Beware the Hive Mind
This year, the leader of Nxium, an underground sex cult acting under the guise of a self-help organization, was sentenced to 120 years in prison. He had been arrested in 2018, and though publicly there is no timeline of when this inner cult, DOS, started, it had been going on for years, unknown to the public. This is one of the examples of cults that are around us, whether they are in real life, or in fiction such as films, television shows or books. I want to discuss the ways that we are taught to fear cults: through fiction, media and true stories.
In order to talk about how fiction teaches us to be scared of cults, I looked at three cult movies: Midsommar, Children of the Corn and The Other Lamb. Most of the elements associated with cults are those that deal with murder and violence. In Midsommar, a group of American friends go to a midsummer festival in rural Sweden, invited by their friend who is a member of the community. The community members welcome the outsiders, but once the Americans disrespect their practices, they kill them. Similarly in Children of the Corn, the cult begins with the children of the town of Gatlin, Nebraska killing the adults in the town, even their own parents. They live secluded for years, and when two adults come into town, the children chase after them to kill them. These two movies reflect a notion of bloodlust when it comes to cults, and a need to rid their group of any who don’t believe or are not part of their practice. As viewers, we aren’t members of their cult, so we would be in danger to ever cross paths with them.
In The Other Lamb, a young girl named Selah is part of a cult of women who worship their male leader, the Shepherd. When the group is forced by the police to move locations, we see the violence and cruelty of the Shepherd, peaking when at their eventual new home. A few days after arrival, the Shepherd kills all of his wives and tells his daughters that they will replace them. In this movie, it is the killing of the women in his own group that is threatening to us.The power that this man holds over the women in this film is creepy and unhinged, even though it isn’t held over us. In all three of these films, the members of the cult are framed as murderers, whose dedication to their group means they have no qualms about killing other people, no matter how attached they are to them. Though some victims are strangers, others are family members, friends or those with a close bond to the cult member.
And because these movies are about cults, the members need to worship some sort of deity who isn’t part of an accepted, widely practiced religion. For Children of the Corn, they worship a demon called “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” and in The Other Lamb they worship a human man named “the Shepherd,” whom the women see as their God and savior. The fact that they worship this deity means that there are practices and rituals not accepted in common society, usually having to do with some kind of blood, violence, or death. The reason for this violence in the film is because these films are fiction, so they can sensationalize and exaggerate the creepiness of these rituals as much as possible. Watching another person commit an act of violence serves to alienate the viewer from the people they are watching, and see them as people to be scared of. We see them being mindlessly controlled by someone else, and it taps into our own fear of being controlled. As this happens en masse on screen, the cult members are no longer people, but like zombies blindly following the leader, or rather, the brains they want to eat.
Tabloids blur the line between fact and fiction, often sensationalizing their headlines to get the most sales, clicks or views. This is often seen with several common tabloid magazines, and often the subject is The Church of Scientology. Scientology’s main belief is that each person is an immortal being called a “thetan,” and that people have past lives. The basics don’t sound too out there, but there are a lot of controversies surrounding their beliefs against psychiatry, psychology, and psychiatric drugs and medicines. There are also many allegations about mistreatment of members, and many members’ deaths have been linked to the organization.
Already, Scientologists aren’t well perceived in the public eye, and so some news outlets have found a way to capitalize on that. Here are a few examples of headlines: “Tom Cruise & Church Take Over Florida Town”, “Tom Cruise ‘breaks Suri’s heart for Scientology’”, or the real eye-catchers: “Inside Scientology’s House of Horrors! Torture Chambers, Brainwashing Sessions, Prisons for Children”and “Scientology’s Baby Black Market! Cruise, Kidman, & 7 other megastars pay millions for babies from dirt-poor moms!”
Without even reading the article, the audience is already led to believe that the people who are involved in this group are horrible, wicked, and cruel people. Sadly I couldn’t look into the last two because I only have pictures of their front covers, but with the other two articles mentioned, the author simply took the facts and turned them up an exaggerated notch. You’ll notice that these news outlets like to use celebrity names, specifically Tom Cruise. Most of the American public know that Tom Cruise is an incredibly famous movie star, so the fact that he would be involved in an organization like this really gets people interested. Even if you weren’t going to buy the magazine, simply seeing such a bold headline would lower your opinion of Scientology, and Tom Cruise as he is closely connected to it. In short, because people are already wary of Scientology and know that the media doesn’t write good things about it, these headlines reinforce that idea, even if they aren’t 100% true. Adding Cruise’s name into the mix is another way for these news outlets to get people talking. Were anyone to mention they were a Scientologist, they might be immediately grouped in with these “bad people,” and ostracized.
Cults, in actuality, are made up of charismatic leaders who influence vulnerable people to support them and their teachings. In the case of Nxium, their leader Keith Raniere hid the inner sex cult called DOS under the guise of a women’s group to better themselves. It was only once some women reached a certain point that they would realize what was going on, and try to get away. Watching the HBO docu series The Vow helped me understand how the organization of Nxium could have escalated to such a point. It seems the main issue with Nxium in particular is the coercion and manipulation, and the hive mind mentality making members want to stick with the rest, and if a member didn’t believe hard enough they were doing something “wrong.” The organization was able to initially pull people in with classes that were to better oneself, preying on insecure and vulnerable people attempting to get their life on the track they want it to have. Eventually as certain women moved higher up the ranks, they were invited to an exclusive group. This made them feel chosen, special, and important to Nxium. Seeing as Nxium was a supposed self-help organization, the power was in each leader and members’ words. They could use another member’s vulnerability and receptiveness against them, and make that member believe they could do anything. In this way, the other members could then find a way to persuade this person whatever they wished. This is where the branding of women inside DOS began.
To me, the fact that these people were so good at manipulating others that a woman could be convinced to be branded as part of DOS is the scariest part. It’s what makes this cult, and other real cults in the world, the most dangerous. Real cults scare us because of the validity of ex-members’ stories, and the thought of someone being able to control us however they want to. It’s the thought that no matter how strong we think we are, there is a possibility that we could be manipulated and turned into a zombie of ourselves, to serve someone else.
Megan Bostaph is a third year English major who was drinking Capri-Sun while researching. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Art by Carolyn Langer.