I was raised in a cult. At least, that’s what I tell people—it’s a little simpler and more exciting than explaining that I was raised as part of a strange, evangelical Christian group known as the “Local Churches” that, other than not really allowing us to celebrate any holidays, was pretty vanilla by cult standards. But it’s sort of true: the local church movement has been over several decades accused by several people of being a cult. But is it actually a cult?
I have no idea. I do know it wasn’t for me, nor were any of the other strange churches that speckle the religious landscape of my home state of Arkansas (including the infamous, horrific Tony Alamo Church). The idea of what constitutes a cult can be a little grey sometimes (I mean, sometimes it isn’t, of course, but in cases like this, it might be a little blurry; please don’t sue me). Sometimes one person’s cult is just another person’s church. Sometimes these groups are actually dangerous and predatory, and sometimes their belief system might just be a bit atypical. How do you know the difference?
Enter Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy, of the podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie!. As their tagline explains, they show up so you don’t have to; they do the dirty work of exploring pseudoscience, fringe religious groups, and claims of the paranormal. Sometimes they immerse themselves in things as seemingly harmless as oil pulling or penis/breast enlargement, and sometimes they explore groups as scary as Tony Alamo Ministries or, most recently, Scientology. And every time they let you know: Is it creepy? Pocket-draining? Pseudo-scientific?
I interviewed Ross and Carrie about their podcast, investigational ethics, and their junk mail.
The Rumpus: Carrie, I know you’re a writer, and Ross, you’re an animator. What made you guys decide specifically to do a podcast? What about the medium seemed like the best choice for you?
Carrie Poppy: Great question. I’ve been writing and acting/comedy-ing for a long time—since I was a kid, pretty much—so I think it was the “acting” element of podcasting that originally drew me in. Podcasting is this interesting smashup of performance, journalism, and hanging out with your friends, and it seemed to speak to our strengths. I also have always had a fondness for storytelling and the power of words. I am far more interested in words than pictures, so radio and its relatives have always captured my attention. Not that I don’t also love a good movie or play, of course, but there’s something about only having your words that is very powerful, to me.
Podcasting also worked perfectly with the kind of project we wanted to do. We both love putting ourselves in unusual situations and trying things out for ourselves. By having a podcast, we could maintain a certain amount of anonymity with the people and groups we were investigating, which meant we would get more earnest and genuine experiences than if we went in as reporters. It also meant that even if we were wildly successful at it, our faces still wouldn’t be highly recognizable.
And finally, I think podcasting is a sort of democratizing force in journalism and comedy. Anyone can get into podcasting with a pretty low barrier to entry (a $30 USB mic and a LibSyn subscription), and for the most part, if you make a good show, you can succeed. That might change as podcasting gets bigger and more corporate, but for now, it’s a movement of independent artists working hard at a thing they love. I’m really proud to be a (relatively) early adopter of such a transformative medium.
Ross Blocher: Podcasting was still a relatively new medium when we created Oh No, Ross and Carrie!, but it already felt like a crowded space to me. This was particularly true of “skeptical” podcasts, of which there were dozens (I listened to about eight or nine myself). As much as I wanted to find some platform to share my own thoughts, I also didn’t want to repeat what was already being done. It wasn’t until I met Carrie, and realized how unusual it was for us to interact with believers and their ideas directly, that a show seemed like the right idea. We both had the idea at the same time, and it just felt right. We could offer that new personal experience angle, and hopefully some positivity and humor as well.
My passion for animation is somewhat tangential to the podcast, but it does overlap in its emphasis on storytelling and entertainment, and some of the tools that are used. Certainly the lessons I learn at work apply to what we do on the podcast, and vice versa. Just as a quick point of clarification, I’m not what one would call an “animator.” There are a lot of specialties that go into creating an animated film, and about 10% of the people where I work are character animators who craft the characters’ onscreen performances. I work as a trainer, and my job is to provide resources for the reference, inspiration, and knowledge-sharing required to make animated movies. It’s a lot of fun, and exposes me to many great ideas and talented people.
Perhaps more germane to my involvement in the podcast was my lifelong interest in the paranormal. I had always been into ghosts, aliens, and cryptozoological creatures, and read or watched everything I could on the topic. Even before Carrie and I met, I was a member of the Independent Investigations Group, which examines extraordinary claims and offers a $100,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under proper observing conditions.
Rumpus: You guys spend a lot of time on this. A lot. Carrie mentioned in one of your recent episodes that, combined, you guys spent ninety hours just on Scientology. Ross, your ordeals sitting through these classes sounded particularly painful. How do your family members and loved ones react to you dedicating so much time to doing things that sometimes are weird (like oil pulling) and sometimes a little scary and dangerous (like getting involved in Scientology)?
Drew Spears: Hi, I’m Drew Spears, Carrie’s boyfriend (and ONRAC! guest). When I started dating Carrie I was already aware of the podcast and what it entailed and I think it’s an intrinsic part of who she is and why I am drawn to her. From my perspective it’s always been her job, and I’ve always been impressed with her and Ross’s willingness and ability to investigate these subjects with the deft touch and thoughtfulness that they do. The amount of time she spends really doesn’t matter to me because it’s a job and one where they are the best at what they do.
Per the Scientology episodes, I was obviously worried about what the fallout of getting involved might be. Tagging along to a handful of events during their Scientology events was trying for me, being a naturally anxious person ‘going undercover’ isn’t something I am particularly good at, but overall joining them was a positive experience for me if nothing else than to see Ross and Carrie in their element and seeing how skilled they are at doing something I couldn’t do. While I mostly clammed up and avoided having to directly talk with anyone from the church, Ross and Carrie were always very quick to probe with questions. So I would classify that part of it as a net positive in that it allowed me to confront my anxiety and see my partner do her job very very well.
The scariest part of the Scientology investigation for me would be the parts I wasn’t there for. Often times their courses or classes or being auditing would run hours past the stated end time and they would be uncontactable. Now, obviously those sessions were more monotonous and boring for Ross and Carrie but being left on the outside it’s very tough to not let your nerves get the best of you.
Since the publishing of the investigation the reaction has been interesting because people are quick to bring up the church’s litigiousness and harassing tactics, as though it’s been a certainty that Ross and Carrie would be dragged to court or get their doors knocked down. Which isn’t a pleasant thought but it’s more just the constant chorus of concerns by fans of the show, who are just trying to be well-meaning, that keys me up than the church itself. Carrie is the most cautious person I know and though I certainly think you need a level of bravery to do what she and Ross do, I think it is occasionally misconstrued as recklessness or confrontation. They know the worst-case scenarios with interacting with the church, as they do for all of their investigations, and have taken steps to minimize them. So that sometimes keys me up, just to constantly be harangued with that thought by (granted) well-meaning fans. But interestingly enough there hasn’t been a reaction from the church since Ross was uncovered. And I think that ties into what makes ONRAC! such an interesting and vital show. I think Scientology has all of these perceptions in the public, ones that they themselves have earned. But from the start of the investigation when I was super anxious and had all these preconceived notions of what would happen to them I would have not expected my main takeaway with their involvement being, “Welp, Scientology is a real time suck and the people are socially awkward,” and that’s a perspective that could have only been gained through going through that process.
To just quickly summarize my thoughts: I love what Ross and Carrie do and am constantly impressed by the lengths they go to and while I certainly get worried or anxious for their well-being, they are super cautious and know what they are doing. That said, I’m sure I would have been a wreck had I been dating Carrie during the Tony Alamo investigation.
Blocher: Thank you for that question! It’s always nice when someone intuits the amount of time we put into these investigations, and I think our listeners can sense the love that goes into each episode. It’s the reason we typically release new shows once a month, rather than weekly. For a three-person operation (our producer Ian Kremer offloads various tasks), it takes a lot of time to gather material and craft each episode. I typically spend about eight hours on the final edit of each episode, removing “um”s and “ah”s and tightening the storytelling.
For the investigations themselves, it helps that we find this fun—otherwise it would be a total train wreck. I’ve learned that Carrie and I have a high tolerance for unusual ideas. It is my fascination with the psychology of belief that can sustain me through an eight-hour Advanced Personal Efficiency course, or a twelve-hour Dianetics seminar. I love to hear how people express their beliefs, the words they use, and how they respond to questions. It takes a lot of work to fatigue or bore me, though I can certainly point to times when that has happened.
My wife, Cara, is a very patient person, and has always allowed me time to pursue my many side interests and hobbies. I love to include her and my son as much as possible in my activities, but typically she wants nothing to do with the crazy situations Carrie and I get involved in for the podcast. Cara will react to various things we try with shock or disgust, and I happily share her reactions on the show. My oil pulling prompted: “You have no idea how annoying that is!” Coming to bed with foot clamps and magnet rings elicited the line, “I thought I married a smart man!” She has been concerned from time to time for my safety, but has come to trust that I won’t get into too much trouble, and will come back home okay. At the very least, only slightly damaged (firewalking comes to mind). It’s always fun to tell my stories first to my family and get their reactions, and it was a real highlight to have my son Andrew join me and Carrie when we attended a psychic kids workshop.
Rumpus: One of the things I most admire about your show is that you guys are respectful of the groups you investigate. The episode where you had members of the Aetherius Society on was particularly fantastic; you were willing to be transparent about criticism. You’re also good about rarely concealing who you are from anyone, and you usually use pseudonyms for the well-intentioned people you meet in these investigations. Can you give me a basic idea of where your investigational ethics come from? Like if there was an “Oh No! Ross and Carrie Investigation Handbook,” what would some of the rules be?
Poppy: Well, first of all, you are more than welcome to buy our ethics handbook, THE BIBLE. Just kidding. Um, let’s see. Here are a few of the rules I think we generally live by. Though all of these are reliant on one another, so we may break one rule if we feel another is more important in a given situation.
- Use your real name if at all possible. That gives every group the opportunity to look you up if they want to, and it means you didn’t lie in order to get what you want. It’s tempting to lie sometimes (and there have been times when we’ve tried out pseudonyms), but by being completely honest, we recognize and honor others’ rights to information. The entire idea of reporting is to get make information available to everyone. By using our own names, we’re honoring our subjects’ right to information, too.
- Be willing to go back on that rule if it’s necessary, to expose something truly harmful. This hasn’t really come up yet, but it’s a rule in the back of our minds. I totally support the work of investigators who work truly undercover to expose animal abuse, employee abuse, etc. I would be willing to use a pseudonym in a situation like this, and I support the reporters and activists who do that work. We would just need to discuss doing this in a way that was legal and worked for our own internal compasses.
- If asked whether we are reporters, or are confronted about our podcast, tell the truth right away. Although we don’t volunteer that we do a podcast at any of our investigations, we drew this line in the sand early on. If we’re asked if we are “that Ross and Carrie,” or asked if we are reporters/podcasters, we say yes. It’s another way of honoring our subjects, and avoiding the murky waters of deception.
- Never volunteer that we are podcasters unless an investigation is over or nearly over. This is a commitment to our listeners. We want our show to be the authentic experience of “showing up” somewhere, as average people. If they knew we were reporting on them, groups would treat us differently. If we ever do have to disclose who we are and what we do, we promise you (the listener) will know that.
- Try to present the most charitable interpretation of a group’s (or individual’s) point of view, alongside any criticism. It’s easy to shoot down the weakest form of an argument, but finding the strongest version of an argument is good reporting, and it also helps us expand our own points of view, so the show doesn’t just become documentation of our minds slowly closing down over the years. We really fight to learn something valuable from everyone we meet. Every group is going to have interesting insight about something.
- For me: Don’t eat meat to fit in. I ain’t doin’ that. Some things aren’t worth it. DID YOU KNOW MEAT IS MADE OF DEAD ANIMALS?
- Use pseudonyms for people who aren’t public figures. Average people who belong to a group or are running a small business, not trying to hurt anyone, deserve relative privacy and the kind of local examination we’d expect of a Yelp review or the local paper—not an international podcast audience. People who have decided to make a group identity their life’s work, or who are using a sketchy paranormal claim to prop up their fame (I’m looking at you, Theresa Caputo), should be examined on the same ultra-public level they are operating on. And everyone is going to know who we’re talking about if we say “the president of the Mormon Church, who we’ll call Shomas Shmonson,” anyway.
- Follow state and federal recording laws.
- Report illegal abuse of people or animals right away, regardless of whether that ends our investigation. This hasn’t come up in an active investigation, but has been discussed in preparation for long-term things on our list.
- Treat your cohost’s opinion as more important than your own, and you will almost always get along. Knowing the other person is always trying their best is the only way to get through a longterm relationship.
- Find the human part of a story, and you will always find the funny part. If you prioritize humor over humanity, you’ll lose both.
Blocher: There’s not much I can add to that! Leaving a group and then hearing their reaction to our show is the most difficult part of what we do. Those are the moments that really stick with me. Most of the time we don’t hear anything, but the responses we do get really cause us to examine what we do and the effect our investigations have. You saw that play out with the Aetherius Society, which was very upset at our initial reporting. I was really glad that Paul and Oscar came on our show and had a chance to share their thoughts and talk about our methods. Ideally, I would love for us to maintain our friendships with the various people we meet, and be able to come visit any time, but I realize that’s not possible with groups like Ordo Templi Orientis, or the Raelians, or Scientology. We have to balance our desire to share honest thoughts about these various beliefs with our respect for the believers themselves, and that doesn’t always come across. Simply the fact that we were “undercover” can be seen as hurtful. It’s a genuinely difficult problem, and that’s why it’s really important to protect the identity of the people we meet.
Rumpus: I’ve noticed that in some of groups you investigate—like the Tony Alamo group and Scientology—a lot of the people you meet say they are recovering from addiction or other hard times. Do you notice any other patterns between the different groups you investigate, either within the leaders of the groups or the followers? Is there anything you that you’ve come to expect from these experiences?
Poppy: Yes, the addiction recovery story is definitely a theme in these more all-consuming groups, like Tony Alamo Ministries and Scientology. People with really broken pasts seem to look for a new safety net that they can give their entire life to, because they have seen that they can’t manage their own lives themselves. That’s the first step in the 12 Step program, right? “Admit that I am powerless over my disease”? Powerlessness is a powerful concept. And that sort of force-fed humility can drive a person right into the arms of a manipulative group or leader who claims to have all the answers. I do fear this is what happens with groups like Scientology. The flip side to this, though, is that some of these people arrive on the doorstep of a church or community, basically on the brink of death. If Scientology or Mormonism or, heck, 9/11 Truth saves someone from an overdose or from suicidal depression, then that is to its credit. You just have to hope that that person eventually believes in their own power, and finds healthier coping mechanisms. Sometimes we make small attempts to wedge some other points of view into our conversations, but ultimately, we’re not there to pull anyone away. We’re there to learn why they’re there in the first place.
Blocher: We definitely see patterns in how ideas are presented. Obscure language is a theme, and many founders and discoverers of religions use obtuse and impenetrable phrasing to make the obvious seem profound or the nonsensical seem paramount. “Service is the jewel in the rock of attainment” comes to mind. Anything Aleister Crowley wrote fits that bill as well. L Ron Hubbard had a particular skill for creating his own vocabulary.
There are also designated sinkholes where tough questions can be disregarded, and we always take interest in finding those. As much internal consistency as an idea may have, at some point it clashes with the outside world. The Christian Scientists say those conflicts are an illusion. A Mormon acknowledges the good question, then places it “on the shelf” to be answered in the afterlife, or prays to Heavenly Father for assurance that the church’s teachings are true. A Scientologist informs you that you simply need to work through an MU (misunderstood word). A conspiracy theorist interprets a lack of evidence to be the very evidence that sinister forces are hiding the truth.
Even for groups that aren’t as controlling, there’s always the aspect of community. We’ve come to expect that, along with the regular worship or ritual events, we will be invited to all kinds of social events on the side. The Mormons have this in spades: come to a Mormon church and your dance card will be immediately full with home study, circleball games, food pantries, and helping people move. It’s the nicer side of these beliefs, though it is also one of the most daunting aspects for me when I start a new investigation, as I already have a calendar full of social obligations.
Rumpus: I feel like you guys probably get a lot of weird junk mail. What does the aftermath of these investigations look like? How does it feel when you finish one of these investigations? Do people from these groups ever still reach out to you?
Poppy: Ha! Truer words were ne’er spoken. The emails alone could fill your entire week with reading. Not to mention the mailers, event fliers, and literature. I’ve gotten better about recycling this stuff. Sometimes I will throw a quick trivia question on our Facebook page, and send a piece of ONRAC! memorabilia to the first person who answers correctly. Just the other day, I said the first person who could correctly name my late dog, Tummi, would get a piece of Scientology lit. The winner was so thrilled to get it. And I sent along some tea bags, too, since our listeners love our constant discussion of hot drinks. But there are some things I am never giving up. I have a binder full of Tony Alamo lit that I love to flip through and feel my eyeballs bug out of my head. And you can pry my FLDS holy writings (sent to me as a gift by listener March Gutt) out of my cold, dead hands.
Blocher: Oh goodness, yes! I still get tons of daily emails from the various groups we’ve joined or alternative medicine practitioners we’ve visited. Sometimes these provide prompts for new investigations, and Carrie and I will forward them to each other: “Want to try this past life regression class next Saturday? I’d be down.” Others, as Carrie said, are fun to post to Facebook, as a fun reminder of a past investigation. The Rael Science newsletter alone averages about five forwarded articles a day, often with comments from Rael himself. I tried to unsubscribe, but the emails kept coming. I also have a ton of reading materials from our previous investigations, and I hold on to pretty much everything—much to my wife’s consternation. After I was ushered out of the Scientology building, they continued to send me emails, including three invitations to the L. Ron Hubbard 105th birthday celebration. I took them up on the invitation and arrived at the event, but apparently posting pictures to our Facebook page was not a good idea. About an hour and a half into the event they found me and kicked me out. It’s a great story, but we’ll see if they send me any more emails now.
Rumpus: Are there any other podcasts you might recommend?Books/movies/TV shows/ancient scrolls?
Poppy: Here are the podcasts I recommend: Throwing Shade, Getting Curious, Superego, Dead Authors’ Podcast.
Favorite books: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Rapture of Canaan, No Logo, Eating Animals, Under the Banner of Heaven, Lost at Sea, The Psychopath Test.
And here’s my little comedy/crafting web series!
Blocher: Podcasts I recommend: Hardcore History, Sawbones, Big Picture Science, Skeptoid, MonsterTalk, and Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.
Favorite books: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Disappearing Spoon, The Poisoner’s Handbook, anything by Mary Roach. I review every book I read here.
Stay tuned—in the next installment of Podcatcher, I’ll be speaking with Rachel and Griffin McElroy of Rose Buddies.
Rumpus original Podcatcher logo by Trisha Previte. Photograph of Ross and Carrie © Amy Davis Roth.