A Look At Hollywood’s History Of Cults

California has long been the go-to place for physical and mental rejuvenation. At the turn of the 20th century, doctors prescribed moving to Los Angeles as a cure for people with chronic ailments as varied as arthritis and mental-health issues. Since so many flocked to the West Coast to be saved, both emotionally and physically, it naturally follows that the area also attracted plenty of healers. It’s no mystery why, even today, new movements are constantly cropping up. We want to feel good, and we want something exciting to believe in. Our fascination with cults and their powerful leaders cannot be tamed. So what defines one? There are several things that are necessary in building a cult: an alternative ideology, often looked at as a new, better way of living; devoted followers who are willing to give up their previous life for the cause; and most importantly, a charismatic leader whose belief system goes unchecked. Jodi Wille, co-director of the documentary The Source Family, sums up just what makes cults so fascinating: "Cults are easily misunderstood or even demonized, not because they are inherently dangerous, but because they are powerful and radically subversive," she told us. "They speak to our deepest desires and provide compelling, meaningful alternatives to the dominant culture.” But of course, the question arises: How do so many people get mixed up with cults? "Many of these groups are led by a charismatic leader and center around a kind of revelatory spirituality — a radical, ecstatic, direct spiritual experience. This experience can be so powerful, it leads a person to change the way they see everything, as they realize they’re more than what the dominant society tells them they are. This is perhaps the most dangerous, and the most powerful, aspect of being in a cult. At their essence, even with their flawed, high-risk aspects, these groups provide opportunities for personal and, ultimately, cultural transformation,” says Wille. So now that you've got a little background, let's dive into the nitty-gritty — it's time to explore Los Angeles’ legendary connection to religious and mystical movements.

Cults are easily misunderstood or even demonized, not because they are inherently dangerous, but because they are powerful and radically subversive.

The Manson Family
No story about cults would be complete without Los Angeles’ most infamous cult leader, Charles Manson, and his “Family.” Manson, a frustrated rock-star wannabe, collected young members of his family up and down the California coast in the late '60s, first stopping in San Francisco and eventually landing in Los Angeles — for a time even living in Dennis Wilson’s Topanga Canyon house. Propelled by the teachings of the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Manson went from being a reform-school and prison mainstay to one of the most notorious cult leaders of the 20th century. His path quickly turned to evil: His clan of brainwashed young men and women murdered Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and her friends, the La Biancas, among others. For more info, listen to Karina Longworth’s brilliant podcast You Must Remember This, which is doing a ten-part series called Charles Manson’s Hollywood.
Jim Jones And The People’s Temple
Ever heard the expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid”? It has its origin in the mass suicide of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult in a Guyanese jungle by drinking cyanide-laced, grape-flavored Flavor Aid (Kool-Aid seemed catchier for a slogan, I guess). But before the more than 900 cult members made their home in Guyana in the '70s, the People’s Temple had over a dozen locations throughout California, including a church in Los Angeles on the corner of Alvarado and Hoover. Though Jones’ intent in founding his religious movement was racial harmony and an agricultural utopia built around the tenets of communism, it was his drug use and paranoia that led the self-proclaimed messiah to command his followers to kill themselves in 1978.
The Source Family
Decidedly less sinister than some of the other groups of the time, The Source Family’s impossibly beautiful tribe was led by ex-Marine James Edward Baker, better known as Father Yod. His followers, all young, long-haired, gorgeous, and glowing, worked at The Source Family health-food restaurant on Sunset Boulevard (you can catch a glimpse of it in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall). Father Yod was the perfect candidate for a 1960s California messiah: He was chauffeured around in a white Rolls-Royce and was the leader of a psychedelic rock band (his shows, of course, were recruiting sites). The group's first “Mother House” was in Los Feliz, in an expansive mansion built by the Chandlers (an iconic L.A. family who long held the role of publisher of the L.A. Times). In the early '70s, they would move to Nichols Canyon in the Hollywood Hills and christen their three-bedroom home the “Father House.” One hundred and forty people lived there, and it was the site of daily meditations, yoga, and everything you could hope for in California utopian living, including a guru-leader with multiple wives, and white caftan-adorned free love. Though the group later moved to Hawaii, few in Los Angeles can forget the lasting legacy of The Source Family.
Aimee Semple McPherson
Not to be outdone by the men, Aimee Semple McPherson can be seen as one of Los Angeles’ OG gurus. When Sister Aimee arrived in Los Angeles in late 1918, she was already famous as a radio preacher and founder of the International Church of the Four Square Gospel. She was billed as a miraculous healer; tens of thousands of sick people came to be healed by her, and she developed a cult following. Semple stirred up crowds by speaking in tongues and "curing" her followers of their ailments, whether they were unable to walk or could not see. Her followers even went so far as to foot the bill for the stunning Angelus Temple in Echo Park in appreciation. In 1926, she vanished while swimming in the Pacific Ocean, and when she finally turned up a month later in the small Sonoran town of Agua Prieta, Mexico, she claimed to have been kidnapped. Eventually, she was brought back to the U.S. on criminal charges for the hoax, and died of a presumed Seconal overdose in Oakland, California, in 1944. Carlos Castaneda
Dubbed the Godfather of the New Age, Peruvian-born Carlos Castaneda made his name as the writer of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, the first of a few books about his meetings with a mysterious shaman from Northern Mexico. Castaneda later started Tensegrity, which he saw as “a practice of interconnecting with oneself and the world.” The psychedelic guru withdrew from public view in the early '70s when his books began to be widely discounted as fiction, though he did manage to amass some followers, including women he took on as girlfriends. After his death in 1998, five of his female followers, called “witches,” disappeared in an alleged suicide pact. One of these followers, who had changed her name from Patricia Partin to Nury Alexander (all his followers changed their names), drove into Death Valley National Park and was never heard from again. Her remains were found by hikers in 2003.
The Children Of God
David Berg, or Moses David, as he was known, was the controversial leader of the Children of God, which was formed in Huntington Beach in 1966. Some might recognize the name as that of the cult that River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, and their family were a part of in the '70s. Joaquin Phoenix recently told Entertainment Tonight, "When people bring up Children of God, there's always something vaguely accusatory about it. It's guilt by association. I think it was really innocent on my parents' part. They really believed, but I don’t think most people see it that way. I've always thought that was strange and unfair."
Though the church's teachings were based on scripture, Berg’s female followers proselytized by “flirty fishing”: acting as sexual bait to bring men into the cult and convert them. Members trolled Southern California beaches looking for new recruits, mostly teenagers hanging out. One such recruit was Jeremy Spencer, Fleetwood Mac’s original guitarist. He went missing on his way to a bookshop in Los Angeles and, after an exhaustive search, turned up five days later with a shaved head, declaring he had joined the Children of God. Now renamed Family International, the group still has thousands of members worldwide.

It's guilt by association...I've always thought that was strange and unfair.

Joaquin Phoenix
Self-Realization Fellowship
The Self-Realization Fellowship still owns some of the most beautiful land in Los Angeles, including an enchanting shrine in the Pacific Palisades overlooking the Pacific Ocean and an old hotel atop Mount Washington. The latter, a serene escape from L.A.'s hustle and bustle, was a property founder Paramahansa Yogananda purchased in the 1920s and dedicated as a center for meditation and Kriya Yoga. The purpose: to reach divine consciousness and establish harmony between mind, body, and spirit. Elvis Presley, on a quest for a higher level of spirituality, was a devotee of Yogananda’s and became friends with the longtime “Mother” of the movement, Sri Daya Mata. George Harrison was also an admirer of Yogananda. And before joining the Manson family, Leslie Van Houten spent time in the Mount Washington ashram looking for spiritual enlightenment.
L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, now under the direction of David Miscavige, has recently had a lot of attention. The controversial religion was alluded to in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It then became the subject of Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article "The Apostate," about the filmmaker Paul Haggis’ departure from the controversial church, and also of Wright's book, Going Clear, which was the basis for a scathing HBO documentary. Famous practitioners — from Tom Cruise to John Travolta to Beck to Laura Prepon — appear to be staying loyal, but scores of followers are leaving the church, and for good reason. The abuses long whispered about are now in the open, and though Scientology's basis is in the self-improvement of the individual, one has to ask: at what cost?
Full Circle
Almost all cults have certain things in common: a charismatic leader, a religious doctrine, beautiful female followers, and a bitchin’ commune. And while Andrew Keegan’s Full Circle spiritual community is situated in a lovely former church in Venice and has a former teen heartthrob at the helm, there are no reports of a doctrine — in fact, Keegan has gone on the record to say his mission is to “activate high vibes” and that Full Circle is a “conscious social movement.” Full Circle's recent bust by the police for serving illegal kombucha at a benefit might have raised an eyebrow or two, but this group seems perfectly in tune with our feel-good, millennial times. Could it be our new Source Family?

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