New Religious Movements and Cults in Popular Culture
New religious movements and cults have appeared as themes or subjects in literature and popular culture, while notable representatives of such groups have themselves produced a large body of literary works.
Beginning in the 1700s authors in the English-speaking world began introducing members of “cults” as antagonists. Satanists, Sects of the Latter Day Saint movement, Yakuzas, Triads, and Thuggees were popular choices. In the twentieth century concern for the rights and feelings of religious minorities led authors to invent fictional cults for their villains to belong to. Fictional cults continue to be popular in film, television, and gaming in the same way.
A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious community or ethical, spiritual, or philosophical group of modern origins, which has a peripheral place within its nation’s dominant religious culture. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, in which case they will be distinct from pre-existing denominations. Scholars continue to try to reach definitions and define boundaries.
A NRM may be one of a wide range of movements ranging from those with loose affiliations based on novel approaches to spirituality or religion to communitarian enterprises that demand a considerable amount of group conformity and a social identity that separates their adherents from mainstream society. Scholars have estimated that NRM’s now number in the tens of thousands worldwide, with most in Asia and Africa. Most have only a few members, some have thousands, and only very few have more than a million.
The word cult in current usage is a pejorative term for a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre by the larger society, often without a clear or consistent definition.
Early twentieth century
Zane Grey, in his Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), a Western novel that would have a major influence on Hollywood, lambasts the Mormons and has his gunslinger hero rescue a wealthy young woman in the early 1870s from the clutches of elderly polygamists via exceedingly bloody gunfights. The novel contains a portrayal of the psychological conflicts of the young woman, raised a Mormon but gradually coming to the realization that she wants a supposedly less constricted life. (The Mormon misdeeds depicted in the story take place on the southern frontier of Utah, and Grey makes no suggestion of the involvement of Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City.) The harassment of the young woman reflects a popular literary theme in Queen Victoria’s England.
In Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929), much of the mystery puzzle revolves around the Temple of the Holy Grail, a fictitious California circle that Hammett’s characters repeatedly describe as a “cult”. Hammett depicts it as starting as a scam, although the putative leader begins to believe in his own fraudulent claims.
A.E.W. Mason, in The Prisoner in the Opal (1928), one of his Inspector Hanaud mysteries, describes the unmasking of a Satanist cult.
The Italian novelist Sibilla Aleramo, in Amo, dunque sono (I Love, Therefore, I Am) (1927) depicted Julius Evola’s UR Group, a hermetical circle and intellectual movement — strongly influenced by Anthroposophy — that attempted to provide a spiritual direction to Benito Mussolini’s fascism. Aleramo described the character based on her former lover Evola as “inhuman, an icy architect of acrobatic theories, vain, vicious, perverse.” Aleramo based her hero on Giulio Parise, who would unsuccessfully attempt to oust the pro-Fascist Evola as the circle’s leader in 1928, resulting in an announcement by Evola that he would thenceforth exert “an absolute unity of direction” over the circle’s publications.
Mid and late twentieth century
Science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein wrote two novels that deal with fictional cult-like groups. A leading figure in his early “Future History” series (see If This Goes On–, a short novel published in Revolt in 2100), Nehemiah Scudder, a religious “prophet”, becomes dictator of the United States. By his own admission in an afterword, Heinlein poured into this book his distrust of all forms of religious fundamentalism, the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party and other movements that he regarded as authoritarian. Heinlein also stated in the afterword that he had worked out the plot of other books about Scudder, but had decided not to write them — in part because he found Scudder so unpleasant. Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land features two cults: the “Dionysian Church of the New Revelation, Fosterite”, and the protagonist Valentine Michael Smith’s own “Church of All Worlds”. Heinlein treats of the motives and methods of religious leaders in some detail.
Fictional cults also feature in science fantasy and in horror novels. In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis describes the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or “NICE”, a quasi-governmental front concealing a kind of doomsday cult that worships a disembodied head kept alive by scientific means. Lewis’ novel is notable for its elaboration of his 1944 address “The Inner Ring.” The latter work criticizes the lust to “belong” to a powerful clique — a common human failing that Lewis believed was the basis for people being seduced into power-hungry and spiritually twisted movements.
In William Campbell Gault’s Sweet Wild Wench, L.A. private eye Joe Puma investigates the “Children of Proton”, a fictional cult that has attracted the support of the daughter of a wealthy businessman.
Gore Vidal’s Messiah depicts the rise of a cult leader, while Vidal’s Kalki, a science-fiction novel, recounts how a small but scientifically adept cult kills off the entire human race by means of germ warfare.
Popular French author Michel Houellebecq’s 2005 science-fiction novel, The Possibility of an Island, describes a cloning group that resembles the Raëlians.
Robert Muchamore has written a book for teenagers, Divine Madness, about a religious cult that has a vast number of members: the main characters of the book must infiltrate the cult to discover a sinister plot.
The novel Godless centers around a teenager who forms a religious cult that worships his hometown’s water tower.
Literary works by founders of new trends or movements
Aleister Crowley, founder of the English-speaking branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis and of a short-lived commune (the “Abbey of Thelema”) in Sicily, wrote poetry (anthologized in 1917 in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse) and novels (Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922) and Moonchild (1929)). Crowley died in 1947. His autobiography, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, republished in 1969, attracted much attention. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes Crowley’s fiction and his manuals on the occult as examples of “lifestyle fantasy”.
The travel-writer, poet and painter Nicholas Roerich, the founder of Agni Yoga, expressed his spiritual beliefs through his depiction of the stark mountains of Central Asia. His classic travel-books include Heart of Asia: Memoirs from the Himalayas (1929) and Shambhala: In Search of the New Era (1930).
L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, worked as a contributing author in the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1930s to 1950s) and in the horror and fantasy genres. In a bibliographical study of his works, Marco Frenschkowski agrees with Stephen King in regarding Fear (1940) as one of the major horror tales of the 20th century, and praises “its imaginative use of the prosaic and its demythologizing of traditional weird fiction themes”. Other works which Frenschkowski cites as notable include Typewriter in the Sky (1940), To the Stars (1950), the best-selling Battlefield Earth (1982), and the ten-volume Mission Earth (1985–1987). Frenschkowski concludes that although Hubbard’s fiction has received excessive praise from his followers, science-fiction critics leery of Scientology have underrated it. John Clute and Peter Nichols, however, manage to praise much of Hubbard’s oeuvre while also raising questions about the thematic link to Scientology. Hubbard’s “canny utilization of superman protagonists” in his early work, they argue, came to “tantalize” s-f writers and fans “with visions of transcendental power” and may explain why so many early followers of Hubbard’s movement came from the s-f community.
G.I. Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher who introduced and taught the Fourth Way, authored three literary works that comprise his All and Everything trilogy. The best known, Meetings with Remarkable Men, a memoir of Gurdjieff’s youthful search for spiritual truth, has become a minor classic. Peter Brook made it into a film (1979). The trilogy also includes Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, a curious melange of philosophy, humor and science-fiction that some regard as a masterpiece. P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins series and a disciple of Gurdjieff, described Beelzebub as “soaring off into space, like a great, lumbering flying cathedral”. Martin Seymour-Smith included Beelzebub in his 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, characterising it as “…the most convincing fusion of Eastern and Western thought that has yet been seen.” Gurdjieff’s final volume, Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’, consists of an incomplete text published posthumously.
Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, wrote highly regarded poetry. William Carlos Williams described his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana” (1925) as his “major poem”, and wrote that Siegel “belongs in the first ranks of our living artists”. Other critics and poets who praised Siegel’s work included Selden Rodman and Kenneth Rexroth; the latter wrote that “it’s about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets.”
Important non-fiction writers among founders of movements
Helena Blavatsky, the Russian adventuress who founded Theosophy, wrote Isis Unveiled (1887) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), and had an immense cultural and intellectual influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, helping to stimulate the Indian nationalist movement, parapsychology, the fantasy literary genre, and the New Age movement. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes her two major books as “enormous, entrancing honeypots of myth, fairytale, speculation, fabrication and tomfoolery”.
Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of Anthroposophy, wrote in a variety of fields (his collected works total 350 volumes) and influenced such figures as the novelist Herman Hesse and the philosopher Owen Barfield. Through his writings and lectures, Steiner stimulated the development of the cooperative movement, alternative medicine, organic farming, the Waldorf schools, and “eurythmy” in modern dance.
- The 1959 British film The Stranglers of Bombay directed by Terence Fisher, features a Thuggee cult as a villain
- The 1965 British film Help! directed by Richard Lester, starring The Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, features a fictionalized version of the Indian criminal cult the Thugees as villains.
- The 1971 Indian film Hare Rama Hare Krishna centers around the hippie invasion of Kathmandu, Nepal. The film also features the Hindi hit song “Dum Maro Dum”, which includes the chant “Hare Krishna Hare Ram”.
- The 1981 Canadian film Ticket to Heaven portrays a young man who joins a cult (based loosely on the Unification Church); his family subsequently kidnaps him for deprogramming.
- The 1984 American film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom features a cult group inspired by the real-life Thuggees. In the film they perform ritualistic sacrifices of human beings via a fiery lava pit and are worshipers of the Sankara Stones, believed to contain hidden mystical powers.
- The 1985 American film Witness is a crime-thriller, directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis It is set among the Amish sect of Pennsylvania and partly deals with their values and their relationships with larger society.
- The 1988 film The Deceivers, starring Pierce Brosnan, features a Thuggee cult known as the “deceivers” as villians.
- The 1992 American film Malcolm X is a biographical motion picture about the Muslim-American figure Malcolm X, including his membership in the Nation of Islam. It was co-written, co-produced, and directed by Spike Lee. It stars Denzel Washington.
- The Once Upon a Time in China film series, directed by Tsui Hark and starring Jet Li and Vincent Zhao as Wong Fei-hung, features 2 real-life Chinese cult sects which are depicted as “xenophobic antagonists” which goes around attacking foreigners of the western world and destroying everything that the foreigners own which are considered “alien” to Chinese culture; the White Lotus Sect from the 1992 film Once Upon a Time in China II, and the Red Lantern Sect from the 1993 film Once Upon a Time in China IV.
- The 1994 Hong Kong film Drunken Master III, starring Andy Lau, also features the White Lotus Society.
- The 1999 American film End of Days is a horror/thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as an ex-cop who now runs an elite security outfit to stop a Satanist cult.
- The 1999 Australian film Holy Smoke! features Kate Winslet as a traveler newly returned from India, where she fell under the spell of a religious guru. Harvey Keitel plays the deprogrammer with whom she gets involved.
- The 2003 American film Latter Days is a romantic drama about a gay relationship between a closeted Mormon missionary and his openly gay neighbor. It was the first film to portray openly the clash between the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and homosexuality..
- The 2011 American film Martha Marcy May Marlene follows Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to readjust into society after escaping an abusive cult.
- Season 5 of Beverly Hills, 90210 has a storyline involving Kelly getting caught up in a cult.
- In Brookside, Simon Howe indoctrinates an increasingly mentally unstable Terry Sullivan into a religious cult, much to the dismay of his friend Barry Grant. The two later hold Grant hostage and blow up his house.
- In the Rocko’s Modern Life episode “Schnit-heads”, Heffer joins a sausage-worshiping cult. When he tires of eating nothing but sausage, and is caught eating pizza, the cult holds him prisoner, and Rocko and Filburtmust save him.
- In the Simpsons episode “The Joy of Sect”, most of Springfield joins a new sect called The Movementarians, led by the mysterious “Leader” who persuades most residents to give up their material possessions to him. A skeptical Marge tries desperately to deprogram her family with the help of Reverend Lovejoy, one of the few town residents not to join the sect, and of Willie (who offers to “kidnap Homer for fifty, deprogram him for a hundred, or kill him for five hundred”). Eventually they kidnap Homer and “deprogram” him with beer. The Leader is then revealed to be a con-artist and the whole town return to normal.
- In an episode of King of the Hill, Luanne Platter and then later Peggy Hill join an all-female, Bitheistic-style cult disguised as a sorority called the “Omega House”. Members, deprived of the bathroom, must change their name to Jane, sell jams and eat a diet consisting of only rice.
- In The Wayans Bros. sitcom Season 5, Marlon is fooled into joining a cult thinking it is an acting seminar.
- The X-Files episodes “Gender Bender”, “Red Museum”, “Die Hand Die Verletzt”, “The Field Where I Died”, and “Via Negativa” deal with mysterious or murderous cults.
- The Law & Order episodes “Apocrypha” and “Bogeyman” deal with cults involved in serious crimes, as do the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes “Con-Text” and “Sound Bodies”.
- In an episode of Monk, entitled “Mr. Monk Joins a Cult”, Adrian goes undercover within a cult to investigate the murder of one of its members. However, he becomes brainwashed and his therapist Dr. Charles Kroger has to deprogram him.
- In an episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Norman Lear’s 1976-1977 soap-opera parody, one of Mary Hartman’s neighbors joins the Hare Krishnas and his family decides to have him deprogrammed.
- In a Seinfeld episode entitled “The Checks”, Mr. Wilhelm joins a religious cult that masquerades as a carpet-cleaning service. When George tries to talk him out of it, Mr. Wilhelm reveals his new name: “Tanya” (a nod to the Patty Hearst case).
- Spoofs of Lyndon LaRouche have appeared several times: on programs such as The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, and in the comic strip Bloom County. An episode of the science-fiction series Sliders depicts a parallel universe in which LaRouche has become President of the United States.
- “The Plan”, an episode of Six Feet Under first broadcast on 17 March 2002, deals with a seminar reminiscent of an est or Landmark Education Forum. Compare “Mork Goes Erk”.
- The Family Guy episode “Chitty Chitty Death Bang” deals with a fictional cult that parodies elements of Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple.
- The Criminal Minds episode “The Tribe”, which first aired March 8, 2006, involves a fictitious cult with an affinity to the Native American people who are killing people in ritualistic ways in New Mexico and a character kidnapped from the cult who needs “deprogramming”. The cult are led by Chad Allen, whom followers call “Grandfather”. There are similarities with the Manson Family and Manson’s idea of “Helter Skelter”. Another episode, “Minimal Loss”, which first aired October 8, 2008, deals with a fictitious cult, “the Separatarian Sect”, at “Liberty Ranch” in Colorado. Two of the team investigate reports of child abuse made against the cult leader (Benjamin Cyrus, played by Luke Perry) and are taken hostage when a federal raid on the ranch goes bad. References are made to “similar” real-life incidents in Ruby Ridge, the Waco Siege and the Freeman Standoff.
- The Showtime series Shameless had a recurring character in the first two seasons: Ethel, a thirteen-year-old girl who was put into foster care after Child Services discovered she was involved in a religious cult and married to a 65-year-old man named Clyde. She had four other sister-wives via Clyde and was later discovered to have had a child in the marriage, Jonah.
- The Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt centers on the protagonist Kimmy Schmidt, who escapes from a doomsday cult in Indiana and starts life over in New York City.
- The seventh season of the FX horror anthology series American Horror Story, titled Cult, centers in a clown cult terrorizing a neighborhood in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
- The primary antagonistic faction of BioShock 2 Sofia Lamb, her followers including former building designer Simon Wales create religion, the “Rapture Family” as result after events of the first game, the death of Andrew Ryan, & the complete society collapse at Rapture. The religion based from Peoples Temple and Manson family.
- The Silent Hill series heavily involves a religious cult known only as The Order.
- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has a cult called the “Mythic Dawn”. The player must join the cult in an effort to defeat it.
- In Devil May Cry 4, there is a quasi-religious group called the Order of the Sword that worships the demon Sparda and has many cult-like tendencies.
- In Resident Evil 4, Leon Kennedy fights against a cult of Spanish villagers possessed by parasites.
- In Diablo II, the player is tasked to fight against a variety of religious cults: There are shamanic groups who gather around “healers” and whose adherents are called “the fallen”. Their spiritual guru is one “Colenzo”. Then there is a monastery that has turned to a form of satanic death-worship, and an old initiative order called the “Order of the Horadrim” whose leadership has gone mad. In the third act of the game, a cult named the “Zakarum” with priests of the ranks of “sextons”, “cantors”, and “hierophants”, is depicted. The cult followers are called the “faithful” or “zealots”, and there is also a “High Council”.
- In Diablo III, a large cult known as the Dark Coven plays an important role of Act 1 and 25% of Act 2. Players are tasked with putting them to justice when Maghda, the cult’s mistress, murders Deckard Cain.
- In EarthBound, Ness must rescue a girl with psychic powers named Paula from a cult called Happy Happyism that resembles the Ku Klux Klan and Aum Shinrikyo and believes that everything must be painted blue. The Happy Happyists are controlling a small town named Happy Happy Village. Their leader is named Mr. Carpainter, and a statue called the Mani Mani Statue is controlling the cult’s thoughts. Eventually, Ness breaks the spell over the cultists and rescues Paula. Many of the characteristics of the cult are similar to real-world cults: Mr. Carpainter is claimed to have received a “divine revelation” that told him to create the cult, otherwise normal citizens appear to have delusions, and a woman in the town asks for donations.
- In the Dead Space series, the majority of the crew of the Ishimura are “Unitologists” and are seen as cultists, Other sequels have Unitology plays a bigger main role.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, the player may either side with or defy the Cult of Andraste before obtaining Her Sacred Ashes from the Urn.
- In Fallout 3, Fallout 4 and it’s add-on Far Habor. There is a cult named The Children Of The Atom (named for the novel), who worship an undetonated nuclear bomb in a settlement called Megaton. Later they appear various parts in New England including furthest in Mount Desert Island, Maine that they formed several holy sites and including one is inside a Nuclear Submarine base.
- In Fallout 2 and Fallout 4 add-on Nuka World, there is a cult named The Hubologists, a thinly veiled reference to L. Ron Hubbard. The practices of the cult broadly resemble some of the practices of Scientology.
- In Grand Theft Auto games there is a frequent discussion on the radio, and by pedestrians about the Epsilon Program, a religion started by the character Cris Formage, which has been called “a cult” by GTA radio personalities such as Lazlow Jones. Protagonist Michael De Santa can join the Epsilon Program who sometimes calling themselves Epsilonists in Grand Theft Auto V, the religion in general as of GTA V is mostly based in Scientology and Raelism when come off their uniforms and some of their theology. Trevor Phillips can deliver people to another cult in the game known as The Altruist Cult, who are implied to be mainly Egotistic Misanthropic Baby Booming cannibals who believes younger generations are creating world problems, and Franklin Clinton will be contacted by a therapy-like cult called The Children of the Mountain where he can participate in a survey and earn a Children of the Mountain T-shirt.
- In the Warcraft Universe a number of cults exist, some worshiping ancient evils; seeking to bring them back into the world like the Twilight’s Hammer, while others like the “Cult of the Damned” seek to end all life on Azeroth, while securing their own immortality in undeath.
- The game Persona 3, the human villains are the founders and leaders of a cult worshiping Nyx: the harbinger of the apocalypse.
- In the “Fatal Frame” series there are a variety of cults that perform rituals and sacrifices.
- The game Far Cry 5 features a doomsday cult called the Project at Eden’s Gate that took over a fictional county in Montana as the main plot. The Cult took inspirations from majority Branch Davidians, icon of the cult was represented Scientology and take over the county is a nod to Rajneesh movement.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia