The topic of cults has been a perennial theme for horror filmmakers. Movies like The Wicker Man (1973), Suspiria (1977), and Children of the Corn (1984) all have used some form of cultic organization as the basis of their stories. This post is the first in a series that will take a look at the use of cults in horror movies.
What is a Cult?
The word “cult” has taken on a derogatory connotation, but the neutral and positive meanings remain. Who wouldn’t want to have a cult following or watch cult classic movies? It’s when we venture into theological and sociological meanings that things turn negative. That’s particularly the case with “destructive” cults.
A destructive cult is (according to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., as quoted on cultdefinition.com) has the following three markers:
- a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
- a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
- economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
While they lead to abominable results in the real world, these characteristics also make for excellent plot drivers in horror movies.
An Example: A Horror Movie Based on a Real-World Cult
Ti West’s The Sacrament bowed at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Produced by Eli Roth, the film is a found-footage “mockumentary.” Its basic story outline comes from the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. Thus it has the easiest fit with the “dangerous cult” definition.
Like Jim Jones’ real-life People’s Temple Agricultural Project, Eden Parish is the site of a cult that’s both theological and sociological. A theological cult “identifies itself as belonging to a mainstream, recognized religion — and yet rejects or otherwise violates one or more of the central, essential teachings of that religion.” If a group or movement acts in ways that are illegal or otherwise unacceptable in a civilized society, it might also be a sociological cult. Either type of cult is not necessarily dangerous [cultdefinition.com].
The religion that the Eden Parish cult distorts is Christianity. It is dangerous because these distorted religious principles have faded away in favor of the will of Father (Gene Jones). His followers either venerate or fear him. Those who worship Father have had their thinking “reformed.” Those who fear him are under the control of his coercive persuasion.
All are victims of his economic exploitation. They have sold all their worldly possessions and given him the proceeds. Some (like Caroline [Amy Seimetz], sister of VICE journalist Patrick [Kentucker Audley]) are his sexual victims. Caroline’s situation shows how the leader can exploit even a member of the “ruling coterie.”
This film is particularly creepy because of the eeriness of the thin veneer of happiness and normality that hides the evil inherent in Father’s organization. Although the characters in this film are somewhat shallow, the compelling story drives the film’s action. Circumstances beyond the outsiders’ control (yet triggered by their presence) lead to the cataclysmic finale.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As noted above, this is the first in a series of posts on recent horror movies that use the cult trope. Some recent films I might cover include:
- Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008);
- Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are (2013);
- Chad Crawford Kinkle’s Jug Face (2013);
- Riley Stearns’ Faults (2014);
- Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015).
Which of these are you most interested in reading about? What other horror films (released in 2000 or later OR those from earlier) should I include? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section below!