Cults – both fictional and real – have proved endlessly fascinating. The exploration of them in horror seems to be a trend right now, and I am completely and utterly here for it. This week on Dead Head Reviews, we’re celebrating the release of Todd Keisling’s Devil’s Creek, a book which explores a different side to cults than one we normally see.
In horror, cults tend to take on a predictable form. Either the cult as a whole is the antagonist, drawing in – perhaps to sacrifice – a helpless protagonist, or we see inside the cult as it crumbles from the inside. Devil’s Creek, instead, takes a look at the possible aftereffects of a cult, focusing on those left behind after the leader has died. The focus here is on Jacob’s children, saved by their grandparents, all but one still living in the town near the infamous creek where the cult made its name.
Devil’s Creek explores the affect this cult, and their shared father, has had on their lives, and you can read more about the novel and our team’s thoughts during this week. But it is a unique way to examine a cult.
Other recent reads involving – though maybe not focused on – cults for me are Bone Harvest (James Brogden), The Cult Called Freedom House (Stephanie Evelyn), Follow Him (Craig Stewart), and The Festering Ones (S.H Cooper). Each tackles a different aspect, each shines a different sort of light on cults, and each shows how intriguing cults can be.
Bone Harvest never calls the community in the novel a cult as such, and though they don’t live together, they come together to perform a ritual, worshipping an ancient god. The Cult Called Freedom House is about a young woman who gets roped into a cult, and the police officer investigating it. Follow Him shows how a man ends up in one, and in The Festering Ones, the protagonist finds herself challenged by the worshippers of a mysterious being, who seek to hinder her quest. The thread through all seems to be the idea of elder gods, ancient beings older than humanity itself. Some of these also slip into the subgenre of ‘cosmic horror’, taking inspiration directly or indirectly from Lovecraft’s own Elder Gods cults.
Of course, cults ‘in the real world’ as such take different forms. Some may believe in a higher power different than that of organised religion. Others seem to have an extremist belief in God, while more tend to position their leader as the almighty power. Whatever their core belief is, one thing is evident; something about them draws in people. Something brings people together, and keeps them from escaping until it is too late.
One of the most infamous cults was The People’s Temple, located in Jonestown, led by Jim Jones and known now for the atrocious murders and suicides that took place there. Documentaries, podcasts and books have all centred around Jonestown (most recently, the Audible produced Escape from Jonestown, which is definitely worth a listen to). It’s hard to fully understand why people were willing to kill others in this massacre, why some were able to poison their children. Why others didn’t simply leave before it got to that point. But this is where part of the fascination lies; people in cults often do things that before, would be completely unthinkable.
The Manson Family, as a case in point, carried out horrific, brutal murders in the name of their leader. More recently, former Smallville star Allison Mack was deeply involved in sex cult Nxivm. Stories like these bring attention to these specific cults, but there are others that are lesser known, or perhaps too big to actually be brought down.
Fiction presents a safe space to explore these topics. And writers must delve deep – the best stories involve examining why someone might end up in these cults, when so many people insist “I would never get involved in one!”
The truth is, the people saying that often don’t understand the path people might take. They are likely to call the followers ‘sheep’, and it’s a shitty attitude to have. Cults prey on vulnerable people. They often provide the sort of things people are missing in their own lives, including family and community. They can start off seeming to offer an alternative to the daily grind of existence, giving followers freedom away from the rigid controls of society. Jonestown was a place of acceptance, initially, with many people able to be themselves with The People’s Temple when they weren’t able to do so outside of it. Jim Jones was a charming, charismatic man. As was Manson. They were, after all, able to draw a lot of people to them, able to convince people to follow their orders without question.
And herein lies the problem with some cult-based horror. They don’t always show why people are in the particular cult. The leaders might come across as bland, or we might just be told bits about them, but not enough to form our own opinion, not enough for us to say, “Oh, that’s why they follow them.”
More supernatural based stories can avoid this. After all, if someone witnesses the acts of an Old or Elder God, or gains something tangible from association with the cult, the leader doesn’t matter as much. An unseen presence can do all the work in helping understand what draws people in.
There does seem to be a spike at the moment in tales tackling cults. If this is a trend, it’s an intriguing one, and there are many different aspects to explore, a variety of different routes these stories can take. It’ll be an interesting trip down the rabbit hole, if this continues.
Do you have any recommendations for books about cults? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter or on Instagram!
Elle Turpitt is a writer and editor living in South Wales, UK. She is currently Head Copy Editor and Contributor for Dead Head Reviews, and has had her short stories published across various platforms. You can find her work in anthologies such as Seven Deadly Sins: A YA Anthology, and those by Fantasia Divinity Publishing. She has also appeared on Page & Spine, CommuterLit, and The Abyss. You can find out more about Elle on her website, elleturpitt.com, and via Twitter, @elleturpitt.