Cults are creepy AF and I can’t get enough

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Earlier this year I had an epiphany while driving around listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Zealot. It was the episode in which host Jo Thornely covered the atrocities of Canadian cult leader Roch Thériault, your run-of-the-mill sexual sadist/Jesus wannabe who led an Ontario group called the Ant Hill Kids. His story felt eerily familiar in a way I couldn’t place, until a particularly violent detail triggered my memory of watching that same scene in a terrible TV movie I can never forget.

I was 10 or 12 years old, and I remember that I was staying home from school on a weekday for an unusual reason, either a holiday break or a stomach bug. The moral of the story is that I should’ve been in school, because I ended up turning to the Lifetime Channel and tuning into a movie called Savage Messiah

Bottom line: Don’t watch this movie, but do listen to the podcast. 

Ultimately this selection was a little too violent for my child sensibilities, and some particularly graphic torture scenes were burned into my brain for a long time after. Like that time I watched Silver Bullet as an elementary school child, I haven’t really been the same since. I wonder if this incidental exposure might be part of why I’m a murderino today. 

Maybe it’s just my hangover from Halloween, but lately I feel like stories about cults are everywhere, even in Riverdale if you can believe it.  The thing is, I’m kind of…into it?

Current dynamic.

Lately I’m trying to keep the fear alive by sifting through my watch list for cult-centric selections. (Except for Wild Wild Country, I did my best to get through all the episodes but I just didn’t love it, sorry!

Here’s how I’ve been getting my cult fix.

Apostle

Lately I’ve felt tempted to re-watch The Crucible, but this movie kind of scratched my itch for a Salem witch trials-type story, even after watching Sabrina and listening to the Unobscured podcast (which I wholeheartedly recommend, especially if you like Lore).

Apostle came out a few weeks before Halloween, alongside many warnings that it is GORY. Naturally, I made the bold decision to read lots of spoilers and reviews beforehand so I could withstand a viewing by myself. Did it help? Well…

Feel free to cover your eyes throughout. I sure did…

Honestly I wasn’t sure what gore level to expect, but I figured watching this movie could be my warm-up for the return of Outlander. (Important disclaimer/spoiler: It was pretty fucking gnarly and I struggled to eat shredded chicken immediately afterward.) 

If you’re looking for a gorefest horror movie, Apostle totally fits the bill. Better yet, with its vaguely puritanical rule, the isolated island community at the center of the story also meets Jo Thornely’s cult criteria because it has:

  • A charismatic leader
  • Who systematically weakens his followers
  • And has rules prohibiting sex between followers
  • within their isolated commune.

Mix in a little bit of The Alienist and Annihilation, and that about sums up the movie! (And if you need more culty Netflix finds, look right this way.)

Martha Marcy May Marlene

This movie is another casual Karen recommendation that I jotted down while listening to My Favorite Murder. And much like Thériault’s cult, I simply cannot fathom how anyone could look at the group depicted in this film and think, “Wow, sign me up.” This nameless collective is sort of a sad, hungry Manson Family rip-off like in The Girls, but they’re also not entirely unlike the rock-worshipping sadomasochist commune featured in the second season of The Sinner.

In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen plays a young woman named Martha who loses her identity upon joining a small religious group, even accepting the new name of “Marcy May” when she decides to live on their commune and adhere to their beliefs. (One of her fellow initiates is played by actress Julia Garner, who has been working her ass off lately [Maniac, Ozark] and suffered at the hands of another egomaniacal cult leader already this year in Waco.)

As Martha accepts the advances of (yet another) creepy, long-haired, middle-aged, guitar-playing cult leader, she wrestles with guilt over her role in victimizing other women who were brought into the cult after her. This question of the culpability of victims was also a central theme in:

Uncover: Escaping NXIVM

In this CBC podcast, documentarian Josh Bloch investigates self-help group NXIVM after running into his childhood friend Sarah Edmondson, who tells him she just escaped the group upon discovering it was actually a cult. Through interviews with Sarah and others connected to the secretive organization, Josh investigates the allegations that NXIVM is a pyramid scheme and a sex trafficking ring orchestrated to serve the group’s leader, Keith Raniere.

After the story about NXIVM broke earlier this year, Josh kept tabs on Sarah and her family in the aftermath of their separation from the group. Most interestingly, as Sarah came to terms with what had happened to her, Josh pressed her to consider her culpability for recruiting others into the group. 

It’s an important question to consider: Are we responsible for the lies we tell others, even when we don’t know that they are lies?

Deprogrammed

After spending so much time in cult worlds, I decided to taper off with help from a documentary that Karen had mentioned in an MFM episode about another cult.

The whole concept of deprogramming, developed by OG practitioner Ted Patrick, is some fascinating psychology. In the same way that predators groom their victims, cult leaders can “program” followers to accept certain beliefs, boundary violations or whatever other crazy stuff behooves them. So it makes sense that to fully extricate someone from a cult, you have to help them recognize and break down the false beliefs that keep them under the group’s control.

The bountiful vintage source footage from the ’70s  = anthropological gold.

Come to Deprogrammed for the first-person accounts of cult life, but stay for the footage and photos of 1970s Christian cult peoplehot damn what a mess. As much as their suffering in the name of Jesus inspires my curiosity, personally I’d hold out for a belief system that’s a bit more fantastical, preferably involving aliens.

I joke but frankly guys, I could be swayed. If there’s an empty threadbare cot for me at an outdoorsy commune where I can try my hand at yoga and farming and cheesemaking or some other crafty rejection of capitalist society, hit me up.

P.S. If you want to learn more about cults, check out Thornely’s debut book with me.

Are you into cults? What culty movies, books or podcasts have you enjoyed?

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