Cults. Cults. Cults. It feels like everywhere you look someone is talking about cults these days. Remember how they usually try to lay low and be chill? And we’re not talking about those Rajneesh from Wild, Wild Country who rode up in a Rolls Royce and took over an entire town while wearing red. No, we’re talking NXIVM and Children of God — the cults that fly under the radar until they blow wide open.
Smallville star Allison Mack isn’t the only celebrity to get caught up in a cult (although she's probably one of the first to be indicted). Ranging from the upsettingly abusive sex cults to peaceful hippie communes, here are the cultish ties of some familiar names in genre.
Children of God - Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix
On the popular true-crime podcast My Favorite Murder there's a saying for when someone finds themselves in a suspiciously "too good to be true" group who manages to manipulate people into doing their bidding: "You're in a cult, call your dad." But what do you do if your dad is the one who put you in the aforementioned cult? That's the case for McGowan and Phoenix, who both spent part of their childhoods in the cult called Children of God.
Like many cults, Children of God seemed like a great idea at first. Founded by a California man named David Berg in 1968, the group advocated for communal living and even followed Christian beliefs. Then the cult shifted towards condoning child sexual abuse. Berg was a pedophile, and sex with children became standard practice. In fact, child abuse of all kinds was prevalent within the cult.
According to an account by a child victim, they were often forced to pray for hours a day, physically punished for a variety of minor sins, and sent out to beg for money to support the cult. The FBI and Interpol were even in the process of investigating the abuse allegations when Berg died in 1994.
McGowan grew up in the Italian chapter of Children of God but her family left, ultimately moving to the United States, once child sexual abuse was sanctioned, something she talks about as a scary experience in her book Brave. "When the cult got wind of certain members wanting to leave, one of their children might disappear, or some family would get severe punishment meted out to them, as a way of teaching the others."
McGowan’s family was one of thousands of families around the world who were members of Children of God — including Phoenix's family, who also spent years of their childhoods in the cult. While in an interview with Rosanne Barr in 1999, McGowan admits the time in the cult put a strain on her (then) relationship with her parents, however, Phoenix has a more forgiving view. In an interview with Playboy he said, "Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It's usually someone saying, 'We're like-minded people. This is a community,' but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out."
Breatharians - Michelle Pfeiffer
Making the move to Los Angeles can be a rite of passage for young actors but also leaves them in an intensely vulnerable state. They’re often searching for belonging and desperate for work navigating their way in an unfamiliar city, setting them up as easy targets for those who would take advantage — like a cult.
That’s where Pfeiffer found herself when she became involved with the Breatharians. Breatharians are a pretty chill group if you’re not into food. They believe that humans can live without eating or drinking, instead subsisting on “pranic light” and energy. Very science fiction-y, tbh. Breatharians also believe the nourishment forgone by not eating food can be received from the sun through “sun gazing” — looking directly at the sun on purpose. Sorta like what Trump did during the eclipse.
This is, of course, not scientifically backed at all and many of the California Breatharian followers quit back in 1983 when they found out leader Wiley Brooks was secretly eating chicken pot pie and biscuits. If you’re interested in further non-understanding of how Brooks thinks people can survive as Breatharians, check out the rambling and nonsensical interview he did with Vice where he stated it was totally okay to eat a very specific meal from McDonald's because it was "not radioactive." OK then sir.
Anyway, the story goes that when Pfeiffer was a young actor trying to make it in Hollywood, she somehow got tangled up with a Breatharian couple who put her on a diet and were “very controlling.” It wasn’t until she met her ex-husband Peter Horton who was working on a film about another cult (the Unification Church aka Moonies) that she was able to work out she herself was in a cult. See? Movies can save people.
"We were talking with an ex-Moonie and he was describing the psychological manipulation and I just clicked,” said Pfeiffer.
Skymont Subud Commune - The Arquettes
Before many cults turn cult-y, they start out as communes, and in the 1960s and '70s, communes exploded. The idyllic Skymont Subud commune was located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Subud was a spiritual movement which began almost 100 years ago in 1920 by Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo and, according to their website, uses a form of meditation called latihan to connect with the “divine force of life.”
In 1969 the group sought to host a World Congress (kinda like a convention to put it in a language for us nerdy types) and chose Skymont, a former Christian summer camp, as the location. About 750 followers attended the conference, including Lewis Arquette (yes of THE Arquettes), an actor from Los Angeles who brought his family. Once the conference was over, 10 members pooled their money to buy Skymont and settle there. The Arquette siblings — Richmond, Alexis, Rosanna, Patricia and David — all lived in the commune (David was even born there) while their actor father traveled to and from gigs. The family shared a one-bedroom cabin with no running water and no heat.
Richmond Arquette said of his time at Skymont as part of the Subud,
“I was surrounded by friends, all the time, and we had a lot of freedom.”
We're gonna file this one under: Cult Lite.
Rainbow Commune - Winona Ryder
Speaking of chill, fun cults, Ryder also spent time during her childhood in a commune. Beginning at age 7, Ryder and her family lived with a small group of other families on 300-acres in a place called Rainbow in California. Could it have a more hippie name? Since the commune was so small, details are scarce but we do know there was no television or electricity (which sounds both terrifying and soothing tbh). But perhaps surprisingly, in an interview with GQ, Ryder said she was the normal one of the bunch.
"I went through this stage where I was really square. We lived on this commune, and there was this beautiful waterfall. And there'd be a lot of kids that were naked. But I was in a bathing suit."
Moral Re-Armament - Glenn Close
The Moral Re-Armament cult was started in 1938 by a minister named Frank Buchman (who was reportedly a supporter of Hitler). Like many cults, the MRA's (not that MRA) "four absolutes" of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love were hiding a much less appealing belief system under the surface. The extreme religious organization sent members all around the world to recruit followers.
When Close was 7, her father joined the MRA. Close was forced to then abandon all she knew and move to the MRA headquarters in Switzerland with her siblings.
"You basically weren't allowed to do anything, or you were made to feel guilty about any unnatural desire," Close said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. "If you talk to anybody who was in a group that basically dictates how you're supposed to live and what you're supposed to say and how you're supposed to feel, from the time you're 7 till the time you're 22, it has a profound impact on you."
After the death of two separate leaders in the mid-'60s, the MRA began losing support. Close escaped the organization in 1970 at the age of 22. Ultimately her father left the MRA as well. Close's involvement with the MRA brings up the difficult line between religious organization and cult. At what point does a group cross that line? Let's just say it's a bad sign when someone feels they need to "escape" it.
NXIVM - Allison Mack and Kristen Kreuk
We've extensively covered NXIVM recently in light of Mack's arrest as a high-level member of the sex cult who is accused of luring women into becoming slaves. Actress Kristin Kreuk was also involved with NXIVM for several years but released a statement via Twitter about her involvement claiming she saw nothing "illegal or nefarious" during her time with the organization, which she separated from five years ago.
Scientology - Perhaps one of the best-known cases of "church or cult?" after prominent former members like Leah Remini have spoken out after leaving Scientology. However, many celebrities like Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid's Tale) and Tom Cruise (Minority Report, Mission Impossible) remain members of the organization started by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954.
Orgonite Society - A "secret society" created by Jaden and Willow Smith (along with friends) where they "Create And Place Orgonite To Balance Gaia’s Energies" through use of crystals. It's what the cool kids are up to these days, I guess.