Cults Are Scarier Without Magic

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The cult in Midsommar is incredibly unsettling. Courtesy of A24

Evil cults, like the one that appeared in last year’s Midsommar, are among the most popular movie villains. Horror author Grady Hendrix notes that while most scary movies involve an external threat, the idea of a cult specifically targets our fear that we might stop looking out for our own interests.

“What people will do to themselves is so much worse than what other people will do to them,” Hendrix says in Episode 401 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley notes that horror movie cults tend to fall into four main categories—pagan (The Wicker Man), Satanic (Rosemary’s Baby), cosmic monster (The Void), and Manson-style (Martha Marcy May Marlene). “There’s obviously a little bit of overlap there,” he says, “but those are the four that most things seem to fall into pretty clearly.”

For every cult that wields sinister magic, as in Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions, there’s another that’s more grounded in mundane reality, as in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. Horror author Paul Tremblay says he’s much more frightened by cults that might actually exist. “As a writer and a reader and a viewer, I do love the supernatural, but I think I’m more drawn to horror when it can be grounded in realism,” he says.

Film critic Theresa DeLucci agrees that psychological realism is more unsettling than supernatural evil, even in a cosmic horror film like The Endless.

“What I thought was really interesting about The Endless, and what really stuck with me, wasn’t any of the weird Lovecraftian stuff,” she says. “It was the brother who was trying to find his footing in life again after he left the cult, and what happens to you when your belief system is shaken like that.”

Listen to the complete interview with Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, and Theresa DeLucci in Episode 401 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Barr Kirtley on Midsommar:

“The movie would have been so much better if the [human sacrifice] scene just did not happen in the movie at all, and then people just started disappearing, but there was no overt sign of danger. What makes this sort of story powerful to me is this sensation that something is wrong here, but everyone’s being so friendly, am I going to be the one who causes a commotion, starts making a fuss and accusing people, crossing this boundary where we can never go back to when everyone’s playing nice? And just the social pressure that can be exerted on you in a situation like that. So if nothing overtly threatening happened until the beginning of Act 3, rather than the beginning of Act 2, that’s what the movie should be, it seems to me.”

Paul Tremblay on paranoia:

“Part of the idea of TIs, or ‘Targeted Individuals,’ is that they have uncontrollable paranoid thoughts. The joke is they’re the ‘tinfoil hatters.’ But what’s been happening for the past decade or so, with the internet, is these people who think, ‘This is bugged, the government’s out to get us,’ when they go to their therapist, the therapists tell them, ‘No, this is not real.’ And as you can imagine if that was you, that would bum you out, and they find these online communities where people say, ‘No, this is real. This is happening to me too.’ So many of these people are eschewing professional mental health and reinforcing their own beliefs online. … So I read about that [as research] for The Cabin at the End of the World.”

Theresa Delucci on the movie Mandy:

“One of my favorite parts of Mandy was the first time Mandy meets Jeremiah Sand, the cult leader, and he gives her this whole long speech. He’s in this shitty living room surrounded by his other loser followers, and he takes his robe off, and he’s naked, and he’s like, ‘You’re special, Mandy. Be special with me.’ … And she just lets loose with this wicked, wicked laugh. I love the energy of that moment, but you also know exactly what’s going to happen to her after she laughs at him in his naked—literal and figurative—naked vulnerability there. ‘Look at me, look at my trip, I’m so great.’ And she laughs at him, and you know what’s going to happen next, but that’s one of my favorite moments in that whole movie, just seeing that dynamic subverted.”

Grady Hendrix on the book The Desecration of Susan Browning:

“The cult’s big ability is to mind-control people, so it’ll make you addicted to your master or your mistress, and they never quite have sex, but the CEO of a company will be found in a French maid outfit scrubbing the floors with a toothbrush in some woman’s house, saying, ‘I hate her, I hate her, she humiliates me, but if she’s not around me every second of the day I want to kill myself.’ … It’s this really creepy-ass worldview where everything behind the scenes is a power game and everyone just wants to humiliate other people, and you can’t escape. People will try to escape, but they’ll miss being in it so much that they’ll go crawling back. I feel disreputable recommending [these books], but they’ve really stuck with me.”

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