It's Cults Week at Curbed LA! Join us.
Yesterday we traced Los Angeles's long history with cults, sects, and other fringe groups, from a Scottish immigrant's healing cult of the 1840s to a nineties teen actor's brand new New Age temple in Venice. Is it the weather, the migrant population, an early doctor shortage, or something about the magnetic fields that makes Los Angeles so prone to cultism and related activities? We asked four experts—City of Quartz author Mike Davis, Esotouric founders Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, and artist Al Ridenour—what they think, and about their most fascinating cult-related tales. Here's what they said:
Mike Davis is the author of the essential Los Angeles cultural studies City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, plus a MacArthur Fellow and a professor at UC Riverside. He answered our questions via email.
Curbed LA: Does LA have an unusually high concentration of cults or does it just seem that way?
Mike Davis: Well, one person's cult is another person's religion, so the term itself is pejorative. Christian Science, Latter [Day] Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, Four Square Gospel (even the Catholic Church in 250 AD) ... for example, were all held to be cults at one time or another. However, 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. If that's an acceptable distihon, then these churches as well as groups based on Eastern [and] non-Abrahamic ideas like Theosophist, New Age, Spiritualists, and so on are really sects not cults. They flourished in pre-1940 Los Angeles in unprecedented diversity. Cults, on the other hand, have secret doctrines, a charismatic leadership, claim healing powers, subordinate families to group, and usually require the surrender of all personal property. They can be religious like the Children of God or the Jim Jones group, or secular like Synanon (a great power in LA during the 1970s)...
CLA: Why does LA seem to attract cults?
MD: Before the Second World War, sects and cults developed in great profusion in Los Angeles and I'd suggest a few reasons:
(1) Southern California was the nation's sanitarium with remarkable numbers of sick and doomed people.
(2) Likewise it was a sanctuary for those with failed businesses, doomed speculations and broken beliefs waiting to be resurrected out of bankruptcy in some new optimistic faith.
(3) The city, accordingly, was chock-a-block with religious salesmen looking for new items to hawk.
(4) It already had a long history of religious and political utopias and intentional communities (Point Loma, for instance).
And (5) it did not have a dominant or clearcut Protestant church establishment and thus was open ground for heresies.
CLA: What do you think are the most fascinating LA cults or cult stories?
MD: Although I prefer to characterize her as a leader of sect rather a cult, [Aimee] Semple McPherson was an astonishing and mostly admirable figure, who brought drum majorettes, Hollywood special effects, Black evangelists, and spectacularly staged healing miracles to her temple in Echo Park. Her riff on Pentecostalism was sexy, generous, corny, and, above all, tolerant. With great courage, for example, she integrated her mass revivals in the deep South. Her life has been eclipsed in memory by a trivial love scandal and her staged disappearance. She didn't want let her Folks down and stumbled. What was a woman doing anyhow in Elmer Gantry's world. Meanwhile LA was ruled by the Ku Klux Klan and its radio chaplain Bob Schuler.
Kim Cooper is the cofounder of the Esotouric bus tours, a curator of the Los Angeles Visionaries Association, the creator of the time-traveling 1947project, and the author of several novels, including, most recently, The Kept Girl, inspired by LA cult the Great Eleven.
Curbed LA: Does LA attract more cults than other big cities?
Kim Cooper: Absolutely … the simplest reason is that this is a clean slate. People come out here and they leave their ties behind, and I'm thinking of the people who came when the huge population expansion of the 1920s and beyond occurred. These people are rootless; in many cases, they have time on their hands for the first time in their lives. Many of them are retirees on pensions. They're lonely and they're credulous and they're bored stiff. They form these little cultural pockets, which all too often are spiritual in nature and that can be benevolent or malevolent depending on who's pulling the strings. Sometimes things change: things start out in a very positive light and then they change over time because these little communities do have a mind of their own. It's kind of typical of any frontier that you're going to get these oddball organizations that form that are like nothing anyone's ever seen before.
CLA: What is your favorite, or the most interesting LA or Southern California cult?
KS: It was the Great Eleven that really got me hooked. I got started writing about them for a crime tour called Wild Wild Westside, which is an early, early Esotouric tour that we're just bringing back now.
Just the notion of this matriarchal society—it was a mother and daughter who formed a large group of mostly elderly people around them and got them to do the wackiest things you can possibly imagine, from standing on street corners on Wilshire counting cars to counting trains out in the country—counting the raindrops, hopping up and down on crazy quilts to drive the madness out of the world. They were really into word games. They had these ritual horses up at Harmony Hamlet or The Hill, as they liked to call it, in the Santa Susana Pass, where everybody lived in order to basically keep them isolated and in this little mysterious world that the women spun around themselves. They had their magical horses and built giant furniture for God that was gilded and covered in lions' heads and they kept it there. Everything that they were up to—it went on for ten or 15 years. A lot of it was wacky and weird, but it wasn't really malevolent at all. Yes, they gave them all their money, but at the same time, they were fed and cared for and they didn't have to make their own decisions, and it seemed to work for them. It was a commune as much as anything else.
But then, as people got sick, really weird stuff happened because this whole subtext of eternal life is very hard to continue to preach a doctrine of eternal life when people start dying around you. These women had to make some snap decisions to deal with the passing of human souls. They ultimately decided to in some cases mummify and preserve and transport for the eventual resurrection some very important figures in the group and others simply vanished. There was a woman with paralysis and so they put her in an oven. They built this oven up at Harmony Hamlet—it was basically a cage that she was in, and they put hot bricks on top of the cage, and she was in there for a couple of days. And once they realized what was going to happen, they sent all of the cult members away to the beach to watch the sunrise or set, and when they came back, Mrs. Turner was gone. "She was cured and she walked away!" It's easier to believe that than to believe that this woman you know has been baked alive.
The courts found that [the Blackburns didn't believe they were defrauding anyone]. The courts found that just because May Otis Blackburn believes that she's talking to angels and angels are giving her this wisdom and you, Joseph Dabney, nephew of the famous oilman Joseph Dabney, who chose to give them all your money over the course of five years … just because you, now, when you're broke, think that what she had to say was baloney and you're disgruntled and you want your money, you can't just take it back because then all religion is meaningless. People tithed religions all the time and they never produced the son of God.
In May's case, they came down from Oregon and the daughter's very gorgeous and she's working as a taxi dancer on main street and she hears these voices … next thing you know, the two of them are telling anyone who will listen that angels are dictating to [them] the lamb's book of life and when this book is finished, we're going to have all the secrets of all the locations of all the mineral wealth in the earth. And this is what they're telling people in Los Angeles, in oil-rich Los Angeles. It's a very compelling pitch, and they start producing these pamphlets … The idea was that the stars synced up with the locations of gold, oil, and that the angels would reveal this. And then there was this subtext of bringing people back from the dead. So you had to keep them, of course. If they were really important, you had to keep them. For later.
I think that things got of of control, that when you have an incredibly powerful figure who is essentially winging it ... May had to come up with responses for any eventuality. If someone came to her with a problem, she had to channel the angels and come up with a really convincing bit of nonsense that people would practice. I think eventually the things that were coming out of her mouth were about perpetuating the community and keeping anyone from questioning her. She certainly didn't want to let someone leave with all the assets that they brought with them. When people signed on and they joined this group, it was pretty much a life sentence. And you didn't know what you were getting into. You met them Downtown and they gather in the city in a nice little mansion in the Mid-Wilshire district and they talk about God and analyzing the bible and they talk about angels—next thing you know, you're living without running water with 600 chickens that are being sacrificed in the fire and people are disappearing …. Everything that went on out there was really, really weird. I think it started to become business as usual … Cults of personality are really dangerous.
Al Ridenour is an artist and culture writer, the former Grand Instigator of the Los Angeles chapter of the Cacophony Society, and the founder of the Art of Bleeding multi-media performance troupe.
Curbed LA: Does LA attract more cults than other big cities?
Al Ridenour: Absolutely. Historically, ever since the railroads connected the West Coast to the East, it was always the land of opportunity and utopia. A big part of it was the weather and the escapism that weather represented. It's a natural place where oranges grew—a sort of Eden, basically. It was like that and then with entertainment and Hollywood, that fueled the whole escapist mentality. Everything worked together to make California and Southern California a haven for cults and movements like that.
CLA: Is there an LA or Southern California cult that is most interesting to you, that's your favorite?
AR: Father Yod's Source Family has become a subject of interest lately … it combines sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll so perfectly. I also was always really into the Saucer cults of the late fifties, early sixties, and ongoing in the case of the Aetherius Society. They charge their spiritual batteries with chanting … they're kind of a holdout of the whole cult way of thinking about extraterrestrials.
CLA: What does that mean, that they were a holdout?
AR: In the nineties, this paranoia took hold about extraterrestrials. They became this evil, gray, probing, abducting [entity] … the space brothers were kind of like the extraterrestrial version of theosophy … they had the messages of universal brotherhood and peace … the Aetherius Society still views the extraterrestrial as a sort of elevated spiritual being.
They had a large presence in LA, but they sprang up from Chicago: The great I Am. It was a spin-off of theosophy. They were a little more mercenary than Theosophists; there were some groundbreaking mail-fraud cases … They were one of the most exploitative cults, taking advantage of people in the 1930s during the Great Depression. They also influenced a lot of New Age thinking. They pretty much died out—there were some spinoffs, including one that stockpiled arms, I believe. They still have a reading room in Downtown. Because of their [experiences with the government when they were] committing criminal activities, they're very cautious about admitting people to their meetings. I'm sure the membership's very elderly, and I'm surprised it's still there because it's right by the Staples Center.
Curbed LA: Does LA attract more cults than other big cities?
Richard Schave: To answer that question, you have to define what a cult is because there are many esoteric schools of thought which are not cults and many cults that claim to be esoteric schools of thought and they're not. They're cults. A cult is an entity that exists to take people's money. Esoteric schools of thought do not exist to take people's money. An esoteric school of thought is a very old school of thought that is completely different than heterodox religion like Christianity, Protestantism, Judaism. Esoteric schools of thought are concerned with knowledge—knowledge of self. Any ignorance, and lack of understanding of who you truly are—and by who you truly are, I mean, you burn away all the crap and crud of your ego, your upbringing, who you think you are, your physical being, who you are in terms of this aspect of the design on a long spiritual pilgrimage across millions of lifetimes—once you start to understand that's what an esoteric school of thought of is, then you can start to ask, ok, many cults claim they are esoteric schools of thought but what they really are, are they're there to take people's money and they substitute true spiritual knowledge for that of the cult of personality of the leader…
Los Angeles is perfect for that because Los Angeles is an economy built on busts and booms and get-rich-quick schemes, so the climate and the attitude are perfectly suited to the creation of cults. The climate and the attitude are also perfectly suited to esoteric schools of thought because Los Angeles is the Alexandria of the West. Always has been.
If you look at 1910, the year of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, the bombing perpetuated by labor unions in response to the black-booted, fascist tactics of the government of Los Angeles, and by the government I mean concerted efforts by public officials, the Los Angeles Police Department, and business leaders coalesced behind the Chamber of Commerce, which has it's own police station … If you look at 1910, you will see that not only was this the darkest time in the city's history in terms of these fascists controlling labor in the city, which resulted in the Times building being bombed by union activists, but you also have this explosion of esoteric schools of thought coming to Los Angeles. And that's always been the case. From the 1890s, something about the light, the vibrations, the atmosphere—everyone wants to be here. So you have the perfect conditions to cultivate two things [esoteric schools of thought and cults], and they're diametrically opposed…