ON CLOVER ROAD BACKSTAGE GUIDE 9 By this definition, it’s difficult to argue that Peoples Temple wasn’t a cult. After all, they had a leader who was notoriously charismatic and who exerted a disproportionate level of control over his congregation. Members were often overworked and overtired, their finances and sex lives regulated by leadership. Relationships with outsiders were generally discouraged, and Jones was known to sexually abuse both male and female followers. Meanwhile, an ends-justify-the-means line of thinking was employed to justify everything from faked healings to the ultimate massacre of more than 900 individuals. Yet I can understand the impulse of Jonestown survivors, and others, to shy away from the “cult” label. It’s reductive, at best; dehumanizing, at worst. “Cult is an expression reserved for those religions of which we disapprove,” states Rebecca Moore, a religious studies scholar who lost two sisters and a nephew in Jonestown. When headlines labelled the Jonestown dead “cultists” in the days immediately following the massacre, they relegated them to the sidelines of humanity. This made it easier for the public to distance themselves from the tragedy and its victims, dismissing them as weak, gullible, unsuited to life and unworthy of postmortem respect. Bodies weren’t autopsied. Families were denied the timely return of their relatives’ remains. A thousand “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” jokes were launched. Is the violence of the group’s demise, and our eagerness to distance ourselves from it, ultimately to blame for the persistence of the “cult” label? Certainly, we seldom hear of cults that don’t end catastrophically. Certainly, had Jonestown ended some other way—with Jim Jones dying of natural causes, for instance, and his followers leaving the group or carrying on without him—Peoples Temple would likely be remembered differently. As significant as the violence is, however, all kinds of violent deeds have been perpetrated in the name of religion, from wars to witch-burnings to child sex abuse cover-ups. Why isn’t the C-word applied, in these cases? The association between “cult” and “cool” is a more recent phenomenon. We talk of cult films, cult bands, cult novels, and the cult of fitness. It seems that almost anything can be called a cult, provided it has a following – a trend that feels especially meta, given the contemporary craze for cult-related media. It’s hard to know what to make of the cult craze. In some ways, it seems to be an extension of our enthusiasm for all things vintage—think “cult”, and you’ll likely think of long hair, folk blouses, a groovy soundtrack—combined with our enduring craving for sex and violence in media. Yet the appeal of stories about people adopting alternative lifestyles, often involving communal living and a return to nature, might be further explained by the frustrations of late-stage capitalist society and growing anxieties about climate change. Whatever the explanation, I believe that the current popularity of cult stories presents an opportunity for these stories to be told differently – more sympathetically, with an emphasis on the humanity of followers rather than just the bloodshed and crazy-charismatic leaders. Because, ultimately, cult stories are human stories. They’re stories of community, the search for meaning and a better life. In such stories, we can all find a bit of ourselves. Some recent examples of “cult” stories in pop culture: the documentary Wild Wild Country (2018), the film Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), the novel The Girls (1996), the television show American Horror Story: Cult (2017), and the podcast Cults (2017-present)