What Pop Culture’s Obsession With Cults Says About Us

At a time when our nation’s most vile ideological seeds are in full bloom, it makes sense that we are returning to some of the ugliest moments in our collective history.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

2018 is quickly shaping up to be the year of the cult. While the apocalyptic news cycle will doubtlessly trigger an increase in doomsdayers, we’re not talking about actual cults so much as their fictional portrayals. On Jan. 18, Paramount Network is planning to ring in the new year with Waco, a limited series about the Branch Davidian compound that found itself in a nearly two-month standoff with law enforcement officials in 1993. The six-part event stars Taylor Kitsch as leader/self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, because Texas is forever. And in June a separate Waco project was announced; a movie scripted by Zero Dark Thirty’s Mark Boal and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.

Also in 2018, Quentin Tarantino will take on the Manson Family murders in a new film. While no stars have been announced for the project yet, it’s been reported that Margot Robbie and Jennifer Lawrence are on the short list of potential Sharon Tates, and that Tarantino has already written the script.

Cults are an eternal engine of pop culture content, like a superhero movie that doesn’t need to be remade or a classic franchise gender swap. Still, it’s easy to see why these stories are gaining even more traction in 2018. Uniquely American horror stories serve to remind us that unspeakable evil is no new trend. At a time when our nation’s most vile ideological seeds are in full, undeniable bloom, it makes sense that we are returning to some of the ugliest moments in our collective history, reacquainting ourselves with the dark undersides of our oft-idealized past.

The cult is a bubble; inside, cult members believe that they are right, that they are fulfilled, and that they have finally found the answer. From the outside looking in, we’re left to wonder how “normal people” could have possibly been deluded into accepting zany pseudo-religious doctrines and violent edicts as gospel. For those of us looking to be vaguely unsettled by the content we consume, cults are the perfect topic. The strongest draw is the cult leader, a person who is quite literally defined by their ability to captivate. This charisma overpowers prison walls and lasts decades, drawing us deeper and deeper into the stories of these master manipulators, at once disgusted and on the edge of our seats.

Then there are the followers. Less superficially entertaining but with the potential to keep you up at night, the followers are fascinating in spite of themselves. It’s their everydayness—suburban daughters, middle class sons, historical footnotes that have more or less faded into obscurity—that makes us wonder what, if anything, we would have done differently. After all, the qualities that define a cult follower are—unlike the psychopathy that usually marks a leader—scarily commonplace: insecurity, addiction, loneliness, a desire to find meaning and to be loved. Finding themselves at the wrong place in the wrong time, these followers were used and discarded; jailed, left behind, or forgotten.

In Cults, a new podcast from the co-hosts of the popular Serial Killers, cult followers are finally given their due consideration. These mysterious figures, often both victims and criminals, are re-inserted into the narratives that their charismatic leaders created and usurped. Naturally, the podcast establishes itself by telling the story of the Manson Family, the most infamous cult in the United States. It’s an ambitious task, in good part due to all the competition. Tarantino’s upcoming film is only the latest in a long line of Manson coverage and content. Most recently, Emma Cline’s bestselling debut novel The Girls tackled the interiority of a peripheral Manson family follower with flowery prose, seeking to shed light on the web of motives and desires that might ensnare a teenage girl in a psychopath’s murderous machinations. For anyone looking to revisit the Manson Family in a more plainspoken manner, there’s Cults.

Like The Girls, Cults is preoccupied with Manson’s followers—the young men and women who flocked to Manson and offered up their bodies and minds as murder weapons. In addition to tracking these lesser known individuals from their indoctrination to the present day, co-hosts Greg Polcyn and Vanessa Richardson spend a good deal of time parsing through Manson’s psychological techniques. According to the hosts’ extensive research, the infamous cult leader’s particular brand of mind control was patched together during various stints in prison and reform school. By the time he was 20, Manson already had an extensive criminal history, with a propensity for stealing cars and money. All of 21 years old and in prison, he was taught by pimps “how to single out vulnerable girls.” Tips included “isolate the woman,” “convince her that you’re the only one who truly loves her,” and “beat her.” He also studied Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. His biggest takeaway? Carnegie’s advice to “let the other fellow feel the idea is his.”

During a later prison stint, Manson studied Scientology and learned “additional ways to manipulate others.” As a cult leader, quickly accruing male and female followers to add to his so-called Family, Manson also relied heavily on bastardized versions of Christianity and hippie ideology. Having moved to San Francisco during the “Summer of Love,” Manson convinced his girlfriend to practice “free love”—which, in this case, meant collecting a retinue of young women to follow Manson and sexually service him and his friends. He also mirrored his religious upbringing, insisting that women in the family should always be subservient to men.

Polcyn and Richardson follow Manson from his lonely, troubled childhood to the night of the Tate murders, Aug. 8, 1969, piecing together a portrait of a manipulative man and a turbulent time. The Manson Family’s deconstructed story reveals interwoven threads: Manson’s love of the Beatles, his belief that “Helter Skelter” was a prophetic text for the upcoming race war, his insistence that The Family would survive the inevitable Black Panther-led bloodshed to become the last white people on earth. It was in the hopes of igniting this racialized reckoning that Manson ordered his followers to go out and kill, betting that the cops would suspect the Black Panthers, thus triggering mass violence.

A story as grotesquely cinematic as this one doesn’t demand an Oscar-worthy performance or gallons of fake blood. The events of that night, presented in their entirety, are already gripping enough. That they’re being recounted by two deep-voiced radio pros makes the experience even eerier. Polcyn and Richardson’s expansive discussion of Manson’s history and psychology tightens into a matter-of-fact timeline, recounting how Sharon Tate and her friends’ evening was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of four knife-wielding cultists. The episode walks us through each plea, each order, and each stab wound; led by a male follower, the three women whom Manson chose for the crime didn’t know until they arrived at the house that night that they’d be ordered to kill every man, woman, and unborn child inside.

Polcyn and Richardson’s new podcast has also tackled the Heaven’s Gate UFO Cult, the Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettle-led group that shocked the world with a 1997 mass suicide—39 members dead in the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil. These two stories are a fitting starting point, with deeper connections beyond the “cult” categorization. Both the Manson Family and the Heaven’s Gate believers were duped by leaders who fashioned themselves as religious prophets, with a singular knowledge of a better world to come. Both of these cults asked members to sacrifice their lives, either literally or with life in prison sentences. These two extremes—murder and suicide—are obviously the worst-case cult scenarios, as well as the two outcomes most likely to make headlines.

The podcast medium allows for the perfect mix of entertainment and edification, somewhere between an academic dissertation and a ghost story. Like all the best podcasts, Cults leaves the listener both amused and self-satisfied, armed with interesting anecdotes to unleash at a party or on a morbid first date. Cults has the same aftertaste as a particularly successful Wikipedia deep dive—informed, disturbed, and desperate for more.