The Ten Creepiest Fictional Cults of the 21st Century

Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 6:00 am

5. The cult of Apple: Hello South Park!

Satirists Matt and Trey take a bite into that juicy apple of technology when one day, Kyle hits "I agree" on one of those numerous updates without even giving it a second thought. (Like the rest of us.) Thusly, he becomes part of a group he didn't even want to be in. Is that how we all became iPhone users? Just don't end up being the middle piece on a HUMANCENTiPAD. Of course, that's also the title of the premiere episode of season 15.

4. The Chosen of Red John, The Mentalist

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Yes, the CBS hit is a total procedural, but CBI consultant Patrick Jane's (Simon Baker) obsession with serial killer Red John has captivated viewers with the show's best episodes. Thought to have a list of at least 28 victims including Jane's wife and daughter, RJ taunts Jane constantly. After five seasons (The Mentalist was into cults way before The Following), we're still no closer to knowing his (or her?) real identity. The one constant is that every RJ crime scene is marked with a blood red, graffiti-style smiley face.

The current promos tease that by this season's end, we will be down to only seven suspects. Seven?! I can only think of three, while most fans have had their eye on Bret Stiles (Malcolm McDowell), who just happens to be the leader of the "legit" cult group Visualize Self-Realization Center. Along the way, Jane keeps running into RJ's devotees. My favorite was Bradley Whitford, who at one point, I thought was Red John. This season, I dug Jane's weird, but short-lived relationship with Lorelei Martins (Entourage's Emmanuelle Chriqui). Now it appears that Kevin Corrigan, who taught Agent Dunham to bowl in Fringe, and goes by the name Prof. Professorson on Community, might be Red John or at the very least part of RJ's following. The search continues...

3. Citizens of Rapture/Columbia, Bioshock/Bioshock Infinite

"I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture!" - Andrew Ryan

"The Lord forgives everything, but I'm just the prophet, so I don't have to." - Zachary Hale Comstock

Will there always be a lighthouse, always man and always a city? I don't know, but this simple set-up worked wonderfully for Bioshock and Infinite. Two cities, one underwater, one above the clouds, both taking place in an alternate history of America.

The citizens of Rapture (the one below sea level) followed a man named Ryan who envisioned a place where the truly excellent could thrive. (Never mind all those underlings who need to keep the place clean and running.) The citizens of Columbia pretty much had their heads and everything else about them above the clouds as they followed Comstock, their "Prophet," to live in buildings that float on giant balloons. Comstock seceded his metropolis from the pagans of the Union.

What makes both games' cults so fascinating are the ways that the narrative compels the player (who arrive at their destinations by a lighthouse) to want to know not just how to beat the bad guys, but just how these utopian places could ever really work. The short answer: they don't. Both games wisely keep our time with Comstock and Ryan limited, making their remarks and their spell all the more alluring.

2. The Cause, The Master

Check out this great scene that didn't make the final cut.

"Would you care for some informal processing?" - Lancaster Dodd.

P.T. Anderson's latest was much more than just a film about Scientology. Even Tom Cruise (who played self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia) watched it. Set in Post-War America where several factions popped up - L. Ron's is just the one that is still thriving - it focuses on Freddie Quell (mesmerizing Joaquin Phoenix), the rascal that can't be tamed. Not even by "The Master" Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, mesmerizing in a completely different way) who founded The Cause, a group devoted to separating man from his animal instincts. What's most surprising, however, is the notion that the real dependent in any brainwashing organization is the leader, not the follower.

Like most great films, The Master gets better with repeat viewings. The first time I was more in awe of the great performances and the immersive 70mm photography than the story. On my second viewing, however, I found myself sympathizing with Dodd. (Quell remains a fascinating mystery to me.) Dodd maybe a fraud, an adulterer and a terrible drunk but his insistence on trying to make sense of the world through his own "making it up as I go along" vocation reveals him to be a sad mouse forever spinning on one of those wheels. By far, Dodd is the most human of all the cult leaders on this list.

1. Group 54, Sound of My Voice

Co-written and starring Brit Marling (Another Earth) the story follows two wannabe journalists, Peter and Lourna, who are out to expose a sect that obeys a woman who claims to be from the future. Dressed in white, speaking in soft, but harsh tones Maggie (Marling) presents herself as vulnerable yet dangerous. As the true purpose of Group 54 (Maggie claims to be from the year 2054) becomes known, skeptic Peter (Christopher Denham, who also stars in The Following) starts to let his guard down. Lourna (Nicole Vicius) does not. At a scant 85 min, the film and director Zal Batmanglij keeps a tight grip on viewers so as not to break Maggie's stare. We rarely leave the basement, where the sermons are many, and the faithful find out about the future of society (who knew the Cranberries' pop melodies would survive the apocalypse?)

There are a lot of good to great tales on this list, but Sound of My Voice is the most efficient and successful at luring the viewer into a state of complacency. It might be just because Marling is so darn attractive, but I seriously wanted to believe Maggie. Er, I mean, I DO believe her.

Hey, we all want followers, right? So follow us on Twitter @ToplessRobot! Let the Cult of TR begin...

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