Cults as a horror trope

When I was younger, one of the books I got was “The Most Evil Men and Women in the World”

I always remember it, blue cover, photos of a few infamous dictators on the front, also a guy I didn’t recognise. He was a grim looking figure, hands held up high and wearing black sunglasses. I knew my history, it was the only subject apart from English I was any good at, so I was surprised to have not the faintest idea of who he was. Even more than the goose-stepping Hitler or snarling Stalin, it was an unnerving picture.

As I read the book, I came to him, and found out he was the Reverend Jim Jones.

The name meant nothing to me, so I read on.

This deranged Reverend got his followers to sell all their possessions and move with him to a compound in South America. Here, he ruled over them as a petty tyrant, having brutal punishments for anyone who doubted him. When the US government investigated, as stories leaked of torture and people being held captive, he murdered the investigators then had his flock commit mass suicide. Anyone too scared or not wanting to was executed.

Insane, he more than deserved his place in that book.

Cults are common place in horror films, they are almost a trope at this point. Generally, it is not the monstrous gods that unnerve us, but the all too human cultists. The reason I think is when we see the face of a wide eyed cultist, in flowing black robes, dagger in hand and shouting out prayers to the dark powers, we see someone who has abandoned reason.

The loss of reasoning via Alzheimer’s or dementia is the stuff of nightmares as it is but to see a person almost voluntarily abandon it, allowing a belief system to override everything else, is even worse.

If you look at all the rioters at the G20, with their black masks and promise of violence, it is unnerving to most of us who are peaceful. When you hear about those anti-fascist people assaulting anyone they deem not sufficiently in line with their own ideals, it can be frightening. When the news reports the latest horrors perpetrated by ISIS in its death throes, we can’t believe people would do that. Westboro Church members crashing soldiers’ funerals to tell their family members that their sons and daughters are in hell, right to their face, boggles the mind. The state cult in North Korea which has successfully cut its citizens off from the rest of the world can baffle most of us living in the west.

Extreme views scare us, I do believe at heart most people are rational and reasonable. They can change their mind on issues, vote for different parties at different times, be persuaded if the arguments are good enough.

Horror wants to tap into our fears and the deranged fanatic, regardless of what it is they serve, still scares us and I think, they always will.

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