The ominous tagline in early trailers for the alien invasion blockbuster War of the Worlds was “They’re Already Here”—but any learned Scientologist could have told you that long ago. As you may have heard, WOTW star Tom Cruise is a 20-year veteran of the Church of Scientology, which reportedly teaches that human beings contain clusters of “body thetans,” or spirits, of aliens who died 75 million years ago in an intergalactic purge of overpopulated planets by the evil overlord Xenu. In Scientology-speak, these “BTs” adversely influence our thoughts and behavior, and must be “cleared” through “auditing,” a form of confessional therapy. For Scientologists (whose Hollywood ranks now include John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson), battling creatures from space isn’t just the stuff of allegorical multiplex spectacle—it’s nothing less than the path to self-fulfillment.
War of the Worlds (opens June 29) is hardly Cruise’s Battlefield Earth, but Steven Spielberg’s film does make one Scientology-friendly tweak to H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel of Martian attack (the aliens’ war-making infrastructure has been implanted on earth for millions of years), and it’s no wonder Cruise chose the movie as his first production to benefit from an on-site Scientology tent. “The volunteer Scientology ministers were there to help the sick and injured,” Cruise told Der Spiegel, like a battle-weary soldier extolling the Red Cross; no word on whether the film’s agon incited sympathetic revolts of BTs among cast and crew, though we can all cross our fingers that Katie Holmes’s resident aliens, unbound by earthling non-disclosure agreements, will one day pen a tell-all book.
If the founding myth of Scientology sounds torn from the yellowed pages of a science fiction pulp, it’s because late leader L. Ron Hubbard (1911-86) once plugged away as an SF hack, contributing to journals such as Unknown and Astounding Science Fiction. In 1940, Astounding serialized Hubbard’s book Final Blackout, a topical dystopia of lawless post-war Europe; according to Russell Miller’s 1987 Scientology exposé Bare-Faced Messiah, the novel “led to hopeful comparisons with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.” Like any aspiring SF scribe of his era, Hubbard had to shadowbox with the anxiety of Wells’s influence, which penetrated not only Hubbard’s stories and novels but his self-help methodology—laid out in the 1950 bestseller Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health—and the eventual Church of Scientology’s extraterrestrial tenets. (The first published article on Dianetics ran in 1950 in, where else, Astounding Science Fiction.)
In his 1902 lecture “The Discovery of the Future,” Wells endorsed the forward-thinker, who “thinks constantly and by preference of things to come,” just like the “Clear” in advanced Scientology, who has rid himself of “engrams,” or disabling imprints of past traumas. In Wells’s War of the Worlds, Martians labor incessantly, with no apparent need for sleep or sex, and communicate telepathically; the Scientologist has a Calvinist work ethic, keeps his motor clean, and having reached the rarefied “Operating Thetan” levels (Cruise is allegedly an “OT6”), can learn to read minds. According to Hubbard, ailments ranging from the common cold to leukemia could be classified as merely psychosomatic; in Wells, the Martians have eliminated illness entirely. Were Wells’s aliens the proto-Scientologists?
One of the more ironic aspects of Hubbard’s—and now Cruise’s—crusade against psychiatry is that Dianetics simply repackaged the basic Freudian concept of psychic determinism, whereby conflicts within the unconscious spill out into the open through irrational behaviors and psycho-somatic symptoms. Dianetics differentiates between the unconscious or “reactive” mind—”a single source of all your problems, stress, unhappiness and self-doubt”— and the “clear” mind, scrubbed of neuroses, with an enhanced IQ and near perfect recall. (Perhaps Katie will be able to remember exactly where and how she met her fiancé once she’s further along in her auditing sessions.) A Scientologist reading of Wells would identify a sadly asymmetrical battle between Reactives and Clears, as wailing herds of hysterical humans respond to alien predation with mass panic while their cerebral, workaholic visitors calmly go about irradiating them.
Wells’s narrator observes of the Martians, “The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers and hardened their hearts”—three for three on the Hubbard scoreboard. The Nation‘s 1950 review of Dianetics worried over “its conception of the amoral, detached, 100 percent efficient mechanical man,” because such unaffiliated self-sufficiency “does not exist except in a psychotic state” (cf. Cruise’s character in Collateral). Such concerns were apt regarding Hubbard, who would later declare that perceived enemies of the notoriously litigious Scientology organization could be “tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed,” and who once wrote that a solution to low scorers on the Dianetics “tone scale” would be “to dispose of them quietly and without sorrow”—a notion Wells, a sometime advocate of eugenics, may not have found altogether abhorrent in other contexts.
On Hubbard’s battlefields, you are either with us or against us, but the most grievous attacks are usually launched from within; paranoia is endemic, a perpetual night of a thousand engrams. In conjuring the angry viral ghosts called body thetans and mutating sci-fi into Scientology, Hubbard might have taken inspiration from Wells’s shell-shocked narrator at The War of the Worlds‘ end, wandering a scorched and ruined London: “About me my imagination found a thousand noise-less enemies moving.”