Are You in a Cult? This Podcast Can Tell You

Photo: Kirsten Gollhoffer

The air is thick with cultiness these days. It’s seemingly everywhere. There’s all the stuff with Trumpism, Qanon, and other such prominent political ideologies that trend toward extremism. But beyond the overtly serious material, it’s in the culture as well: It’s there in the YouTube and TikTok stars I follow, in the twinkles in their eyes and the persona-driven followings they cultivate. It’s even present in the Substacks I subscribe to, some of them tight, ideologically bounded groups in and of themselves. And then there’s the television I’ve been watching lately: WeCrashed, featuring Jared Leto’s impression of Adam Neumann’s pseudo-Jesus energy; Severance, with its thematic emphasis on corporate religiosity; Under the Banner of Heaven, for obvious reasons. It also doesn’t help that I live in Idaho.

But I’m not the only one who has picked up on this — these feelings are bottled up in the great Sounds Like a Cult, a newish podcast published by All Things Comedy. Described as a “comedy cult podcast,” each episode takes a different phenomenon in the culture and, using a certain framework of characteristics, determines its level of “cultiness.” Each installment ends with a question: Is this subculture a “Live Your Life” cult, a “Watch Your Back” cult, or a “Get the Fuck Out” cult? Past topics include obvious targets like LuLaRoe, Tony Robbins, and multilevel marketing schemes, but the show is at its most interesting when unpacking more unexpected subjects: toxic relationships (“the cult of one”), academia, and, uh, feet. The result is a thoroughly interesting yet breezy take on what can often be a heavy subject, and in the podcast’s lightness and slight absurdity, it gets at something fundamental about modern society: No matter where you are, you’re never too far from the brink of cultishness.

The show is hosted by Amanda Montell, an author, and Isabela Medina, a documentary filmmaker and stand-up comedian. The former recently published a book called Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which examines how language is central to the cultivation of cultlike dynamics and how that manipulation of language has trickled down to replicate those dynamics in seemingly mundane areas of our culture like the corporate world.

When the three of us spoke recently, Montell talked about how the podcast is technically an extension of her book, arising out of her figuring out what to do with the many groups she analyzed that were left out of the final draft. Joining Montell on the project, Medina brings production acumen, along with a more cult-curious sensibility. “We asked ourselves, How are we making an actual productive contribution to this stuff?” I spoke to them about their own relationship to the subject matter, the resonance of cultlike dynamics in modern society, and the methods they use to assess “cultiness.”

Cults seem to be generally top-of-mind in the culture, but what specifically draws the both of you toward them as subject matter?

Montell: Well, I grew up with a cult survivor in the family. My dad spent his teenage years in a pretty notorious cult called Synanon. It didn’t end up becoming as famous as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate because there wasn’t mass suicide or homicide, thankfully, but it was a very high-control group headquartered on a remote commune in the Bay Area. Its heyday was in the ’60s and ’70s, starting out as an alternative drug-rehabilitation center that later grew to accommodate people who wanted to join the blossoming countercultural movement of the era. My dad’s father — a card-carrying communist and pseudo-intellectual beatnik — wanted in on this experiment, and so he moved with my dad onto the compound. My dad was immediately very skeptical.

I grew up on the stories of the rituals, conformity, and everything that went on there. And as I came of age, I started to notice cultish influence in all kinds of pockets of culture: start-up culture, SoulCycle, theater programs. (We just did an episode on the cult of theater kids.) For my book, I explored it through a language angle because I studied linguistics and creative writing in college and that felt like the most natural way to do it for me.

Medina: For me, it was more of a bit where I feel like I’m the kind of person who tries out every “cult.” I was in a sorority in college. I do stand-up. We did our pilot episode on SoulCycle while I was going to outdoor SoulCycle classes every week during the pandemic.

I think that comes from feeling like I never really fit in anywhere. I’m Latina, I’m queer, I’m bisexual, I’m an immigrant. It’s that third culture kid thing. So there’s always a sense of balancing between worlds. I also don’t like to be put in boxes, so I like to try everything. In that sense, I tend to bring a perspective where I’m like, “Well, it’s not that bad,” while Amanda’s analyzing it and being more, “You should watch your back.”

I’ve seen Sounds Like a Cult pop up in a bunch of different circles of late, so it’s been my impression that the show is resonating with people. What do you think your listeners are drawn to?

Medina: Part of it is probably just the times. We’ve been coming out of a period that’s frankly pretty dark: It’s a pandemic, people are struggling. Cults can be very dark, so the idea of a light-hearted take on a serious thing feels refreshing to people who just wanted something to listen to on their commute that isn’t a hard dive into news.

Montell: I think it’s also that awareness of cultishness within our culture has really spiked. Cults tend to thrive during times of sociopolitical tumult, right? That’s what we saw in the ’60s and ’70s when the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Kennedy assassination made people feel existentially unmoored. There was a loss of trust in the systems that were supposed to provide a sense of community and connection and identity, and that’s why we saw the emergence of so many groups, from Scientology to Jews for Jesus, during the era. We’re in a similar time period now, and the pandemic has certainly drawn us away from our traditional sources of community and ritual. So people are turning to these alternative, often-online cultish communities in order to fill the voids. I think we’re all noticing that.

And as Isa said, it’s so easy to talk about these things in apocalyptic tones, but that’s just not who we are. As skeptical as we can be, we’re also fundamentally optimistic. Sometimes people just want us to purely shit on whatever we’re talking about that week, but that’s antithetical to how we think about things.

Medina: That’s why we have those categories at the end of each episode: “Live Your Life,” “Watch Your Back,” or “Get the Fuck Out.” We often end up sitting between categories, and we remind our listeners that these are just our opinions. You can feel however you want to feel.

Montell: Also, the definition of a cult is so subjective. It’s so loaded with judgment. Every scholar I’ve spoken to for my book has a slightly different take on the criteria that separates a cult from a religion or another ideologically bound group. It’s important to acknowledge that subjectivity.

Well, let’s talk about that, because the show’s rhythm chiefly involves running various Zeitgeist-y groups through the lens of figuring out their closeness to cultlike dynamics. How would you describe the framework you use?

Montell: Yeah, so, that was the challenge when we started putting this show together. Everything can be cultish, so how do we get more defined and nuanced about it? At first we had a list of nine different qualities, and if two or three of them were checked off, then it’s a “Watch Your Back.” If only one was present, it’s more of a “Live Your Life” sorta phenomenon. But that just felt too cumbersome. This isn’t supposed to be a formal classification system for people to use in their everyday lives to tell whether something has a dangerous culture or not, but we felt that it was a good way to start the conversation.

Still, there’s a rubric in the back of our minds. Is there an “us versus them” mentality? An “ends justify the means” philosophy? Is there one unifying charismatic leader? Are there supernatural beliefs? Are we talking about financial exploitation? What’s the worst-case scenario here?

Medina: Sometimes we have different opinions on the cultishness of particular subjects, but we typically agree wholeheartedly on the “Get the Fuck Out” stuff.

Montell: A lot of it has to do with unchecked power. We have an episode on Elon Musk coming out soon, and we have a lot of … views on him. But intuition is not always enough when assessing a group. We come with our own biases. Some of the trouble when talking about this subject matter is that the words “cult” and “brainwashed” get thrown around willy-nilly — especially now, when there are such ideological schisms to a point where everybody’s looking at each other and thinking the other one’s in a cult. So we want to call attention to the idea that there are different takes on this stuff. But unchecked power abuse? That’s the No. 1 red flag.

Our point is not to create a sense of sensationalism or alarmism. It’s more that cultiness is something that shows up in places you might not otherwise think to look. It’s so easy to dehumanize members of groups like NXIVM — to see them as these brainwashed suckers — but they’re not that abnormal as people. Our podcast may sound like a show about cults, but really it’s a show about human behavior, and how we find our sense of belonging in an age of information overload and ideological schisms.

I’m still thinking about your comment earlier about cultiness becoming more prominent during tumultuous periods. That strikes me as true, but it’s also interesting to me to think about how, to take a specific example, peak start-up culture/tech-founder-worship culture really took off during the Obama era, which wasn’t exactly a tumultuous age. 

Montell: Here’s the thing: Another myth people tend to believe about cult followers is that they’re really desperate. But talking to cult survivors for my book, the common denominator I found was actually an overabundance of idealism. It was the idea that solutions to the world’s most urgent problems can be found, and by affiliating with this company or this CEO, you could be a part of that change.

So that makes sense about the Obama era. Sure, our culture is becoming more secular. We’re moving away from the organized religions we all grew up on. But we’re not becoming less spiritual or community-focused. Now it’s more, Okay, I’m not going to church every Sunday, but now my start-up is the church.

Medina: You could maybe also add the fact that the Obama era was all about: “We’re going to change everything. We’re going to change the world and do it together.”

It occurs to me that there’s a lot about the digital media life — building followings, “parasociality,” being an “influencer,” the financial relationship, and so on — that maps somewhat well to at least some of the dynamics of a cult. Could your podcast itself be a cult?  

Medina: [Laughs.] It’s possible. We made that joke the other day on the podcast. We were like, “Who would ever follow someone around willingly and pay for their friendship?”

Montell: I think if we start saying that we’re not cult leaders, we’re probably a cult. [Laughs.] Yeah, no, again, it goes back to the idea that we’re living in a time of information overload. A lot of us feel so pressured to have a succinct, confident, well-informed argument on every topic under the sun, so of course we’re going to want to default to people who speak confidently about anything in public. It’s like that monologue in Fleabag: “I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning.”

I was literally thinking about that scene throughout this entire conversation. 

Montell: That’s so it, right? It’s the chooser’s paradox. When someone who you feel like you can see yourself in is telling you “this is what it is,” it can be really easy to agree. But we emphasize constantly that this is just our opinion.

Medina: Also, if we were to be a cult — and we were the cult leaders — we’re still cult leaders who read the comments and respond to our listeners. We ask for their advice on what episodes to do, and we include their calls. There’s transparency between us and our listeners. So I guess that makes us a “Live Your Life” cult.

Are You in a Cult? This Podcast Can Tell You