July 9, 2021

Cults are everywhere right now. Since 2016, there have been major TV series about Jonestown, the Rajneeshis and Buddhafield; Keith Raniere’s NXIVM — a cult that involved literally branding women as sex chattel while also selling them quite dry self-help courses — has had two big TV series and umpteen podcasts made about it, even though the court cases are still ongoing. The voracious world of TV rights doesn’t get more frenetic than when a new cult breaks. They’re bingeable content for a streaming age: the natty uniforms, big personalities and big ideas are baked in. You don’t have to add much to make a drama.

Beyond these penny dreadfuls, the broader notion of “cult” oozes ever-outwards, both as marketing ploy and as symptom of a fragmenting society. Increasingly, we have come to see vague social trends through the lens of belonging; to view followership as a good in itself. You could perhaps trace this to 2001, with the “cult of Apple”: the snaking tech product launch queue has become its own trope. Around this time, queues sprung up, too, at Kings Cross’ platform 9¾, where adult Potterheads can still be observed, rotating round their personal Kaaba. Nowadays anything from jelly shoes to shower heads can be “cult”.

Yet nowhere has the cult of “cult” established itself as well as in fitness. SoulCycle, the LA spinning brand, is perhaps the most obvious example: it is regularly described as “a cult” for its theatrical class leaders (each with their own devoted following), its joyous sloganeering and its “community focus”. SoulCycle’s marketers reject the cult tag, but only in the most ah shucks way.

Ever since we were throwing virgins into volcanos, we’ve understood that pain is gain, morally speaking. From Jane “No pain, no gain” Fonda on, the modern fitness business has been keen to exploit that psychic flaw. Bikram Choudhury, the now-disgraced leader of the Bikram Yoga movement, would put those who came on his Las Vegas teaching courses through three or four-hour sessions in 40 degree heat, walking up and down muttering cheeky-chappie aphorisms as he toured the room. Around him, yoga pros would be fainting or puking. This wasn’t exercise. This was self-flagellation. Like the devoted Catholic Filipinos who nail themselves to crosses every Easter, it was a chance to become one with your lord and saviour via an apex of anguish.

Of course, moving in tandem can be powerful. No wonder Falun Gong (which The Chinese Communist Party has decided is definitely a cult) founded itself upon its nationwide morning Tai Chi-like exercise sessions. Military psychologists have long known that marching is principally about compounding a disparate group of individuals into a hive mind. In China, the CCP quickly became unnerved by the sight of hundreds of Falun Gong devotees, in parks and on street corners, acting as one.

Yet Falun Gong are an interesting case, in that they do have a single charismatic leader, and he does believe in UFOs. Yet their workout theology does not appear to be harmful, nor overly inward-looking. So, where does the cultish stuff we’re sold tip over into something more sinister?

As Amanda Montell explains in her new book Cultish: The Language Of Fanaticism, it’s a tricky question to answer. The experts don’t even use the term “cult” anymore — it’s both too broad and too narrow. The best definitions involve the lack of a break clause: if it’s hard to get out of, if people are trying to break down the bonds between you and your prior support network, if the language cleaves strongly into “us” and “them”, then it is probably a cult.

Montell tries to piece together how organisations build their own internal lexicon — and how that in turn builds its own metaphysics. The most instructive examples are also the most extreme. History has largely forgotten Heaven’s Gate, perhaps because it seemed almost a parody of a cult. UFOs. Shaved heads. Flowing robes. A mass suicide with an air of wipe-clean.

One sunny morning in 1997, Heaven’s Gate’s 38 members took a combination of vodka and barbiturates, then tied plastic bags around their heads, then died, in their flowing robes, wearing their Nike Decade sneakers (which Nike discontinued just after this publicity nightmare). A day earlier, they had all recorded their exit interviews. The tapes still exist — in fact they’re available on YouTube. These personal testimonials do not record a fear of death: quite the opposite.

For many years, the language of their guru, Marshall Applewhite, had gradually pushed Heaven’s Gate members through the looking glass. They knew themselves as “the away team”, meaning they were on the far side of the galaxy to their origins. According to lore they’d developed, Earth was being recycled, or as they put it, “spaded under”. In this context, death was “nothing to fear”, but in fact a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.

Unlike Jonestown or David Koresh’s Waco compound, this was not a group about to come undone. Inside Heaven’s Gate, life could easily have gone on in peace. But the jargon said otherwise. Gradually, their linguistic map had been rewritten; finally, they were conceptually committed to suicide. One by one, they’d accepted each tiny grammar modification, until the concept of “exiting your vehicle” seemed perfectly logical. This was the closest thing the linguistic postmodernists ever got to a field experiment, and it turned out they were right all along: language structures thought.

What happened at Heaven’s Gate, Montell wants to say, is just a bigger version of what is happening to us every day, as we navigate between linguistic vortexes of belonging. CrossFit, for instance, comes with its own lingo that connotes insiders: there’s “WoD”, the workout of the day, always named after a literal “fallen policeman or soldier”. Here, the gym is called a “box”. “C2Bs” are “chest to bars.” “DOMS” is “delayed onset muscle soreness”. Her conclusion is that there is no strict border between cult and not, but that recognising cultish language is a great first step to stopping ourselves from falling for those who would have us under their thumbs.

Here, her admirably big thesis bites off more than it can chew. In June of last year, CrossFit’s CEO, Greg Glassman, was sacked for questioning whether the murder of George Floyd constituted a “public health emergency of racism” of a scale worth breaking lockdown for. Montell decides this means he “outed himself as a shameless racist”. “By glorifying the police in its Hero WoDs,” she writes, “CrossFit had been telling on itself all along”. It is not noted whether Montell thinks white people washing the feet of black people is cult-ish, nor whether the definition would apply to building a 700lb statue of a former armed robber in central Newark. It seems even the experts can suffer from us-and-them thinking and in-group argot.

Beyond simply recognising cultish language, it might be a better conclusion to overtly recognise some of the submerged values that underlie our cultish obsessions. There’s an old meme of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the pyramid has been reformatted to have at its base: “Belonging”. Above it is a smaller level labelled “Status”. Then a tiny triangle atop of “Everything Else”. The reprise of the cult reminds us of quite how much truth there may be in jest.

Belonging eludes many of us these days, something with implications for the less-than-fully-formed in particular. Youth culture is increasingly monochrome. The internet has blobbed everyone together: Spotify, for example, has meant that people are ever-more omnivorous in their musical taste. The great style tribes of the past have faded away: there are no more mods, ravers, emos or the like, perhaps because the capitalist cultural machine is now so instant that it breaks new things down and eats their bones before they’ve had a chance to really get going. Perhaps that is why young people have found themselves at home in identity politics.

The paradox is that the same commodified lens that is trying to sell us everything as a cult is doing so by drowning us in choice. Just as with music, we now have infinite social groups we could be a part of. But what is the thing that is going to force you to be a part of it?

At its heart, a cult is a degraded kind of love affair, passion turned toxic. And more and more, what we’re looking for is to be whisked off our feet. It’s the sense of something that is not only bigger than us, but that pushes the locus of control out of our hands. And as our present hands-face-space era has illustrated, many quietly yearn to be told what to do.