Let’s Join a Cult! The Brainwashing Pulps of the ’70s and ’80s

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Hey everyone, let’s join a cult! All the kids are doing it, and if you can give me one good reason not to do it, then I’ll give you an apple pie. Cults are fun! Cults are crazy! Cults can help you get ahead in this world! Cults actually run this world! Cults provide instant friends for the marginalized, the unwanted, and the short. I can’t think of a single problem that a cult couldn’t solve if they all put on their robes and worked together. So why wouldn’t you join one? You are actually holding yourself back and limiting your life every minute you are not in a cult.

The problem is, with so many cults to choose from, how do you narrow it down to just one? Cults aren’t like Better Business Bureaus. You can’t join two or three at a time. You have to pick one and commit. So how do you find the right cult for you? Allow Freaky Friday to help.

Every cult has its own unique interest. The Night Church wants to breed the anti-man. The Celestines want to worship God by consensually eating people. The Children of the Ur-Psyche want to harness the power of the Ur-Psyche. The Cult of the Damned is a fake voodoo cult that claims to worship Satan but is actually a front for Mafia hitmen. And the Fisher Kings want to keep the location of the holy grail a secret so that Demonkind remain powerless. So let’s take a tour through a couple of fun cults that might interest readers of this column.

The Transformation (1976)

The Valley of the Dolls meets Helter Skelter in Joy Fielding’s early novel (that she has since disowned). Young actresses on the make in LA fall under the influence of their great god, Tony, who says things like “To love your family, you must kill them,” and “I want to look into your soul,” before encouraging his glamorous young followers to break into homes, write things on the sleeping homeowners in magic marker, and poop on their carpets. Almost every single major character gets gruesomely murdered in cold blood in a final, Tate-Labianca style home invasion at the climax, leaving readers as shocked as the characters. Coming only five years after Charles Manson was sentenced to death (reduced to life without parole a year later) you can only stand back and admire Fielding’s willingness to go there. Also admirable is Ron Sauber’s  classy Hollywood Babylon cover art.


The Closed Circle (1976)

closed-circle-torLila is pursuing a “university-level” course in weaving when she starts having sex with the lights on, a development that shocks her husband. Even worse, she seems to enjoy it. Turns out that she is psychically linked to a Hollywood cult known as The Inner Circle and she can see their depraved orgies through her mind’s eye. Thinly-veiled versions of Robert Redford, Elizabeth Taylor, Ann Margaret, Edward G. Robinson, and Jackie Gleason pick up hitchhikers and force them to sit on dildos before murdering them. It’s enough to drive anyone insane! Big props again to Ron Sauber, the go-to cover artist for making Hollywood cults look truly evil, yet kind of glamorous at the same time.


The Sacrifice (1978)

sacrifice-torOver on the East Coast, classicist and poet David Slavitt (writing under the name Henry Sutton), delivers a no-exit conspiracy tale about a Yale professor going up against a cult of wealthy men and women who have discovered a way to take years from the lives of losers and add them onto their own glittering existences. Slavitt’s hero is, not coincidentally, deeply loyal to both Yale and the pursuit of knowledge at any price, a point of view which earns him a lot of unwelcome attention from evil rich people as well as the immortal daughter of a Nazi general, and it ultimately sees him come out on the wrong side of a dogs vs. butterfly battle royale. And yet, it’s the principle of the thing. This is the only conspiracy tale I’ve ever read that’s motivated purely by the main character’s total outrage that a Yale Man would check out a book from the Yale library and refuse to return it. Old chum, that’s not how we do things.


The Inner Circle (1980)

inner-circle-torBack to Hollywood for this pastiche of the hardboiled private eye novel seen through a kicky, shaggy Seventies lens as investigative journalist Lou Pinkle becomes the last man to see movie star Tony Valenti alive. Valenti showed up at Pinkle’s apartment raving that “they” were out to get him, and Pinkle wants to know more. Through a couple of fist fights, a single-engine airplane chase, and some ace detective work Pinkle discovers the shocking truth: Valenti was right! A cult meets once every decade to sacrifice a Hollywood celebrity to the Aztec jaguar god, Tezcatlipoca, lord of night and magic. Turns out, this mystical jaguar is actually urbane, sophisticated, and rather witty so if you’re going to be eaten by an anthropomorphic representation of the physical aspect of an undying deity you could do a lot worse. Too bad you have to travel to such an out-of-the-way location to do it, but nothing’s perfect. And you do get 10 years of glam Hollywood living before being turned into a human canape, so there’s that.


The Sharing (1984)

sharing-torUpstate New York this time, to meet the Children of the Resumption. Living on a commune, they don’t believe that human beings ever die, and in fact they all plan to live forever. Wearing plain brown robes and resorting to standard issue cult brainwashing, they’re not the most stylish bunch, especially given their commitment to macrobiotics, so it’s hard to recommend them to anyone. However, you really feel for the Children when they recruit/kidnap a young woman who turns out to be a completely inappropriate candidate for cannibalism. It’s not her, per se, it’s her family that’s the problem, namely her brother who turns out to have a touchy temper and a way with a straight razor (spoiler alert: he castrates first, asks questions later). But even gaining a big dose of sympathy via an admissions snafu doesn’t eradicate the essential problems with the Children, which is that a lifetime of poverty and submission might not be to everyone’s taste…nor is their path to immortality. That’s not a pan of brownie’s everyone’s fighting over on the cover. They’re reaching for another fistful of human flesh. The only way to survive forever? Get eaten alive and live on in the tummies of your fellow cultists. Is there a vegan option?


Grail (1982)

grail-torFor 300 years, the Fisher Kings have kept the Holy Grail on consecrated ground in the Vatican’s Museum of Pagan Antiquities. But now a traitor on the inside (who snorts cocaine off smoked glass dining room tables through a McDonald’s straw) has tipped off the ancient enemies of the Roman Catholic Church: Demons. And not just any demons, but an actual race of demons known as Demonkind who have existed in hiding since the dawn of time. If Mankind are God’s children, Demonkind are Satan’s—and they prove it by slicing up co-eds in front of shocked priests just to show what kind of edgelords they are. Their species have withered and their women have all died so now the demons want to “plant their seed” in human women, not all of whom will survive the “planting”. With tough cops on the case named Donnellan (who murdered the IRA agents who killed his family, so you know he’s hard), and slimy, demon-coddling international antique dealers named Percival Leech, the Fisher Kings deliver the kind of international jet set cult caper that is perfect for readers of Robert Ludlum, Dan Brown, or European Travel & Life. If you’ve ever wanted to see Paris in the Springtime, while pledging your eternal soul to a cause, and probably getting plowed by a Demon at the same time, then the Fisher Kings are for you.


With all the cults out there sometimes it’s hard to navigate so many options and find the right fit for you. I hope today’s Freaky Friday helped. I like to think that we’re not just entertainment, but we also serve an educational purpose.

best-friends-exorcism-thumbnailGrady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.


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