Andrew Pope explores cults, brainwashing and ‘bad religion’ in Howard David Ingham’s non-fiction book Cult Cinema.
Cults are a rich subject for genre pictures, from the secluded neo-pagans of The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973) to the underground Satanist network in Rosemary’s Baby (US, Roman Polanski, 1968), and a lot has been written on the subject – but usually as part of a dive into horror subgenres such as occult or folk horror.
Howard David Ingham’s excellent new book Cult Cinema takes a different tack. Subtitled ‘A Personal Exploration of Sects, Brainwashing and Bad Religion in Film and Television’, Ingham’s more personal approach stems from the time he spent in a charismatically-led evangelical Christian church. Armed with first-hand knowledge of how such groups work to recruit, control, and retain their members, he takes a fresh look at the depiction of cults in cinema. Each movie he covers is assessed not only by its entertainment value or place in the cinematic canon but also by how well it depicts the mechanics of a cult. Film by film, Ingham asks – do cults really work like this?
Covering not only horror but also comedies, popcorn blockbusters, social-realism and arthouse dramas, and grouped by theme (community, sublimated sexuality, etc), Ingham filters the films he selects through the prism of his life experiences. These include falling into and out of evangelism, and a family history of spiritualism and occultism. Ingham recognises the personal reality of annihilating experiences of the divine, but also sees cults as fundamentally rooted in controlling webs of interpersonal relationships, providing ripe grounds for abuse. He assesses each film by how well it depicts those contrasting elements.
The cope of Cult Cinema is wide enough to take in the post-Waco survivalist compounds of Red State (US, Smith, 2011) as well as the neo-pagans of The Wicker Man (UK, Hardy, 1973) and its antecedents Kill List (UK, Wheatley, 2011) and Midsommar (US/Sweden, Aster, 2019). Cults are sometimes depicted as being reactionary refuges from modernity, as depicted in The Master (US, Anderson, 2012), Safe (US/UK, Haynes, 1995), and Fight Club (US, Fincher, 1999), or as a Foucultian prison for homophobic conversion therapy, as in But I’m a Cheerleader (US, Babbit, 1999) or The Miseducation of Cameron Post (US/UK, Akhaven, 2013).
Ingham devotes a particularly engrossing chapter to the depiction of mass religious hysteria in films like the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947) and infamous video nasty Flavia the Heretic (Italy/France, Mingozzi, 1974). He joins Ken Russell’s superb The Devils (1971 – and still unavailable in an uncensored form, due to Warner Brothers’ perennially cold feet) with Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1961 Mother Joan of the Angels – both, after all, inspired by the history of the Devils of Loudun.
The apocalyptic murderousness of the Manson Family is explored via Manson Family Vacation (US, Davis, 2015) and Charlie Says (US, Harron, 2019), and in fictionalised form the phantasmagorical Mandy (2018), Panos Cosmatos’s blood-soaked post-hippy dream in scarlet and lilac, in which Manson himself is reimagined as the seedy washed-up gang leader and failed folk singer ‘Jeremiah Sand’.
Mandy proves a particularly interesting case study. After all, perceiving the divine, entering or pulling away from a cult, deprogramming – these are experiences that radically, even traumatically reconfigure the self, in ways that a person can never fully ‘overcome’; one can never go back. A person can go from enthusiastically embracing their new ‘authentic self’ to a slow realisation that there is no such thing. Each stage can feel a little like the end of history. That’s a vibe that Mandy captures particularly well, as a completely gonzo Nicolas Cage drives away into an apocalyptic airbrushed cosmic dream.
Given the author’s personal experiences, the chapter on breaking free of cults is particularly interesting – looking at everything from the PTSD paranoia of Martha Marcy May Marlene (US, Durkin, 2011) and the deprogramming battle of Holy Smoke (Australia/US, Campion, 1999), to the culture shock and post-traumatic rationalisations of Netflix sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (various, 2015-2020).
Ingham also explores the faux-Catholic iconography of Martyrs (France/Canada, Laugier, 2008), whose infamous brutality he sees as both drearily repetitive and shockingly nihilistic. He considers the core issue of Martyrs to be one of ‘simony’ – the purchase of miracles. Or, to put it another way, the incompatibility of capitalism with spiritual revelation. The cult in Martyrs is, after all, particularly well-heeled, and sinks a lot of capital into martyring young women as a mechanism for generating spiritual insights – outsourcing transcendence, you might say. Of course, having successfully seized the means of ecstasy, they are wholly unequipped to handle the rewards (Bourgeoisie 0, the Eternal 1, perhaps).
The films covered may feature two people in a room talking, or they might feature chainsaw duels, Lovecraftian demons, and raving occult priests. But as Cult Cinema shows, the best ones touch upon deep spiritual needs – and the social, cultural, and psychological traps that await those who reach for the eternal. Ingham’s wonderful book will be of huge interest to all readers interested in the cinematic depiction of the divine, and of the all-too-human gatekeepers who exploit our desire for communion.
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