You may hear of shows being referred to as ‘cult’ drama, but Hulu’s The Path is — in more ways than one — the cult show you need to be watching. The Path follows an obscure religious sect in upstate New York under the sinister paternalism of their charismatic leader, Calvin Roberts (Hugh Dancy).
What seems a happy, peace-loving compound rapidly deteriorates as followers begin to question the upper echelons of a faith that punishes dissent harshly… and even fatally. What makes The Path so chilling is that there are numerous instances of real life cults abusing the rights of their followers.
The Path and Real Life Cults
The bizarre religion followed by the cult in The Path is known as Meyerism, a fictional movement that mirrors elements of real life cults. In fact, The Path was originally entitled The Way, but changed the name to avoid conflict with real life religious sect and alleged cult The Way International.
The Way International is a nontrinitarian ministry founded by Victor Wierwille in 1942 which has been accused of being a cult. The Way drew particular attention when high profile member Victor Arden Barnard was accused of child sex offenses at the organization’s compound in 2000. HuffPo reported on the case shortly before Barnard turned fugitive and ran away to Brazil:
“Barnard repeatedly preached to her that he represented Christ in the flesh, that Jesus Christ had Mary Magdalene and other women who followed him, that King Solomon slept with many concubines, that the firstborn child was to be sacrificed to God, and that it was normal for Barnard to have sex with her because it was in God’s Word.”
How The Path Expertly Mirrors Real Life Cults
A Charismatic Leader
With founder Meyer elderly and in a coma, Calvin Roberts (Hugh Dancy) becomes the de facto leader of the cult. His magnetism and powerful leadership ensure the loyalty of his followers.
Real life parallel: Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple cult. Most cults rely on a spellbinding figurehead to keep members in their thrall, and Jim Jones is the most famous example of a cult leader who commanded total, blind obedience from his faithful flock. This obedience eventually led his followers to drink cyanide-loaded Kool-Aid at Jones’s behest, killing 918 people, 276 of them children.
The cult in The Path follow Meyerism, a fictional religion founded by Stephen Meyer on October 28, 1974, outlining his doctrine in the book The Ladder. Meyerists believe people need to recuperate from their suffering through personal enlightenment. Meyerists can achieve different ‘levels’ within the movement, starting from R1 for novices and increasing to R10 over time. As Calvin says in the show, ”The higher you climb, the more the movement asks of you. ”
Real life parallel: The Church of Scientology. The deranged cult beloved of people with more money than sense tricks members into attaining new ‘levels’ with increasingly colorful names like ‘Psychic Telekinesis Thetan Unleashed’ and ‘Supreme Being’. If all this nonsense sounds like something a sci-fi author would dream up, that’s because it is. Write L. Ron Hubbard invented Scientology in 1954 purely to avoid paying taxes if he could prove he’d founded a religious organization, but eventually started believing his own ramblings.
Meyerists believe that non-believers — known as Ignorant Systemites (I.S.) — will bring about the end of the world, and salvation will only be available to Meyerists who climb The Ladder to The Garden.
Real life parallel: Heaven’s Gate. Of all doomsday cults, Heaven’s Gate are the most well-known. The cult believed the Earth would be imminently ‘rejuvenated,’ and the only way to escape this apocalypse was to free their souls from their human ‘vessels’. Unfortunately, these misguided souls went about ‘freeing’ themselves via mass suicide. On March 26, 1997, authorities found 39 Heaven’s Gate followers dead, in a mansion near San Diego, rotting in the California heat. They had consumed a mixture of phenobarbitol, apple sauce and vodka before wrapping plastic bags around their faces to induce asphyxiation.
How To Identify a Cult: Know the Signs
The group leader holds complete dominion over followers, who are not allowed to question the leader’s actions, no matter how harsh or unfair.
Members are not allowed any privacy from the leader, while the leader themselves clothes their true policy, finances and activities in secrecy.
Followers develop odd mannerisms, obsess over the cult, lose their sense of humor and confidence, and isolate themselves from their friends and family.
Members who wish to leave are discouraged, harassed or actively forbidden from doing so, while ex-members are vilified or even considered evil.
The Path has been renewed for a second season on Hulu.
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