Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Cult Fictions

Note: This is part of a larger research project I'm working on. This may be included, or it may not. It's a bit broad (and very first-drafty) so I may simply use it in my notes and preliminary material.

Throughout history, cults of all sizes and shapes have created exciting dramas to spread their doctrines to the uninitiated. Many of the same elements we see in comic books, paperback SF and fantasy novels and Hollywood movies were first introduced in these stories, not as entertainment per se, but as literal propaganda, meaning as messages designed to 'propagate the faith'.

In antiquity, pagan cults would put on lavish theatrical productions, reenacting the passions of their favorite gods. If you were in a major metropolitan area during the Hellenistic or Roman era, you could attend any number festivals in which the stories of Isis and Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, Adonis and Aphrodite, Cybele and Attis or several lesser-known stories would be used in what basically boiled down to recruitment drives. 

Street performers and vendors selling refreshments, icons and amulets would cluster around outside, adding to the carnival atmosphere. Kind of like the Dragon*Con of their day.

In the early Christian era, these dramas took the form of Passion Plays and hagiographies, or the biographies of the Saints. These stories were often so outrageous that the Vatican itself disowned many of them a long time ago. A lot of them are also simply appropriations of well-known figures from pagan mythology.

With the rise of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry during the Enlightenment you had novels such as Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis and Johann Andreae's The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, both meant to make the complicated theories of their respective fraternities accessible to the unitiated.

Fast forward to the 19th Century, with the incredible explosion of occultism and Spiritualism that followed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War. You had superstar novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose own passion for Rosicrucian ideals lead to Zanoni. Ironically, his novel Vril, The Coming Race, would inspire a cult all its own, not to mention thousands of imitators.

Aleister Crowley wrote the novel Moonchild to try to make his thorny magickal writings more palatable for the casual reader (accent on the "try"). Similarly, occultist (and Theosophist) Dion Fortune would find success with a series of occult detective stories which explored her own positive magickal ideals. Sax Rohmer was best known for his Fu Manchu novels but also wrote a number of books propagating his own magickal theories.

The most notorious bit of backwash from the pulp/occult crossover was ultimately Scientology, dreamed up by former pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard when he realized he was still being paid the same penny a word he was when he entered the racket. 

Besides his "best-seller" Dianetics, Hubbard would advertise his cult with a sci-fi novel entitled Battlefield Earth. Following L Ron's death, celebrity Scientologist John Travolta would use his post-Pulp Fiction clout to stage a big budget adaption of the novel, which would go down in Hollywood's ledger book as one of the worst movies ever made.

Although the parallels are invisible to outsiders, many Mormons believe that Glen A. Larson generously leavened the 70s version Battlestar Galactica (which is credited as a Leslie Stevens creation by its original director) with LDS doctrine.

In the 1990s, the Christian Dominionist cult would rack up amazing numbers in the bookstores (well, the book section in Wal*Mart, at least) with Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind novels, based on the Dispensationalist concept of the Rapture. These novels were little more than political propaganda, but struck a nerve with the then ascendant religious right. As of this writing, a feature film is the works with Nicholas Cage in the lead.

More recently, the Objectivist cult has produced three feature films based on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, explicitly to spread Rand's philosophies. Unfortunately, the producers got a stark lesson in the reality of the Holy Marketplace that maybe those philosophies didn't prepare them for.

These are just a handful of examples. There have been any number of books, comics, films and plays created by sects, cults, churches, movements over the years, so much so that cataloging them would fill a blog on their own.

Think about this when you turn on your TV tonight. Cults aren't always theological, they're just as often political these days. Or 'scientific'. With the kind of big salaries we used to see receding from the mass media,  people go into documentary film-making especially to propagate their own beliefs, or better yet, the beliefs they've been trained to believe are their own.

UPDATE: Pedro at our Facebook group, The Lunar Barbecue (see right column) recommends Metamorphoses aka The Golden Ass by Apuleius. It's one of the oldest surviving novels, it's based in the old Roman Isis cult, and it's a work of magic unto itself. It's also hilariously funny and surprisingly easy to read. Check it out, either online or from the library. 


  1. Although not a Mormon, I've always believed that Battlestar Galactica was Mormon allegory. Battlefield Earth...heh, Nic Cage...cringe and shake head. Terrific post!

  2. Cheers. And here's another Pedro link from the Pacebook thread that readers here need to check out:

  3. Those early polytheist ones weren't really recruitment drives, though, except in the most broad and shallow sense. Telling the stories was a central sacred act, and the plays were the most elaborate versions of that. Characterizing them as merely propaganda is almost like characterizing the Mass in that way. It may be true, in some limited sense, but it misses the point.

    If you want to really dive down a polytheist geek-hole, though, start examining why so many of the plays (and novels like the Metamorphoses) are comical and satirical in intent, and why there seems to be a whole genre of myths that poke fun at beloved deities such as Thor, the Dagda, or Herakles.

  4. I guess it depends on your definition of early. By the time of the Roman Empire and in a metropolis like Alexandria you have pretty frantic competition for souls among the different sects, with who could put on the best show. Hence the Galloi of Metamorphoses fame, history's first headbangers. It's interesting how you had different Demeter/Persephone cults unrelated to Eleusis and how familiar the Isis "churches" were to anyone raised Catholic. It's interesting to note that Samothrace (my personal favorite) was a lot more open than a lot of the other Mystery cults and is generally believed to be the earliest of all. They also had public festivals as well.

    1. Hm. I don't know a lot about Samothrace. Got anything I could learn more about it from?

  5. Here's a good place to begin:

  6. There is a lot of cultish behavior with political leanings these days. I used to have a friend, he'd go on *epic* rants about Republican sins, once when a group of us were trying to watch 'Act of Valor' he went on a 10 minute, full-volume tirade against Bush the first, and a year later he tried to hammer me flat when I suggested that allowing the NSA to spy on us meant that Mr. Obama was not all he seemed. He's not the only (D) to react badly when I dared to point out the Emperor's nekkidness, but he was the nastiest about it. Fundamentalist Politicals?

  7. You nailed it. That's why I used to title my election posts "Clownshow 2008" or "Clownshow 2012". I am beyond cynical. I don't believe we live in anything like a democracy, I believe we live in a LARP democracy. When I would do a political post it would be to expose the symbolic or occult machinations at work- unfortunately some people mistook that for advocacy.

  8. It seems that if we don't choose a side, we become the enemies of both.

  9. Right on point. This post just confirms my belief in how fiction and fact near-seamlessly inform each other. There's a definite strange resonance to a lot of those early pulp stories that seems to still pulse through our culture today. Despite all the fragmentation, the cliques and cultism of our fallen culture there is a weird nexus of history, mysticism, storytelling and anomalous 'stuff' that underlies everything, like a corner-of-the-eye glimpse of something that shapeshifts as soon as you try to focus on it. Great work, bro.

  10. Great post! I love your blog (pardon my English; It isn't my first language). This post made me think about the typical exorcism movies (being “the exorcist” – 1973 - the most archetypical of them all) and that they are explicit Roman Catholic Church propaganda. Other movie that I frankly see as an unambiguously Roman Catholic Church propaganda is “the Da Vinci Code”, even though at first sight it looks like a (soft) attack on the Vatican, that attack – to me – Is a false flag one; I mean, it looks like the Vatican attacking itself to generate attention on the public (the movie doesn’t question the historical existence of Jesus, in fact, it is taken for granted; the ‘bad guy’ is not the entirely institution, but just one priest, etc.); I repeat: great post, great blog!

  11. My name is laurent Boer (, and I have been harrassed and manipulated by an unknown hidden cult organization
    They drugged me insidiously, hypnotized me, they programmed my mind with hypnosis and several different kind of drugs, and they didn’t hesitated to do many illegal things including:
    - Under hypnosis, mental conditioning to make me feel terror to talk about them and what they do
    - use some addiction drugs to enforce the power of the hypnotizer on me
    - At work, air spray some kind of GHB drugs to train me to work harder
    - Under hypnosis, format my personality to fit their needs
    - Follow me in shops and coffee places to make me feel paranoid, harassed and under their control
    - Under hypnosys make me watch horror and homo movies every day under addictive drugs to get addicted to this
    - Installed software on my computer so they can remotely send subliminal trigger images
    - Under hypnosis make me hear for hours daily their speech teaching me that what they do to me is great and usefull

    How to get rid of this kind of secured powerfull worldwide organizations?

    Best Regards,