Feb 2, 2018

From Waco to Charles Manson: what TV gets wrong about cults

There have been a slew of big-budget shows about the world of cult leaders, but many have fallen flat and missed the point of what makes a God complex tick.

Charles Bramesco
The Guardian
February 1, 2018

Underground film-maker Carey Burtt had satirical intentions in mind when he released his absurdist short film Mind Control Made Easy, or: How I Became a Cult Leader in 2006. Its opening narration still makes for a persuasive sales pitch: “Don’t you want devoted followers who will leave their families for you? … And will kill for you? Don’t you want to become a cult leader?”

Little annoyances such as moral imperatives pale in comparison to cash, power and a panoply of sexual partners. The followers don’t have it so bad either, as far as they can tell. Vulnerable, wayward types find the solace of purpose, or at least reorienting their messy lives in a single direction under strict rules.

Waco review – cult drama series retells violent history with little finesse

Waco, the US miniseries dramatising David Koresh and his Branch Davidian cult’s 51-day standoff with federal agents in rural Texas, frames this unit as something closer to a family. In Waco, Koresh has a familiar modus operandi: rough-hewn but charismatic, he gently preys on the lonely and confused, offering them community and support while explaining that the outside world can never understand the “beautiful, special” paradise that they’ve built for themselves. He fashions himself as the new Messiah, and speaks his every word as if it’s gospel. Anybody with a passing knowledge of recent history can tell that he’s concealing sinister intentions, but for his disciples living through the situation, they see the best in Koresh because Koresh sees the best in them.

Taylor Kitsch’s take on the leader of Waco’s Branch Davidian sect falls in line with a long succession of Svengali-type men using their magnetic charm to capitalise on the trust and kindness of others. Cal Roberts, the de facto leader of the fictitious Meyerist faith that Hugh Dancy plays on Hulu’s The Path, fits this mold. Handsome and self-assured, he casts his spell on the hard-living Eddie (Aaron Paul) by promising him redemption, assuring him that the superior self he so badly wants to be is perfectly attainable. Both Cal and this dramatised Koresh take most of their cues from Charles Manson, the original self-styled hippie god-king, whose dark story for the screen not too long ago with the short-lived procedural series Aquarius.

All of the aforementioned shows have struggled to find acclaim and an audience for a variety of the usual reasons: stilted dialogue, facile characterisation, and in the instance of Aquarius, hilariously on-the-nose period accoutrement. But they also miss a fundamental truth about Manson and his methods. Just beneath the surface of Manson’s rhetoric about enlightenment and the dawning of a new age for humanity laid a bedrock of hysterical rage and common bigotry. Manson fancied himself as a man of radical new ideas, but the paranoid fear of black power in the US that drove him to the “Helter Skelter” murders dates back to slavery. The fuel for his movement wasn’t perverted love, but rather hate operating properly.

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To this effect, the show landing closest to the mark just might be the latest season of American Horror Story, subtitled “Cult” and revolving around a murderous cell terrorising smalltown America. Proudly all over the place as the episodes might be, their observation that false prophets can gain a foothold through the public’s worst instincts rings true. Evan Peters portrays Kai, a rabid misogynist who twirls a faceless neighbourhood around his finger by indulging its residents’ most repressed ugliness. He grants them the relief that the things they’ve always been afraid to say out loud – mostly, that they despise women – are actually good and noble.

American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy likens Kai to Donald Trump, and indeed, they share a certain willingness to do or say whatever might benefit them in a given situation. (The most effective cult leaders are the ones who know better than to believe their own words.) But viewers can find his closest analogue in Rev Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, the Jon Hamm-played huckster that traps a small group of women underground for about a decade-and-a-half to lend The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt its premise.

Ever the natural comic actor, Hamm gets plenty of laughs, but exposes a frightening inner layer when challenged. The first-season finale sees Wayne taken to court for his crimes and he can feel himself losing ground, he exposes a curdled chauvinist petulance. Absurd, pathetic and disturbing all at once, he dispenses an immortal soundbite we may one day soon hear on Fox News: “Shut your mouth, Kimmy Schmidt! If God wanted women to talk, he wouldn’t have made their mouths look so much like their privates!”

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