As much as we all like success, the fact is most of our lives are filled to the brim with failures. Hundreds of them. The main failure we all have to look forward to in life is death. It’s the all-time, ultimate failure: our body and consciousness forever destined for the abyss of nothingness.
But until that happens, we get to have lots of day-to-day failures. Stubbing our toes. Accidentally closing the browser and losing all those tabs. Liking somebody’s really old photo on Instagram. And failing to get a documentary ideas turned into reality.
I’ve written about the latter before in My failed TV show pitches, in which I outlined my failed idea to make a documentary series about New Zealand’s worst obsession: terrible town icons. It’s fun to share this stuff with you on Webworm, else it would just stay in the vault of my Google Docs until the day I die (and no-one has my password so it’ll be buried with me).
So, here’s another doc series idea I had that is yet to find a home. I wrote this just before Covid hit. The synopsis I wrote went like this:
In a world increasingly divided, confused and angry, where do people go to find answers and peace? In a voyage of self-discovery, David Farrier dives headfirst into the world of cults, extreme-wellness and religion in America. There, he immerses himself to breaking point to see if anybody has managed to come up with any answers, and if he can improve his own terrible life.
The show’s working title was AMERICAN CULT. I had sketched out a basic format and tone for the show. This needed a bit of work, but this should give you a general idea of what the series would look like:
Each 45-minute episode will be based around a similar theme, from Extreme Self Help to Extraterrestrials, with the topics riding a line between amusing to dark over the duration of the episode. Each episode will contain three key stories, all based in the United States.
When access is given, the series will be shot verite with two cameras. While scenes will be clearly gritty and real, American Cult will also be balanced with beautifully framed, surreal cinematography. When access isn’t granted, hidden cameras will be used to full effect.
The tone will be irreverent but respectful, as Farrier meets those involved with the cult, and gets involved himself. Farrier really does want to improve himself, and throw himself in the deep end.
Farrier will partake as much as humanly possible, inviting new Gods & Gurus into his soul and inhaling every essence possible along his journey to wellbeing and enlightenment.
As each episode progresses, Farrier’s knowledge will build, giving him the opportunity to share what he has learnt with the talent he meets along the way. If one yoga instructor has different advice to the last, Farrier will hit them up for an explanation.
An important part of the series will be reminding the audience, through recent news events going on around the world, just how intense and unpredictable things are getting! From Elon Musk’s latest revelations to new reports on global warming, suddenly the concept of signing up for a cult isn’t that outlandish!
We want answers, stability and self-improvement more than ever before!
In American Cult, audiences will be introduced to cults they never knew existed (this isn’t just another rehash of Scientology) as they go on a journey into the heart of the USA. It’s a country obsessed with cults in many different shapes and sizes, from crossfit to Hillsong, the Moonies to the Raeliens.
And in these uneasy times, never before have the lines between self-help, gurus and shamans been more blurred. I mean, Elon Musk, right?
It never went anywhere. Which is annoying in a way, as over a year ago I was ready to jump into One Taste, a topic that was trending on Twitter over the weekend:
You bastards! I was ready for orgasms back in 2020! So: Here’s some of the research and ideas I’d come up with that would fill out each episode. These are the first six episodes. The first episode is “Sex”, where you’ll find the cult of One Taste. I’ll share the rest in the next newsletter. I just need to tidy them up a bit first.
Episode 1: Sex
There’d be no life without sex, so it makes sense that many believe sex unlocks the greater answers in the universe. Farrier learns from a practitioner of sex magick, popularised by the late Aleister Crowley, and meets comic guru Grant Morrison who thinks masturbation holds the key to the universe. Is this tapping into a darker power, or just a revamped version of the swinging 60s? Farrier meets with members of OneTaste, a trendy LA group that thinks orgasms are the key to success. Things get darker when Farrier looks into NXIVM, whose leaders are currently on trial for sex crimes and slavery.
Sex Magick: The history of sex magic as a whole is as expansive as it is elusive, and it’s often difficult to obtain records about it. According to Sex and the Supernatural by Benjamin Walker, sex magic and erotic mysticism were practiced earliest in Central Asia. Kristen Korvette is a professor of the New School’s class “The Legacy of the Witch,” and is a practitioner of sex magic, using sexual energy (often orgasm) for manifestation.
One Taste: OneTaste is a business dedicated to researching and teaching the practices of orgasmic meditation and slow sex. OneTaste was cofounded in San Francisco in 2001 by Robert Kandell and Nicole Daedone. It originally operated two communal-style “urban retreat” centers, one in San Francisco's Soma District and the other on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but has expanded to include LA and six other U.S. cities. The organization’s stated goal is “to create a clean, well-lit place where sexuality, relationships, and intimacy could be discussed openly and honestly.” But former members say it pushed them into sexual servitude and five-figure debts.
NXIVM: The American multi-level marketing company based near Albany, New York, offered personal and professional development seminars through its “Executive Success Programs”. The company has been described as a cult and a pyramid scheme, and has also been alleged to be a recruiting platform for a secret society (variously called “DOS” or “The Vow”) in which women were branded and forced into sexual slavery. In early 2018, NXIVM founder Keith Raniere and his associate, actress Allison Mack, were arrested and indicted on federal charges related to DOS, including sex trafficking. Others associated with NXIVM were also charged with federal crimes.
Episode 2: Christianity 2.0
With charismatic leaders, rules and plenty of tithing - many modern churches perfectly fit the definition of “cult”. Farrier spends his Sundays at some of America’s biggest megachurches to see if he can find out why they’re growing every year. Raised in a boring Baptist church, things have sure come a long way since churches in 90s New Zealand! They are now hip, cool and populated by Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt. Farrier is baptised and recommits to Christ in a giant megachurch, before looking into Hillsong’s biggest competitor, Kanye West’s “Sunday Service”. Jaded by all the money, he heads south meet a cult of Christians who wrestle with snakes, before meeting with the leaders of the mysterious “Quiverfull” and the “World Peace and Unification Sanctuary”
Hillsong: Recently getting press after Justin Bieber joined, this hip megachurch originally started in Australia, before taking over America. It’s a heavily evangelical church and requires its members to hand over cash every week. Over 100,000 people attend services each week. Why are LA’s hippest kids joining, and why is their leader so charismatic and cool? Farrier gets baptised and goes on a weekend retreat.
Kanye West’s Sunday Service: Despite expensive merch and a Coachella setlist, the masterplan of Sunday Service isn’t yet known. Kanye seems to be the head of this “church”, and there’s speculation that if it’s launched more widely, with Kim and Kanye’s cult status, it could end up rivalling the big mega churches. Farrier sneaks into a service with hidden cameras to investigate the cult of Kanye.
Church of Snake Handlers AKA Church of God with Signs: This southern church takes a passage of Mark and uses it as a pretext for an incredibly dangerous practice: Believing snakes are a manifestation of demons, believers pick them up, allowing them to slither all over them. The snakes get annoyed, and the biting begins.
Believers refuse medical treatment, believing that God will cast the poison out of them. It’s thought that there are anywhere from 1000 to 5,000 members — so Farrier decides to join then for a day as they catch wild snakes for Sunday’s service. Who will get bit today?
Quiverfull: Quiverfull is a movement of conservative Christian couples, that’s been compared recently to A Handmaid’s Tale, with their focus on offspring, and taking over America.
World Peace and Unification Sanctuary: As the debate over gun control raged across America in the wake of a school shooting in Florida, a group of worshippers wearing bullet crowns and toting AR-15 rifles gathered in a Pennsylvania church this week to hold a “commitment ceremony” for about 250 couples.
The Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps: Also known as the “Holy Tribal Nation” and “The Life Force Team”, it was founded in 1981 by James and Deborah Green (“the Generals”). In 2018, its leaders were sentenced to prolonged prison terms on charges of sexual abuse. Moving from its starting location in Sacramento, California, it has now settled east of the rural town of Fence Lake, in Cibola County, New Mexico. The organization has been classified as a hate group.
Episode 3: Aliens
Farrier joins the Los Angeles chapter of the Aetherius Society, whose leader claims to be the voice of interplanetary parliament. Farrier then hits the road to Area 51, and along the the way discovers a variety of cults and religions all convinced the answers lie with UFOs. He attends a meeting of Raelian’s, who believe all life on earth was seeded by aliens (Just like in Prometheus), and stops off at “Contact In The Desert”, the biggest gathering of UFO healers and scientists on the planet.
Raelians: This is a UFO cult founded in 1974 by Claude Vorilhon, now known as Raël. The Raëlian Movement teaches that life on Earth was scientifically created by a species of humanoid extraterrestrials, which they call the "Elohim".
United Nations: Formally known as the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, this is a cult of personality based around founder Dwight York. Combining Christianity, ancient Egyptian iconography, African rituals, and a belief that aliens are coming, the Nation believes that 144,000 chosen people will be taken away in a flying city, spirited to Orion to prepare for the final battle against Satan.
York's mish-mash of New Age, Black Power militancy, and ancient Egyptian religion caught on in both the hip hop community, and in rural Georgia, where York built a massive compound, made with donated funds.
York's mythology grew, incorporating cloning, racial theory, cosmology, anti-government conspiracies, and linguistics. Even as the cult grew, York was under investigation, and he finally arrested in 2002 for running a massive child molestation ring - comprising as many as 1,000 victims. He was sent to prison for life, and his compound was seized and demolished. But... the group still exists.
Unarius Academy of Science: Unarius is a non-profit organization founded in 1954 in Los Angeles, California and headquartered in El Cajon, California. Unarius is an acronym for “Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science”.
The organization purports to advance a new "interdimensional science of life" based upon “fourth-dimensional” physics principles.
The founder, and subsequent “channels” and “subchannels”, have written books filled with channeled dissertations from alleged advanced intelligent beings that exist on higher frequency planes. Over 100 volumes have been published since 1954.
Episode 5: Culty Cults
Farrier delves into the really culty-cults. You know, the ones that really get into that brainwashing, life-ruining territory. After being aggressively blocked from all things Scientology, Farrier goes and explores the The Brethren, a radical group that hates modern life, before joining the apparently peaceful Kashi Ashram, only to find stories of sexual assault and kidnapping.
The Community: The Twelve Tribes, formerly known as the Vine Christian Community Church, is a cult founded by Gene Spriggs that sprang out of the Jesus movement in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The group is an attempt to recreate the 1st-century church in the Book of Acts; the name “Twelve Tribes” is also derived from a quote of the Apostle Paul in Acts 26:7. The group has also been referred to as The Yellow Deli People and informally as “The Community”.
Moonies: In 2009 Sun Myung Moon’s daughter In Jin Moon became president of the FFWPU of the United States. She worked to modernise FFWPU's worship style in an effort to involve younger members. In 2014 FFWPU sponsored a 43-day bus tour of the United States for its members which included visits to each of Moon's original holy grounds. In 2015 it opened a conference center in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2016 a study sponsored by the Unification Theological Seminary found that American FFWPU members were divided in their choices in the 2016 United States presidential election, with the largest bloc supporting Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Family: The Family International is a cult that started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California. It was originally called “Teens for Christ” and later gained notoriety as “The Children of God”. It was later renamed and reorganized as “The Family of Love”, which was eventually shortened to The Family. It is currently called “The Family International”, lead by Karen Zerby.
The Creativity Movement (really scary):
Based in Illinois, Creativity was officially formed in 1973 to unite white people through a common “racial religion.” While much of their belief system involves a naturalist philosophy and abiding by an extremely healthy lifestyle, their supreme value is that what is good for white people is the highest good.
And it’s exactly that type of thinking that has earned them a place on a list of Neo-Nazi organizations by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Mission: “Our Mission is to educate and awaken White Europeans and people of European descent everywhere, to the possibilities currently being kept from them by the tripartite oppression of the alien Judeo-Christian religion, Multiculturalism and Political Correctness.” Yuck.
Branch Davidians A modern incarnation of the Branch Davidians exists under the leadership of Charles Pace, a follower of Ben and Lois Roden, who was a member of the Branch Davidians since the mid-1970s.
The Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness, is a legally recognized denomination with 12 members. Pace claims that Koresh twisted the Bible’s teachings by fathering more than a dozen children with members’ wives.
Eckankar: Founded in 1965 by Paul Twichell, this non-profit religion bounced around to a few locations before settling in suburban Minneapolis. Like many other New Age religions, Eckankar is a grab bag of mysticism, Eastern philosophy, meditation, and a made-up iconography.
Members claim to have ancient roots, going back tens of thousands of years, speak to each other in an invented language, and take new names for themselves. All of it is done in the name of a mediation where one chants “HU” and separates their soul from their body. Despite being a registered non-profit, the group sells its founder's materials for a hefty profit - and allegations have abounded that virtually all of Twichell's books laying the foundation of Eckankar are plagiarized.
The Congregation of the Light (this has it all but is “virtual seclusion”):
The Congregation for the Light avoids the backwater compounds common to many cults, instead having its headquarters in the heart of Manhattan.
But it has much else in common with cults, including all-powerful control by one guy, bizarre racial theories about Aryans and Atlantis, doomsday prepping, complex mythology involving owls, strange medical woo about cancer being caused by bad karma, shunning those who break away, and a powerful grip on the sex lives of members.
Oh, and it marries old men off to young girls, and enjoys tax-exempt status as a religion. The Light only has about 200 members, but they're kept in virtual seclusion, often born into the cult by member parents. Most of their money comes from pillaging the estates of dead members.
I really fucking love that last image. What a powerful owl. I’d love to film there. One day, maybe. Let me know what you think. Maybe you have your own cults you’d like to add to the mix.
Here is part 2: extreme self-help, yoga, online cults and fitness fuckery.