Written by James Steaton-Pritchard
Horror trends have always had a tendency to fluctuate wildly. One minute you can’t move for zombies, the next it’s ghosts or giant monsters and before you know it everyone’s talking about a zombie revival again. It can be quite frustrating to see a sub-genre continually flogged long after the horse has died, but this phenomenon is often credited to horror’s subconscious ability to reflect the societal fears of their time before the market is flooded with cynical copycat cash-ins. Monster movies and body swap films were an expression of nuclear proliferation and the red scare communist fears of the 50s, torture porn is often credited as an attempt to tackle the post 9/11 terrorism fears of the day and slasher movies of the 80s challenged the Reaganomics conservatism which controlled the USA.
Horror’s most recent trend has seen a spike in stories based around evil cults. Everything from Lovecraftian monster-worshippers in The Void, to true crime recreations in Wolves at the Door, to Ari Aster’s work in Hereditary and Midsommar (although there is definitely a debate to be had about culture vs. cultist when it comes to Midsommar). So, if the popularity of a horror sub-genre is tied to societal fears, what do these films say about the current world and how cinema audiences feel about their places within it?
Cults have had a number of notable spikes in popularity throughout cinema’s history, all of which can be tied to notable news stories which pushed cult activities into the zeitgeist. Don’t just take my word for it, with the helpful resources of IMDb, AllHorror.com and my own readily failing memory I tried my best to track the number of horror cult movies made year by year. This might sound like a boring task, but as shameful as it may be to admit, I love a good spreadsheet and what is a good spreadsheet without a graph? Things didn’t stop there. It’s all well and good knowing the number of films made about a subject, but that means nothing without knowing how that related to the number of films made in total right? So using the BBFC annual reports I was able to track the number of cult themed movies as a percentage of the total films submitted for classification in the UK per year. Oh yeah, I did some serious research on this.
Using the graph you can trace the ripple effect that major cult news events have on film production, each spike in the sub-genre’s popularity correlates with popular world events. The first notable spike happened in the late 60s and early 70s with the rise and fall of hippie new-age culture as it imploded with the Manson Family murders of 1969. “Dirty hippies” became the bad guy stereotype of the decade once the summer of love movement turned sour. I Drink Your Blood and Deathmaster married the violence with satanic and vampiric rituals in an attempt to make sense of the acid-fueled real-life violence. Rosemary’s Baby is an anomaly of the time, the danger this time hidden within polite society. For the majority of the 70s, long hair, dirty bare feet and tie-die were demonised and feared, and the horror movies of the time reflected this.
With the free love movement long dead, the opulent excesses of the 80s were undergoing their own bizarre and wholly unfounded fear of satanic ritual abuse bubbling under the surface of the American suburbs, just as Rosemary’s Baby had portrayed years before. Released in 1980, the book Michelle Remembers popularised the erroneous concept of unearthing repressed memories, the majority of which had a weird tendency towards satanic ritual abuse. This was taken so seriously that it resulted in a number of wrongful arrests which lead to serious jail time. This was the time of paranoia about the cultist next door, the satanic school teacher and the pagan in local politics. Satanic cults became a reference point for excessive b-movies like Ghoulies as well as larger budget fare like The Believers.
The 90s fell back out of love with cults, with the exception of Michael Myers’ induction into the crew, until the millennium had people very briefly thinking about the apocalypse again. Cults went quiet again for a little while until the mid-00s came along with a nice double whammy in 2007 with the airing of Louis Theroux’s Westboro Baptist church documentary and BBC Panorama’s Scientology and Me. All of a sudden Christian religious radicalism wasn’t such a far fetched idea and Red State came along to exploit that idea with wonderfully satisfying madness. Meanwhile the revelation that Hollywood was being controlled by a cult who exploited and segregated some of the world’s most famous celebrities paved the way for The Master to unsettle audiences in a less horror inflected but still amazingly effective way.
The early 10s kept the cult momentum going, still reeling from the Scientology’s continuing stranglehold on Hollywood. Then 2016 happened and all the previously held motivation for creating cult-based horror movies appeared to have been thrown out the window as the numbers started to rise like never before. There are no particularly big cult stories entering the public conscience at this time. No revelations about satanic cults on your doorstep. No mass isolationist suicide pacts. Yet still, cults were the focus of more movies within the past five years than the entirety of the preceding decade. Mandy, Hereditary, Satanic Panic, The Haunting of Sharon Tate and the Black Christmas remake are just a few examples of the cult trend permeating contemporary horror cinema earning more in the box office than ever before. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood turned mass audience attention to the grizzly details of the Manson Family Murders like never before and even TV was getting in on the act, American Horror Story airing its Cult season in 2017. So why is it, that in the absence of any notably newsworthy cults, the subject has become such a touchstone for horror in the late 2010s?
Fear of cults mainly comes from a couple of central overlapping themes. Firstly there are the People’s Temple/Heaven’s Gate examples of how open the human brain is to manipulation and control when in the wrong hands. These are mind-boggling examples of mostly normal yet vulnerable people having their psychology moulded by a charismatic leader into believing things which are obviously bullshit to the casual observer. It becomes almost impossible to empathise with human minds which seem to have left all rationality and logic behind. The Sacrament is the shining example of this, bone-chillingly accurate in its approximation of real-world events, but The Endless and Apostle both creepily explore the idea of deprogramming and brainwashing in isolated separatist cult social groups.
The other form is the more secretive undercover cult which controls and maintains the world’s malicious status quo. From Lovecraftian ancient god-appeasers, to the middle-class pagan living next door who smiles politely at you in the supermarket before going home to slaughter babies in the name of a bountiful harvest. The protagonists are often powerless in a world which has been formed by those with positions of power in order to exploit the general population. Think Kill List, Hereditary and (my favourite) Society. They revolve around a clandestine system which values the past and is unwilling to move on and accept new ways, often planning for or actively encouraging the apocalypse.
Why are these themes resonating with current audiences then? Well, we currently live in a world where selective echo chambers online allow the public to subjectively choose what points of views they are surrounded by and narrow down the pool of voices whose opinions they are able to consume. Coupled with this is the popular narrative that the world is at the most socially, financially, politically and ethically polarized it has ever been, with a number of large political turning points being decided by the slimmest of majorities. This contrast between online and real-life makes it increasingly difficult to understand just how someone, let alone a majority, or very close to it, can believe so strongly in something that seems at odds with how any well-thinking human should want the world to work. Not only does it clash with your own internal vision of the world, but also with the one you have constructed inside your own selective social media bubble.
The language usually saved for cults around brainwashing, mindless acolytes and subservience to a charismatic figurehead, is often the only way we can parse the dichotomy created by our self-curated society when contradictory numeric results steamroll their way into our lives. Stepping outside the day after a big political event can feel intimidating and unnerving. Having factual confirmation that such a large number of the people surrounding you hold opposing views to you can often feel like you are surrounded by a secret cult. They look normal but have been brainwashed by the charismatic leaders who lead them astray, the phrase “drink the kool-aid” is thrown around so readily that is now wholly separated from its suicidal cult origins. This has also resulted in a generation which feels bitter towards its elders, which it sees as blindly holding on to old ideas, using their unfairly distributed political power to dictate a future they won’t be around to see, dismissing current long term issues in favour of short term gains.
Horror’s modern obsession with cults taps into something deeper than the physical threat cult’s presented in the past. They solidify the feelings of confusion and disorientation in the current social climate and form some semblance of an explanation for it. People can’t truly, independently think in ways that your own logic can’t grasp, they must be under the control of some malicious outside influence.This feeling isn’t exclusive to any particular political alignment, both Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg alike are commonly referred to as cult leaders, and this phenomenon seems to be common worldwide. It has been commonplace for close fought political battles to swing world powers wildly from one extreme to the other in the past decade.
In a world where everyone seems to be believing in absolutes and changing minds and hearts is getting more and more difficult, there is an uneasy feeling that the world is at a breaking point. The BLM and #metoo movements have both demonstrated that people are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to social injustices which have been repeatedly brushed off as intrinsic qualities of the modern world. Get Out, Us and Starry Eyes vented these frustrations through horror in the past few years, Jordan Peele’s work becoming a figurehead for a movement striving to change attitudes within cinema, art and the wider world.
It’s probably fairly easy to predict the next horror trend will be based around global pandemics, viruses and infections. Hell, that might even lead to yet another wave of zombie movies, but the ideals which have been the catalyst for the evil cult boom aren’t going away anytime soon. With a generation actively and passionately voicing its unrest, it will be fascinating to see the impact it has on horror cinema. We have a current generation refusing to accept living in fear, so how will cinema plan on scaring them. Only time will tell, we’ll just have to see what it does to the graph.