Fueled by paranoia and the myth of self-actualization, a splurge of doomsday-prepping cults has emerged from the ashes of ’70s counterculture. Now, as the seduction of dystopia continues to spiral into apocalyptic narratives, a collection of unique garments designed by LA artist Sterling Ruby provides the inspiration to paint a picture of nihilistic survivalism.
WORDS: WHITNEY MALLETT
Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant, prophesied that a Soviet nuclear attack would wipe out America on March 14, 1990. The members of her congregation—they followed a New Age blend of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and esoteric teachings—prepared for years, constructing in Paradise Valley, Montana, underground bunkers stockpiled with dried food, diesel generators, computers, medical equipment, cookware, bedding, rifles, handguns, ammunition, and other survival gear. The elaborate steel and concrete shelter system cost $2 million to build, not including members’ free labor. Reserving a spot underground was priced at $10,000. The church promised that after the catastrophe, survivors would return aboveground and repopulate America. Except the attack never came.
Prophet’s is just one of many doomsday predictions that failed to materialize. Martin Luther predicted that the end of the world would come no later than 1600. Jehovah’s Witnesses thought end times would transpire in 1914. Y2K came and went, and the world didn’t go to hell in a handbasket. December 21, 2012 passed and Earth didn’t collide with the mythical planet Nibiru. Dystopia is seductive. We love to indulge in the fantasy of global Armageddon—nuclear holocaust or biblical flood, robotic takeover or mass infertility—and over the past couple decades, our appetite for apocalyptic narratives (just look at the fear-mongering news or blockbuster cli-fi) has only spiraled. Now with COVID, an unprecedented global crisis, paranoid habits like stockpiling toilet paper or buying guns have hit peak mainstream. Pastors have interpreted the pandemic as God’s judgement. Cults have used it as a recruiting tool.
Coronavirus has also stoked long-brewing desires to return to nature. Homesteaders and survivalists were early adopters of rural, tech-light living, but now pandemic-triggered panic has more than just fringe eccentrics fleeing the city. With more and more people worried about TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It), cottagecore Airbnbs are booked up and solar-powered washing machines sold out, while the more hardcore are mastering how to skin a deer or purify water, start a fire or forage for edibles. Some already got a head start. In 2011, in anticipation of near-future societal collapse, survivalist blogger James Wasley Rawles proposed a political migration to the northwestern US which he called American Redoubt. Rawles (who also advocates stockpiling nickels) suggested Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and adjoining parts of Oregon and Washington as an ideal safe haven, due to the region’s low population density and a lack of natural hazards.
Uncertainty makes people crave control and order. Finding comfort in anticipating the future’s darkness is nothing new. What’s also long been appealing is a narrative based around the exceptionalism of those who subscribe. Preppers and cult members trust that when the world implodes, they will survive, even if others don’t, even if survival is something other than earthly. The Seekers, a Michigan-based cult, predicted end times would come with a flood on December 21, 1956. They thought they’d be saved by aliens from the planet Clarion, escaping on a Noah’s Ark-like spaceship. Like the bunker-building believers in Paradise Valley, the Seekers trusted they were chosen for deliverance because their leader received a message from a higher power. You could say the Seekers were UFO rapturists, their version of the apocalypse merely a sci-fi adaptation of what evangelical Christians believe. The New Testament forecasts that the Second Coming of Christ will be accompanied by seven years of chaotic turmoil (aka Tribulation), and that true believers will ascend to heaven in what’s called the Rapture. For many Christians, preparation for end times is about getting right with God, not hoarding solar-powered phone chargers and dehydrated meal pouches. But there are also biblical preppers who interpret scripture as saying that the Rapture comes part-way through or at the end of the seven-year shitshow Tribulation promises to be. They figure they need ammo, fuel, and canned vegetables to tough it out for at least three-and-a-half years before they can join Christ in the clouds.
Sociologist John Lofland coined the term “doomsday cult” in 1966, when he was studying members of the Unification Church, known as the Moonies after their leader, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Moon first predicted that the world would end in 1967, then in 2000. In spite of Lofland’s book being titled Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith, his study on the group focused less on Moon’s apocalyptic predictions and more on how recruiting leveraged interpersonal relationships. Founded in 1954 in South Korea (allegedly by the Korean CIA), the Unification Church spread across the US in the ‘70s, with 30,000 American members at its height. They promoted a heretic interpretation of Christianity that said by not marrying, Jesus had failed to carry out God’s plan. In addition to being pro-marriage—and famous for their mass wedding ceremonies—they were also outspokenly anti-Communist. (Moon was pro-Nixon even in the midst of Watergate.) In Montreal, my mom’s babysitter joined.
After Lofland’s book, “doomsday cult” became a household term, overused by the hysterically inclined news media. The public was encouraged to be wary of cults. The way these groups pedaled apocalyptic narratives as a recruiting tool felt patently manipulative, but people were also turned off by the nihilism inherent to a fixation on the world ending, and that nihilism was threatening to the forces that wanted the public to keep on being obedient consumers, their sense of self tied up in buying a new dishwasher or designer shoes. When the Jonestown experiment came to a tragic end in 1978, with the mass suicide of its 918 members at their Guyana-based commune, cults became forever associated with a different kind of doom. It wasn’t just that they were warning of death and disaster—these groups, built around charismatic leaders who leveraged a dangerous degree of control over their followers, were enacting doomed narratives in real time. Today, there’s a pretty ingrained cultural narrative that when it comes to cults, things don’t end well. This thinking ends up conflating the cult leaders prophesying end times and figures like Jim Jones, who made followers of the Peoples Temple end things by “drinking the Kool-Aid.” The expression, now a part of our everyday vernacular, comes from how Jones persuaded his followers into drinking poisoned fruit drink in an act of “revolutionary suicide,” but it actually wasn’t the name-brand stuff they served: it was Flavor Aid. Previously based in San Francisco, as Jones grew increasingly unhinged (maybe due to all the LSD), he moved the group down to Guyana, a country sympathetic to their Marxist convictions. Paranoid the CIA was conspiring to destroy his settlement—but also at least subconsciously aware that things in Jonestown were falling apart on their own—a visit from a concerned US congressman triggered a shootout and the mass suicide known infamously today as Jonestown Massacre.
A decade and a half later, two more incidents reinforced this idea that cults. end. tragically. In Waco, Texas, in 1993, there was a shootout between law enforcement and the Branch Davidians, a Seventh-day Adventist splinter group led by David Koresh. Concerned that Koresh was stockpiling weapons, federal law enforcement organized a raid on the compound on 28 February. A shootout followed, and six Branch Davidians were killed. The FBI then laid a siege on the property, concluding with a fiery assault on the compound on 19 April, resulting in more deaths: seventy-six Branch Davidians and four law enforcement agents. Interviews with children from the group later revealed that Koresh had been having sex with girls as young as eleven years old.
Four years later in San Diego, a UFO-based cult called Heaven’s Gate enacted their own dramatic conclusion. Marshall Applewhite had been growing a following since the ‘70s, combining science fiction, millennialism, and Gnosticism into a belief system that promised to help its adherents reach a higher evolutionary level. In 1997, Applewhite, who alleged that he was the Second Coming of Christ and that God was an alien, forecast the Hale-Bopp comet was being trailed by a spacecraft. By coordinating a synchronized ritual suicide with the comet’s orbit, the members would leave behind their physical bodies and be taken to a new home in outer space. They ingested phenobarbital mixed with applesauce and wrapped plastic bags around their heads to induce asphyxiation. On 26 March, the San Diego Police found thirty-nine deceased cult members lying on bunk beds, dressed in identical tracksuits and wearing black-and-white Nike Decade sneakers, a purple cloth shrouding each corpse. There were also VHS tapes with their pre-recorded farewell videos. Autopsies showed that many of the members had been castrated prior to this suicide ritual, a procedure that allowed them to more easily follow the highly ascetic lifestyle the cult promoted.
Compared to the Laura Ashley-esque prairie dresses of the Branch Davidian women or the extraterrestrial convictions of Heaven’s Gate members, the latest cult to make headlines is shockingly basic. NXIVM is a multi-level marketing company whose founder Keith Raniere is currently in a federal jail in Brooklyn awaiting trial for charges including sex trafficking, racketeering, forced labor, and wire fraud. The women Raniere lured in—some of whom ended up phsyically branded with his initials—suggest a type: a lot of white women, heiresses, actresses, and the children of soap opera stars, all with a vague, shapeless desire to make the world better. Everything about the cult, from Raniere’s suburban Albany headquarters to the calorie counting used as a control tactic, feels very late 1990s, early 2000s.
Raniere is a former employee of Amway (the DeVos-helmed pyramid scheme) who’s perfected negging (the pick-up artist technique where you seduce women by insulting them). In a lot of ways, he’s the cult leader for the Trump era. Highly influenced by Ayn Rand, the philosophy pedaled in NXIVM’s $3,000 intro course titled Executive Success Program (nicknamed ESP) is about abandoning a victim mentality. Students are taught they are responsible for all of their successes and failures, feelings and reactions. There’s no blaming anything or anyone else. NXIVM advocates changing the world by changing the individual. For civilization to progress, they say, people need to be more disciplined. To understand suffering, they should simulate hardship. “Comfort is like an addiction,” according to Raniere.
“Doomsday preppers and cult members trust that when the world implodes, they will survive, even if others don’t, even if survival is something other than earthly.”
The idea that individual self-improvement on a mass scale would somehow better the world functioned as a rationalization for Raniere to take creeping control over members’ lives. There were always allegations of improprieties (the most damning was that prior to NXIVM’s founding, Raniere had sex over sixty times with a twelve-year-old). But more darkness came in the wake of Trump’s election, as the subsequent wave of pussy-hat feminism was leveraged to build a secret sisterhood within the larger organization. The ultimate post-Fifty Shades of Grey pyramid scheme, this sorority was built around master-slave relationships. One master would have six slaves, who were then encouraged to start their own “pods” and recruit their own slaves. Women gave collateral to join—naked pics, social media passwords, video confessions of potentially life-destroying testimonials. Commitment to their masters was presented as commitment to their own personal growth. Certain slaves were instructed to sleep with Raniere, who was also the grandmaster of the whole arrangement. Some were branded, Raniere’s initials cauterized into the flesh beside their vaginas.
Cults seem forever linked to the counterculture-obsessed ‘70s when many of them flourished. We think of the hippie followers of Charles Manson, whose murder spree was featured in last summer’s Once Upon a Town in Hollywood, or of American free love fanatics devoting themselves to Indian gurus, like the Rajneeshees in Oregon, the subject of the recent doc series Wild Wild Country. In a sense, these shaggy-haired flower children couldn’t seem more opposite to the women wearing Ann Taylor suits teaching NXIVM courses, but one birthed the other. In the early 1970s, a shift happened where self-expression and self-actualization replaced political action as the way to challenge bad things in the world. Adam Curtis, who examines this transition in Century of the Self (2002), has made the case that Trump, the ultimate self-actualizing individual, is actually the end result of ‘70s counterculture. So is Raniere, I’d argue, and his calorie-counting suburban cult.
2020 has been a cataclysmic year. First COVID spread globally and exasperated already rampant inequalities. Then the pandemic-triggered recession, combined with the continuation of racialized police murders in the US, sparked a mainstreaming of political action that hasn’t been witnessed since the 1960s. Along with mass protests, the rise of things like autonomous zones and Venmo reparations suggest maybe another shift is happening. Maybe we’re finished with this fixation on self-actualization at the expense of collective change. Maybe decades of increasing inequality and the impending doom of climate change has woken us up. You see individualism vs. collectivism battling it out in the tone-deaf influencers appropriating wokeness to stay relevant. Buy-my-T-shirt activism. Personal branding, but make it political. This summer, you also saw this clash play out at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center. In June, protestors gathered to call for the release of detainees from the facility, where COVID was disproportionately spreading. In July, on the same sidewalk, outside the same jail, there was a seemingly similar congregation, people with loudspeakers and signs—but this time, it was Raniere’s supporters dancing for their locked-up self-improvement guru.