Think about the concept of cults — the decades of stories we’ve heard about seductive recruitment techniques and destructive power plays — and the concept might seem like something separate from everyday life. But perhaps, thanks to an influx of new narratives of late, we’re finally processing the danger of cult-like power in all aspects of life. From modern politics where followers turn a blind eye to their leaders’ propaganda, to revelations of how victims of sexual harassment and assault have been kept quiet, it’s all too clear that fear, lies, and silence aren’t the only tools used by those who might abuse their power over others.
These elements make for fascinating scripted stories as well as documentaries, as seen when recent programs like Netflix’s “Wild, Wild Country,” Paramount Network’s “Waco,” and Hulu’s “The Path” have explored cults and their powerful leaders. But it’s not just entertainment fodder: Take the insane real-world story of Nxivm, which first began circulating as rumor before exploding across the pages of the New York Times and other reputable outlets. The group was launched into notoriety after reports that its disciples were being branded with the initials of Keith Rainere, the cult’s ostensible leader, in secret ceremonies.
Nxivm was without a doubt a jaw-dropping mess of scandal already, and then the weirdest part came out: A key member, rumored to be Rainere’s second-in-command, was Allison Mack, best known for playing Clark Kent’s best friend Chloe on the popular Superman prequel series “Smallville.” Mack is now under house arrest for the federal crimes of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and forced labor conspiracy, after having been alleged to have indoctrinated other vulnerable young women, including other sci-fi actresses, into the cult, including “Battlestar Galactica’s” Nicki Clyne.
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Up until Mack’s official arrest, all of the photos accompanying stories of her involvement in Nxivm were photos of the actress drawn from press events; in them, she stands against a step-and-repeat advertising various shows and brands, a sunny smile across her face. The disconnect between Allison Mack, fan favorite actress, and Allison Mack, sex trafficker, has attracted no shortage of interest.
Yet while the details of Nxivm are outrageous, there’s an underlying feel to the story that should not be ignored, because of how it reflects such an important aspect of modern life which we’ve seen emerge in real life, fiction, and the blend between the two.
“Cult” is an easy word to throw around; cinephiles are used to doing it casually, thanks to a genre of film best defined as “extremely popular among small groups,” AKA “cult films.” But there’s a difference between the folks who go see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” every Saturday at midnight and those who abandon all their worldly possessions to follow an alleged prophet’s new movement… right?
Technically, of course, the answer is yes, at least to a level of degrees, and we can look to pop culture for proof of that. There’s been a rise in these stories lately; in the last nine months, besides “Wild, Wild Country,” “Waco,” and “The Path,” the latest season of “American Horror Story” looked at this topic, and the upcoming “Strange Angel” on CBS All Access will explore not just scientist Jack Parsons’ interest in rocket science, but in “black magic” and the secret groups which practiced it in the 1930s and 40s.
There’s an awe that comes from consuming stories about cults that has a “well, that could never happen to me” vibe. But there are degrees to everything, levels of susceptibility within us all. Take for example the recent story of Superstar Machine, ostensibly a New York-based self-help group for women that former members described as having a cult-like atmosphere, one where they were told to pay hundreds of dollars a month for enlightenment, with the catch that their lives and actions would be closely monitored and controlled. More than one testimonial noted that the women who joined this group were in vulnerable places in their lives, and subjected themselves willingly to harsh words and emotional manipulation from the group’s leader.
This might feel familiar to TBS’s “Search Party” fans. In Season 1, as they track down the missing Chantal, Dory (Alia Shawkat) and her friends sneak into a “sinister ceremony,” believing that the group might have some connection to Chantal’s disappearance. We only get a bit of a taste of the group’s activities, but the verbal abuse that Edwin (Tunde Adebimpe) dishes out during the ceremonial dinner, followed by the mysterious yet unsettling events that follow said dinner, makes it clear that the women and men who have gravitated together here are operating from a vulnerable place.
What stories about cults — real and fictional — offer us is enlightenment. Not the promise of spiritual enlightenment, but an understanding of how someone that might be considered ostensibly “normal” might get sucked into a new realm of belief. What these narratives reveal is a transaction: power in exchange for belonging. And on a fundamental level that extends from moving to a commune to a toxic relationship, just by a matter of degrees.
After all, the process of indoctrination begins with promises: A better life, a better self, answers to impossible questions, the ability to gain control over what makes us feel powerless, whether that means feeling like you have no purpose in life or feeling like a loser because you don’t have a date on Friday night. Those promises, though, so often end up broken, though what comes in exchange is a lack of doubt in yourself, in your circumstances.
Keep this concept in your mind while you look at the day’s news, and you’ll be confronted by a thousand examples of times when men in power used it over women who didn’t know how to fight back, didn’t think they could, or were afraid to do so. It’s every story of abuse that’s out there, to some degree, from the U.S. Gymnastics team to R. Kelly’s captive women to Harvey Weinstein in a bathrobe and so many more. Because yes, these stories are often about men exerting their authority over women, especially the young and vulnerable. The girls and women who don’t think they have any power to say “no,” and the men who don’t think they need to hear a “yes.”
As the shouts of #MeToo rise in volume, as figures like Rose McGowan grow bold about noting the ways in which the power structures of Hollywood have a cult-like aspect, the idea of “yes” vs. “no” has changed in a fundamental way. Doing so should not lead to advocacy for anarchy, necessarily, but instead self-reflection, an understanding of the prisons to which we’ve submitted willingly. Sometimes, therapy or a good self-help group can help with this.
But other times, seeing the most shocking examples of these stories in action, whether they be documentaries, tales of fiction, or the daily news, are a genuine public service — just so long as we have the bravery to not say “that could never happen to me,” and instead ask, “has it already happened?”