Cults Demystified

One survivor who broke free and one who still believes share their stories

Max Wilson, Editor in Chief

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On March 22, 1997, in a luxurious Rancho Santa Fe mansion, 15 members of the cult Heaven’s Gate laid down, covered in purple shrouds and sporting ‘uniforms’ consisting of handmade black tops and brand-new Nike Eternals. Over the next four days, another 24 did the same. None of them would ever rise again.

The religious group had been formed 23 years earlier by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles; the former was a patient at a psychiatric hospital where the latter worked as a nurse. The two became close and believed they had known each other in a past life. They grew convinced they were the “Two Witnesses” described in the Book of Revelation as fire-breathing beings meant to punish an anti-Christian world. Together, determined to fulfill biblical prophecy, they created a religious doctrine which predicted the ‘recycling’ (destruction) of Earth, inspired by equal parts Christianity and science fiction.

Their dogma went through plenty of change over the years, but generally speaking, the group believed that getting to heaven required abstinence from everything attaching them to mankind, including family, possessions, and sexuality. According to Applewhite, a spaceship trailing behind Comet Hale-Bopp would take them to the afterlife, but only after ingesting a lethal dose of phenobarbital with applesauce and vodka.

The average person probably doesn’t see themselves as vulnerable to offers of paradise through poisoned snack packs. But Guinevere Turner, a screenwriter and actress who lived in a Heaven’s Gate-style cult called the ‘Lyman Family’ from birth until the age of eleven, explains that this is precisely the issue with extreme religious sects. They don’t attract irrational people, they create them.

“The important thing is to stop thinking ‘what kind of person’ and start thinking ‘under what circumstances could that be me?’” Turner said in a recent email interview.

Turner’s 2018 film, “Charlie Says,” tells the story of Charles Manson’s violent followers coming to terms with their actions while serving prison sentences and delves heavily into the topic of cult indoctrination. The appeal behind such groups is not in the beliefs they tout per se, but in their alluring offer of a sheltered lifestyle.

“Don’t we all agree that a lot of things about mainstream society suck?” Turner mused, adding, “If I could live on a big piece of property with a bunch of like-minded people and have that be sustainable, I would. I understand the urge.”

“Don’t we all agree that a lot of things about mainstream society suck?” Turner mused, adding, “If I could live on a big piece of property with a bunch of like-minded people and have that be sustainable, I would. I understand the urge.””

— Guinevere Turner

She added that any person can be put in a position where cultic living is tantalizing. In fact, as she describes in her piece in The New Yorker, entitled “My Childhood in a Cult,” she was tempted to once again join the Lyman Family after visiting the group before college.

“I think anyone who is a seeker, who finds themselves in a vulnerable place, who wants ‘more’, so to speak, is at risk of being indoctrinated” she said.

Applewhite and Nettles excelled at using this to their advantage. In meetings aimed at gaining new followers, they described themselves as representatives of extraterrestrials. But their promise of purpose, place, and arcane knowledge trumped the absurdity of their outlandish overtures. One of two members chosen to live after the mass suicide, who identified themself as Telah (a reference to the group’s moniker for heaven, The Evolutionary Level Above Humans), recalled the first meeting they attended in 1975. The raw charisma they were exposed to had them hooked immediately, and still keeps them faithful to their long-gone leaders’ teachings to this day, they said.

“They spoke the truth of the universe,” Telah said in an email interview. “Not flowery spiritual stuff but real physical Next Level kind of truth that reminded us of what we already knew 2000 years before. We had forgotten it, but they awoke it.”

The media has tended to sensationalize the most radical aspects of cults, and this generally only occurs, as Turner explained, “when one bubbles to the surface for either suicide, a standoff, a tax evasion, branding, etc.” The result is a brief splash of cold water to the public’s face, followed by a fixation on the most bizarre details. In the case of Heaven’s Gate, their choice of footwear is often cited to underscore the absurdity of their delusions. The truth is far simpler: Their clothing was meant to represent unity – a final nod to the need for belonging that made the cult attractive to followers in the first place.

“We just got a good deal on them (about $15 a pair). If not them, we would have gotten another pair. There is too much attention paid to such an insignificant item,” Telah said, adding that “the media and internet has flipped what was [a] carefully hand-sewn uniform by us and [made] the meaningless shoe more important.”

Latching onto these details takes away from the fact that most cults are fundamentally the same. Turner identifies a few traits present in most: a typically male leader with a vision of apocalypse (in the Lyman Family’s case it was that they would be taken by UFOs to live on Venus), sexual exploitation of women (a trait absent in Heaven’s Gate), and total severance of connection with loved ones.

Turner’s ordeal, which ended when her mother left the cult, gives her a perspective much deeper than the widely held lore of Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid induced ‘revolutionary suicide,’ Charles Manson’s drug-fueled ramblings about Helter Skelter, and Applewhite’s illusory spaceship. The real power of these men lay in their ability to attract vulnerable souls and fulfill the desire for belonging hard-wired into all of us. Such complex interactions prove far less compelling in newspaper articles and screenplays than the frightening and lurid details that inform public consensus on cults.

The elder members of the Lyman Family may have branded Turner a villain and a traitor, but she plans to continue spreading the lessons she’s learned.

“We need to reframe this conversation, and I intend to,” she vowed.