In 2017, a California “social club” accused a rival organization of subjecting them to a shakedown, demanding hundreds of dollars in protection money. These weren’t some Sons of Anarchy-style criminal biker gangs, however: both groups were composed of adult Disney super fans. Among certain Disney lovers, passion for all things House of Mouse had grown so intense and tribal that they’d created groups modeled on outlaw motorcycle gangs, complete with names like “Walt’s Most Wanted,” patch-laden denim jackets, and inter-faction rivalries.
The shakedown allegations were some of the most extreme examples of the broader “Disney adult” phenomenon, which finds grown-up fans planning their vacations around theme park events, dressing up as their favorite animated characters, and amassing merch collections that would make the riches of Tutankhamen’s tomb look comparatively modest. It all seems, well, kind of culty—which made the entertainment mega-corp’s most passionate devotees perfect fodder for Amanda Montell and Isa Medina’s podcast, Sounds Like a Cult.
“’Disney Adults’ was such a polarizing episode, funnily enough,” Montell told Jezebel this week, “because there are some people who think adults who are super fans of Disney are really creepy, and then there are those who are like, ‘No, they get an unfair rap.’” The podcast’s goal is to “ride that line in the middle,” she said, and in doing so, shed some light on the everyday cults that are all around us.
Sounds Like a Cult isn’t Montell’s first entry into the world of highly controlling religious, spiritual, wellness, and social movements. She authored the book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism last year, which examines the ways in which language is often used to create in-group loyalty, increase skepticism of outsiders, and disincentivize critical thinking. Montell does this through explorations of groups as varied as Heaven’s Gate and CrossFit.
Cults, Montell told me, tend to proliferate during times of upheaval, as familiar social ties fray and people seek out new forms of connection. This was the case during the Vietnam Era, which birthed some of the groups that we now think of as capital-C cults, like the Manson Family and the Peoples Temple. “A lot of people were moving away from the sites of community and spirituality that had provided them with existential support and a sense of belonging for so many decades,” said Montell.
In recent years, with covid, resurgent white nationalism, devastating economic inequality, a raging mental health crisis, and Donald Trump (who spawned a cult of his own), the time seems ripe for another cult boom. While there hasn’t been an easily-observable increase in the kind of fringe alternative living groups centered around charismatic leaders that most people associate with the word “cult,” it doesn’t mean people aren’t seeking community, guidance, and structure through novel high-control groups. Today, that just tends to take place online.
“Due to social media and algorithms, for better and for worse, we’re able to find the right cult for us more easily than ever. And we’re able to radicalize more easily than ever because our social media feeds just encourage us to fall down the rabbit hole that causes us to believe more and more and more extreme versions of what we already do,” said Montell. “A lot of those groups don’t convene in person on compounds like they might have 50 years ago. Now they might convene in a secret Facebook group or subreddit, on a social media feed or an Instagram feed.”
Montell’s interest in cults stretches back to childhood, as her father’s family lived in the group Synanon—which began as a rehab facility and became an alternative living community eventually deemed by a court to have a “policy of terror and violence”—for part of his adolescence. “When I tell the story about how I came up with the idea for my book, I talk about how I grew up with this cult survivor in the family,” she says in a recent Sounds Like a Cult episode, “And as I grew up I heard his stories, and I started to notice cult-like influence like that which he described on the compound, in places where you wouldn’t otherwise look for cult influence.”
It’s this quality that separates Sounds Like a Cult from most other cult media. Instead of offering another retread of Manson, Koresh, Jones, and their ilk, episodes analyze more familiar, less extreme, but still perplexing movements, from the cult of essential oils to the cult of Elon Musk worship. They’re phenomena that many of us who probably swear we could never be corralled into a commune, heads shaven and wearing nothing but unbleached linen, still manage to be sucked into.
“I want to generate some amount of empathy for people who have fallen into groups that we subjectively think are extreme or crazy, people that we think are brainwashed, because it’s the type of influence that can affect all of us. The type of group that will resonate with each individual is different,” Montell said, “But the techniques of influence are more or less the same.”
When considering possible topics, Montell and her co-host Medina, who’s a comedian, deploy a “cheeky taxonomy system.”
“The idea is to ask the question, ‘This group sounds like a cult, but is it really?’ And if so, is it a ‘Live Your Life,’ a ‘Watch Your Back’ or a ‘Get the Fuck Out’ level cult?” Montell said.
QAnon and incels, decidedly “Get the Fuck Out”-level groups actively devoted to spreading hate speech and misinformation, and which have been linked to multiple murders, would be topics both too obvious and dark for the podcast’s lightly conversational approach. Instead, episodes consider groups like SoulCycle, Instagram therapists, and academia. The word “cult” isn’t generally used as a moral designation or to indicate that we should all run screaming from the communities up for discussion, but as a lens through which to view the world and to consider the social pressures at play in our decision making.
At the end of each episode, Montell and Medina evaluate where the topics at hand rank on their cult scale. (Disney adults, the vast majority of whom never get to the biker gang wannabe level, earned a “Live Your Life.”) “It’s okay to affiliate with cult-like groups as long as you have that awareness, and as long as it’s not a ‘Get the Fuck Out,’” Montell said. In fact, avoiding them altogether is probably impossible, as the podcasters, charismatic hosts with a loyal online following, seem well aware. “To join our cult,” they joke in most episodes, “follow us on Instagram.”