We love crime and we love televangelism. They’re like two pet obsessions and we too had never heard of this story. We can’t take credit for coming up with the story or initiating it, but when we were first approached, it was called Rhinestone Evangelist.
Randy and I made The Eyes of Tammy Faye, so I feel the title was deliberate bait to reel us in. [laughs] That was a point of connection for us with the story because although I didn’t know who was behind them, those rhinestone jackets – do you remember them?
Yes, I do. They were everywhere.
Fenton: I had no idea that this was the story and that was the original point of connection. Peacock Productions (a division of NBC) had done this research and it soon became apparent that we’d have to call it something else because the twisted nature and the scale of the evil of this cult was just mind-boggling.
Yes, ashamed to say hadn’t heard of them. There’s a great clip from Whicker’s World. He did an episode and featured them on his show. As a kid, I used to watch that show. It’s an amazing story and has somehow remained hidden from media scrutiny. It’s almost like the Wild Wild Country documentary and Bhagwan. I sort of knew about Bhagwan, but I wasn’t aware of the extent of that story either.
What’s your way into a story that spans decades, what’s your way into this? Is it through the videos? The interviews? Did you seek out that whole Whicker’s World interview? Where do you start?
Fenton: That’s one way in. But then there’s the conceptual way in of what is it about Americans and cults? Why are Americans so susceptible to cults? In doing the research, the why now of it became appallingly clear. There’s no question that this so-called presidency is a similar kind of cult. It will always amaze me how people will deny the evidence with their own eyes. They will deny basic facts and realities to enslave themselves in a cult.
That’s where we’re at as a society right now.
Randy, why are Americans obsessed with cults?
Randy Barbato: Because they’re crazy. That’s why.
Fenton: I’ve come to that conclusion. [laughs].
Randy: I think there’s an innocent desire to be a part of something. I think that’s where it starts. It starts at an innocent place of wanting to feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself. In some ways, I think it’s less about our obsession to be in cults.
The real story is about the people who exploit that need. It’s true that the deeper that we got into the story and the more we learned, the more relevant it felt, the more you could make analogies between Tony Alamo and Donald Trump. I’ll just go for it.
That’s what makes it relevant. That’s what makes it so chilling. That’s what makes it important right now.
Fenton: I think one of the things that haunts many of us is how could this have happened in terms of Trump. When you watch this series, ordinary people’s vulnerability to being gullible or a propensity of self-delusion and the ability to self-sabotage has been in the culture for a long time.
Tony was flaunting tax evasion and got away with a lot of crap that Trump is also doing and seeing how far he can go.
Fenton: Massive tax fraud. That was the amazing thing was how far Tony was allowed to go, how long he was able to evade the law and even up to his arrest, how he managed to get out of jail again, but also how long it took to put him in prison and even with that, the cult continues.
The Tony/Trump comparison is the lying all the time. It’s deliberate and continual verbal abuse, the calling people out and cruelty. It’s the sexual assault. It’s the Crime. It’s the Financial fraud.
Randy: And also, surrounding yourself with sycophants so you can build a conspiracy of silence.
Fenton: Tony’s sense of continual sense of persecution was another thing. His sense of being victimized. He was the one who is being wronged. The media was the enemy out to get him. So, there’s that too.
I suppose, there’s a certain sense of hiding in plain sight. You realize the arguable weakness of the authorities to stop this. It wasn’t a covert, hidden operation. It was all in plain sight.
I’ve gone down a rabbit hole reading up on this whole cult and there’s so much out there, when did you know this was going to be a series and not a traditional feature?
Randy: We were brought in by Sundance, they reached out to us. Sundance Networks had already been having conversations with Peacock Productions. Leslie Mattingly had found a flyer on the sidewalk in New York and that was the beginning of the series. She is this amazing producer who found the flyer and from there started to dig around and discover the story. The irony is back then in the 60s and 70s, they used to find hippies right outside of World of Wonder’s offices. They’re still active.
I know. That’s wild.
Randy: Some kids from World of Wonder have seen them lurking about.
There are powerful stories and emotional ones from Justin, David and Desiree, what’s that like to have them actually get involved in the documentary and to hear them relive that experience. Was that easy to hear?
Fenton: The team doing it did a great job with the interviews. For them, to relieve their trauma. It was terribly difficult to listen to in the room.
Randy: It was so awful.
Fenton: I feel their courage to speak out and to relive it in their minds. Especially, Susan Alamo’s daughter, Christhiaon she had so much to say. This is a multi-part series and I feel it could have been many more episodes because of the sheer volume of stories and as a viewer, there’s only so much you can take, but it’s pretty epic.
Justin Miller talking about his beatings were so haunting and have stayed, what was there a “What the hell” moment that really struck you?
Fenton: I think with having kids you just imagine that happening to yours. Being a parent, there can’t be a more horrible and terrifying thing to imagine. It is definitely a “what the hell” moment. Especially the moment of Justin’s brother and dad, they got out, but the mother stayed behind. When they went to go and grab him, it alerted people, but it’s so chilling. It’s almost unbearable.
Randy: For me, the “Oh my God” moment was actually filming at the compound and it’s empty now. You can feel it. Some of the survivors were talking about specific rooms and what happened. Going down into the basement where some of the beatings happened was absolutely chilling. After a while, we just had to get out of there because the energy was still there. It was really creepy.
After hearing everything and seeing it all, how do you wash that off?
Fenton: In that respect, as executive producers, we’re the luckiest of all, we don’t have to live, breathe and sleep it as the whole team does. It sticks with you. As in real life, it began in one space and one mindset and it gradually became this dark and evil thing. I remember watching the cut of episode three and feeling, “Oh my God.”
There was so much material. Was there something that was cut out and you wish could be in there?
Fenton: One of the hardest was Christhiaon’s rape. It was an extreme thing that Tony had raped her. There just wasn’t room to fit everything in, but we had to find a way to put it back in. That was very hard. It was very hard for her to retell the story because from that moment, you knew it was there from the beginning. It wasn’t like they became corrupted by what they were doing. They were bad guys from the beginning.
I think you can get the impression that Justin’s treatment was not the exception, but to some extent isolated, but when you realize the sheer volume of that happening, that I think is a hard thing to get across in a film. You can’t tell the same story over and over.
Randy: We could get lost in a loop of Brigitta footage and that could become a different film.
Fenton: Tony’s idea was that he was going to introduce Brigitta to the group as Susan come back to life because she looked a lot like Susan.
That’s another comparison because there’s a whole online theory that says there’s a Fake Melania being used.
What baffles me more is you have people like Miley Cyrus – bless her – wearing his jackets and the cult is still going on today. Despite knowing everything, people are still ready to join it. It’s fascinating.
Fenton: Often when we make a film, we get to the end of it and we feel we’ve answered a question and we feel we’ve figured out what makes someone tick. I don’t really understand how people get sucked in. Maybe, Randy, you do. It’s still crazy to me.
Randy: Is the larger story here that darkness is next door. There’s this notion that we are inches away from darkness and all it takes is that one person to suck people in. When you watch it, you can’t imagine something like this existing. You can’t imagine something like this having any connection to you. I think that’s happening right now to all of us on this large scale. That’s what the importance of this series is. That’s the larger tale to take. It’s easy to look at it and think it’s somewhere over there and that’s it’s so unbelievable and so far from anything we could ever imagine or experience, yet it isn’t. It’s right next door.
A lot of people know us for doing RuPaul’s Drag Race or Million Dollar Listing, but the reality is World of Wonder is built on making documentaries. That’s what has inspired us from day one and that’s what inspired us to start this company.
Even if you look at a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race, yes it’s funny and outrageous. At the core of it is the connection with these artists and their humanity. It’s the docu of it that makes it special and creates a connection with the audience. For us, what keeps getting us up in the morning is finding these sort of stories, finding these people that have the victims. Tony Alamo’s victims who when you hear them and when you connect with them, it’s the stuff you can’t not think about it as you fall asleep. It’s important to us because it inspires us, but hopefully, you get to see how it resonates in a way that brings meaning and awareness.
If you could recommend your documentaries which ones would you recommend?
Randy: The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Followed by Mapplethorpe. Would it be Monica in Black and White, or Party Monster or Inside Deep Throat or Becoming Chaz?
Fenton: I’d say 101 Rent Boys.
Randy: We can’t narrow them down.
Fenton: It’s like choosing your favorite child.
Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo airs this Wednesday on Sundance TV.