Anbara Salam, the author of Things Bright and Beautiful – a story of two missionaries on a remote and mysterious pacific island – asks why we continue to be so fascinated by cults.
My partner and I don’t often argue, but when we do, it’s about murder. In the last couple of years I've developed an appetite for true crime - I listen to true crime podcasts, read books about FBI profiling in the bath. My preference is for a particularly American kind of long-form 90s documentary, with a shadowed typeface and a title like Secrets and Deceit, or Revenge and Repentance. But according to my partner, the constant background noise of autopsies and forensic investigations is ‘distracting’ and ‘horrifying’. To my surprise, I’ve realized that not everybody stays up late at night scrolling through clickbait articles about serial killers online. One weekend, when I was left to my own devices, I watched twelve grainy instalments of an unsolved 1990s murder case. Twelve. At this point I stopped to examine my own conscience. What has prompted my strange interest in true crime? I’m too squeamish to get a thrill from gore. Violence against women is not exactly my preferred entertainment medium - I can’t even watch grindhouse film trailers. And yet, I have a macabre fascination with real-life reportage.
The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, based Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a religious cult in America. Photo: Hulu
After consultation with my fellow murderinos, this is what I’ve settled on: true crime is essentially a neat package of all the extremes of human emotions - secrets and lies, revenge and repentance. The stories explore everyday vulnerabilities against the backdrop of love, jealousy, grief, against the struggle for justice and retribution. It is the pure stuff of life, wrapped up in a mystery, flavoured with a perverse justification for my social anxiety.
Now I understand, it’s still morbid. But here is where I urge you to examine your own late night Wikipedia searches - is it so unusual to harbour a secret fascination with the macabre, the unexplained, the grisly? I think that most of us have a quiet interest in something that would cause mortification if accidentally sent to the work printer. Ghosts, parasites, conspiracy theories, superviruses, aliens, the Loch Ness monster.
And this is where we come to the topic of cults. In my experience, cults are the acceptable face of morbid fascination. From the success of the novel The Girls, the podcast Heaven’s Gate, or the compelling and binge-worthy Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, our cultural fascination with cults doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. My doctorate was on contemporary apocalyptic belief, and it may not be very secure for a career choice, but it will be a lifelong gift for awkward dinner conversation because I have never yet met someone who didn't want to talk about cults. Even people in cults like hearing about cults.
There are several definitions of what constitutes a cult, but often we understand cults as a social group that practices a novel form of spirituality, focused around a particular personality. The essential liquidity of the term lends itself to fiction, as gifted storytellers take us right up to the line of transgression between ‘normal’ and ‘weird’, and explore the magnetic personalities of the gurus whose charisma lures unbelievers into their orbit.
Cults are the epitome of contemporary uncanny - people who can ‘pass’ as normative in public, but whose private devotions disclose an allegiance to the esoteric, the supranatural.
Cults are fascinating because they are ‘us’ and yet ‘not us’. Cults are the epitome of contemporary uncanny - people who can ‘pass’ as normative in public, but whose private devotions disclose an allegiance to the esoteric, the supranatural. The best portrayals of cults in fiction ask what it means to be socially transgressive, and they challenge readers: if our circumstances were just a little bit different, what kind of decisions might we make?
Of particular fascination is the idea of losing yourself to find yourself. Cult movements often perpetuate the idea that a participant must renege their previous personality, and become re-born in the new ideals of the group, to become a willing vessel for the ideology of a new leader. And that self-destruction is alluring and also repulsive, to western culture. The best fiction about cults captures this moment of tension between resistance and seduction. And especially satisfying are the narratives of those who have ‘escaped’ - finally recognised the group delusion and rehabilitated themselves on ‘our’ side.
Fiction allows us to question the appeal of cults, to explore what emotional bonds attract people, and what psychological pressures retain participants even when they have doubts. On the one hand, inside a cult, your everyday cares are contextualized against a grand eschatological drama. It renders all the everyday stuff pretty unimportant - if nothing else, an impending alien apocalypse is a relief from the anxiety over tax returns and unanswered emails. And yet, who would willingly choose to forfeit their individuality, to become a drone? Often fears about so-called ‘brainwashing’ are located in exactly this anxiety: the idea that one could be re-programmed as a simulacrum of your former self. The fiction below asks what happens after the annihilation of the self, and if the loss of the personal conscience lends itself to manipulation - the very banality of evil.
Fiction about cults allows us to flirt with the emotional vertigo of self-annihilation and submission. It captures people in their most vulnerable and hopeful, and explores the allure of the marginal. Fiction allows readers the safety of marvelling at the otherness of cult beliefs without turning the questioning finger against our own enculturated strangeness.
Novels about cults are a tantalising way for us as readers to satisfy that moment of possibility, of revelation and resistance. The books below feature cults as a way of exploring existentially human vulnerabilities - our fears of illness, death, the suffering of grief. The strange glamour of wanting to be ‘in’ the ‘in group’, even if they are morally ambiguous at best. Fiction about cults explore everyday vulnerabilities against the backdrop of love, jealousy, grief, struggles for justice, for answers. It is the pure stuff of life, wrapped up in a mystery, flavoured with a perverse justification for our own social anxieties.
Anbara's recommendations for further reading
More about the author
When Bea Hanlon follows her preacher husband Max to a remote island in the Pacific, she soon sees that their mission will bring anything but salvation...
Advent Island is a place beyond the reaches of Bea's most fitful imaginings. It's not just the rats and the hordes of mosquitos and the weevils in the powdered milk. Past the confines of their stuffy little house, amidst the damp and the dust and the sweltering heat, rumours are spreading of devil chasers who roam the island on the hunt for evil spirits. And then there are the noises from the church at night.
Yet, to the amusement of the locals and the bafflement of her husband, Bea gradually adapts to life on the island. But with the dreadful events heralded by the arrival of an unexpected, wildly irritating and always-humming house guest, Advent Island becomes a hostile place once again. And before long, trapped in the jungle and in the growing fever of her husband's insanity, Bea finds herself fighting for her freedom, and for her life.
'I was sucked into its dark beating heart and wasn't spat out until I'd turned the final page' Claire Fuller'
'Dark, mysterious, beguiling, and beautifully written. It transported me to a different world' Dolly Alderton
'An excellent, blackly funny debut ... a novel whose growing environmental and psychological horrors you can feel crawling across your skin' Daily Mail