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Horror Movie Cults: Fiction vs. Reality

Written by: Daniel Hadley

Convincing another human that the world is going to end if they do not do exactly as you say seems like no easy feat, but if you can frame your argument in such a way that it seems logical then there are some out there who will take you seriously. Not all cults use this argument of course but as an example it’s the easiest to put forward. You see sophistry, intellectual dishonesty and even more worryingly just pure insistent beliefs are powerful tools of indoctrination when wielded against the right kind of mind or more worryingly, just in the right kind of way.

The Mist (2007) and the cult of Mrs Carmody

Now this links more closely to mob mentality and societal breakdown in times of crisis, but given the religious connection it seemed apt.

During a disaster that shrouds the land in a dense mist filled with hellish beasts, dozens of small-town folk find themselves trapped inside a local supermarket and totally cut off from the outside world. A local religious eccentric, who up until the point of this seemingly apocalyptic event was merely ignored, manages to amass a following through her religious predictions that unfortunately – through sheer coincidence – appear to providing the evidence that she is a vessel for god’s word.

After only a few days she manages whip the townsfolk up into such a fear filled frenzy that they are willing to kill for her, and kill a child no less, why kill a child? Well, for a blood sacrifice of course, the lord demands it after all; well that’s what Mrs Carmody thinks and it seems crazy, so why do the townsfolk believe her?

Simple, they are terrified, cut off and have no hope of rescue. In those desperate times Mrs Carmody assurances of safety through belief and service of her warped version of the lords will seem all the more alluring and after – just to punctuate it, through sheer coincidence – her big predictions come true she is vindicated in the minds of these poor hopeless people, so as more time passes and things go from bad to worse more and more people fall in line behind her.

While Mrs Carmody was only able to gain her “flock,” as she calls her followers through the advent of catastrophe it begs the question, if catastrophe were to strike and all the modern conveniences and luxuries were taken away, how long would it take for someone of Mrs Carmody ilk to rally up the hopeless and have them bent at the knee so to speak?

Cults are often portrayed in post-apocalyptic media, the Children of the Atom from Fallout, the Brotherhood from Stake Land and the scavengers from The Walking Dead are a few examples.

Is what The Mist proposes truly plausible? Sitting here now I would like to say no, but say, in the event of a near extinction level event, left with no power, no communication and no hope of rescue could I really give the same answer? Well I hope so, but that’s as sure as I can be.

Luckily the human race shows no signs of slowing down, so without the interjection of a hostile and far superior alien race, a global pandemic or maybe a meteorite or two the human race will keep soldering on as strong as ever. So how have cult leaders been able to wield such power in the here and now?

Well basic cult behaviour always seems to follow the same pattern:

  1. Compliance with the group
  1. Dependence on a leader
  1. Devaluing outsiders
  1. Avoiding dissent

Behaviour like this is commonly found in children, and children will do as ordered by their parents without question (most of the time at least) due to nothing more than faith in the idea that mommy and daddy know best. If it’s possible to program that kind of behaviour into a group of adults then much like children they will follow their leader down any path said leader wishes to take them and as long as every member of the group is in solidarity with each other then there will be no opposition and anyone with a dissenting opinion will be treated with scorn, for how could they possibly disagree with the teaching and wishes of their almighty leader?

Now clearly I am simplifying things and it can take years, decades even to achieve this level of groupthink, attaining the blind faith of just one person seems like a near impossible task when you think about it; As unbelievable and hopefully unthinkable as completing that task may sound there are sadly many examples of such a thing taking place out there in the world today.

For example, at this very moment the Exclusive Brethren is operating across multiple countries including North America, Australia, England and New Zealand and while they are strange enough on their own, it’s there subgroup that got my attention. The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church are as sect of the Exclusive Brethren that hold some pretty strange views and follow some very unusual and uncompromising codes of conduct  that are quite the departure from those of mainstream Christianity and adherence to this code is very rigidly enforced

For instance the code of social conduct, which putting it plainly boils down to this; do not socialise with outsiders, ever, members are to only socialise with other members of the brethren and only at specified times with the exception of immediate family.

They also have very strict rules forbidding the use of radios and televisions as well as enforcing heavy limits on the use of computers, the internet for instance if very heavily restricted often banned all together.

Members of the brethren also forgo any form of celebration, for according to their doctrine, celebration is to be saved for the return of their saviour, which is according to them is the day that the world ends, so no celebration on Christmas, birthdays, childbirth, nothing, and trust me all of this is just the tip of the iceberg

Failure to live by the code results in one of two punishments, either total ostracization from all other member of the brethren until which time it has been deemed your sins have been accounted for. This punishment, known a ‘Shutting up’ can last months at a time.

The second punishment known as ‘withdrawing from’ forces the offending member of the brethren to be expelled, permanently cutting all ties from their family members, never to speak to them again, meaning individual men and women are forced to say good to their mother, fathers, sisters, brother and worst of all even their children. This same treatment is also dealt to any member who wishes to leave the Brethren.

If a member does leave they often have to go through therapy in order to be deprogrammed so that they can function in the world at large. Now with forty-six thousand members across multiple countries it’s not exactly a small group and its all headed by the Vessel Select the brethren’s version of the pope if you will.

To me all of that sounds absolutely insane, though the most insane part is that that was just one, I repeat, just one of many cults that are active today, and get this, The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church are not even the worst of them, not by far, they were actually one of the more moderate examples I could find.

So after that brief rundown of a currently active cult let’s move onto another movie.

The Sacrament (2013) and the Mass Suicide of Eden Parish

Three men, Patrick a photographer as well as Sam and Jake, both of which are part of a news crew travel to Eden Parish, a religious commune where Patricks sister has been living in the hopes of kicking her drug addiction. When the three men arrive they find a self-sufficient community consisting of hundreds of people all living under the leadership of Father, a man whom all at the commune see as their one true guiding hand in life.

At first the three outsiders are taken aback when greeted by standoffish armed guards, but after being given express permission by Father to be allowed entry they discover that the men women and children living within the borders of Eden Parish seem to be very happy and Patrick’s sister appears to be living a joyful and drug free life. The group are even granted a public interview with Father himself with all members of the commune in attendance and all appears to be going well.

Father answers their questions for the most part but begins to grow vague as the questions become more pressing, leading him to spout some subtly threatening answers after which the interview is ended abruptly with an uproarious cheer from the crowd. Things start to seem a little shady when later a small group of people in the parish pass a note to Jake begging for help.

What follows is a pretty horrific display of ones man’s power over his follower as The Sacrament concludes with the mass suicide or alternatively execution of every member of the commune.

Now for those in the know it’s not hard to see where The Sacrament took its inspiration, for any who don’t know I’ll give you some sparing details.

Jonestown was a commune of the People Temple, a religious organisation founded by a man named Jim Jones and Jonestown became infamous as being the location of the greatest single loss of American civilian life up until the tragedy that took place on September the 11th 2001.

Close to one-thousand people committed mass suicide at the behest of their leader, the afore mentioned founder Jim Jones, buy self-ingesting cyanide along with a number of other poisons mixed into a vat of Grape flavoured punch.

Now I honestly don’t want to delve too far into the events of Jonestown as it is simply a rather upsetting topic to get into, but I will do my best to summarize what happened.

Jim jones was but one man but after founding the Peoples Temple, a religious group with heavy emphasis on racial diversity in a time and place where such a thing frowned upon. Through his various sermons and nationwide tours he gathered a very loyal and quite substantial following, then on the eve of what proved to be a rather damning article exposing some of his more sordid activities, Jones was able to convince a great number of his group to uproot their lives and move Guyana where he had had several members of his group construct what he described as a self-sufficient utopia.

A town where his followers lived out their days with no contact to the outside world, where his teaching were blasted through speaker systems almost twenty four hours a day, where his followers worked ten hours each day followed by ten hours of his teaching before rest, though this was eventually cut to eight hours of each when Jones fell ill.

Over several months of conditioning and educating his follower’s day in and day out Jones managed to create a place where nothing but total compliance was met with scorn and finger pointing leading to any non-compliant member or members falling quickly back in line.

Any followers who showed signs that they wished to leave were publicly shamed and humiliated into banishing such thoughts from their mind. It was only when family members still living in America desired to see their loved ones return mustered up enough outrage that Congressman Leo Ryan and a small delegation travelled to Jonestown with the intent to document the goings on with the community and make a report upon returning home.

After spending a less than two days in Jones town Ryan found that only fourteen people expressed wishes to leave with everyone else seemingly decrying their wishes for departure. Even with the small number of people pleading to leave Ryan assured Jones he would be putting forth a positive report, but his was not good enough and Jones exclaimed “I have failed.”

All of this lead to Leo Ryan and four of the departing members of Jonestown being tragically gunned down with remaining survivors left injured at the airstrip where they were attempting to board their plane, later that same day the loyal members of Jonestown were called upon by Jones himself to drink a concoction of various poisons including cyanide.

A little while later nine-hundred and nine people lay dead, why? Because they had faith in their leader, because they trusted his words and they truly believed he knew what was best for them, they all followed the basic pattern of cultist behaviour.

Each of the four points;

  1. Compliance with the group
  1. Dependence on a leader
  1. Devaluing outsiders
  1. Avoiding dissent

All of four of these were rigidly adhered to by all but a very, very small minority.

When comparing the events of Jonestown to those depicted in The Sacrament it’s hard to believe just how similar they are and yet even harder to believe is that the events of Jonestown are far more horrifying and tragic than those of Eden Parish and what’s even harder to stomach for me personally is that Jonestown actually happened.

Jim Jones was not a demon or a monster – at least in the literal sense- he was just a human being. To this date no horror movie villain, nor hellish fictional beast has even come close to matching the kinds of horror that a man like Jim Jones has caused and it’s a hard truth that there are many more examples out there, The Fall Rivers Cult, the Superior Universal Alignment, the Lundgren Cult, Heavens Gate, each of these example involved the death of multiple people and they are only four in a list that is far longer that you would probably believe.

Back in the seventies and eighties I’m surprised the term “Cultsplotation, wasn’t coined for the influx of movies that came out in the wake of cult hysteria all of which was a reaction to some truly horrific real-world events and while there really are some great cult themed horror movies out there if you care if you care to look,  I believe that the knowledge of these real world cults and there activities is enough to leave you just as shaken as sitting through the very best and most horrific entries that this beloved genre has to offer; all of the information is out there if you care to look for it, but take it from me; despite how truly fascinating a subject it is, it’s not exactly a pleasant ride down the rabbit hole.

In closing I suppose I will end with old adage “fact is often stranger than fiction,” though it can also be much more disturbing too.

Here are 10 more cult-themed or influenced horror flicks we recommend you check out:

They Live

The Invitation 

The Wicker Man

Kill List

Rosemary’s Baby

Martha Marcy May Marlene


Children of the Corn

The Devil Rides Out

Lord of Illusions


About The Overseer (2283 Articles)
Author of Say No to Drugs, writer for Blumhouse, Dread Central, Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies.

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