7 Horror Movie Scenes I Lived Inside a Real Apocalyptic Cult
Ah, the humble end-times cult, consuming the lives of its members with promises that the whole world they shunned as the price of membership is just about to collapse. We've seen this sort of madness in Jonestown, Waco, and the very existence of that Doomsday Preppers show. But it's hard to imagine the realities of life in such a cult if you've never been in one yourself. Cracked sat down with Boze Herrington, who spent his early college years in lockstep with a vicious cult leader and other brainwashed followers. He keyed us in on how otherwise sane and rational people can get caught up in something so bizarre, crazy, dangerous, and most of all really, really stupid. Here's what we learned:
I Didn't Know It Was a Cult Until I Left
There's a certain type of person we expect to wind up as the member of an apocalyptic cult: glassy-eyed, thoroughly insane, possibly sprouting tentacles. Boze Herrington and his friends never wanted to be cultists; they started out as normal, run-of-the-mill college nerds:
"When I joined a prayer group in the fall of 2007, we were just five college friends with a shared interest in fantasy novels and Harry Potter. We'd go to the movies together and meet up once a day to pray -- pretty unexceptional stuff for a group of religious kids going to college in Texas."
Within five years, that mild-mannered prayer group had relocated to Kansas City and grown from five members to 20. They cut off contact with their families and lived together in two gender-segregated houses. To fill out their crazy-cult bingo card, they started identifying themselves as God's "final army" and dedicated their free time to training for the apocalypse.
If it sounds like lunacy, then you'd be right, because that's textbook goddamn lunacy. Winding up in a cult can be a little like binge drinking with your friends: you don't quite realize how fucked up you got until you wake up alone and hungover the next morning. Boze was kicked out of his cult for asking too many questions in 2012:
"Only then did I start to realize I had broken free from a cult. If you'd asked me about the cult leader prior to that, I'd have said he was the kindest person I knew. If you'd accused me of being a cult member, I'd have mocked you -- even during the eight months they shunned me with silence in my own house."
Seven months later, another cult member murdered one of Boze's friends, allegedly at the behest of their leader. So how the hell did nobody notice the crazy until it leveled up into murder? Well ...
The Shift from "Group of Dorks" to "Crazy Cult" Was Gradual and Imperceptible
"Tyler Deaton had always been the group's leader. He had started the prayer group with three of his friends, who were also good friends of mine. I didn't want to be left out of this group they had created. After some pleading on my part, they let me join a month in. I was the first member to join who wasn't one of the original four, and I felt elated."
The college prayer group started out exactly as boring as the words "college prayer group" would lead you to expect. Tyler started adding in the crazy the way you pour Guinness into a pint glass: slowly, allowing plenty of time for the madness to settle so it doesn't spill out all over the table and pour off into your crotch.
The cult was originally the "religious version of a fraternity," in Boze's words. Things really amped up when Tyler moved the group to Kansas City to separate them even further from their families. The prayer group was the center of these kid's social lives and also the only familiar thing in a strange new town. Questioning Tyler meant the risk of losing that one bit of familiarity, so most people just didn't:
"He claimed he was an end-times apostle and that God spoke to him. As the group started to grow, he weeded out the members who were more apt to pose questions, to confront. The ones who were left believed that we were not supposed to question people who have spoken with God, so we didn't."
Except "God" spent more time micromanaging the group than giving them lottery numbers, or anything useful:
"One time, we were eating at Panda Express when Tyler ordered us to change seats, because the Lord had informed him about a 'spot of demonic darkness' nearby. I quipped back, saying that 'the Lord didn't tell me. I think we should stay.' He took me aside and said, 'How dare you put your friends' souls in jeopardy by questioning the word of the Lord.'"
If you were wondering why there's evil in the world, there you go: God is way too busy being super serious about feng shui at Chinese fast-food restaurants.
It's worth noting that "human beings speaking on God's behalf" didn't sound as weird to these kids as it would to most of us. Boze, Tyler and the other cult members were involved with a very large, very peculiar branch of Christianity, and ...
A Mainstream Church Validated Our Most Insane Beliefs
The cult started off as an offshoot of the International House of Prayer. The less-fun IHOP is a major church and "university" affiliated with something called the New Apostolic Reformation. The NAR is a vast network of prophets and apostles active across the United States, Australia and even South Korea. There are 3 million estimated American attendees of NAR churches. And that South Korean NAR church we mentioned is the largest megachurch in the world, with more than a million members.
NAR leaders teach that in the next 20 to 50 years, before Jesus returns, the entire Christian church will be led by apostles. These apostles have the power to forgive sins, release blessings and curses, and bind high-ranking demonic spirits. They can control the weather, cause earthquakes, and unleash death and destruction on nonbelievers.
In other words, some brilliant, cynical people took all the best elements of Harry Potter and the X-Men, mashed them together, and started a church about it.
"When we got involved with them, Tyler read a book called The Final Quest, which is a cheesy fantasy novel that claims to be a prophetic vision of the end times."
Behold, the book's cover:
"We were all nerds, so this sort of adventure narrative fit us like a glove. And it spurred Tyler on to some truly crazy 'visions.' The first big dramatic shift away from 'prayer group' to 'cult' occurred when Tyler suddenly claimed to literally see an army of demons on our campus. Now God was calling him to train the 'last generation' for spiritual warfare."
That "training" involved Tyler introducing the group to a man who claimed to be a military veteran. He ran them through drills, probably cobbled together from viewings of Full Metal Jacket and Stripes, and the cult practiced evacuating their homes, in case they had to flee the anti-Christ-controlled suburbs.
None of this upset the church leaders at the time. It was more physically active, but no less crazy than the apocalyptic prophecies they preached every weekend. After the terrible murder that ended Tyler's cult once and for all (hopefully), Boze sought counseling from the International House of Prayer.
"I tried to come to terms with my former belief under Tyler, that I had been called to battle the forces of the Antichrist, which I now saw as a lie. But the counselor didn't agree with me. His beliefs fell squarely in line with Tyler's. I was told, 'No, Tyler was right about that.'"
He probably would have found the pancake shack more spiritually enlightening.
Where divinity is delicious.
The Cult Piggybacked Off of Our Pop Culture Brainwashing
Boze and his friends had grown up watching The Matrix and reading the Narnia books, dreaming of the day they'd get their acceptance letter from Hogwarts. What they don't tell you in those stories is that if a strange bearded man approaches you in the dark with stories of "wizard school," the education you're about to receive isn't going to make you better at anything but repressing memories.
"According to Tyler, he had first gotten the 'word of the Lord' to start a prayer group during a midnight release party for the last Harry Potter book. He returned to school after this episode with a special revelation that everything we had ever known was a lie and that there was a deeper reality beyond what our eyes could see. He was offering us a chance to join him in leading a spiritual revolution. Who could refuse?"
Well, we should rephrase that: What nerd could refuse?
"We went together to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince during opening night. We left the theater at 3 a.m., and Tyler said, 'God spoke to me twice during that movie. The first time was when Harry was trapped in the water and Dumbledore pulled him out with a lasso of fire, and God said that's how he'd protect me. And then later, during Dumbledore's funeral, God said, 'That's how it's going to be whenever someone dies in this group. You have to keep moving; you can't let it stop you.'"
Sure, that sounds as crazy as a bear on acid. But keep in mind, you're hearing about this lunacy after the fact, through a few select quotes from the wackiest moments in the cult's multiyear life span. What most pop-culture-depicting cults leave out is that successful cult leaders spend the bulk of their time being super nice. The hooting, destructive madness is really just sprinkles on top of a big ol' cupcake of love and acceptance.
Cult Leaders Are Perfectly Nice Fellows Before They Start Ordering You to Kill
"There were reasons we followed him. Tyler could sense when people were distressed, and he made a point of tracking down people having difficult times and talking to them. He'd sit us down and be empathetic and a good listener."
You don't gain the loyalty of 20 otherwise sane people by acting like a dick 100 percent of the time. You earn it by being there for them at their lowest points -- that way it's more palatable when you do start dropping all the loony bits about demon wars and sacred fast-food seating arrangements. The few times Boze questioned Tyler led to him being shunned for months at a time by all of his friends, in his own house.
"I never got help during the eight months I was being shunned by seemingly every friend I had because I felt I deserved this. I just knew that if I tried to speak out and alert the authorities to what was happening in our group, I would be allowing my wicked heart to betray the one man who was trying to help me, the man who had saved me from hell."
Tyler became the group's mentor, offering wisdom and fatherly guidance to confused young kids who repaid him with absolute loyalty. All the while, he was slowly building a culture of suspicion between everyone else, towards everyone else:
"At any moment, someone could accuse you of looking at someone else the wrong way, and if you tried to deny it, you were immediately labeled 'rebellious,' 'antisocial,' and 'unteachable.' Once they decided you were a threat, the safest thing to do was just stay quiet and resist the temptation to speak. Reacting in any way -- even agreeing with them that you were a threat and needed to be punished -- would just land you in more trouble."
Doing nothing? That's trouble. Not being in trouble? That'll get you in trouble. Already being in trouble? Oh, you better believe that'll get you in trouble.
Things Happening Around Us Seemed to Confirm Our Beliefs
Forgive us for the assumption, dear reader, but we're going to go ahead and assume you don't live in a world of constant demonic battles featuring six-tongued, four-penised monsters who are spell-dueling atop a Walgreens. So how do reasonably bright people convince themselves they live in a world of magic and spiritual warfare?
Why, it's all thanks to our old friend confirmation bias. Unless we work very hard to fight it (and sometimes even then), our brains tend to interpret information in a way that supports what we already believe. It's a major problem for scientists conducting research, so of course it would also be an issue for a bunch of awkward, geeky college kids:
"During one particular prayer session at our university chapel, two members of our group tried to heal a friend of ours who had cerebral palsy, through God. In the midst of a prayer trance, they ran over to her wheelchair. One of them knelt down, grabbed our friend's knees, and said, 'In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to stand up and WALK!'
"She writhed and stretched her limbs hopefully, longingly. She tried to get out of her seat, but nothing happened. Undeterred, the two group members continued praying. They eventually unstrapped her legs from the wheelchair, and each grabbed one of her arms.
"She flailed her feet helplessly. While the two members held her up, she put one foot forward, then another. The rest of us crowded around her. 'I don't believe it,' one of us said, looking around with wide eyes. 'That right there is an honest-to-God miracle,' said another, grinning with all her teeth. 'A mi-ra-cle.'
"The ones who helped her walk hugged each other tightly. People began texting their friends who had already left. Others prayed in tongues. They all seemed to agree that something extraordinary had just happened."
Except it hadn't. Their friend had always been capable of walking a little: "she could only do it for a short period of time, and she had to use crutches. The two group members, in this case, had acted as her crutches."
As with any faith healing, the only great powers on display were human excitement and our unceasing need to belong. As Boze noted, "It felt like a play where everyone had the script except me, and I was supposed to just fake it."
Eventually some cult members would even have dreams of God striking down the group's enemies. And when one kid Tyler disliked died suddenly, "we believed God had killed him through us. It seemed like confirmation that we could invoke these powers."
Whoa, Death Gaze. All right, maybe that's worth joining a cult for.
There's No Justice, Just Damage Control
Cults keep members by turning themselves into a surrogate family and then threatening to take that family away. It doesn't matter that cult leaders aren't genuinely divine; people will do almost anything before they cut off contact with their friends and family. It kept our ancestors from wandering off alone into the waiting jaws of that terrible beast, Mother Nature. But it can also be manipulated by sadists like Tyler.
When Boze finally left in 2012, he was cut off completely from the only people he cared about for five long years. The apocalypse cult transitioned into -- surprise! -- an apocalypse sex cult. Tyler convinced several members that sleeping with him (this may or may not have gone past 'first base') would be a "religious experience." Hey, there can be disappointing religious experiences -- like seeing John the Baptist in a pierogi. This whole literal clusterfuck culminated in cult member Micah Moore murdering Tyler's wife, allegedly at Tyler's command.
They were down with the psychological torture, fake apocalyptic boot camps, and sex culting, but finally the International House of Prayer said enough. Several of them visited Tyler's house:
"Everyone but Tyler, her husband, was grieving. He just kept pointing out that 'this group is bigger than one person.'"
Nothing less than murder could convince the church that this offshoot had finally become a cult. They banned Tyler from the facility and issued a damning press release describing his organization as an "independent, close-knit, religious group," which still sounds pretty innocuous to us. Not even an "independent, close-knit religious group with occasional homicide"? It didn't matter to the church, so long as the buck kept right on going past their desks and into the sunset. The murderer, Micah Moore, goes to court again this November.
Tyler Deaton has not been charged with anything but being a dickhead.
By us, right now
Boze Herrington is finishing a book about his experiences in the Charismatic community. He blogs at thetalkingllama.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
If you're feeling generous, Robert Evans knows of a mother fleeing an abusive situation who could use your donations.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Tricks I Learned as a Faith Healer (for Scamming You) and 5 Disturbing Things I Learned in Scientology's 'Space Navy'.
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