Monday 20 January 2020

Cult Cinema #20: Live Together or Die Alone

Doomsday (2016)

The Doomsday we're looking at here is not to be confused with Neil Marshall's bonkers 2008 “post-apocalyptic Scotland, as run by Festival Crusties” action movie, or any other film or TV show of that name. This one is a strange and probably incomplete streaming drama about a peculiar cult that has been available on Amazon Prime Video for a little while now, and which I stumbled across, almost by accident, a few weeks ago, and watched through three times, which sounds a lot, except there's only two episodes (IMDB says it's four, but that's because each of the two existing episodes was released in two parts) and there are unlikely to be more.

Anyway, as usual, this post contains spoilers.

Largely the work of writer/director/principal cast member Sonja O'Hara, with several of the other principals involved behind the camera in some way as well, the back and forth narrative of Doomsday offers a glimpse into the life of Yesterday's Promise, an isolated community led by a charismatic and possibly psychopathic narcissist named Dagny (Karin Agstam).
It's a cult. Dagny's word is law, and she manipulates, she rants, she bestows and withdraws her favour, and she punishes when it suits her. The cult is full of beautiful things and beautiful people. Everyone lives organically, on food they produce themselves. They trip off their nuts on mushrooms. They wear sackcloth. They're not allowed to have baths, and they're all celibate. They're not even allowed to masturbate. They're not allowed contact with “OPs” (outside persons) that isn't to do with recruiting. There is no electricity, no running water. All the women's periods are synced up and they have a Moon Ritual every month to celebrate it, since presumably sanitary products are also forbidden. If they go out of line, they're sometimes caged, or tied up, or otherwise brutalised, and force-fed drugs, and all the time Dagny says things like “I can't let you hurt yourself” and hugs and kisses them and acts like it's hurting her more than it hurts them.

Before the credits of the first episode roll, we see the cult prepare one of their acolytes, Tara (Melody Cheng) for a river baptism. She has doubts. She's scared to voice them. But she goes to be baptised. And they murder her.

Cult member Sorrell (Alice Kremelberg) was complicit in this act. She is tortured with guilt over it even though Dagny assures her that Tara is still with them.

Every cult member has their own part in the narrative, and between them they cover all the cult bases. Joshua (Jaspal Binning) is Dagny's chosen, her apostle and confidant, who passes on her words as if divine, and passes on the abuse, too. Camden (O'Hara), Sorrell's ex-girlfriend and Dagny's apparent half-sister, is tasked with recruiting new members, and goes out and lures them in with sex, even while Dagny continually piles abuse on her for her promiscuity. Camden's most recent acquisition is John (Mark St. Cyr), but neither she nor anyone else knows that John is in fact a journalist, doing a cult exposé. Keith (Donald Paul) seems to be doubtful, clumsy, scared, but hints are made that he is more than that. Agnes (Kelsey Lynn Stokes) left the cult years ago and came back, and is suffering for it. And Annie River (Ellen Toland), still a teenager and brought up in Yesterday's Promise, is somewhat off. She is illiterate and possibly even developmentally impaired in some way. Later on, the group will recruit Ophelia (Sara Cicilian), a local teenager who is intensely curious about “our very own Manson Family” and who jumps at the chance to see what's going on, and the impressionable and immature Aiden (Barron Myers) who Camden literally finds lost in the woods while out evangelising for another, Christian-based sect (my money is on the Latter-day Saints), but who seems to care less for the actual doctrine than for someone to tell him how to live.
The story isn't exactly linear. We see flashbacks and flash-forwards too, to a moment in the future where bodies are found and police lines are placed, and to an FBI interview room where members of Yesterday's Promise, including one guy who apparently hasn't even joined the cult yet, talk to an unseen interrogator who sounds a little like one of the cult members (was one of them an FBI plant?) about their experiences of the group.

The cult, in terms of its everyday doings, is one of the best realised I have seen on screen. The mechanics of control, of what we like to call “brainwashing”, are shown over and over. Dagny is monstrous, and at the same time has that ambivalent charisma that real cult leaders have, the charisma that doesn't work on everyone – even cult members – all of the time, but which still keeps people there, makes people come back when they leave. She has that strange power of the true narcissist to keep hold of you even when you're gone, so that even when you've broken free of them, you grieve the loss of their relationship with you.

They always come back, she says. And certainly, enough do come back that she can believed.

All the techniques of the cult leader are at play here. Dagny plays favourites: her sect might be celibate, but under the sackcloth, she's heavily pregnant (Agstam was in fact expecting while making this) and her lieutenant Joshua knows this, and treats her as best he can, even while she alternates expressions of trust and abuse. And in fact, she showers abusive language and behaviour on everyone. She presents it as “tough love”.

Of course there's a reason to stay. There has to be. Everyone is beautiful, and they're in it together, and they're in a beautiful place. And they live in a pastoral idyll and grow their own magic mushrooms, and have beautiful, genuinely transcendent experiences. Dagny is the real deal: as abusive as she is, she believes in her own publicity and delivers the goods. She is inspirational. She is in herself a reason to stay, even while she's berating her followers for being morons.

Dagny's keenness to make sure that what she is saying and doing is always framed positively, no matter how abusive she is, is the key to her power. When she gets Annie River to go out and recruit by giving people a spiel about a vegan retreat, she dismisses Annie's concerns about the untruths by reminding her that “We are helping people. We are saving them.”

In controlling their access to their own bodies, their clothing, to basic human needs like washing, she infantilises them.

I remember how, 25 years ago, as a student in the clutches of an ultraconservative evangelical group, I would be part of these group activities that involved these silly, childish getting-to-know-you party games that'd work with eight year olds, and even then being uncomfortable in my participation, but unable to escape or not participate, because twenty other people – adults – were telling the circle their favourite Disney film (it's Mary Poppins for what it's worth), and then a leader would attach some basic spiritual point to that and everyone would enthusiastically assent to it, and I would too, because everyone else was.
You see this exact thing happening in Doomsday. At the start of the second episode, Dagny gets the members playing this game where they throw an egg around and have to shout out a foundational principle of the group when they catch it, and she doesn't like the answers, because they're too negative.
Dagny: We do not reject street clothes because we want to deprive ourselves. We say yes to burlap to remind ourselves of our tendency to choose vanity over humility, physical comfort over the wellbeing of Mother Earth who has been raped of her resources! We do not decline our physical urges because we believe we're unworthy of pleasure. We say yes to celibacy because our core energy can be channelled more efficiently into helping others! We can derive pleasure from making the world a better place!
And the cult members respond to Dagny with enthusiastic affirmations. But how are they helping others if they’re not allowed contact with any outsiders apart from potential recruits? How are they making the world a better place, except in the most (literally carbon-) neutral possible way? But cults and sects and evangelical believers of every faith do this: they sell their belief as self-actualisation and then frame that as a wider good on a cosmic, eschatological level. And this makes everything, even the inconsequential politics of an isolated cult community, seem terribly important.

Again, I remember the ridiculous political squabbles of that university group, and how at the time we were all convinced that they were the most important thing in the world. Because to us they were the most important thing ever, because to us we were in the centre of a desperate eternal battle between good and evil. And we got hung up on the most ridiculously trivial shit you can imagine, just as the characters in Doomsday do, because we too had been infantilised and we were controlled by systems of social pressure, and yet we missed out on anything important, anything that really mattered, because we were so obsessed with things that actually didn’t.

I really miss it.

We were helping people. We were saving them. I remember a man of about 20 – Simon Mcdonald, or MacPherson, or something else beginning with Mac, his name was – who was a student at Swansea's notoriously insane Bible College, and used to boast about praying for hours locked in a closet, and he was speaking at one of our meetings, and he said something like, “Imagine you're standing on a cliff top, and it's shrouded in mist, and only you know the cliff top is there, and everyone you love and care about is running towards it. Wouldn't you try to stop them?” It was as urgent as that, and we were desperately striving to stop the destruction of everything that we loved.

I mean, we were doing that by having prayer meetings and Bible studies, and having passionate arguments about speaking in tongues, and seeking in prayer who should be the next Worship Secretary, but it was the most important thing that ever happened
There's a scene where Dagny cancels the midsummer ritual, and reveals she's got a black eye, and says that's because she was assaulted, and the community is under attack. In terms of storytelling that's really there to underline her awfulness, because we'll see that she actually fabricated the whole thing to keep everyone scared and under control, but the telling thing is how they all whine like kids because they can't have the midsummer ritual. Because they've been reduced to being so dependent on her, on their “gentle mother”, for basic things like the chance to borrow a bar of homemade soap with potentially dodgy ingredients, that they're without any autonomy of their own. So a ritual that's really there to aggrandise its leader becomes a treat on a par with how a trip to the fair would be for a kid.

A genuinely abusive religious group does everything it can to create dependence – even if it doesn't know it's doing this – and this does lead to infantilisation, this does lead to a sort of regressing and stunting of personal growth, even while personal growth is explicitly advertised as a benefit for joining.

One of Dagny's central principles is “Live together or die alone” and this slogan is a work of genius, because it both inspires community and carries an implicit threat. It inspires dependence.

And this is part of what we call brainwashing, and the more I've looked at this phenomenon and its screen portrayal, and how they've reflected my experiences in the past, and the experiences of others, the more it seems apparent that what most people understand as brainwashing doesn't really exist. In fact, I would define brainwashing as less a process of direct thought control and much more a system of social pressure to enforce dependence and behavioural conformity. The beliefs may well be there, but they're not as monolithic as you might think. In a regimented cult group, it doesn't matter, because everyone works on the assumption that everyone else is on the same page as the leadership, and behaves appropriately, until they don't.

Doomsday demonstrates how this isn't the case. In fact, the most sincere believers might secretly harbour wildly different ideas about specifics, even ones that might be, if anyone knew, excommunicable. Different things scare them. Different things inspire them. So Keith – apparently – loses the will to stay and takes off, only to come back later. After coming back, he is confided in by John (who of course is never a sincere believer); John has broken the no sex rule, with Annie River of all people, and is forced by Dagny to sign a contract handing over his immortal soul to the cult for a billion years. John thinks this is hilarious. Keith, shown this, reacts with a sort of awed terror, musing on what that would even mean.
Aiden's beliefs are clearly interchangeable, and secondary to the whole structure of “being in a cult”. And Sorrell, who will, in flash-forward, angrily and tearfully defend Dagny to her interrogators, plots with Agnes to murder Dagny.

And those things aren't contradictions. Sorrell's reaction to the questioning recalls an abused child asked to give evidence against a parent, and as well it might. She has been, as we've seen, reduced to a childlike state, and that mix of fierce loyalty and utter hatred feels very true. Just as you can simultaneously hate and love an abusive parent or partner with equal passion, so you can just as easily feel the same about an abusive religious leader.

The reviews on Doomsday's page on Prime Video almost entirely complain about how the show seems incomplete. And certainly, things are only foreshadowed, or begin without ending. A death pact. A date for the end that coincides with Charlie Manson's birthday. We have the face of a man who appears in the interview sequences but not yet in the story proper. And there's Roman (David Nash), the drifter who Dagny first imprisons and then right at the end claims as new co-leader of the cult, right out of nowhere (and this is interesting in itself, because it speaks to Dagny's sincerity, since a fraud would surely not do something quite so self-destructive). We see a point in the near future where a woman's body is found by authorities who storm Yesterday's Promise.
Three years later, it seems vanishingly unlikely that a third episode will materialise, but I am not sure there needs to be one (and not a hundred percent sure if a third episode was ever even intended). Every question raised by the narrative already has its answers. All of them can be worked out, and those that cannot have several likely solutions staring you in the face. It's perhaps an indictment of how contemporary TV goes that you can work these things out, and that a notional continuing season might, unless it throws you for a loop, proceed in an entirely predictable way. We don't need any more of this. It works on its own (and not to be facetious or anything, but if a basic guy like David Foster Wallace can do this sort of thing and get hailed as a genius, why can't a woman directing something beautiful and painful and personal do the same?)

I remember, in the days before easily obtainable replays, only catching the occasional middle episode of a serialised drama and being OK with that, and having an imaginary idea of what the other episodes might be like and what the shape of the story was. Doomsday feels like that, in a way. And what we have contains a narrative that shows pretty much every aspect of an abusive cult situation in a realised and honest way with depth, humour and horror.

We know something terrible will happen soon. We even know (at least partly) who's going to survive. Sorrell, for instance, is in the interview room and Dagny is not; the investigating agents find by the woman's corpse the bottle that Sorrell was preparing while planning to kill Dagny. But it doesn't matter.

The narrative of a cult survivor is often fractured; there are lacunae, contradictions that reflect the way that our experiences have been warped.

Doomsday presents a fully realised snapshot of what being in an abusive personality cult is like. And maybe by accident, but in a way that's no less compelling, that includes the way in which we so rarely get real closure.

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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