Columns > Published on June 11th, 2013

LURID: Boss Prophets - the Cult Narrative in Fact and Fiction

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

“Cult” has evolved into one of the most lurid words in the English language.  Blaring from a news headline, it conjures up salacious images of compound-dwelling polygamists, couch-jumping celebrities and creationist ex-cons embroiled in a rapture-inducing brew of sexual abuse, brainwashing, fraud, conspiracy and mass suicide.  Good times! The headlines have certainly delivered over the past few decades – the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, the FLDS, Forever Family and the Taliban have all generated ongoing drama for armchair voyeurs.  And there’s replay after replay available for our entertainment: gun down or imprison one self-proclaimed prophet, and many others pop up in their place. 

The word “cult” frames the narrative as a paradigmatic “Us and Them” story, ‘Us’ being the sane, sensible mainstream, ‘Them’ being the fools who’ve fallen for a power-hungry huckster’s self-serving lies. A group labeled as a cult is seen as an aberration, a perversion of acceptable belief systems. Its members are victims of indoctrination who must be rescued and returned to the one true path.  On one level, cult stories are all about downward comparison. We enjoy thinking we’re not dumb enough to drink the Flavor Aid.

Yet one person’s ‘cult’ is another’s ‘new religious movement’.  This more neutral phrase reverses the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’: ‘Us’ becomes we enlightened ones, brave and insightful enough to embrace a new truth and leave our old, delusional way of life behind. ‘Them’ becomes the suspicious, defensive mainstream, entrenched in sin that spells damnation, turning away from the light and refusing to be saved.  Throughout history, new religious movements have bubbled to the surface of the swamp of old ones — Judaism begat Christianity begat Islam — when small groups of believers took a leap of faith and threw their lot in with the new messiah in town, abandoning the incumbent.

One person’s ‘cult’ is another’s ‘new religious movement’...Throughout history, new religious movements have bubbled to the surface of the swamp of old ones...

These new messiahs are fascinating to both cult (or new religion) insiders and outsiders.  Religious movements often begin as the cult of a single charismatic personality, a silver-tongued storyteller with colossal self-esteem, and probably, a sex drive to match.  Often these characters have spent their formative years bouncing around on the wrong side of the law, failing at entertainment careers or ‘get rich quick’ schemes, unable to gain the traction, wealth and respect they think they’re entitled to by playing by established social rules.  When reality doesn’t conform to their lofty expectations they set out to create their own little world, and proclaim themselves king. 

They just wanna be adored, and will navigate a classic hero’s journey, begun in obscurity and ending in a blaze of glory – or infamy – to achieve that goal.  En route, there are plenty of thrilling adventures to be had – spreading the Word, accumulating loyal followers, conflicting with the established order, fleeing persecution, crying out in the wilderness, rooting out traitors, circumventing betrayal and finally building a glorious monument for the ages to come.  Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!  They’re repeating a pattern as old (at least) as Moses. It’s no wonder we find their stories so compelling.

"Lemme see here: frustrated rock musician with delusions of grandeur, armed to the teeth and ready to fuck anything that moves. That sounds like all of my friends in Austin.  I don’t know if this is going to be an isolated incident.” – Bill Hicks on David Koresh

As ever, the fact is stranger than the fiction.  Modern history is littered with some lurid examples of pre-prophet escapades.  Back in the 1820s, a poor farmer’s son named Joseph Smith ran a treasure hunting business in upstate New York.  He possessed a magical seer stone, which, when placed into a hat, was supposed to reveal to him the location of buried caches of gold.  Local landowners paid well for his revelations, but, after none resulted in the discovery of actual, verifiable treasure, they accused him of fraud.  In 1826 he was tried and found guilty of being “a disorderly person and an imposter”.  The verdict brought an abrupt end to his scrying career, and young Smith had to figure out another way of manifesting destiny.  Enter the angel Moroni and the golden tablets that would become the foundation of the Latter Day Saints’ beliefs.

In August 1945, an ex-naval officer named Lafayette Ronald Hubbard moved into the Pasadena mansion of his rocket scientist buddy, Jack Parsons.  Both men were fascinated by the occult writings of Aleister Crowley, and resolved to attempt a sex magick ritual known as the Babalon Working.  Their goal was to conceive (via an ‘elemental’) a Moonchild who would usher in a new era of Thelemic thinking.  They recruited a womb woman named Marjorie Cameron and got busy with their ‘magickal wands’.  Crowley did not take them seriously, and wrote to a friend in 1946: "Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these goats."  Nonetheless, Parsons and Hubbard persisted in some intense and kinky shenanigans, as outlined in Jack Carter’s in-depth study of their connection, Sex And Rockets.  Inevitably, it all turned sour, and Hubbard fled Pasadena with Parson’s girlfriend (Sara “Betty” Northrup) and most of the scientist’s life savings.  Broken, embittered, Parsons committed suicide in 1952, two years after Hubbard published the bestselling Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which became the basis for Scientology.

As a child, Jim Jones (founder of The People’s Temple) indulged in the unusual hobby of conducting funeral rites for dead animals.  The sheer number of dead animals raised a few eyebrows in the neighborhood, and he was suspected of stabbing the family cat.  As an adult he embarked upon a career as a door-to-door monkey salesman before parlaying his sales skills into preaching and establishing his rainbow family. Stewart Traill (the man behind the Forever Family/Church of Bible Understanding) was barely making ends meet as a vacuum repairman before he hit paydirt with the Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning Service, which was able to knock out the competition thanks to low overheads (Traill persuaded his followers to work for as little as $1 a day). 

Like David Koresh (or, as his bandmates knew him, Vernon Howell) Claude Vorilhon yearned for the kind of adoration heaped on popstars.  After Vorilhon failed to ignite Paris as a singer, he turned to publishing, but his car magazine, Auto Pop, folded after a year.  Undeterred, he declared himself “His Holiness Raël”, the son of an extra-terrestrial and claimed to be having meetings with his alien relatives atop a volcano, winning a lot of media attention, plus thousands of followers for his UFO religion and human cloning project, Raëlism. 

It’s not uncommon for a prophet to beat a path from the jailhouse to the pulpit.  Charles Manson served significant jail time, and was first sentenced to the federal reformatory at the age of 17.  By 1967, he had spent almost half his life in one penal institution or another.  He picked up a few tricks from his fellow convicts, including the persuasive techniques pioneered by L. Ron Hubbard, which came in very useful when recruiting for his Family.  In 1961 he ticked the ‘Scientologist’ checkbox on his arrest paperwork, although evidence suggests he’d abandoned that allegiance a few years later and was more interested in the philosophies of Scientology splinter group, the infamous Process Church of the Final Judgment.  Bubbles rising from the swamp…

Even clean-cut Marshall Applewhite (the Heaven’s Gate guru) had a criminal record.  He was doing well as a music professor and family man in the 1960s before he was fired for having a homosexual relationship with a student in 1970, and went into a tailspin.  Divorced, unemployed, suffering from mental illness, he hooked up with a nurse, Bonnie Lu Nettles, and the two of them became convinced they were the star witnesses to the imminent End Of The World.  They journeyed across America, running out on motel bills, attempting to unite others under their cause, until the long arm of the law caught up with them and Applewhite was jailed for six months for failing to return a rental car. His prison time, however, gave him the perfect peace and quiet to polish his doctrine, and he was much more successful at recruiting followers thereafter.

It’s arguable that a misspent youth (or, in Applewhite’s case, a mid-life crisis) is a vital element of any prophet’s magnetism.  There’s nothing as convincing as a born-again believer, who had to lose his way before he could find it.  And it’s also arguable that, deeper into history, the loyal followers of the prophets undertook the systematic whitewashing of their leaders’ shady pasts.  There’s a glaring eighteen-year gap in accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, for instance, between the ages of twelve and thirty.  Officially, he worked as a carpenter in the family business; after two thousand years of cover-up, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know if any awkward wild oats were being sown. Modern prophets must envy that level of anonymity – the Mobius strip of the Internet means that youthful indiscretions will always form a part of our adult presence.  Any new messiah coming of age today is going to have a lot of explaining to do to account for the sketchy musical tastes, moronic forum posts and sexting of their teenage years.

Founding a new religious movement takes more than an unshakeable belief that you’re the One Chosen to shepherd in Armageddon.  Once you’ve crafted your Message, you need to get it out to the masses.  You need followers. Lots of them.  Without obedient acolytes, you’re a lone nut, and might be more suited to a career as the kind of baroque serial killer whose signature mutilations double as End Times predictions (see: Dexter, Season 6).  

It’s probably easier to connect with like-minded disciples than you might think. While it takes a special kind of personality (and selection of personality disorders) to found a cult, evidence suggests that the rank-and-file followers are usually ordinary people, albeit those who may be at a lonely or otherwise vulnerable point in their lives.  Only a small proportion have a history of mental illness. They don’t start out as sheep. They start as intelligent, rational beings looking for answers, or feeling marginalized or even criminalized by existing belief systems.  If cult leaders are outliers, their followers are regular Joes and Josephines.

This supplies another fascinating strand to the cult narrative: what makes someone join?  And, once they’ve made that commitment, what keeps them buying into the prophecies and obeying the leader’s every command?  To the horror of their family and friends, cult members often undergo a drastic change in personality, losing touch with their old realities and redefining themselves according to their new beliefs.  Of course, living in geographical isolation on a compound communicating only with other believers, ceremonial chanting, disrupted sleep patterns, inadequate diet, enforced labor and brutal punishment for perceived disobedience (all standard mind control practices practiced by religions old and new) are enough to reprogram anyone.  Just ask the CIA.

It’s no surprise therefore that cults have proved fertile ground for some compelling, and very dark, fiction.  From Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out to Dean Koontz’s The Servants of Twilight to Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, a cult setting yields a juicy read.  Cults also make for a powerful screen story, as in last year’s indie hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, or the hit Fox TV show, The Following.  Part cautionary tale, part study in psychopathy, part sociological dissertation, they also tend to be horror stories, framed so that the only happy ending for a cult member is escape.

Elizabeth Hand offers a welcome female twist on the paradigm in her novel Waking The Moon.  Before there were gods there were goddesses, angry, destructive entities who demanded blood tribute in the form of human sacrifice.  Waking The Moon explores the return of one such ancient moon goddess, the Minoan deity known as Othiym.  Angered by the pollution meted out to Her planet, and the repression experienced by Her half of the human race, Othiym decides that Her hour must come again. She selects the fabulous Angelica as Her prophet when the girl is just nineteen years old, a student at the equally fabulous University of the Archangels and Saint John The Divine.  Angelica embarks upon a successful career as a spiritual guru and writer (her work includes The Nysean Fields and Amazons In America), recruiting followers from the ranks of disgruntled, marginalized and abused women from all over the world.  The story of her rise to power is told mainly through the eyes of Sweeney, Angelica’s fellow student, lover and friend, who bears witness to the strange events that spiral from the moment Angelica is given a beautiful, antique, moon-shaped necklace and end [almost] in Doomsday, decades later.  Hand’s lush language links ancient myths from Old Europe and the Mediterranean with modern New Age goddess beliefs to give Angelica’s cult rituals the ring of authenticity.  Given that existing religions (even the newer ones) tend to give short shrift to female worshippers, relegating them to the role of babymakers whose main contribution to affairs is to swell the ranks, it’s refreshing to read about a cult centered around women’s destructive, rather than reproductive, potential.

Pete Hautman’s Godless puts a biting YA spin on the business of starting a cult.  Fifteen year-old Jason Bock (a self-described “hulking, neckless creature” with major inner smarts but minor social skills) is fed up with attending the ‘Teen Power Outreach’ sessions run by his family’s Catholic church.  He likes to amuse himself by asking awkward questions and telling the well-meaning leader, Just Al, that he doesn’t believe in God.  When this fails to get enough of a reaction from Al, or to impress Magda Price, a cute TPO member with a similar sense of humor, Jason announces that he worships the Ten-Legged One, the water tower that dominates the skyline of their small town.  And why not?

"Think about it: What is the source of all life? Water.  Where does water come from? Water towers.  What is the tallest structure in most towns? The water tower.  What makes more sense – to worship a water tower or to worship an invisible, impalpable, formless entity that no one has seen since Moses?  And all he actually saw was a burning bush.”

 The idea takes root in his rebellious teenage consciousness (“Why mess around with Catholicism when you can have your own customized religion?”), and, like countless prophets before him, Jason decides to write his own rulebook.  He has no trouble appealing to a few other misfit teens, and before long there’s some holy-rolling going down.  But Jason discovers, like countless prophets before him, that disciples are very difficult creatures to control, and that belief systems can rapidly spiral out of control.  In one slim, simply written volume, Hautman slices to the core of what belief really is and how dangerous faith can be, especially when mixed with mental illness.  If Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great seems like too daunting a read, this is the book for you.

As long as people continue to seek answers to questions about life, death and what lies thereafter, and as long as they feel rebuffed or dissatisfied by mainstream religions, cults will continue to mushroom in dark corners.

Published earlier this year, Peter Rock’s pensive and lyrical novel, The Shelter Cycle, tells the story of Francine and Colville, who grew up in a nuclear-holocaust-fearing doomsday cult that peaked during the Cold War paranoia of the 1980s, the Church Universal and Triumphant.  Like Elizabeth Hand, Rock weaves his fiction between strands of fact, and his work is based on hours of interviews with members and former members of the Church. 

His protagonists spend their Reagan-era childhood amidst the Church’s construction of an elaborate underground network of fallout shelters in Montana.  The building work is overseen by the watchful eye of the Messenger, Elizabeth Prophet, a white-gowned seer in constant communication with the Ascended Masters.  She foretells the imminent arrival of terrible trials and suffering, which only the Keepers of the Violet Flame will survive, deep in their bunkers.  Many of her followers go bust stocking up on supplies for doomsday.  Unfortunately, the Messenger’s prophecies, like so many others, have a sell-by date, and, when the apocalypse fails to materialize (and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms becomes interested in the group’s fraudulent weapons purchases), her following falls apart and Francine’s and Colville’s families go their separate ways. 

In the present, a pregnant-to-bursting Francine reconnects with Colville, and tries to make sense of their unique shared legacy and what it means for her unborn child.  A series of significant coincidences (or signs and wonders, depending on how you read them) sends Francine on a journey back to her origins.  En route she visits the Messenger, who is now just another old lady suffering from Alzheimer’s, and undergoes something of a crisis of already-lost faith before she discovers that the magic and the passion of her childhood beliefs can never be entirely quenched.  The Shelter Cycle illustrates the truth of the old Jesuit maxim, “Give me the boy until he is seven years old and I will give you the man” and, admirably, avoids passing explicit judgment on the beliefs held by members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, which is still extant. 

Ultimately, however, true cult stories pack the most powerful punch.  There are shelves of books out there written from the perspective of cult survivors, from Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (based on extensive interviews with Paul Haggis and other apostates) to Escape, Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer’s account of fleeing the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS).  But sometimes it takes a curious outsider (one with no axe to grind for the lost years and former friends) to write with most insight.  In Under The Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer examines the bizarre and bloody origins of the Mormon Church, and explores how the Latter Day Saints splintered into fundamentalist groups, clinging grimly to their belief that a patriarch has a duty to “marry” dozens of teenage wives.  The FLDS outdo the Taliban when it comes to absolute obedience to their prophet, and the lurid goings-on in their closed communities in the Arizona and Utah wilderness make the book a must-read for anyone with an interest in the psychology of religion and herd thinking. 

Krakauer’s entry point into the story is the 1984 ritualistic killing of a young Mormon wife, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15 month-old daughter Erica.  Almost immediately, the police named their prime suspect as Ron Lafferty, Brenda’s oldest brother-in-law.  Ron was arrested in Reno a couple of weeks later, along with another brother, Dan, and they were both charged with murder.  Krakauer investigates the circumstances leading to the crime, from the brothers’ roots in the regular Mormon Church (which has a spotty history when it comes to violence and upholding Federal law) to their reasons for embracing fundamentalism.  After being excommunicated by their home church, the brothers found their extreme beliefs welcomed with open arms by theocratic FLDS communities in Mexico, Canada and the USA, and thus felt validated.  Brenda was one of the few people to express resistance to their ideas (particularly the concept that it was OK for the brothers to acquire more spiritual wives), so Ron believed God told him to get rid of her.  His brothers didn’t challenge him or warn Brenda, because they believed he was ‘One Strong and Mighty’, with a hotline to divine intention. This is the truly dark side of religious experience, the indulgence of all kinds of anti-social behavior (fraud, bigamy, theft, pedophilia, murder) because individuals believe it’s sanctioned by the holy voices in their head.

Cult narratives are as old as human history.  As long as people continue to seek answers to questions about life, death and what lies thereafter, and as long as they feel rebuffed or dissatisfied by mainstream religions, cults will continue to mushroom in dark corners.  And, as long as they do, the mainstream will continue to be shocked and intrigued by what goes on behind the chain links of the compound’s fences.

What are your favorite books about cults?

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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