Cults tend to exist on the fringes of society, operating in spaces that bend the meaning of fact and urban legend. All too often, however, they find themselves under the microscope by mainstream media, whose uncanny obsession and contagious curiosity spans myriad mediums and across multiple decades. In more recent years, that interest has certainly piqued, particularly with the rise of Netflix, who continues to evolve their true crime content with the return of their critically acclaimed series Mindhunter.
After being on hiatus for nearly two years, the hit show has a welcomed return as series creator Joe Penhall and director/executive producer David Fincher profile some of America’s most storied psychopaths, including the Son of Sam and Charles Manson. It remains to be seen if the series will attempt to humanize Manson, but Damon Herriman will once again play the cult leader after appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. Once again, Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany are reprising their roles as special agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, respectively.
The discourse surrounding Manson and the Family hasn’t “ceased to exist” since that hot August night in 1969, which saw the untimely deaths of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, and Voytek Frykowski at the hands of the aforementioned group. The incident sparked endless reports of sensationalized news, true crime books, movies, and TV shows, making it quite apparent the American press saw an opportunity to capitalize on one of the most infamous, repulsive, and (sadly) legendary murders in our history.
Ethical implications aside, the media has provided a mouthpiece for these monsters because of an inherent public interest with cults and cult leaders alike. With portraits of serial killers, ghouls, or goblins, we see a bit of ourselves in these figures, whether it be fear, or curiosity. While there are many motivations for diving into this world, there’s a wealth of analytics to mine, characters to develop, and depths of human psychology to uncover that extends well past the television screen and into audience perception.
In other words, it’s a thinly veiled Rorschach test.
But the word “cult” is a malleable term that functions in multiple ecosystems; from pagan rituals where festival-goers dance around the maypole, to the Helter Skelter of it all, there’s a spectrum of depictions to be uncovered. However, pop culture tends to homogenize the term. “Cults are always portrayed as a place to be escaped,” says University of Houston’s Dr. Garth Jowett, author of Movies as Mass Communication and co-author of Propaganda and Persuasion. “There’s rarely, if ever, a depiction that doesn’t have a negative connotation.”
Despite the visceral nature of cultish acts portrayed in films like this summer’s Midsommar, or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, or Ti West’s Jim Jones-esque spectacle The Sacrament, what’s actually going on under the surface is completely cerebral. Instead, these films tend to focus on a leader whose key focus is to penetrate the minds of their prospective and current followers. There’s a level of trust each figurehead attempts to ascertain by creating a mirror image of themselves projected onto the weak and wounded.
Essentially, their words act as propaganda to trap their victims as the creeping feeling of vulnerability sinks in for the viewers. “Could this be me? I could be the one whose head gets covered in bees.” In these spaces, relying on polite social norms spells the beginning of the end. Take a look at 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby: The Satanist cult in Roman Polanski’s thriller literally lay deviled eggs into poor Mia Farrow until she is tortured into oblivion, and they find justification and purpose by serving a higher power. But really, the only crime Rosemary committed was being a good neighbor; cult members don’t get their way by bludgeoning you over the head, they exploit those who are alone and trusting.
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Donna Copeland sat down to discuss the level of authenticity, or lack thereof, in psychological depictions on-screen. “Films, in general, tend to get psychology wrong,” she says. These mental afflictions don’t fit neatly into one category. There’s a level of complexity that largely gets ignored.” In our conversation, she went on to revere Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which features the titular protagonist (Elizabeth Olsen) grappling with the ramifications of fleeing from a cult and its tyrannical leader (John Hawkes). The film highlights a counter-culture that appears keen on liberating wayward youth, only to become a hellscape of abuse, ultimately proving that your body may leave these places, but freeing your mind is seemingly impossible.
On the outside, the hippy movement is a similar carefree space where rudderless individuals congregate. And despite being light on its feet, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood showed how potentially dangerous a group of people like “The Family” can be when they’re under the influence of a nefarious leader. It’s a strange thought to think that Manson and similar men recruited these people, but it was recruitment in every sense of the word. As Jowlett explains, “These groups appeal to people who don’t normally have a valid support group, or they feel alienated from friends, family, and the world as a whole. They see this lifestyle as a faux family and are willing to put up with all sorts of nonsense to be part of something larger.”
Not every cult on screen amasses a large following; take a look at Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale. The film portrays a fancy hotel, whose shine is starting to wear off with the emergence of a counterculture that’s first represented by a young, detached woman in Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny), and then later by the infectiously enigmatic Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who’s searching for a missing member of his flock. And because he’s Chris Hemsworth, Lee looks more like a wavy, gravy spiritual guide on his way to a Grateful Dead show than a cultist. It’s a clever bit of casting given the amount of influence that surrounds his cult of personality both on and off-screen.
But it also informs the themes of the film. When looking through the prism of fiction, it’s easy to see why one would want to follow around a barefoot, half-buttoned guy like Lee. After all, in the real world, cult leaders who have the ambition to manipulate also happen to possess an inflated sense of self. “This is an inferiority complex,” argues Jowett. “These individuals come from disparate and strange backgrounds. Once they realize they have an ability to influence people who are mentally weak, it goes to their head. The term megalomaniac comes to mind.” It’s that bloated sense of ego, though, that attracts a wealth of followers, who are all searching for an idealized version of themselves.
They just call it a community.
Even so, it’s understandable that not every leader is going to have the same eye-popping aesthetic as Chris Hemsworth. These people—mostly men, as far as the cinematic medium is concerned — manage to articulate eclectic forms of bravado. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) rests upon his pseudo-intellectual prowess for recruitment purposes. (Of course, under the covers, he’s just a blowhard filibustering the conversation around his own work that purposefully parallels L. Ron Hubbard’s book, Dianetics.) Our story with Dodd involves an obstinate, at times perverse, maritime man named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s ready to burst apart at the seams. For Dodd, if he can convert Freddie into his convent, then it could prove he is truly is the titular “master.”
Unlike some of the most sensationalized portrayals of self-appointed gurus, Anderson is indeed searching for humanity and opening the discussion with a well-rationed quest for enlightenment. At the film’s core, it’s a relationship between two troubled men who are in love with their own ego. Film characters like Lancaster Dodd would revel in the media spotlight, a way to tout his message to the masses as if he’s a savior. “The ‘man on the white horse’ is a term I used to articulate the appearance of somebody who has the charisma to convince these people they have the answers to all their problems,” says Jowett. Unlike many spiritual leaders, Dodd had his own bible of information to cull from despite being full of bologna.
The power of mainstream media influence is undeniable, from the newscasts we see everyday, to the individuals who are graced with political power. We think of figures in the contemporary landscape who are influencers anointed by 280 characters, or a single sponsored photo. This is shaky ground by today’s standards, and can easily become a toxic barrage that indoctrinates a group of people. However, this conceit is nothing new as shown in Elia Kazan’s A Face In the Crowd, which features a young Andy Griffith playing a roguish drifter appointed as an on-air personality by a radio producer. He skyrockets to stardom by going on television and saying strange phrases like, “I’m not just an entertainer, I’m an influencer, a wielder of opinion, a force,” all with a conflated sense of self that, in turn, makes him a menace to society at large.
“[A Face in the Crowd] shows how the utilization of media can be weaponized into turning somebody into an important figure,” says Jowett, words that should send shivers down our spines today, especially for Americans. But even from that logline alone, the timeless nature of the film is apparent; the responsibility of an unbiased source isn’t just ideal, but necessary for the safety of humanity. All too often, the media sidesteps that commitment, and the coverage itself turns into weaponry. Think about all the stereotypes the media has had a hand in guiding: New Orleans can’t escape its public predisposition to voodoo; Waco, Texas will always be known for the siege that took down David Koresh’s sex cult (just by even saying “Waco”); and the term “drinking the Kool-Aid” is now a permanent part of the cultural lexicon.
Not surprisingly, the media’s portrayal of the occult is vastly different across the pond. In America, we have internalized fears that have the ability to turn puritanical; we see this projected into the horror genre time after time. In the United Kingdom, however, their paranoias are placed within more traditional practices. “The notion of fear in films made with British sensibilities tends to be rooted in witchcraft that goes back to the ancient times of the Druids,” says Jowett, “where the American take is always sex and violence, which is what we know to be modern cultism.” He’s not wrong, and you can see his theory in action through European gems like Night of The Demons, Suspiria (both the original and the remake), and, of course, the aforementioned The Wicker Man. Then again, some films manage to blend the two sensibilities — like Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
At times, creators actively engage with audiences within their work, a bridge between allowing interpretation and merely sensationalizing the occult. Fincher’s Zodiac is a marriage of inviting analysis from his audience and how that meshes with the media’s intentions. Filled with facts, and assumptions, the story of The Zodiac Killer struggles to discover what’s real, what’s fake, and what is merely a digression looking to throw you down another flight of stairs and on to a completely separate jigsaw puzzle.
The characterization of cryptologist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) draws upon our own macabre fascinations with enigmatic figures, driven to the brink of psychosis as he analyzes who is behind the mask, and if there are any motivations. The key is in the interpretation and Fincher critiques the machine altogether. Both have their place, and can be an exhilarating experience, but the truth is, nothing is a foregone conclusion as we struggle to find our place within the narrative. Who’s to say which voice will ring true, the artist weaving a narrative, or our own diluted diagnoses searching for meaning. The notion itself can be applied to any film discussed here.
That’s ultimately why the media tethers itself to cults and their narratives. No matter how over the top their stories may be, they traditionally revolve around the universal theme of finding oneself. And while you might never follow a leader to a secluded ranch in Southern California, or be sacrificed to a Pagan god at a Swedish festival, that feeling of wanting to belong will always be palpable. In the end, we’re all in search of a path, and all too often, the path to our own innate fears can be found within these horrific depictions. It’s just up to us to use these dark tales as a cathartic experience to find our own semblance of community. In that sense, we’re all united.