Friday, May 22, 2015

Fear of Cults

Next week will see the debut of Aquarius, an NBC TV series modeled after the Manson family murders of the late 1960s.  While one would hope for a more sympathetic and ambiguous reading along the lines of that same channel's absolutely brilliant Hannibal, previews and early reviews indicate different with the focus mainly on a hard-nosed cop played by David Duchovny, who doesn't understand the (ugh) "Flower Generation", and his more sympathetic, younger partner who apparently thinks the kids are alright.  Let's hope this is the sugar pill to make the rest go down smoother, but leave it at that.

Concurrently, this week  indie superstar director Todd Haynes announced he's developing a far more promising series about the far more benign Source Family cult, known mostly for their vegetarian food and psychedelic music.  Both of these series however underscore a trend I've been noticing in recent years.  Mainstream culture seems oddly hung up on the idea of cults, which, in the 21st century is peculiar and anachronistic.  It's not that cults don't exist anymore, but their prevalence, particularly those operating in the apocalyptic faith-based way they're portrayed in these mediums, is far less momentous than it has been in decades.

Cults became a huge issue in the late 60s and the early 70s as children began deviating from the belief systems of their parents and adopting new ideas in new formations.  Communes and collectives, both spiritual and not, came and went with varying degrees of success, but their arrival signaled an overall dissatisfaction with the old order.  Manson, of course, was the first huge cult scare, but cult ideology of singular charismatic leaders with specific edicts and codes of induction began infiltrating its way into mainstream ideology by way of support groups and self-help/self-actualization communities, such as EST (as seen on the Americans) or Esalen (as seen on the final episode of Mad Men).

Mind control was only a concern insofar as cults could be seen to be operating on behalf of Soviet state powers.  Still, there was huge trepidation about cults due to the more political-styled terrorist organizations that operated like cults (Symbionese Liberation Army, Baader Meinhof, Weather Underground, et. al.) and that anxiety was, in part, paid off in the form of the People's Temple wherein Jim Jones horrifically encouraged his followers to commit mass suicide.  In recording captured during the last few hours in the Jonestown compound, Jones considered this a symbolic act, a moment of collective despair at a world that refused to listen to the poor and disadvantaged.  Which surely would've been powerful and hard to dismiss, had they not poisoned the fucking children too.

With the rise of the reactionary Christian Coalition and the evangelical movement, paranoia about cults rose to a fever pitch in the 80s as dozens of unmitigated lawsuits destroyed the lives of caretakers as community members rose against what they feared to be satanic cult ritual abuse in suburban daycare centers.  Cults seemed to fade from fashion to the fringes in the years that followed, but the 90s saw a resurgence of truly destructive activity with high body counts from the likes of the Branch Davidians, Solar Temple, and Heaven's Gate cults.

In the twenty years since then, the main cult of any major concern has been the Westboro Baptist Church, a proto-trolling group whose antics are more obnoxious than frightening.  So why, at this late hour, have cults come surging back into the popular consciousness?  In the past few years, cults have become a significant force on Helix, The Following, True Detective, Orphan Black, Game of Thrones, The Blacklist, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt*.  And those are just the ones I either watch or have had some interaction with.   Film seems to have not broached the subject too much, which can likely be explained away by the fact that Hollywood is more monolithic and remake-based than it has been at any point in its history, but it's notable to point out the fantastic Martha Marcy May Marlene (about a woman who escapes a cult),  The Master (about a relationship between an L.Ron-like guru and a sociopath who wants to belong but refuses to be stabilized), The Sacrament (an Eli Roth story that's apparently a stylized take on Jonestown), and Red State (whose antagonists are very thinly veiled takes on Westboro).

So, what gives?  Why at the moment of disaster capitalism, endless police brutality, cyberbullying, flying killer robots, omniscient surveillance states, corporate control and austerity, et al., does now seem the moment to make cults a thing?  There hasn't been a real cult tragedy in some time and in many ways the idea of physical community and union for outsiders has dissipated as online locales like Reddit seem to foster every known subculture from the safety and comfort of one's own home.

Beyond Westboro, whose numbers are small and whose support is negligible, but whose publicity is aggressive, a couple theories.

1. Prevalence of Scientology in the media/entertainment community has begun to backlash (re: recent parodies of the religion and the popularity of the HBO doc Going Clear)

2. Railing against cults is a safe, somewhat inoffensive way to rail against faith-based belief systems in general.  The rising New Atheism and anti-theism texts must surely be more popular reading material in Television boardrooms, than say heartland America.

3. Children of the 90s whose first experiences of collective trauma involved Koresh or Heaven's Gate are now growing up and processing those experiences

4. More speculatively, and perhaps more contentiously, a society that bows to the alter of the individual and particularly the self is scared of a 60s style splintering into new factions that may threaten the established order.  Cults are in essence the new Romero-style Zombie, a communality of thought that threatens to extinguish great men from being the single inheritors of history.  Or alternately, cult shows are threatened by any new thoughts at all.  Anything that doesn't pluck from the existing dustbin of history is obscene.  The ways social media is allowing those with shared experience and shared thought to instantaneously unite and challenge one another, for good or ill, is substantially a threat to a system that relies on social control as it main doctrine.

What are your thoughts?  Are there any other writings on why so many cults have been popping up on TV screens?

*Though Kimmy Schmidt is a comedy, it actually very maturely and honestly deals with the ramifications of abuse.  So much so, it could be considered the first PTSD or post-rape culture comedy.  

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