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An Introduction to the Long History of Los Angeles Cults

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Hello and welcome to Curbed LA's Cults Week. For the next five days, we'll be exploring Los Angeles's fruitful and sordid relationship with cults, which by all accounts began around 1840 with a Scotsman named—no shit—William Money, who claimed to be a healer, hated San Francisco, and personally designed the earthquake-resistant octagonal buildings at his Moneyan Institute in San Gabriel.

Money was the only notable cultish type in Southern California for decades, until 1900, when a New Englander named Katherine Tingley founded the Point Loma Theosophical Community near San Diego, a fantastic ("partly Moorish, partly Egyptian") commune with its own bugler to welcome visitors, where members heard lectures on theosophy, made art and put on professional-level plays, farmed chickens and silkworms, and lived by Tingley's every edict. Point Loma immediately attracted hundreds of followers from around the world and the vicious attention of General Harrison Gray Otis's LA Times, which smeared the colony as a cultish "spookery." Tingley sued the Times for libel and won in 1902; she abandoned Point Loma two decades later after being sued herself, by a follower named Mrs. Mohn, over the "alienation of affections" of her husband, Dr. Mohn.

Carey McWilliams relates this and many other tales of early LA cultism in his essential 1946 cultural history, Southern California Country, adding that "It was through Point Loma that the yogi influence reached Southern California." That influence runs through a lot of the history of LA cults, and so does the more general influence of the Point Loma Theosophical Community—all this week, we'll be hearing a lot about demanding and charismatic leaders, communal living, and theosophist philosophy. (The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875, was dedicated to universal brotherhood and equality among all people, and finding scientific explanations for the occult and other unexplained things.)

But Point Loma was probably not really a cult. It's tricky to pick out the differences between a cult and a religion once you start looking for them, but City of Quartz author Mike Davis gave us some pretty useful criteria in an email: "I think the key difference between a sect and a cult is that the beliefs of the former are open while those of the latter are secret … [cults] have secret doctrines, a charismatic leadership, claim healing powers, subordinate families to group, and usually require the surrender of all personal property."

It's impossible to talk about Los Angeles cults without mentioning the theosophists, who spread to communes in Beachwood Canyon and Ojai in the years following Point Loma, or Christian sects like Pentecostalism, born more or less in Downtown LA in 1906, or the Echo-Park-based Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which made a celebrity out of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s (McWilliams wrote that McPherson learned a lot of her tricks from Tingley). So they'll come up this Cults Week, but we'll focus on the true cults, the dangerous ones. (We'll also dabble in the occult.)

A few years before Tingley was run out of Southern California and shortly after the 1915 World's Fair, New England's New Thought movement arrived in Los Angeles, with a wide-ranging doctrine based in metaphysics and, more importantly, a talent for organizing large, devoted groups. McWilliams believed that "The mystical ingredients" for LA's cult boom "came from Point Loma, the practical money-mindededness from the New Thought leaders."

By the 1920s, cults were a major fad and a major moneymaker in Los Angeles. In a 1930 article, Time reported that "as always in such troubled times, there is a flourishing of cults, of religious novelties and new fashions in faith. Flowery, sun-drenched California, where Nature exhibits herself in mystical opulence, where plenty of people have plenty of money, where there are many invalids contemplating eternity, is particularly propitious for this flourishing." (The money was key—one 1930s cult sold everything to its adherents from phonograph records to cold cream and McPherson's Angelus Temple cost $1.5 million, paid for in donations.)

The mystical opulence of Los Angeles's nature and the hordes of sick migrants in its early days probably are at least partly behind the local weakness for cults; McWilliams also blames the shortage of medical scientists in the city's early days, which was quickly made up for by "Chinese herb doctors, faith-healers, quacks, and a miscellaneous assortment of practitioners," plus the newness of the city in general, with lots of fresh arrivals eager to leave their pasts and old beliefs behind.

Or maybe Southern California is just magical. William Butler Yeats's A Vision is based on the strange Los Angeles experiences of his medium wife; for several nights while in town in the 1920s she received "daemonic or occult communications." The theosophists believed that a series of now-lost continents had produced five "root races," each making up a new stage of human evolution; Annie Besant, who beefed with Tingley and founded a theosophist community in Ojai in the 1920s, was inspired by a Dr. Hrdlicka, whose research found that California was ready to give birth to "a new sixth sub-race." (Thomas Pynchon hashes this out a bit in his Inherent Vice.) We'll hear from some experts this week too on why they think cultists flock to Los Angeles.

Cults—"love" cults, healing cults, alien cults, ghost cults—boomed in the city all the way through World War II, then picked up two threads in the post-war years: "scientific" self-help (Scientology is the most famous organization that writers and scholars have put in this thread) and hippie-style communal living (the WKFL Fountain of the World, based near Chatsworth, known for its barefoot firefighting). The science cults grew ruthlessly over the next few decades; the hippie cults spun out of control and gave Los Angeles a new fame for cultism from its connections to the Manson Family murders, the Peoples Temple mass suicide, and the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

There are very few religious communes left in Los Angeles anymore, but Scientology is probably now the most powerful cult-like organization in the world, with a huge campus in East Hollywood, historic buildings all over LA, and ships and eternal members all over the world. In the tradition of the early cults, it nickel-and-dimed members and local affiliates out of about $300 million in 1993, the last year it had to declare its income. The organization has fought, often in court, for legitimacy as a religion, even though it seems to operate more like a business.

The newest form of LA cult isn't ashamed: it is business. In late-capitalist Los Angeles, tech companies like Airbnb use honest-to-god cult techniques to make and keep users loyal (and encourage them to fight the local zoning codes), and local institution Cafe Gratitude strongly encourages its employees to pay for classes from Landmark, which owns all the rights to the techniques of the 1970s quasi-cult est. The closest thing to the old kind of cult, the kind that combines Eastern philosophy, healing, and community into something intoxicatingly socially unacceptable, is led by an actor famous for playing the third male lead in the 1990s teen film 10 Things I Hate About You.

Yeah, that sixth race may still rise in Southern California. Come help us find out—leave your troubles behind, hand over all your worldly possessions, and join us here, now, for Cults Week.