All About CultsBy Daria Polatin
I’m obsessed with cults. What makes people join a cult? What makes them have a hard time getting out? How does what happened when they were in a cult stay with them after they leave?
These are just some of the questions that led me to write my YA thriller, Devil in Ohio. The novel explores the story of Mae, who escapes from a satanic cult and moves in with her psychiatrist Suzanne’s family, including Suzanne’s teenage daughter Jules. Told mostly from the perspective of Jules, Mae infiltrates Jules’s world and starts edging Jules out, making Jules wonder if Mae is still under the cult’s evil influence. But when Jules takes measures to get Mae out of her life, Jules questions her own intentions—maybe she’s actually the one who’s acting evil.
While working on Devil in Ohio, I did a lot of research on cult communities. I read books, conducted interviews, and watched documentaries. And being a TV writer-producer, I saw every TV show that I could find about these divisive organizations. Combining my love for TV, and my passion for understanding cults, here are some of the creepiest cult behaviors and the TV cults that exemplify them.
CULTS LURE YOU IN. In Hulu’s “The Path,” an unassuming community of seemingly nice people turns out to be a dark and severe cult. As a tactic to lure in new members, cults use flattery to endear themselves to newcomers and disarm them. Cult leaders are often extremely charismatic and magnanimous at first, and shower the newcomer with attention and affection, making it no wonder it’s easy to get lured in. But soon enough, members encourage newbies to distance themselves from friends and family, so that their only remaining ties are to the cult. The cult then makes the inductee feel like they won’t be able to survive without the cult, leaving the inductee feeling like there’s no way out.
CULTS MESS WITH YOUR BRAIN. “The OA” was a creepy and strange Netflix series and I loved it. It’s hard to tell which events in protagonist Prairie Johnson’s past are fact and which are fiction, but regardless, Prairie returns home from a cult-like situation paranoid, traumatized, and easily triggered. Cults emotionally and sometimes physically abuse their members, leaving lasting damage to a person, who can be triggered at any moment. Even though Prairie’s situation has changed, she can never fully escape her experience.
CULTS MAKE IT HARD FOR YOU TO LEAVE. I loved the HBO series “Big Love,” which followed a polygamous family as they moved off a cultish Mormon reservation and tried to make lives for themselves in the outside world. Easier said than done. The family was continually pulled back into their former community as they struggled to gain autonomy, never fully able to disengage from their past.
CULTS CAN BE EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. I can’t wait for the limited series, “Waco,” based on the siege of David Koresh’s cult compound of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. When cult leaders find themselves cornered by a dead end of their own making, and law enforcement starts closing in, cult leaders sometimes stage mass suicides, like Jonestown, to bring down their organization with them. Members are left with no way to escape and are forced to go down with the ship.
CULTS CAN SPREAD. Members of cults are punished for questioning a leader and discouraged from individual thought, which increases the leader’s ability to expand influence. The Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic bestselling novel The Handmaid’s Tale follows a young woman living in a dystopian world under the subjugation of her male master and his barren wife, where she is tasked with bearing them a child. This suppression of women has insidiously infected the majority of society in this intense series, which is breathtakingly full of danger and violence, to a point where it seems like there may be no return.
Individual thought, asking questions, and not isolating yourself are all ways to combat any of these dangerous aspects of a cult. I hope we can all stay grounded and avoid ending up in anything like these shows. Let’s keep them on TV rather than in real life!
Devil in Ohio by Daria Polatin
When Jules Mathis comes home from school to find a strange girl sitting in her kitchen, her mother explains that Mae is one of her patients at the hospital and will be staying with their family for a few days. But shortly after Mae is wearing Jules’s clothes, sleeping in her bedroom, edging her out of her position on the school paper, and kissing Jules’s crush. Then things get weird.
Jules walks in on a half-dressed Mae, she’s startled to see a pentagram carved into her back. Soon white roses start turning up on the front porch, a rabid dog bites one of Jules’s sisters, and Jules’s parents, who never fight, start arguing behind closed doors.
Jules pieces clues together and discovers that Mae may be a survivor of the strange cult that has taken over a nearby town. And they will stop at nothing to get Mae back.