The Eerie Pop Culture Appeal of Cults

I don’t know when I first became fascinated by cults, but I do remember exactly when I realized that what I’d thought of as a secretive and slightly shameful fascination—one that I didn’t voice to friends until I was in my thirties—was, in fact, shared by a lot of women I knew. It was when I began reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, the 2003 book that traces the schism between Mormonism and the fundamentalist splinter groups now known as Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, and I found myself in conversation after conversation with equally immersed female readers—at the library, on public transportation, at parties. As time went on, my coworkers knew that I could be counted on to cover any book or film about cults, and, by the time Facebook came around, my co-obsessives and I spent way too much time trading links to stories about Scientology scandals and Lululemon’s ties to the Landmark Forum. When an acquaintance actually tried to recruit me into a cult, I was weirdly excited about it, though not enough to actually fall for her sales pitch.

These days, I’m not at all surprised when I meet pop-culture-minded feminists who share this interest in cults. It feels less like a shameful, fringy quirk than it once did—in fact, judging by the amount of contemporary pop culture that turns on the axis of women, gender, and cults, our fascination has become thoroughly mainstream. 

This month brought us the Lifetime made-for-TV movie Manson’s Lost Girls, a soapy walk through well-trod Manson-family territory. 

The past couple of years have featured cult subplots on the critically revered TV series Mad Men and Orange is the New Black. The police procedural Aquarius, whose second season begins later this year, centers Charles Manson as the big game hunted by David Duchovny’s corrupt cop. In the Tina Fey–produced comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, an occasionally uncomfortable amount of laughs results from the title character’s escape from a doomsday cult housed in an underground bunker. Director Todd Haynes is reportedly working on a TV series about the Source Family, a California health-food cult whose too-weird-to-be-fiction story was the focus of a 2012 documentary. Emma Cline’s upcoming novel, called The Girls—which is based on, you guessed it, Manson’s women—is one of publishing’s most-hyped 2016 releases. And in film, there’s been a steady stream of both feature films and documentaries that look into cult life with credulity, cynicism, humor, and horror, sometimes all at once. 

But though cults come in all sizes and forms, there’s undoubtedly one narrative whose cultural currency trumps all others, and that’s the story of the guileless and innocent young woman, or women, taken in and warped by a charismatic male leader. It’s the story of Manson and the female acolytes who, even as they age into their seventies, are still referred to as girls. It’s the story of the thousands of FLDS women who, under prophets Rulon and then Warren Jeffs, were married off as prepubescents to men decades older while age-appropriate boys were cast out of compounds so as not to pose a threat. It’s the story of Shelly Miscavige, who grew up refilling L. Ron Hubbard’s drinks on board the floating Scientology center called the Apollo, married current Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, and hasn’t been seen for more than 10 years. 

There is an unavoidably gendered dimension to the way that we understand, discuss, and represent stories about cults and cult behavior. And that’s because so many of them take the form of outsized patriarchies whose entitlement to women’s minds, bodies, and freedoms are extreme versions of social systems we recognize and repudiate. And though contemporary cult narratives don’t often approach the visual luridness and gore of 1970s shock pics like Suspiria, The Wicker Man, and The Devils, the narrative of women as particularly vulnerable to and victimized by cults has become as unremarkable as it is disturbing. 

In the third-season episode of Orange is the New Black that traced the backstory of silent, mystical kitchen worker Norma, anyone with even a passing familiarity with cult tropes knew that, as soon as a young and flower-crowned Norma kissed her new guru-slash-husband, the camera would pull back to reveal a line of beaming young women marrying the same groom.

In the scene from the Source Family documentary in which the group’s leader, Father Yod, marries one disciple, you know it won’t be long before she’s joined by a baker’s dozen more. In the cascading series of scandals that unfolded within Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church was the revelation that the family-focused Moon preyed on young women under the guise of “purification.” The media coverage of Waco’s doomed Branch Davidians, whose 1993 standoff with the FBI ended in bullets and flames, focused heavily on the sexual appetite of leader David Koresh, including his wish to have 60 wives and an additional harem of 80 women. And the revolting kicker of Prophet’s Prey, the recent documentary about now-imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, is an audio recording of Jeffs “consummating” his “marriage”—and I say both those words with the heaviest of air quotes—to a 12-year old on a ceremonial temple bed. 

A definite salaciousness tends to characterize media and pop culture representations of cults. The writer Rachel Monroe, who shadowed a group of Manson bloggers and wrote about it for an upcoming issue of The Believer, points out that Charlie’s girls had tooth decay, venereal diseases, and a general grottiness that came with the territory. Yet the prurient subtext in cult narratives like theirs is, “Wow, this guy got to sleep with all these foxy, gullible women, he really knew what he was doing with this cult thing.” It’s a formula that heightens long-tolerated beliefs about gender, power, and psychology, beliefs that, not coincidentally, sell. There’s a reason that almost no stories of cults led by women become pop-culture touchstones, even though they exist. Without a passel of sexy or simply suggestible young women to anchor the story, a cult becomes infinitely scarier, and far less entertaining. 

The pop culture primacy of the male guru/female disciple—or, less kindly, the con man and the female dupe—can make you forget that men have historically been victims of cults and their leaders. The Jonestown massacre was the story that first fired my fascination with cults, but it wasn’t until seeing a 2006 documentary that I learned that Jim Jones made a habit of sexually humiliating and abusing male as well as female followers to test their loyalty. Brent Jeffs, a nephew of Warren Jeffs, describes in Prophet’s Prey the horror of being walked to the basement of the compound’s makeshift elementary school and raped by his uncle. And, then and now, the media’s overweening focus on Manson’s unrepentant female acolytes all but erased the men who also murdered for him.

Why are so many women compelled by these tales of male wish-fulfillment driven to dig deeper even when what we find is invariably unsettling? There are some self-evident theories. For nonreligious people, the possibility of feeling fed, or healed, or transformed by a belief system is intriguing, even if that belief system is organized around aliens or comets or sex magick. The sense of connection to others is also an obvious lure, the same desire to feel like a necessary part of a larger system that brings people to teams and sororities and activist groups.

But I also wonder if the appeal of cult stories to women in particular has something to do with the anxiety of contemporary expectations around success, happiness, and choice. Choice, especially, is a word that in so many ways has come to stand in for feminism itself, and women are reminded every day how lucky so many of us are to have choices that generations of women only dreamed of. And yet, the anxiety and even fear of having those choices is very real—more choices means more chances to make the wrong ones.  What if you were sure that you’d found exactly the right path? What if you knew beyond all doubt that you were with the right people, learning from the right leaders, becoming the person that you were meant to be? Cults, with their unequivocal, black-and-white beliefs, offer that, for better and worse. 

Or, alternately, is consuming these stories a way to challenge their obvious male wish-fulfillment? Listening and learning the lines and the tells of thought reform and groupthink is a kind of psychic insurance policy; if we know how cults work, we won’t be weak or gullible enough to fall for the florid promises of a self-described messiah. Instead of thinking “That could have been me,” we can think “That would never be me.” 

Or maybe it’s simply that cult narratives are reliable. When almost every new day brings some fresh hell to our newspapers and Twitter feeds, knowing that cult stories will keep doing exactly what they do can be a soothing pop culture reprieve. Their characters and trajectories, disillusionments and hypocrisies aren’t rewarding, exactly, but they are familiar. And somewhere out there, amid the horrors of uncertainty and injustice, we’re connected, we cult cultists, by the devils—or the messiahs—we know. 

This essay is part of our Popaganda podcast episode on cults. Listen to the whole episode below. 

by Andi Zeisler
View profile »

Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

0 Comments Have Been Posted

Add new comment