Hollywood’s Obsession with Cult Leaders Has Just Begun

Like most Hollywood trends, the rise of cult fiction is undoubtedly anchored to societal anxieties.
By  · Published on September 4th, 2018

If you’ve noticed an uptick in movies and television shows about cult leaders over the past few months, you’re not alone. It seems like every other headline these days is about a different Charles Manson film; with a handful of high-profile movies in the pipeline, one could be forgiven for thinking this is just the latest Hollywood trend of fighting over release dates for similarly themed projects. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see a variety of films about cult leaders and their followers set for the rest of 2018 and beyond, begging the (somewhat obvious) question: why is Hollywood so obsessed with enigmatic men who lead their followers to ruin?

Like most Hollywood trends, the rise of cult fiction is undoubtedly anchored to societal anxieties. In this case, the anxiety can be personified by a single person. Much has been written about the magnetic hold that Donald Trump has over his constituents, even as his administration enacts policies that negatively impacts their lives. In a recent interview with Pacific Standard, researcher Janja Lalich drew on her background studying cults to describe this kind of enigmatic behavior. “The people around Trump, and the Republicans in Washington, absolutely kowtow to him, either out of fear they’re going to anger him, or out of adulation,” Lalich explained. “That behavior is very typical of a cult.” With plenty of articles available exploring this troublesome relationship between a self-interested megalomaniac and his army of ideologues, the pump has been primped for films that explore this same link between ‘charismatic’ leaders and the people who get caught up in their wake. That’s where 2018 comes in.

Granted, movies about enigmatic cult leaders tend to pop up every few years. Every major film site has their list of underrated or under-appreciated movie cults; our own 2018 list included everything from the original The Wicker Man to John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. We’ve even experienced an uptick in movies from the past decade about the impact of culture leaders on their followers. Ti West’s 2013 film The Sacrament offered the director’s fictionalized take on the 1978 Jonestown massacre; Sean Durkin’s 2011 Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene helped vault Elizabeth Olsen into the upper tier of emerging actresses. Throw in movies like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), Riley Stearns’s Faults (2014), and Alex Gibney’s Going Clear (2015), and it’s clear that cults are not just limited to psychedelic ’70s films. The links between power and people will always be fertile ground for Hollywood storytellers.

That being said, even with those titles in mind, there’s something special about the projects in 2018 and 2019. One such project was Waco, the retelling of the 1993 standoff between federal officers and members of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. Airing on the Paramount Network in January, Waco marked the television debut of Drew and John Erick Dowdle, the filmmaking duo better known for claustrophobic thrillers (Quarantine and As Above, So Below). On paper, it seems like an odd match; in practice, the duo’s background as horror filmmakers is essential to what makes Waco such a captivating six hours of television. Not only does the show indulge in shocking moments of violence during the shootout and tragic fire, the Dowdles’ understanding of psychological horror heightens the quiet unraveling of the besieged community. A few months later, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead would release The Endless, a heady science-fiction thriller that nevertheless explores the complex pull these cults can have on their long-departed members. Oh, and don’t forget about Wild Wild Country, the Netflix docu-series about a complex 1980s Oregon cult that our sister site Nonfics routinely ranks among the must-see documentaries available on streaming. Three different explorations of cults, three standout examples of their medium so far this year.

But if a television series about David Koresh or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was the opening act for cult aficionados, then the main event is the upcoming deluge of projects about Charles Manson, the infamous architect of seven Los Angeles murders on August 8, 1969. Countless books have been written about the Manson murders; Karina Longworth even devoted an entire season of her wildly popular podcast You Must Remember This to how the Manson murders were inexorably tied to the people and places of 1960s Hollywood. With the death of Charles Manson in 2017 and the 50th anniversary of the killings occurring in August 2019, it’s not surprising that several projects have been lined up to explore Manson’s cult and its long-lasting impact on popular culture. Each of these adaptations seems poised to use the fact of Charles Manson as a framing device for broader stories about our society and culture.

The most high-profile of these projects is, of course, Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the writer/director’s sweeping examination of a Hollywood rocked by these high-profile murders. While plenty is still unknown about Tarantino’s film (Lindsey Romain of /Film has probably the most comprehensive rundown of everything that’s found its way to the public), it promises to move beyond the simple facts of the case and into a broader examination of Hollywood and America at the end of the decade. Similarly, there’s director Mary Harron‘s Charlie Says, which promises to emphasize the perspective of Manson’s female followers. The film opened to mixed reviews this past week at the Venice Film Festival, but The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Mooney nevertheless calls it a “thoughtful and provocative” examination of “bogus revolutionary rhetoric used to undermine and control women” while also suggesting that the film is an important synthesis of period storytelling and the modern era of heightened awareness towards displays of systemic abuse. And then there’s Season 2 of David Fincher‘s Mindhunters, which will reportedly feature the ’80s version of Charles Manson as he serves out his life sentences behind bars.

As for the future? There’s still no shortage of cult leaders to bring to the big and small screens, and plenty of adaptation opportunities for the stories already told. As long as there are stories about people who put the wants of a charismatic leader above the needs of their own family and friends, there will be room for stories about the David Koreshes and Charles Mansons of the world. Given the early returns, let’s hope that this is a trend that continues for the foreseeable future.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)