Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult review – a horribly mesmerising look at an invite-only church

<span>‘Horribly mesmerising’ … Dancing for the Devil: the 7M TikTok cult.</span><span>Photograph: Netflix</span>
‘Horribly mesmerising’ … Dancing for the Devil: the 7M TikTok cult.Photograph: Netflix

Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult has plenty of components that are lurid, brash and sensational. It’s about a loosely affiliated group of TikTok dancers in Los Angeles, who sign up to 7M, a management company that is also a private, invite-only church led by a pastor named Robert Shinn. Many of the dancers’ friends and family members now believe that they have joined a cult, and certainly the testimonies of ex-members suggest that they have strong reason to suspect that. But this takes its many stranger-than-fiction components and turns them into a story that is unusually sensitive, for Netflix at least, and also desperately sad.

The director Derek Doneen uses the Wilking sisters as his point of entry into what begins as a tale about the spectacle of social media and ambitious young people. Miranda and Melanie Wilking grew up in a working-class home in Detroit, and dreamed of becoming professional dancers. There are home movies of them as small children, dancing in front of the TV; later, as they pursue careers in the dance world, they realise that social media could help them to gain exposure. Eventually, together, they built up over 3.3m followers on TikTok.

Melanie, who talks frankly about her sister throughout this gripping three-parter, explains that social media is not really optional in her world. At auditions, she says, “they ask how many followers you have”. Metrics matter. The framing of social media here – TikTok, mostly, but Instagram, a little – is fascinating. Dancers with substantial followings talk about this ephemeral fame in vague terms, as a way of generating an income for themselves, without actually explaining how the money is made. Krunk dancer Kevin “Konkrete” Davis, a former 7M member, explains that he was a “starving artist” and lived in his car, but that social media made him feel as if he could get paid for his art. Another dancer and ex-member, Kailea Gray, says that she didn’t want to think about brand deals and sponsorship: “I just wanted to create.”

Robert Shinn, the pastor of the Shekinah Church and founder of 7M, which he calls a “talent management company”, appears to have seen an opportunity in this particular combination of creative ambition, relative poverty and a youthful lack of business knowhow or desire. Several TikTok dancers became affiliated with 7M, allowing Shinn to curate and manage their brand deals, for example. He provided them with an affordable and aesthetically pleasing place to live and a comfortable environment for creating content while also encouraging them to join his church, regularly attend his services and devote themselves to God – and, as a “man of God”, to devote themselves to him.

This begins to form itself into a more traditional cult documentary shape, as the extent to which Shinn and Shekinah have embedded themselves into members’ lives becomes plain to see. According to the testimonies of ex-members, and recordings of Shinn, the church encourages members to “die to themselves” and to their families. Though it is couched in flowery language about resurrection and rebirth, to outsiders, it may look a lot like the age-old fundamentalist tactic of cutting people off from the people who love them in order to strengthen their ties to their new belief system. It gets darker as the episodes progress and build up a wider picture. Shinn denies allegations of abuse, but interviewees here speak of their own experiences within the church and offer a different side of the story.

Those following some of the key players online will have seen this unfolding on social media. Melanie had to post a video explaining why she and her sister no longer dance together. Miranda, now married to fellow 7M member James “BDash” Derrick and called Miranda Derrick, posts to deny that she is unsafe or in a cult. The girls’ parents, Dean and Kelly, joined Melanie on a livestream to accuse the church of brainwashing their daughter. For me, one of the most upsetting moments, of many, comes when Miranda finally agrees to meet up with her parents, having cut off almost all contact with them, only to livestream it to her followers, as if to prove that they are the problem. They tell her that they love her and miss her.

As a picture of the zeitgeist, this is horribly mesmerising. It is harder than ever to distinguish between spectacle and reality. But it is at its strongest when taking the human angle and showing the effects of the church on those who left it behind and on the families of those who did not. I just found one aspect difficult to square: Shinn is recorded talking about how famous the church will be and how everybody will know about 7M. Watching this, I thought, if they didn’t before, then they certainly will now.

• Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult is on Netflix