Doomsday Cults and Horror Fiction

Horror Stories Out of the Headlines

image from the Netflix series Ares

A cult refers to a small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister. Doomsday cults, also called apocalyptic cults, believe the world will end soon.

Doomsday cults also have unusual habits and rituals.

How is this different than Christians preaching the End of Times or Jesus‘ Second Coming? Easy.

They don’t say the world is ending on a specific date. And they don’t claim it is because of extraterrestrials or some other weird reason.

And yes, before you ask, some cults can become a religion.

image from the documentary Wild Wild Country, Netflix

Some names of cult leaders, such as Charles Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, and Rajneeshpuram are infamous since they made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Other cult leaders are not as well-known but just as dangerous, nonetheless.

Blood Orb Cultist by Motolog, Deviant Art

For instance, Daniel Pérez, Ervil Le Baron, Pyotr Kuznetsov (Penza Cave cult), Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo cult), and Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo (Matamoros Cult).

And if you think this cannot happen in the 2020s, right now, there are hundreds of young people, mostly teens, living on a farm in Cambodia as members of the Khem Veasna Cult).

In the news, doomsday cults never end well.

Sexual and physical abuse, murder, mass suicide, imprisonment, and sometimes disaster.

Not to mention the years of psychological trauma.

Let’s not forget, most cultists are brainwashed fanatics. Fanatism and unquestionable loyalty are a dangerous combination.

So, how is this like horror fiction? Or better yet, how can horror fiction compete with real life?

The Parallel Between Horror Fiction and Doomsday Cults

image from the First United Church of Cthulhu page

Horror fiction means to scare and disgust the reader. It achieves this by creating a mood in the reader and exploiting our primal fears.

Furthermore, horror uses darkness, isolation, secrets, and the threat of a coming cataclysmic event that will bring death to all except a few chosen ones.

Hhhmmm, darkness, isolation, fear, death… A coming apocalypse… It does sound like your typical horror novel or dystopian/post-apocalyptic one.

Add a prophecy, a chosen tribe of believers who are in the know, a compound that is a de facto castle, rituals…

It almost sounds like something out of a dark fantasy novel.

image: Wallpaper Flare

However, there is one big difference: doomsday cults are created by charismatic leaders with magnetic personalities with enough charm and conviction to make people follow them–to the death.

Meanwhile, in your typical speculative fiction novel, the cult worships a supernatural power or an Eldritch god, and if there is a leader, it is usually a villain more interested in power and money than anything else.

On second thought, they are not that different either.

Horror might have necromancers, satanic rituals, human sacrifices, and dark magic, and the cult members typically wear robes, but these cults are as dangerous as their nonfictional counterparts.

Also, we know summoning evil cannot end well, right?

What is the Point of Doomsday Cults in Fiction?

cultists sacrificing to a monster, Wallpaper Crafter

The point of doom cultists in horror fiction, especially in Lovecraftian horror, is to serve as minions. Worse, in many instances, they are treated as victims.

Hence, this trope has not been fully explored in horror fiction.

In other types of fiction is treated as the psychological repercussions of surviving being in a cult. That has potential.

Imagine leaving everything behind, your job, your family, your friends, etc., to join a cult because a charismatic leader convinced you the world will end when a meteor hits Earth or something else.

Crazy? Impossible? Try telling that to a person lonely, unhappy, and in search of meaning and belonging.

image: Pinterest

What if the world doesn’t end? What if they don’t find what they are looking for? Too bad; too late.

Nevertheless, the point of doomsday cults in horror fiction is to frighten us. If they serve as a cautionary tale, that is a bonus.

Cultist, Pinterest

Perhaps, horror writers should start writing cult members are individual characters rather than a collective.

And yet, I would not mind reading about a doomsday cult where the cultists are right, the world ends, and the characters have to navigate the aftermath.

Or the monster/deity shows up and hunts them despite their service and the one survivor swears revenge.

Tropes are meant to be subverted and reinterpreted.

Doomsday cults are ripe for story potential and center stage. But can horror fiction compete with true life?

Reader, are you a fan of doom cults? Should they be developed more?


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February 2023