One of my favorite movies of the past decade is Beyond the Black Rainbow, directed and written by Panos Cosmatos, who you might know for his big film of 2018, Mandy.
In the film, a 1960s group of metaphysical researchers start a compound where they study psychic phenomenon. By the time the film picks up in 1983, this has gone terribly awry.
One of my favorite TV shows, Lost, follows a similar theme. One major plot of the show has The Dharma Initiative, a bunch of hippie scientists, come to the unnamed island in the 60s to do tests on electromagnetic anomalies. And, of course, it falls apart in the early to mid 90s.
5 years to the day before I was born, a man named Jim Jones convinced the citizens of a town he created, Jonestown, in northern Guyana, to take their own lives. Originally, he and his followers started a peaceful commune, but it quickly became a religious cult due to Jones’ paranoia.
These are stories that fascinate me.
The 60s were a time of space-age optimism, mostly lingering from the previous decade, but at the same time, the counterculture had begun to openly experiment with drugs and rethink spirituality. New Age this-and-that were everywhere.
And those two things combined in such a strange way. Science and religion were embraced by these groups. It was a whole new era of supernatural and esoteric thought, and it largely went unchallenged for two decades.
Now, this marriage of mysticism and research alone isn’t what I find interesting. It’s the rise, followed by the stark decline. So much hope and optimism were absolutely doomed.
By the mid-1980s, society had almost fully turned its back on new religious movements. Many were described as cults, they were accused of brainwashing their followers, and one of the most cited examples was the aforementioned Jonestown tragedy.
If you were a child in the 1980s (I was born in 1983, in case you didn’t do the math earlier), you likely remember the Satanic Panic. Everything, and I do mean everything, was claimed to be the endless toils of purported Satanic cults who hid behind the scenes, committing abuse, murder, and covering it all up with the aid of powerful allies.
And so, many of those hippie groups, who hoped to combine their spirituality with the weird fringes of science, became fodder for these claims, both in pop culture and in real-life. The Satanic Panic and moral conservatism of the 80s killed off so many burgeoning religions, turning them into boogeymen, and driving people to more traditional faiths.
I find this subtle process such a weird, distinctly 20th century American story. We take this crystallized promise of a Tomorrow that never came, and turn it into this nightmare tale of devil-worship and child abduction.
I don’t hate mainstream religions for this. I don’t think those hippie religious movements are some great lost cause. To me, it speaks of America’s deeply-rooted and strange relationship with religion, and of its love affair with fear.
When there’s blood in the water and the fear starts, America will warp anything into a monster.
And what’s more, the anti-cult mentality of the 80s never went away. We see religious leaders accused of theft, sexual abuse, whatever, and we feel a great sense of schadenfreude, and we whisper behind cupped hands that we knew it all along. Accusations of brainwashing, stories of religious fervor and terrorism, and conspiracy theories about religious groups are everyday news now.
The only difference now is it applies to all religions. Maybe after we got that blood in the water and bulldozed a generation of new faiths, we got a taste for it.
Maybe, by creating a culture of fear around religion, we’re destroying religion as a concept.
Maybe the fear is going to replace it. I think it’s already happening.