Family-Based Cults in Horror Movies

David Lynch's ERASERHEAD is a cult movie about a family of sorts. But is the family a cult? Image source:
David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD is a cult movie about a family of sorts. But is the family a cult? Image source:

In the opening post of this series, Ti West’s The Sacrament serves as an example of a movie that depicts a textbook “dangerous cult.” But a sinister sect doesn’t have to be as large as Father’s (or as diverse) to induce a reaction of horror in audiences. In other recent and effective horror films, the cultic groups have been as small as the nuclear family.

An Example of a Family-Based Cult in a Horror Movie: We Are What We Are (2013)

In this film, close blood relatives are the cult members instead of needy and hopeless strangers brainwashed by a false prophet. The cult’s leader is also the father of the family. In the latter role, he is expected to be beneficent and trustworthy in his relationships with other family members. Yet his status as cult leader is in direct conflict with this role.

The family cult in We Are What We Are is both theological and sociological. On the theological side, it’s a perversion of Christianity. On the sociological side, the family’s tradition isolates it because it requires them to violate a basic social taboo. The film uses the intimacy of family relationships to heighten its suspense  — the anxious tension that arises when the audience has been tipped off that something evil is afoot (as in Hitchcock’s thrillers) and is waiting with bated breath for it to emerge — as well as to amp up the suffocating claustrophobia of being trapped in a dangerous cult.

Indie writer-director Jim Mickle. Image source:
Indie writer-director Jim Mickle. Image source:

In We Are What We Are (a remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos lo que hay [2010]), writer-director Jim Mickle wanted to make a point about a danger he sees as inherent in religion. In an interview with Indiewire, he said that the film is “about tradition and the power of faith and how easily that can all be harnessed for some bad, scary things.”

The family tradition that skews Christianity in this movie involves cannibalism. This might seem like a stretch, but the incident that starts the tradition (which involves a bitter struggle for survival in pre-colonial America) makes sense in the context of the story. The power of faith becomes attached to the tradition because the family interprets its ancestors’ survival as the result of God’s providence.

In the contemporary United States, where the major action of the film takes place, the family’s tradition is completely out of the realm of the normal. Moreover, Frank Parker (Bill Sage), the current patriarch, and his two daughters, Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers), are aware that they are different in a way that could lead to the end of their family. So they hide their gruesome practice from outsiders (and Rose and Iris’ little brother Rory [Jack Gore]), This behavior isolates them from the world.

Still from We Are What We Are (2013)
Ambyr Childers, Bill Sage, Julia Garner, and Jack Gore in WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013) – image source:

Since they attend the local public school, Rose and Iris are aware of the attractions of the “normal” world from which their father tries to shelter them. The death of their mother Emma (Kassie DePaiva) in the first act forces them to confront the huge gulf between their family and the surrounding community.

As in The Sacrament, the intrusion of an outsider (in the form of a young man, Deputy Anders [Wyatt Russell], who’s infatuated with Rose) causes rebellion that leads to a confrontation between the cult leader and his followers. However, the seeds of the revolt have already been planted. In fact, they’re inherent in the tension of the family’s daily life.

By tradition, Rose inherits her mother’s gruesome role in the family’s annual cannibalistic rite. But she knows that accepting this duty will keep her from the attractions of the outside world. She wants to escape the domination of her father and his creed. Still, she makes her move only after her father’s increasing paranoia gives her no other choice. He deteriorates physically and mentally under the stress of the increasing suspicion of outsiders about and their intrusions into his family’s cultic world.

Mickle and his long-term writing partner, actor Nick Damici, introduce a physical marker of this degeneration into Grau’s original story (of which they did an extensive rewrite). Besides serving as a key plot device, it’s a biological symbol of the social and spiritual corruption of the Parker family that is transmitted from generation to generation. The finale shows how hard it is to cure the family of this disease.


What other horror movies have used a family cult in their stories? Which ones are your favorites? Sound off in the comments section below!

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