Why We Can’t Stop Watching TV Shows About Cults

Long after the communal living experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s, America is still dreaming about dropping out.

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

“Home” is probably the happiest song that’s ever made me cry. I first heard it on the original soundtrack for The Source Family, a 2012, Marie Demopolos and Jodi Wille-directed documentary about the legendary 1970s communal living experiment by the same name, founded by L.A. health food restaurant tycoon Jim Baker, bka Father Yod. Originally released on All or Nothing at All—the fourth and final album by Father Yod and the Spirit of ’76, one of the rock & roll-loving community’s many house bands—it’s just some acoustic guitar strumming and a little playground melody, sung in a smiling tenor by a male band member named Djin Aquarian. He’s singing about the gentle rhythms of life on the commune, a world so green and sun-dappled and welcoming that even though you’ve never been there, you’ll probably feel a little homesick for it: We’ve got a nice little place we can go/ Where everything flows, and everything goes/ Take a deep breath/ Don’t you just know, it’s home.

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The singer continues with a list of the many wonderful things you’ll have when you drop out of modern Western society and join the Source Family, things that can be surprisingly hard to come by for a young person in 2015, even in a city purported to "have it all”: We’ve got pure water, air, and sun, simple food, room to run/ All for love and love for all. I like to listen to “Home” on headphones while walking along the Brooklyn waterfront in the summer; it lets me indulge in a “back to the land” fantasy whenever life in New York is feeling a little too money and ego-driven, a little too cruel and impossibly fast-paced. It suggests the possibility of doing away with the things that don't matter, and having the things that do matter available to all, simply for the very reason that everybody deserves them: food, shelter, community, spiritual development. More than anything else, though, “Home” is just a comforting song to hear, real-life proof that there are other possible worlds than the one that is getting you down.

Of course, when it comes to my years-long Source Family obsession, the word “fantasy” is key. The community dispersed about a decade before I was born, and though former member Isis Aquarian remembered it quite fondly when I interviewed her for this magazine, it was, for all intents and purposes, a cult, run by a man who took 14 wives, declared himself to be God, and denied sick community members access to traditional medical care. The Source Family lived primarily on revenue from Sunset Strip vegetarian restaurant The Source, and when they eventually sold the place and moved to Hawaii, they found themselves unwelcome there, haunted by the specter of failed experiments past: “Because when we left LA,” Aquarian recalled to me,” nobody gave us an opportunity to start another restaurant or get grounding anywhere. When we came to Hawaii, they thought we were somewhat like the Manson family. They just weren’t ready for who we were, and we never even thought that anybody would think that about us because we’d lived in L.A. for so long—we were like the darlings of L.A. […] That basically started [Father Yod’s] journey—all he really wanted to do was find some land where we could live by ourselves and be self-sufficient, but that just didn’t work out.”

The trope of the power-hungry, pathologically narcissistic cult leader—one who enacts the same evils and exploitations as the mainstream society to which he’s offering his followers an escape—is one that American history presents us time and time again. And yet, if the shows we consume on television are any indication, we seem to be increasingly obsessed with cults these days. Recently, Velvet Goldmine and Safe director Todd Haynes announced that he was working on a TV mini-series on Father Yod and Source Family, dramatizing some of the real-life events chronicled in the Demopoulos and Wille documentary. Just yesterday, absurdist comedy duo Tim and Eric announced their new book, Zone Theory: 7 East Steps To Achieve A Perfect Life, trolling American new age self-help culture with a promotional video that drew an awful lot on the garish ‘90s aesthetics and nonsense-word lingo of Scientology—which also happens to be the subject of 2015's Going Clear, the most-watched HBO documentary of the past ten years. Then there's Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which derives its comic premise from the question of what would happen if somebody locked in an underground bunker for fifteen years—held captive by an evil doomsday sect leader played by a characteristically smooth-talking John Hamm—was forced to navigate the confusing ins and outs of work and dating in present-day, post-internet New York city. Speaking of John Hamm, Mad Men had its very own cult moment last year, when fans speculated as to whether Roger Sterling’s daughter had gone and joined a kind of upstate New York version of the Mansons.

And speaking of the Mansons, I’ve spent the past few days trying to slog through Aquarius, the new NBC series that piqued my interest after flooding New York’s subways with an image of David Duchovny sporting a pair of rainbow-colored shades (stream it in full here). Duchovny plays a gruff Los Angeles police officer, tasked with tracking down a 16-year-old girl, Emma, who runs away from her lawyer father and alcoholic housewife mother to join the Manson family after discovering her boyfriend cheating on her at a party. Initially, it’s some well-chosen words from Manson that convince Emma to walk out on her comfortable but stifling bourgeois life: catching her outside the house where the party is being held, he gestures toward a glittering Los Angeles freeway in the distance, and tells her exactly the sort of things that a lost, misunderstood teenager would want to hear: “I know a lot of things about you,” he says. “I know how much it hurts—like your whole body, your soul, screaming to be heard. Nobody’s there listening.” He continues, and the screen cuts back to an image of the highway, as though we are meant to understand it as a symbol for the capitalist America she’s about to escape: “You see, when that snake comes to eat everything up, do you know what will save you? Do you think daddy will save you? Or that boyfriend of yours? No. You'll survive with me. With us. You see, the snake eats the world. We eat the snake. I’ll show you how, then nothing will ever hurt again.” As he speaks, Emma tears up, as though it’s dawning on her that she never truly felt “understood” before that moment.

Of course, as with many American cult stories, things aren’t exactly as they appear: despite his arresting words and delicate way around acoustic guitar (he was, somewhat disturbingly, a talented musician in his own right), Manson turns out to be a serial rapist, murderer, blackmailer, pimp, and petty crook, with a penchant for using his followers’ bodies to further his own agenda. The woman who Emma catches her boyfriend receiving oral sex from at the party is actually one such female cult member, ordered by Manson to distract the young man from Emma so that Manson can home in on his prey. Further thickening the plot, Emma’s buttoned-up attorney father, Ken, is revealed early on to be none other than Manson’s own lawyer—and, by the third episode, also a former lover of Manson’s. Though the one may seem to represent an “alternative” to the other, Manson’s social experiment and the rhetorical “snake” of 1960s corporate America are literally “in bed” together—not just hopelessly entwined, but governed by the same, tyrannical logic.

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Full disclosure: I’m having a hard time getting through Aquarius without falling asleep mid-episode; its plot is way too convoluted, and its acting too flat, to hold my interest for very long, and I keep having to rewind through certain passages to keep track of who is saying what. Still, I think the very existence of a series about Manson on mainstream TV says something about where we’re at as a society: over half a century removed from the failed utopian experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s, we’re still endlessly fascinated by the idea of dropping out, and that’s probably because dropping out feels less possible than it ever has. We’ve simply seen too many examples of utopianism gone awry, and too many instances of the American counter-cultural impulse being swallowed up by the marketplace and sold back to us. When we watch a TV show like Aquarius, we’re transported back to a time before people necessarily “knew better” than to think that other worlds, and other homes, were possible; even in watching Manson’s most sinister moments, we experience the vicarious thrill of living life completely according to one's own, made-up rules—of breaking with consensus reality as we know it, of starting with utopian intentions and going way too far.

We’re still endlessly fascinated by the idea of dropping out, and that’s probably because dropping out feels less possible than it ever has.

Still, as Alex Frank recently pointed out on this website, the enduring impact of the flower-power era on the present is best encapsulated, not by the looming possibility of a rupture, but by the final, haunting scene of Mad Men: Don Draper goes to find himself at coastal California commune, and mid-meditation, has a vision for how to leverage hippie culture’s peace-and-love ethos to sell Coca Cola. It’s an outcome I think of often whenever I’m walking around my neighborhood on weekend afternoons, marveling at the way in which Greenpoint can sometimes feel like the low-key Laurel Canyon of Brooklyn, with its endless yoga studios and juice bars and new age community centers offering reiki training classes and new age speed dating events. There’s even a vegan restaurant there that sort of reminds me of the Source—it’s called the Jungle Café, and from what I have heard, its owned and operated by an experimental live-in community and shamanic institute called the Golden Drum, self-described as “a cultural center created for the healing, transformation, the expansion of consciousness of humanity.”

Maybe there are some people—even in a city like New York—who are actually creating and living out their own real-world alternatives. For the greater majority of us, though, new age ideas—like watching shows about the ‘60s and ‘70s on streaming TV—have become something we turn to when we want to escape for a little while. Taking up tarot, or meditation, or past life regression, can feel like dropping out of society for a moment; imagining the existence of other worlds can make our existence in this one just a little more bearable.

Back when I interviewed Isis Aquarian, I asked her about the foundation of Father Yod’s belief system. “We took from everything,” she said. “We took from every religion. We took from past lives. We took from the mystery teachings. We took from the yogis. We took from the Buddha. We took from whatever made sense and worked to us and distilled it into our own uniqueness.” That pick-and-choose, take-what-you-like-and-leave-the-rest eclecticism remains a core facet of new age culture; it’s an idea I’d say that I adhere to in my own spiritual life, only I can’t help noticing how perfectly it dovetails with our behavior as 21st century consumers. We express our view of the world—and even our desire to drop out of it—with the objects and experiences that we choose to spend our money on. But when escape becomes something that you buy, it ceases to be a real escape. Maybe it ensnares us even further in the world that we’re escaping.

Still, the idea of dropping out is knotted so tightly into the fabric of American culture that I doubt that it’ll be going anywhere anytime soon; in fact, I think we need it to survive, even if that just means carving out a little bit of calm, or a little bit of green, in the midst of a daily commute. Recently, I stumbled upon a website for a mysterious “research clinic”/art collective called the Institute For New Feeling. It’s run by artists Scott Andrew, Agnes Colt, and Nina Sarnelle, and seems to specialize in co-opting the modalities of contemporary self-help and new age culture—trust falls, guided meditations, clairvoyant readings, experimental “wellness treatments”—to remedy problems specific to life in the internet age.

According to an article on ArtHopper, during a recent book launch event at SPACES in Cleveland, on-site offerings from the IfNf included a “Cure For Loneliness” by artist Lenka Clayton, inviting spectators to fill their pockets with pieces of paper bearing the handwritten names of their friends, as an antidote to our current landscape of digital-based interaction. Another—“Treatment for Hyperactive Electronic Response Syndrome,” by Luke Loeffler—involves receiving a string of spontaneous text messages that you are supposed to resist the compulsion to look at. The idea being that it will help remedy our “instant, habitual response to electronic notifications” and the “loss of productivity” and “increasing need for affirmation” that staying connected engenders. I need to go to the next Institute For New Feeling event and experience these new-fangled remedies for myself, but they feel like a reminder that our capacity to imagine other worlds, and new feelings, doesn’t necessary need to be a retro-gazing one: as we speed into an uncertain, technology-saturated future, it may be the thing we need to hold onto if we’re going to hold on to ourselves.

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Why We Can’t Stop Watching TV Shows About Cults