post cover

Episodes: The problem with stories about cults


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 09 2016

6 min read



As part of my TCA prep, I've been watching episodes of Hulu's upcoming The Path. It's a part of the streaming service's attempt to step up to the level of Netflix and Amazon when it comes to original programming, and it does some good things and some bad things, but I'll definitely keep watching whenever Hulu sends me more episodes. You can look for a full review when it launches in March and I've seen enough of it to make a judgment. (Among other things, I really like the way Hulu's shows still feel recognizably like television — every episode is an episode, even as it plays around with some of the boundaries streaming opens up.)

Anyway, it's about one chapter of a religious cult, headed up by Hugh Dancy, but the main characters are played by Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan. They're a couple who are trying to deal with some problems in the marriage in the midst of this setting. The show was created by Jessica Goldberg, who worked for a while on Parenthood, and it's been brought to TV by that show's developer, Jason Katims. Both writers' instinct to make stories about small, human emotions in the midst of a larger, eerier setting is, I think, the right one. (And a lot of what I'm going to say in the following also applies to AMC's upcoming Preacher — it's an interesting winter for TV that tries to grapple with religion's legacy.)

But it also made me think about something that doesn't seem like it should be true: stories about cults just don't really worry dramatically, and I'm not sure why.

Before I try to drill down into the reasons for this, and if you can stomach it, listen to this recording of the final moments of Jonestown, the cult compound in Guyana that gave the world the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" when almost all of the members of said cult killed themselves with poisoned Flavoraid. (A few survived by hiding.) It's one of the most haunting things you'll ever hear — particularly because it's from an old cassette tape made that night, which taped over pop music, that now sounds like ghostly music playing in the background. (I'm also fond of the back-story behind the tape: some FBI agent's kid handed it to a friend on the playground, and that friend uploaded it to the internet decades later.)

But I also think the way it proceeds suggests why so many stories about cults — or, hell, about religion — struggle. You listen to that tape, and you hear people who really do believe they're doing the right thing. They've been backed into a corner and are responding desperately. But instead of fighting back, they're killing themselves, hoping for a better life to come.

Remove yourself from how much that offends your central desire to survive, or your struggle to understand believing in anything so much. (I certainly recoil from both.) Think about how, in some ways, that's an incredible expression of faith (outside, of course, of the children who were forced and the reluctant, who were coerced — and we may never know how many were in the latter number). There's a stark devotion to it that fiction struggles to deal with.

Actually, let me pivot this a little bit. Most of us in the US are familiar with fundamentalist Christians. Think about how few genuinely good fictional portrayals there are of that movement. (Arguably, the best is Ned Flanders.) Or think about how fundamentalist Islamic terrorists have been villains in so many modern works, but we never really understand their motivations beyond, "Terrorists do terrible things." Any time there's a small, dedicated religious sect, it's hard to think of many great portrayals of same.

Fiction is just bad at this, and I think it's because fiction is rotten at comprehending the eternal. A book or TV series or movie is inherently finite, and its characters occupy a finite universe. They may live on in our imaginations, but when we're done, they're done. So let's say we're reading a book about fundamentalists where God really does exist as they imagine him; it's hard to get past our own notions of God in our reality (and whether he's real or not, for one), and it's hard to really believe as the characters do, even within the confines of the fiction, because their seemingly omnipotent God is bounded by the pages of a book.

That's why most stories that take God seriously escape into genre, particularly horror. The Exorcist is a movie where God definitely exists, but we don't care, because so much of the focus is on the devil. (The devil, not being omnipotent, is much easier to work into fiction.) Or we might have a story about a fictional religion that's real, and it tends to be fantasy.

Cults, then, have to escape all of this and have to escape the fact that they need to fundamentally set up a fake religion, then make us believe in it a little bit. And I don't know if that's even possible, particularly because the story most cult tales tell is this: Somebody needs to get out of the cult. The story works at cross-purposes with what the dramatic stakes require. To not believe the characters are chumps, we have to get why they'd live in this world — why they'd drink the Kool Aid. But to follow the story gravity, we have to believe that their eyes are being opened to all of the lies they've believed. And that balance is super, super tough to pull off.

There is, of course, one story that I think has pulled it off, and I think I'll talk about that whenever I file the next edition of the newsletter (remember, TCA disrupts my schedule a lot). Its name is Big Love, and the "golden age of TV" narrative has already written it out of the history books, because it was imperfect.

But man if it didn't figure out how to tell a story about religion.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter