You know who I'm talking about.
Close your eyes and you can picture them, the freaks. Their strange beliefs, their weird customs and rituals that prompt you and the rest of your "normal" friends to roll your eyes, point and laugh. They’re freaks, these people – absolute, total weirdos and outsiders. You joke about their appearance, their strange solemnity and practices. You ask yourselves why anyone would choose to join their ranks.
But later, perhaps alone in bed and waiting to fall asleep, you remember. And dare to wonder what it's like to be one of them. Your imagination sinks into that world - THEIR world - for just a moment before you tense against an involuntary shudder.
They make you uncomfortable, don't they?
# # #
On a distant atoll in the Pacific used as an airfield by the US during World War Two, the islanders gather around a bamboo reconstruction of a supply plane like the ones that stopped coming years ago. Two men, one dressed as the Pilot and the other as the Navigator, parade in solemn procession, worshipped by their fellows ...
Meanwhile in the mountainous Near East a child is born, believed to be the reincarnation of an ancient king. Bedecked in silken robes and placed on a golden throne, he is thought to arrive in this world replete with the accumulated knowledge of all his previous lives ...
And in North America, people gather every Sunday in cross-shaped buildings to eat the body and drink the blood of their founder. Their spiritual leader turns normal bread and wine into the holy meal by speaking a blessing that then enables the faithful to feast and remember a man who's died 2,000 years before...
Which of these are cults?
That depends on who you ask.
# # #
Of course, to say one man's cult is another man's religion is just shallow. It ignores the social manipulation and mind-control that lie at the heart of cult life. Most of the standard literature on the subject speaks of protein and sleep deprivation, induced trance states and (eventually) deprograming as stages in the cult journey while neglecting to mention the very real appeal that cults can offer by providing meaning and structure, ecstatic experiences and hope (albeit false).
My understanding of cults derives from my own experiences in the TM movement of the 1970s. Most remember TM as a benign, non-religious form of self-relaxation imported from India by the giggling Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (he of Beatles fame). In truth, there were two levels to the movement: the outer court, consisting of regular people going about their everyday lives enjoying the benefits of self-induced meditative trance, and the inner court, consisting of the TM instructors, course facilitators, yoga teachers, childcare workers, kitchen staff and administrative support necessary to sustain a global movement. Those drawn into the inner court, as my family was, experience the more cult-like aspects of the TM community.
But it's not my intention here to speak about my experiences of TM life (although I have written of it elsewhere) but to share what it taught me about differentiating cults from normal religions.
So what makes something a cult? Who decides?
Cults always warp the fabric of whatever society in which they exist. For example the Peoples' Temple, founded by Jim Jones, was racially mixed and required its followers to give over the entirety of their property and savings in trust to the church. At the time, this ran against the grain of hyper-capitalist, recently desegregated America. Similarly, the Unification Church (or, "Moonies") require followers to cut off ties with all outsiders, including family members. This goes counter to our social values concerning the sanctity of individual liberty. And the Manson family had drug-fueled orgies.
My point being: cults transgress. It's intrinsic to their nature. And because they transgress, they find themselves unmoored from society and at the mercy of their leadership. Because the other characteristic of a cult is that its leadership is unquestioned and accountable to itself alone. Cult leaders enjoy unchallenged power. This makes them highly dangerous and very likely, in a transgressive movement, to come into conflict with mainstream society.
Consider David Koresh of the Branch Davidian Church, whose resistance to lawful authority led to the massacre at Waco. Koresh, who served as the model for Kezzie, the main character of my novel KEZZIE OF BABYLON, believed himself (like Kezzie) to be the embodiment of a Biblical personage. In Koresh's case, Jesus Christ. Kezzie, somewhat more modestly, fashions herself as the Angel of the Apocalypse. But the results are similarly explosive.
I was honored to receive some fine blurbs from fellow writers for this book, including one from my old pal Eric Del Carlo. Eric, frank as ever, noted in his cover e-mail: "I find Kezzie about as believable a character as Madea in a Tyler Perry film." I laughed aloud at that, particularly since much of Kezzie's dialogue was adapted directly from David Koresh himself, as drawn from extant audio and video records. Eric's skepticism is perfectly understandable, however, given that most cult leaders are - by definition - unbelievable. This freakshow quality lends them an aura of otherworldly authenticity. As the documentary appended to the end of this essay notes: "Since the death of God, there has been a vacancy."
I don't know about you, but I consider believing oneself God to be a defining characteristic of insanity.
# # #
And so Kezzie the cult leader in my novel is unquestionably insane. And what she does to a society under her complete domination and control is, while compelling, not that far from real life.
Jim Jones led his Peoples' Temple to mass suicide.
Koresh's cult ended in a blaze of gunfire and flame.
Manson's family has spent most of the past half-century in jail.
Cults. Transgressive, under total domination and programmed for collision with mainstream society.
# # #
After placing the character of Kezzie, the insane charismatic cult leader, in a absolute control of a heavily-armed commune running a marijuana grow-op on northern Vancouver Island, I asked myself: what would be the tipping point that sets Kezzie on her collision course with destiny? (Aside from a zombie infestation.)
Without revealing too much, I'll say I did some research on the snake handling churches of Appalachia. This bizarre Pentecostal tradition, while unique, does not qualify in my opinion as a cult. That is because membership in their churches is entirely voluntary, and to my knowledge they do not seek converts to their faith. Mostly these churches - like a lot of American fringe churches such as the Westboro Baptist clan - are family affairs. And although families can have cult-like characteristics, these churches are not cults but rather fringe religions dominated by a small endogamous group. But I adapted some of their practices and thus allowed Kezzie to extend the terrible circle of her power.
Think "zombie whisperer."
# # #
So where does that leave us?
Religions are a global phenomenon, a normal part of mainstream human societies around the world. Most anthropologists will tell you that religions serve as a social safety valve by offering answers to impossible questions like: where do we go when we die? What is the meaning of life? But this, too, is a shallow explanation. Religion provides a spoonful of medicine along with the sugar - a small element of mind control along with the comforting narrative - at least to the extent of providing answers to deeply personal questions we feel reluctant or ill equipped to research for ourselves. And that is perfectly acceptable. Billions of people around the globe draw comfort from their religion without harming anybody else.
Here is the difference: they are CHOOSING to believe.
Cults remove the element of choice from human belief. They coerce devotion and obedience from their followers, which should ideally be given willingly to the object of one's adoration. We must come to the Divine on our knees, yes. But we must come willingly. And alone.
Pick up Jamie Mason's Kezzie of Babylon at Amazon.