Buildings and a church on an island in the ocean
#60: Anbara Salam 2018
The Enduring Appeal of Fictional Cults, July 7, 2022
In Rewrite Radio episode #60, Dr. Anbara Salam teaches us more about the human interest in cults, how they are represented, and how they reveal our deepest vulnerabilities and anxieties.
[00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, Dr. Anbara Salam teaches us more about the human interest in cults, how they are represented, and how they reveal our deepest vulnerabilities and anxieties.
My name is Heidi Groenboom, and I'm a Senior Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Dr. Anbara Salam works as an academic at the University of Oxford, where she also earned her PhD in 2014. Salaam researches contemporary apocalyptic belief, focusing especially on exorcism, death cults, and American-Evangelical Christian movements. Her first novel Things Bright and Beautiful, where she drew on her own experience working on the remote island of Melanesia.
And now, Anbara Salam from the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Anbara Salam: So where shall I begin? I'm from the UK. I just flew over yesterday. I've got a little bit of plane brain. So be gentle with me. And if the talk is terrible, then it's entirely the fault of my jet lag and nothing to do with me. This is also the first time I've been to this conference, and since I am in the first session, I'm in the unenviable position of not really having been to any other presentations. So quickly before I came here, took out the pop quiz on French post-structuralist that you're all going to get halfway through.
Right. So, I live in Oxford with my partner, and we don't argue much, but recently, we've started arguing about murder. Not murder in general, but in the last two years, I've developed a kind of weird appetite for True Crime. So my preference is for a kind of American, you guys do it really well. In England, it's all just like old ladies poisoning people. But I like American that’s kind of like 1990s, really grainy, you know, that like shadowy font, and it's called things like “Secrets and Lies” and like “Revenge and Repentance.” or something like that. I listen to True Crime podcasts. I read books about FBI profiling in the bath. I don't know where it came from. But according to my partner, there is a constant background noise of autopsies as are really off-putting, who knew.
But one weekend, I was left to my own devices, and I found myself watching twelve installments of a grainy 1990s documentary, about murder. Twelve. And I thought I really have to take a look at myself. What’s happening here? And I started to think about what has prompted this interest into crime, particularly because I'm not really that interested in violence or gore. I can't even watch people, you know, being injected. I can't look at that stuff.
So, where does it come from? And after talking to some of my fellow murderinos. What I've settled on–yep–is that true crime is kind of like a neat package of all of the extremes of human emotion. It’s secrets and lies. It’s revenge and repentance. And the stories explore kind of every day vulnerabilities against these big backdrops like love, jealousy, grief, the search for retribution, and for answers. It's the extreme stuff of life wrapped up in a mystery, flavored with like a perverse justification for my own social anxiety. So understand that it is still a bit morbid, but here’s where I ask you not to judge and to consider your own late-night Wikipedia searches that you might not want sent to the work printer. My sister-in-law is really obsessed with parasites. My brother loves to read about conspiracy theories. I don't know where these obsessions come from. But this is where we come to the topic of cults because, in my experience, cults are kind of like the acceptable face of morbid fascination.
My doctorate was on contemporary apocalyptic belief, and it may be not very safe for a career decision, as my parents are constantly telling me. But at least it is going to be a lifelong gift for dinner time conversation because everybody wants to talk about cults, even people in cults, like to hear about cults.
So my novel’s also just been published last week. That's it there: Things Bright and Beautiful. We had a really nice introduction already about it, but it's set in the 1950s, and it's about a couple who find themselves living in a village and under the influence of a local cult leader. And this is drawn from my own experiences of living in Melanesia in a similar environment. And really, I put in asterisks, say something about being in a cult here, so thanks, me.
[00:05:26] What can I say? Yes, this is my old island home. I was going to put a picture of myself in there, but I looked really depressed and thought you guys don't need to see that. Basically, I was living on a small island in the South Pacific, and it turned out that it was under the influence of a local cult leader who believed that women's bodies were particularly susceptible to inhabitation by demons and devils and spirits that lived in the jungle surrounding the village. So he was on this sort of campaign of taking young women, young, unmarried women, which included myself into the chapel and exorsizing them from, sort of performing rituals on them, forcibly, in some cases…me, every evening and for months and months. So, not not, not great fun. And that's what has been added…part of this experience has gone into my novel.
So I have got a doctorate in apocalyptic movements. I was accidentally in a cult, and I've written a book about cults, so you can definitely say that I'm guilty of this strange obsession as well.
So what is a cult? I'm wearing two hats today because obviously I'm a kind of private citizen who has written the book, but also have a doctorate in theology. So when I'm using the word cult and no this is not really what we would call it as anthropologists. And if this was an anthropology conversation, we'd be talking about new religious movements. So I'm, I want everyone to know that I'm completely aware of that. I'm using the term cult here because they actually want to talk about some of the kind of pejorative connotations that come along with that use of that word. So it's deliberate.
So there's lots of definitions of what constitutes a cult. What's the next slide? Okay. We often understand cults as a kind of social group that practices maybe a novel form of spirituality focused around a particular personality. But the liquidity of this term lends itself to fiction because gifted storytellers can take us right up to that line between normal and weird, and explore the kind of their magnetic personalities of those gurus who sort of lure unbelievers into their orbit.
So apologies anthropology disclaimer. So in the 1970s, these two sociologists, Ronnie Stark and William Bainbridge, came up with a model for the emergence of new religious movements, which is helpful for me to briefly introduce now because I'll talk about them later.
So, firstly is the Psychopathology Model which stresses how groups tend to illegitimate the mentally devian perspectives of their leaders, thereby initiating a shared malaise with those involved, who mistake the products of their own minds for external realities.
The second model imagines cult leaders as entrepreneurs, those who benefit monetarily, sexually, or by any other means from the credulity of their followers. And actually, I did obviously research for this talk, but I did some, I was interested to see what came up if I just surfed through the word cult into Google and cult leader, and that kind of stuff. And weirdly on Amazon, there are so many books. If you have a page, type in cult leader. All these books about management strategies, and how CEOs could model themselves on cult leaders in order to maximize loyalty and allegiance. It’s really quite, really quite interesting.
And the last is a model of subculture evolution, which proposes an idea of implosion. So we're social ties inside the movement are tightened at the expense of those in the outside world.
So what this does is create a kind of portrait of cult formation where increasing isolation from the mainstream results in the stifling atmosphere where cut off from social reality and utterly convinced of the authority of their charismatic leaders. Members are seen as invariably, substituting their own psychological or social representations for what is true. Now again as an anthropologist, I'm not completely convinced by this model, but it's definitely really useful when we consider the kind of portraits that we see of cults in fiction.
[00:09:59] In a way, fiction about cults, I think, has always a meditation on the idea of the other assume read the book, The Girls? Just one or two. Okay. So The Girls is a fictionalized account of a young woman who sort of on the fringes of essentially what is the Manson family? She doesn't actually describe it as that but loosely based…very closely based on the Manson family, and that women's participation in the tate-labianca murders. And that's quite an interesting example because it's using an intermediary character as our way in, and it sets up kind of a strange dynamic as a reader because actually to move the narrative forward, the character has to join the cult.
So, as a reader, we're put in quite a difficult position. On one hand, you know, from my guess, and moral perspective, we want to see the character, we just want to see the protagonist resist. On the other hand, we find ourselves almost hoping that they're going to join. We want them to achieve their aim, and we want the narrative satisfaction of the character achieving their goal. This means that we're kind of inhabiting a really weird mindset when we read about fictional characters joining cults, especially when those cults are real. So, for example, in Girls, or White Knights, Black Paradise, and if anyone's read that, again, that's very closely based on Jonestown.
So, to create social cohesion, cult movements often perpetuate the idea that a participant has to let go of their previous personality and become reborn, and the new ideals of the group, becoming a kind of vessel for the ideology of their new leader. So, what we find ourselves as a reader is kind of watching or willing the character's conversion, and this conversion is what we understand as like a radical transformation of identity or orientation.
Obviously, it's a lot of debate amongst Scholars about conversion itself. How does that happen? Is this a sudden? Is it a really a sudden transformational moment? Is it multiple steps that result in a shift in orientation? There’s sort of a debate about that. But of course, in fiction, we see that collapsed into, well, we're working with a very limited time scale. We don't have time to take us to the extensive psycho social dynamics of an individual joining a new religious movement.
So this kind of creates a really interesting dynamic when we're looking at a reader as a reader, we're looking at a character who's on the fringes of a movement because essentially the character that we're getting to know, if they do achieve their aim and they do join this new group, they actually have their personalities going to be transformed. It has to be if they're going to successfully integrate.
So this concept of kind of willing self-destruction, I think, is so alluring, but also repulsive to Western culture, and the best moment, I think, the best fiction about cults captures that moment, a sort of tension and resistance. The resistance to that seduction, especially when they focus on that sort of moment of transformation because that sort of process of cracking yourself open and becoming willing to transform is often the kind of...it's a consequence of vulnerability rather than the other way around, right? Because otherwise fiction depicts particularly vulnerable people who are susceptible, but I think it's probably the other way around as well.
Okay, so David Carter who's a literary theorist has suggested, sorry it's a long passage: “The apocalyptic imagination might be defined in terms of its philosophical preoccupation with that moment of juxtaposition and transformation, where an old world of mind encounters a new world of mind that either nullifies and destroys old system or makes it part of a larger design.”
So what he's arguing is essentially like that clash between two opposing worldviews, that radical transformation is actually, essentially, it's apocalyptic. He's saying that it catalyzes moments of great change, destruction, and revelation. And fiction about cults is kind of at its most powerful and it uses these tensions, this moment of potential transformation.
Has anyone read the book The Power? … No, ok, cool, because I was going to trash it, but you guys haven’t read it, so it doesn’t matter.
I'm going to move on. But this juxtaposition between the apparent world and the revealed message and the tension that lies between the consummation of one and the other, I think leads to a really important role for such fictions, which is obviously the power of transformation from within but also within the community.
[00:014:52] So the community of believers is the kind of all important focus of Science Fiction, and apocalyptic. They're the elite; they have the specialist status of comprehending the world around them, the truth, the real truth of the world around them. The community in this way is a kind of manifestation of both hope and crisis, symbolizing a comfort in the protection of others and a reaction to the terrifying otherness of that world.
So I think often we see that the Escape that so often cited as the appeal of apocalyptic isn't like an escape from the harsh realities of a harsh world, but an escape into a believing community.
So, Robert Putnam, who is this sociologist in 2002 wrote this book called Bowling Along, where he argues that we've seen a radical, social decline in that sort of social participation, that is he sees as healthy for both individuals and societies. And the title comes from like in the 1970s two-thirds of Americans are part of the Bowling Club, and now only one third are so that's 2002; I don't know what he'd say now on all of this. He probably the most he blames this on all kinds of useful, things like television, and suburbanization, and unstable job market and stuff like that.
But what he does point out, is that simplistic reassertion of notions, like tradition and community and local or national identity can also have reactionary negative political implications, and he gives the example of the Klu Klux Klan as a negative implication of that kind of bonding rhetoric that goes wrong.
And what he does is he creates this model of two different kinds of communities, exclusive and inclusive. So he says inclusive communities: a positive, they’re open flexible, egalitarian, and tolerant. Sounds lovely. Because they have bridging social capital that they generate, provides greater levels of particular human contentment. Yes. Sounds great.
Exclusive community, he says, through their insistence that membership of the community is conferred by factors that are non-negotiable–so race, gender, for example–they contribute inferior forms of social capital. So he's creating these models of good and bad communities, basically. And this idea of kind of good communities and bad communities, based on their levels exclusion or inclusion absolutely plays into the concept of the way that we imagine cults because in a way that they’re us but they're also not us. So I want to argue in that way, that kind of, I think cults are kind of the epitome of contemporary uncanny. They’re what we consider people who can like pass as normal in public, but whose private devotions discloses an allegiance to the esoteric, weird, unusual.
And the best portrayal of Cults in fiction ask what does it mean to be socially transgressive? And they challenge readers like if you're, if our circumstances were different, what kind of decisions might we make?
Fiction about cults allows us to explore what kind of emotional bonds attract people and what psychological pressures keep you within the movement even if you have your doubts. On the one hand, you know, inside a cult, your every day cares are pretty unimportant against this grand eschatological drama that's unfolding. I mean, if nothing else an alien apocalypse is like a relief from your tax return, right? But fictional cults never really did show that relief, actually. Instead, they sort of demonstrate that the answer to the tension between individual agency and the dynamics of humanity can't be answered by collective communal sensibility. Instead, it's the dominant well of a charismatic leader.
The leader these kind of narratives explain answer the yearning of the followers, and unburdens them of free will until they're all immunized against the language of self. And the orientation of the cult towards a sort of mass singularity rather than plurality of dialogue is basically constitutes a kind of malleable crowd rather than a dynamic good community.
Right. So in the navigation between the kind of humdrum and the divine, and the individual, and the collective, and this contrast between the kind of mundane and and the eschatological, this is right at the center of fiction about cults.
So there's a sky Frederick Kreuziger who was a scholar from the 1980s. He is now very unfashionable. But I love him. He says that, “While Utopia endures as an ideal plan, it fails miserably for a story. Neither is it possible to make Utopia a livable and habitable place. The dull stories of utopian societies in which nothing happens mirror the dull society in which nothing happens.”
[00:20:07] And I think he's completely right, actually. Utopia is probably one of the most boring story models you could ever read personally. I think when you read books that are set in a perfect world, you get pretty tired, pretty quickly. And in fact, that's where we readers of sort of fiction about cults, we find the most uncanny, so in the sort of so called Utopia of what we understand to be culturally abnormal. So if you think about, has anyone read Gather the Daughters? No? Okay. Well, it's like, essentially, the kind of boringness of cult life is actually what we find quite creepy. It's not the pomp and circumstance of science fiction or apocalyptic. It's so much more subtle and threatening than that.
What is it then about cults that lends itself to a particular kind of unease when we think about fiction? And I really, really struggled to think of any books where somebody joins a cult, and then their lives like fantastically transform for the better. I don't think it exists. I think there's a reason for that.
Cults often presented a somewhat kind of retrograde. So in fictional cults such as Gather the Daughters or The Handmaid’s Tale, on the left, that's Kimmy Schmidt in the bunker–their not-so-subtle reminder that appeals to tradition can often be as a means to achieve social cohesion can cut off and mask an agenda based on domination and submission.
Right, Thomas Robins, again a sociologist,acknowledges that cult communities can provide their members with a sense of communal belonging that's supposedly missing from mainstream society. However, what he claims is that movement centered around the appeal charismatic individuals are liable to become locked into a very erratic trajectory, culminating in sensational violence.
And I really struggle with how to address that, because, of course, on some levels, yes, we know that that's true. Right? We've all consumed those narratives. We know those stories if you're 30 or above, then, you know, you probably remember all the things that you've seen in the news. We all know what's happened with, you know, the Branch Davidians or Heaven's Gate. These very publicized events, really, tragic events, of course, yes, that's true. We know in a sense of that is true.
But actually I think it's very generous in a way to acknowledge to contend that the reason that culturally we find cults so sort of threatening or creepy or whatever is because they're doomed to inevitable destruction. I don't think that's the reason why I'm not convinced by that. If the dangerousness–maybe this is a poor analogy–if something’s dangerousness was what made us afraid of it, why aren't we all terrified getting into our cars in the morning? I just don't think it works. I'm not convinced by that argument. Especially because if we think about like real-life believers in new religious movements, I just don't think it's fair to say that, you know, rationality…that these participants are not engaging their rational faculties when they're invested in these movements.
And I think what's really interesting actually is how hard fiction about cults works to explain religious beliefs as a mask for something more fundamental social, economic, or political, or as a reflection of psychological needs. So, this is what we're seeing, right? We're seeing faith, here, faith in your cult as a mask for domination or submission for political agendas and of course, yes, we know that this also happens. But fundamentally, novels about cults are books about faith, aren't they? But they're not. Fiction about cults tells us very little about faith. They tell us very little about what it really feels like to believe. So I don't think that this dangerous cult trajectory actually explains why fiction works so hard to create ominous cult movements.
Okay, so C.S. Lewis and his essay collection “On Stories,” he's talking about horror. And he gives us this really long definition of horror, which I think is quite useful, so I'm just going to read it, like horror and fear. He says, “Different kinds of danger strike different chords in the imagination. This fear which is a twin sister to all, such as a man in wartime feels when he first comes in sound of the guns.”
[00:25:13] Actually, he's using a man all the way through, so I'm going to substitute women.
“There is a fear which is a twin sister to discuss such as a woman feels, on finding a snake or scorpion in their bedroom.” He says, “There are taught, quivering fears, a bit like a pleasurable thrill that you might feel on a dangerous horse or on a dangerous sea.” And he talks about dead, squashed, flattening, numbing fears like when you think you might have cholera. I mean, personally, I can't speak for cholera, but I do understand what he's saying there. “There are also fears which are not of danger at all. Like for example, fear of a hideous, even though it's an innocuous insect or the fear of a ghost.” But he says, “In imagination where fear does not quite rise to abject terror and is not discharged in action, the difference is much stronger.”
So for me, this is where I kind of reached my the object of fascination for me, which is decide notion of abject terror. And this is where we get into French post-structuralism, sorry. I swear, I swear, I cut out a whole section; no one wants to hear this, take it out, take it out.
Okay, but my personal research has really invested in this idea of abject and the abject horror. And I think that when we talk about fiction in cults is something extremely abject about the way that groups like this are depicted as operating.
So the person I'm going back to here is Julia Kristeva who wrote this book or Powers of Horror, Essay on Abjection, which is impossible to read. I do not recommend it. But I guess, read the Wikipedia page instead–but as a professor, I didn't say that.
She exposes a theory of horror and just this idea about the abject as a particular categorisation of horror. One that is essentially like includes a kind of rejection of abhorrence selfhood. So she says, “the abject only has one quality, it’s being opposed to yourself.” So she’s saying that things that aren’t abjective are uncanny, their power to disturb us draws from their relation to the self, remaining outside of our cultural or knowable range of acceptable experiences.
She says that it's basically the power of abject to disturb us comes to some sort of transgressive hybridity. She says, “it is not a lack of cleanliness or health that causes objection, but what disturbs identity, systems, or order–what does not respect boundaries, positions, rules, the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. This is all a very theoretical way of saying that if you kind of imagine like a discourse, like a religion, a community, whatever is more or less, as a sphere, a bubble, that abject becomes those experiences that lie on the outside rim of what we know and what we understand.
So they encompass anxieties, horrors, and suspicions that disrupt the pattern of the whole, things that can't be explained away by the structure. So yes, killer clowns, right? The uncanniness of the smiling mask that discloses the nefarious purpose underneath.
Abject is also something as simple as like mucus. Mucus is very abjective because it's transgressive, it's hybrids. It's me, but it's not me, right? That's why gross things are always slimy, you know in horror films. There’s a reason for that. The slime is abjective. Abject horror something like the horror of the Tylenol poison, right? It's not something that we can understand the horror of being you know shot during a robbery accidentally. It's lies right on those outer rims of uncanny fears that exist in that kind of Quagmire of strange evils that we can't explain away very simply.
So this brings me to the question that I asked quite a lot in my research, which is what role does abject play in fiction and in faith? Most fiction about cults explores this idea of abject horror by flirting with those tricks that we've already learned to be positive. So things like loyalty, allegiance, or obedience. Fiction about cults kind of like waves into the abject and lets us splash around in that Quagmire, the sort of doubts about those values.
[00:29:40] So fiction about cults I think is doing something really complicated. It's using our fears of the transgressive of the abject against us. It's showing how cults like pattern those fears in the wrong way. So when fiction describes like how it's wrong to put your faith in like a squid god or an electrical power, the inference is as we readers we know the right way. So that automatically puts us in a socially superior position, where we uncritically get to peer into this landscape of horrible objectiveness, knowing that we're the ones who are right–that the cults revelations are false, that their promises, but we know.
So, it explores this realm of abjection by asking about the apocalyptic personal transformation. Who would be willing to forfeit their individuality and become a drone? And that's where a lot of these fears about so-called “brainwashing” come from. That the idea that you could sort of be accidentally or deliberately reprogrammed to become uncanny.
So fiction about cults asks, what happens after the annihilation of the self. If the loss of your personal conscience always leads to manipulation, is it the very banality of evil? And that's where it's particularly satisfying, you know, those kind of narratives of those people who maybe were once in a movement and have now left, and I'm totally guilty of consuming this as well.
When my partner and I recently joined the same Kindle library, and you like Kindle Family library, and all these titles appear like one woman's quest for…she survived. I’m like no, no, don't read that. That's not for you. These are all, you know, I survived the cult stories, that you know, I'm guilty of finding really compelling because what it's doing is reassuring me that I'm on the right side. I love to read these stories. Abjects have been disclosed. These people have been rehabilitated. Right?
So fiction about cults allows us to kind of flirt with that emotional vertigo of self annihilation and submission. It captures people at their most hopeful and explores the allure of the marginal. It allows us to kind of explore the otherness, point a finger at the otherness, without turning the questioning finger against our own enculturated strangeness.
So novels about cults are a tantalizing way for us as readers to satisfy that moment of possibility and of revelation, but they also explore existentially human vulnerabilities. So they sort of self-consciously allow us to think about our fears of illness and death and grief and loss. And the strange glamour of kind of wanting to join the in-group, even if they're really not a good group to be in.
Fiction about cults explore these everyday vulnerabilities against these big backdrops of love, jealousy, grief, the struggle for justice, and for answers. And the best fiction about cults lets us witness people wrestling with the cords of faith that bind them to each other and to their communities.
Fiction about cults, I think, tells us a little bit about cults, but a lot about ourselves. I think it is essentially the best fiction about cults, even the best fiction about cults is a portrait of the extreme stuff of life wrapped up in a mystery, flavored with a perverse justification for our own social anxieties.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.