I don’t think I’m alone in my curiosity — OK, I’ll just say it, mild obsession with cults. From the tragedy of Jonestown to the grim and lingering fascination of the Manson Family, from an afternoon spent devouring Emma Cline’s novel The Girls to a weekend spent binge watching the recent documentary Wild Wild Country, films and books about cults often make the top of my Netflix queue and bedside TBR pile. But I’m not the only one who — when faced with the bizarre, the fanatical, the devoted, the utopian aspirations — cannot look away.
A recent feature in the Paris Review looked at the human obsession with cults, positing that everything from the timeless illusions of free love to the culture of the current White House administration draw viewers’ and readers’ eyes to stories of uniformly-dressed devotees that almost always begin with worshipful ecstatic dancing and end with disillusionment, legal battles, and tragedy. But what also inspires the almost voyeuristic fascination, at least in my case, is how relatable the stories of those willing to trade in their lives for complete devotion to something greater really are. Purpose, community, belonging, a clear path forward — these are things we all long for in our lives, at one point or another. And you don’t have to look too closely to realize that the difference between, say, an airplane hangar filled with Donald Trump voters screaming “lock her up” and a megachurch filled with undulating yogis isn’t that one is a cult and one isn’t, but rather one is — for whatever reason — considered far more mainstream than the other.