Let's Talk About That Cult Episode Of Boy Meets World

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images.
Cults are not just the topic of your new favorite Netflix docu-series or the most recent season of American Horror Story. They're also the subject of a very special episode of Boy Meets World, in which Rider Strong's Shawn Hunter joins a hug-loving commune for wayward youths. Yes, really.
Maybe you forgot this particular moment in Boy Meets World history. After all, ABC's former TGIF staple had a lot of episodes (seven seasons worth, as a matter of fact) and a gone-too-soon Disney Channel spin-off, Girl Meets World. I, however, have never forgotten season 4 Boy Meets World episode "Cult Fiction," because it is perhaps the most bizarre BMW episode to ever air.
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Bizarre? Totally. But also, strangely accurate to how cults work.
Let's dive right in, shall we?
The episode takes place after Shawn stops living with Mr. Turner (Anthony Tyler Quinn) and moves back in with his parents. Turner, however, is still concerned that Shawn isn't living up to his potential (he's still his teacher, after all). In the opening of the episode, Turner gives Shawn a speech about how Shawn only has so many people who care about him... and not all of them will be around after high school graduation.
It's a heavy dose of brutal honesty, and one that Shawn's classmate Sherri (Tamara Mello) — who we've never seen before and will never see again after this episode — uses to her advantage. She tells Shawn that she has so many people who care about her, and that they would never talk to her the way Turner did to Shawn.
So Shawn and Sherri go to some place called "The Centre" to talk. That's where Shawn meets some of Sherri's "friends," who make up the titular "cult" in "Cult Fiction." They hug everyone, all the time, and say your name in conversation a lot. While trying to get Shawn to join her cult, Sherri also shares gems like "laughter is a mask that denies the reality of a situation and reveals nervousness," and, because hugs are currency in this cult, "a hug is a burst of pure love."
But it's not Sherri that Shawn should be concerned with, but the "most remarkable man" Sherri has ever met: Mr. Mac (Jerry Levine). When Shawn meets Mr. Mac — and learns that Sherri, and the dozens of other teens, actually live at The Centre — he deduces the situation rather quickly.
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"Oh, my bad," Shawn says. "It's a cult."
Ding, ding, ding: It is a cult. And yet, following some not-so-persuasive persuading by Mr. Mac (blah blah blah, something about no judgements) and a literally hour long time-jump, Shawn is in. So in, he's telling Cory (Ben Savage) that the Centre is definitely "not a cult," when he was, just 57 minutes ago, literally saying the exact opposite.
"I've found a place where people allow me to finally be who I am," Shawn tells a now-disturbed Cory.
Cory pressures Shawn to tell him what he believes in, and Shawn doesn't have much of an answer. That's the thing about this episode of Boy Meets World: It's low-key deep, you guys.
Is it ridiculous to assume that cults can work their magic so effectively within the course of one singular hour? Of course. But it's also a vehicle for the show to dive into what it really wants to talk about, which, for some reason, is Shawn's belief system and personal relationship with God.
Which we'll get to. But first, Boy Meets World has to teach us a few things about how cults work.
"[Mr. Mac] wants you to think you're lost so he can find you," Cory tells his best friend. "And once he has you, he'll never let you out of his sight. He'll be there every time you turn around."
Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) also spells it out to a brainwashed Shawn:
"Mr. Mac is conducting his own search. For lost souls that he can influence and manipulate." When Shawn tells Feeny that Mr. Mac said Feeny would say such a thing, the ever-brilliant teacher snaps back with: "Yes, I'm sure he's given you a thought for every occasion."
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So, yeah: The episode nails down the cult thing in mere minutes (14, which includes Eric's own cult-adjacent subplot). If any Boy Meets World fans were wondering if they should join up with that slightly too touchy-feely commune eager to recruit them, let this episode serve as a warning.
And yet, maybe due to Strong's surprisingly nuanced acting, it's hard to mock this episode too severely. It tries really hard to serve Shawn's character and it almost works. Shawn, with his troubled home life (his parents drop him off with the Matthews and/or random teachers whenever the show needs a tear-jerker episode) and longing for meaning would be more susceptible than some to a cult's advances. I'd like to think that the full-on brainwashing would take longer than one day, though.
It takes a tragedy to snap Shawn out of The Centre's hold. Turner gets into an awful motorcycle accident, prompting Shawn and everyone who loves Shawn to go to the hospital to see him. Mr. Mac shows up, too, and nearly gets a beat down by Cory's dad Alan (William Russ), who I did not remember as being so quick to solve things with violence. (He previously tells Cory to "tie Shawn to a chair" in order for him not to go back to the cult, which would have been weird if not for the laugh track moment.)
But it's a renewed spiritual connection with God which ultimately saves Shawn from Mr. Mac. Standing over Turner's mangled body (turns out his love of motorcycles was foreshadowing to this very moment the whole series), Shawn starts to pray.
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Traditional example of spirituality/Mr. Feeny, 1. Mr. Mac, 0.
By the way: Turner does survive the motorcycle accident. We just never see it, or him, literally ever again over the next three seasons of Boy Meets World. Though he is referenced very briefly, his fate is unclear until he shows up in Girl Meets World, explaining to the audience (but not to Shawn, who apparently learned all of this offscreen in BMW) that after his accident he was offered a lucrative principal position at a different school.
Mr. Turner's fate is one reason why the cult episode of Boy Meets World will go down as one of the weirdest to ever grace the TGIF lineup. But uh, Mr. Mac's hug-obsessed cult is up there, too.
Check out the episode below:
All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with "Cult Fridays."
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