“The Way Down,” the HBO Max documentary on Gwen Shamblin and her Christian weight-loss program, is the horror series you need to watch this Halloween season — except this is a horror show that’s real.
Shamblin’s untimely death in a May 2021 plane crash that also killed her husband Joe Lara, her son-in-law and other members of the church is the opening scene for this three-part story on weight loss, Jesus and control. Shamblin’s story of being an overweight young woman who went on to make millions through a simple weight loss program is the stuff of the American dream, but her story is also about the American obsession with God, looks and discipline. Shamblin’s program made a shambles of relationships, finances, and even allegedly cost a child his life.
“The Way Down” is primarily about the charismatic Shamblin’s control over her followers and their families. The success of the “The Weigh Down” program led her to start Remnant Fellowship, her own church, in Brentwood, Tenn, at what she said was God's urging. The church, however, was anything but godly. Led by Shamblin and a group of male elders, it looked like any other church on the outside, but it was a façade for the intense scrutiny of its members’ weight, behaviors and lifestyles. Shamblin surrounded herself with a group of people who were aesthetically pleasing in terms of weight, had the trappings of a rich lifestyle and were expected to give their time and money to the church. Her obsession with looks even led her to divorce her husband and marry former “Tarzan” actor Joe Lara.
“The Way Down” speaks volumes about the role aesthetics plays in religious movements. Being thin isn’t just about being thin. For Shamblin, it was about making “the church” look good, and bolstering the products and materials sold with her program. With her blond bouffant and high heels, Shamblin’s aesthetic appealed to many of the Christian women and men who followed her because they recognized it. Religious leaders including Tammy Faye Bakker and Jan Crouch used similar hairstyles and outfits to complement their husbands. These overtly feminized images of womanhood are recognizable to many Americans familiar with televangelists. As the saying goes, “the higher the hair, the closer to God.”
This focus on looks, especially for women in Christianity, made news recently when a Baptist pastor in Missouri resigned his moderator position after criticizing women about letting their appearance go after marriage. So while Shamblin’s ministry may look to some just like a weight-loss program based on scripture, it is about the aesthetics of a prosperity laden Christianity that has made women over feminize themselves to prove their holiness.
The most devastating part of the documentary, however, focuses on child abuse, in particular the case of 8-year-old Josef Smith, who was murdered by his parents Sonya and Joseph Smith. The Smiths, members of Remnant Fellowship, were reportedly told by Shamblin to discipline Josef by beating him with glue sticks. Shamblin’s focus on discipline, leadership and headship reportedly pushed the Smiths over the edge, and they escalated the violence. Josef was found dead, with numerous wounds on his body.
Remnant Fellowship paid the couple’s legal fees and proclaimed their innocence in a bid to protect the church, but the Smiths were found guilty and, in 2003, were sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
Viewers may be aghast at this story, but the reality is, strict fundamentalist religiosity can twist up sincere people into following a charismatic leader full of their own authority and power. Members told stories about how their “disobedience” garnered excessive discipline and surveillance.
Remnant Fellowship is not an anomaly. Nxivm, the sex cult, that branded its members with a branding iron and, of course, Jim Jones and Jonestown are reminders that religion, no matter its focus, can be turned into a dangerous tool that leads people into situations where they and their families are in peril.
Many members of Remnant Fellowship reached out to the documentary producers to tell their stories, and it remains to be seen if the church, now led by Shamblin’s daughter Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah will survive its founder’s death. Strangely enough, whenever church members have died, Remnant makes almost no recognition of their death. Perhaps that is a way for them to avoid dealing with the reality that bodies, no matter how much you discipline them, will grow old and stop functioning. Whatever the case, "The Way Down” is a journey down into a religious subculture that may look good on the outside, but is, in reality, a dangerous trap.
CORRECTION (Nov. 2, 2021, 1:12 p.m. ET): A previous version of this articles misstated who aired the documentary “The Way Down.” It was HBO Max, not HBO.