Cultsploitation and True Believers
Image: FX
John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in 'The People Vs. O.J. Simpson'

Mild spoilers for the first episode of The Path and the first season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follow, along with extremely vague plot points for all seasons of The Americans, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, and The Leftovers.

Near the end of the pilot episode of Hulu’s The Path, Cal (Hugh Dancy) stands on a platform in front of a room full of people, followers of the Meyerist movement, his back to a brightly-lit screen. “This morning, I’m going to tell you the story of Plato’s cave,” he says to the eager crowd.

'The Path'
Image: Hulu

'The Path'

Using overheads—for all the world like a sermon you might listen to any Sunday morning in America—he does just that. A group of people have been living in a cave all their lives, he says, watching shadows projected onto the wall by things that have been passing in front of a fire behind them. For the prisoners, the shadows of reality are reality. They’re all they know.

But one day, in Cal’s telling, one guy goes outside and discovers that the shadows are actually just muddled visions of real things that are walking over a bridge. “There is a real, true world out there that his fellow prisoners, his friends—they don’t know,” he says. The man comes back ranting and raving, telling his fellow prisoners that what you think is real is not in fact real.

As Cal tells this story with warmth and charisma, the Meyerists look up at him expectantly, smiling. They are grateful for their enlightened way of living, away from the prisoners of ignorance outside their movement.

But there’s one face in the group—Eddie (Aaron Paul)—for whom the story has a totally different meaning. As the first episode has shown us, Eddie is having doubts about whether Meyerism is real at all. It might be his cave. He might be the prisoner. And then Cal asks the key questions.

“What would the prisoners do?” he asks the crowd. “Would they, if they could, stone this man? Kill him, rather than have their reality destroyed?” As they nod along, he draws out the application questions: “What would you do? Would you choose to remain in your shackles? Would you choose to hold on to your pain and your suffering? Or would you dare to break free?”

They cheer. He smiles. Then he delivers the sucker punch: “Would you dare to let me unchain you and lead you up, up out of the cave?” He benevolently looks at the group. Eddie looks back, eyebrow cocked.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'The Master'
Image: The Weinstein Company

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'The Master'

That one scene acts like cipher, helping to explain a growing trend in American pop culture: an exploding fixation on stories about cults. For those who’ve escaped them, cults are neither gripping entertainment nor a laughing matter. But that hasn’t stopped everyone else. To name just a few from just the last year: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,Midnight Special, The Leftovers, The Americans, True Detective, The Path,Holy Hell, Going Clear, My Scientology Movie, Prophet’s Prey, the end of Mad Men—you can even argue that The People Vs. OJ Simpson is a cult story. (More on that in a moment.)

Cults look bizarre by nature to the outsider, and that can’t-look-away weirdness is part of the attraction. It’s telling that Scientology is the cult de jour—two documentaries have opened at major festivals about the strange religion (Going Clear and My Scientology Movie), and a few years ago, P.T. Anderson’s movie The Master starred a Philip Seymour Hoffman character with a suspicious resemblance to L Ron Hubbard. Scientology is expensive and arcane, abusive, secretive, and created by a science fiction novelist. Celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta raise its profile, and audiences don’t feel bad about picking on them.

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Cultsploitation and True Believers