(It should be noted that a “cult” is not an inherently bad thing. There’s no one agreed upon meaning of the word, and some innocuous and even healthy groups could be considered cults. A destructive cult, on the other hand, is when things get dangerous.)
But then (common story), as soon as cults became terrifying, they also became cool. At least among the youth. Pretty quickly, America’s ‘70s-era young people coined slang terms like “cult film” and “cult classic,” which described the up-and-coming genre of underground indie movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead came to be known for their loyal “cult followings” (who’d quite literally follow them around the country from gig to gig).
A few decades later, dangerous old-school cults now boast a sort of nostalgic cool factor among cult-curious young people, having taken on a perversely stylish vintage cachet. These days, being obsessed with Heaven’s Gate is basically akin to having an extensive collection of ‘90s CDs and band tees. At an LA salon the other week, I eavesdropped on a 20-something telling her stylist that she was going for a “Manson girl” hair style: overgrown, brunette, middle-parted. An acquaintance of mine recently hosted a cult-themed birthday party in New York’s Hudson Valley —the epicenter of numerous historical “cults” (including NXIVM). The dress code? White slip dresses. Filtered photographs of guests sporting flower crowns and glassy-eyed “oops, I didn’t know I was haunted” expressions flooded my Instagram feed.
The long and the short of it is that our cravings for connection, belonging, and purpose have existed since the dawn of humanity, and cultish groups have always popped up during moments of social turbulence when these cravings have gone majorly unsatisfied. What makes the 21st Century an especially culty time for America’s youth is that in this social media-ruled age, when gurus can be godless, when you can “join” a digital “cult” just by clicking “follow” with your fingertip, and when folks who hold alternative beliefs are able to find each other (and radicalize) more easily than ever online, it only makes sense that “cults” of all stripes would start raging like wildfire.
Think of modern groups of secular fanatics who are just as zealous as religious cultists: Anyone from Harry Potter die-hards to woo-woo wellness gurus. “What all of these groups have in common is they are groups that have been galvanized by the internet,” said theologian and reporter Tara Isabella Burton, author of Strange Rites: New Religion for a Godless World, in an interview with Religion and Politics. “They are groups that want to … rewrite the rules of being. There’s a focus on internal desire. What do you want? What do you hunger for? There’s a sense that the establishment of [contemporary] society at large is dangerous insofar as it stops you from achieving your truest self.”
We may not think of, say, people who are obsessed with astrology or Lady Gaga or Joe Rogan as constituting a “new religion,” but Burton said in her interview that as spiritual practice becomes more “eclectic,” these pop culture-adjacent communities become our new source of answers to humanity’s toughest existential questions. As our sites of community and meaning have shifted due to the web, withdrawal from traditional church, and mistrust of government leaders, we’ve seen the rise of countless alternative subgroups — some dangerous, some less so. For better or for worse, there is now a “cult” for everyone.
I’ve also found that today’s young people find themselves particularly attracted to “cults” because they help take the edge off the tyranny of living in a world that presents almost too many options for who to be (or at least the illusion of such). A therapist once told me that flexibility without structure isn’t flexibility at all; it’s just chaos. That’s how a lot of young people’s lives have been feeling. For most of American history, there were comparatively few directions a person’s career, hobbies, place of residence, romantic relationships, diet, aesthetic—everything—could feasibly go in. But today’s globalized, digitally-connected culture presents folks (those of some privilege, that is) with a Cheesecake Factory–size menu of decisions to make. The sheer volume of possibilities can be paralyzing, especially in an era of radical self-creation, when there’s so much pressure to create a strong “personal brand” (at the very same time that morale and basic survival feel less stable for young people than they have in a long time). As our generational lore goes, Boomer parents told us we could grow up to be whatever we wanted, but then that cereal aisle of endless “what ifs” and “could be’s” has turned out to be so crushing, all we want is a guru to tell us which to pick.