‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and America’s Long, Weird Love Affair With Cults - Pacific Standard
Tina Fey’s new Netflix series channels the complicated history of cults in America.

All hail Tina Fey.

The beloved comedian has managed to almost perfectly replicate the success of 30 Rock with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, her new series that premiered on Netflix earlier this month. Developed with 30 Rock co-creator Robert Carlock and starring the uber-positive Ellie Kemper of The Office fame, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows a young woman freed from a doomsday cult after 15 years in an underground bunker. Let loose on New York City with nothing but the clothes on her back and an overwhelmingly sunny disposition, Kemper's Schmidt embarks on a journey of self-discovery in a comedic inversion of the classic young-white- woman-moves-to-New-York yarn. Brisk, cutting, and deliciously irreverent, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt brings the same comedic pacing and sharp writing that made 30 Rock such a success to a decidedly more sinister topic.

Apart from the snappy, vibrant writing and fine acting on display, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has garnered praise for its portrayal of cult survivors. Former cult members have commented that Schmidt’s aggressive exuberance isn’t just the lynchpin of the series, but an accurate portrayal of survivors moving forward after lives marred by exploitation and fear. “Growing up in a cult gives you an abnormal zest for life, and Kimmy Schmidt exuberates this confidence fittingly,” explained Flor Edwards in New York magazine. “But Kimmy’s optimism, coupled with her resilience, is what makes the show relatable and endearing.”

But Schmidt isn’t just charming—she’s also more common than you might think. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might rely on an absurd caricature of the modern doomsday cults of the past half century, but historians and sociologists of religion suggest that cults are actually as American as apple pie.

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The pop culture pastiches inspired by the “doomsday” variety of the 1970s may suggest that cults are a relatively modern phenomenon. As it turns out, America actually has a long, somewhat positive history with seemingly insane religious beliefs.

“Extreme and bizarre religious ideas are so commonplace in American history that it is difficult to speak of them as fringe at all,” renowned historian Philip Jenkins wrote in Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. After all, the earliest American colonists had traveled to the New World in order to establish congregations independent of the Church of England, bringing a strain of millenarianism—the “apocalyptic expectation” often associated with religious groups. “Perhaps the largest component of the religious spectrum in contemporary history remains what it has been since colonial times: a fundamentalist evangelicalism with powerful millenarian strains,” Jenkins explained. “The doomsday theme has never been far from the center of American religious thought.”

Frank Zappa observed that "the only difference between a church and a cult is the amount of real estate it owns."

It was with the Second Great Awakening—the Protestant revival movement of the mid-19th century that led to an explosion of membership in Baptist and Methodist congregations—that America saw the rise of a colorful collection of "new religious movements," as historians call them, complete with traveling ministers and frontier prophets, the spiritual antecedents of modern cults. According to Jenkins, the 1830s and '40s were marked by the idea of “millenarianism, perfectionism, and communitarianism,” while some emerging religious movements “experimented in innovative sexual relationships.”

Bolstered by the freedom of religion enshrined in the Constitution and the virgin lands of the American frontier, hundreds of new religions sprang up across the country, though few lasted. “Most of the early American shamans and seers made a quick impression, only to disappear into obscurity,” wrote Sean Wilentz, co-author of the book The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America, in a 1997 op-ed. “Some—most notably the Shakers [a Quaker sect that emphasized ecstatic jubilation during sermons]—enjoyed spectacular growth through the middle of the 19th century before fading into near-extinction.” The longer sects persisted, the more they justified their strange successors in America's burgeoning new religious landscape.

Some sects did manage to outgrow their “cult” roots: The Mormon Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists—all considered wayward denominations when they first emerged in the 19th century—have since become tolerated and protected as legitimate religions barely 150 years later. These new religious movements are essentially “established cults,” J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, argues in his comprehensive Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults. For Melton and other historians, this long history of religious experimentation has made cults a permanent feature of American society.

“When public opinion is aroused by a particularly disturbing scandal or a mass suicides, legislatures sometimes attempt to regulate cult activities, hoping to control unpopular groups,” Jenkins, the historian, mused. “Any such measures are bound to fail, however, and not just on the obvious constitutional grounds of freedom of religion. It is all but impossible to define cults in a way that does not describe a large share of American religious bodies, including some of the most respectable.” After all, Jenkins notes: Frank Zappa observed that “the only difference between a church and a cult is the amount of real estate it owns.”

Hollywood has done its part at making new religious movements all but indistinguishable from the doomsday cults of the 20th century.

While the cults that emerged during the Second Great Awakening were forces for “religious innovation within a culture,” Melton asserts that the increasing secularization of American culture during the course of the 20th century transformed the term “cult” into a pejorative critique of religious movements that fell outside the pale of mainstream Western religion (For examples, burgeoning Hindu and Buddhist communities in the early 20th century were regarded as cult organizations). What Americans often miss, argue historians like Melton and Jenkins, is that the secular backlash against the milieu of “fringe” religious communities tends to follow consistent historical script:

(Chart: Philip Jenkins’/Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History)

(Chart: Philip Jenkins’/Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History)

The contemporary depiction of the totalistic, all-encompassing doomsday cult is a product of several highly publicized incidents of the last 50 years. There was the Jim Jones People's Temple mass suicide in Guyana in 1970s, the moral panic over sadistic ritual abuse by satanic cults in the 1980s, the bloody Branch Davidian standoff with the ATF in Waco, Texas, and the mass suicides of the Order of the Solar Temples and the Heaven’s Gate group of the 1990s, the latter of which occurred so members could reach an alien spacecraft arriving in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. Scientology, with its reputation for alleged brainwashing, disconnection, and conspiracy is self-described as “[not] a turn the other cheek” religion. And they, too, have secret bunkers.

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The rise of the modern doomsday cult in pop culture may have put a dark stain on Melton’s “religious innovators,” and justifiably so: The visceral, horrifying experience of family members who have lost loved ones to fringe groups is so strong that, for many activists and survivors, Melton’s historical thesis is a structural apology for a disgusting act. Groups like the Cult Education Institute and International Cultic Studies Association, which provide support and resources for cult survivors, have accused academics of being “cult apologists.”

But academics agree that modern cults are comparatively vicious, defined to a greater degree by psychological domination, submission, and exploitation than their traditional predecessors. According to Singer’s pioneering research, cultic organizations form around a person "who claims to have a special mission or knowledge," information shared only when members submit, both willingly and through coercion, to the authority of a self-appointed leader. Even Melton the “cult apologist” distinguishes cults from more unconventional religious sects in that they follow structures of authority and control “foreign and alien” to contemporary religious organizations.

The name of People's Temple cult leader Jim Jones is controversially included on a mass grave containing the incident's more than 900 victims. (Photo: Dan Schreiber/Shutterstock)

The name of People's Temple cult leader Jim Jones is controversially included on a mass grave containing the incident's more than 900 victims. (Photo: Dan Schreiber/Shutterstock)

The truth is, we don’t really have a clear picture of how many active cults dot the country—and which ones we should actually be cautious of. When social scientists began their examination of cults in the 1920s, there were only a handful of well-known religious organizations that didn’t qualify as a sect of a mainstream Western religion. Contemporary estimates vary: While the ICSA places the number of cults in the U.S. somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000, clinical psychologist and renowned cult researcher Margaret Singer set the upper figure at around 5,000. After examining research on cult behavior during the 1980s and '90s, physician and anti-cult activist Dr. Edward Lottick estimates that somewhere between one percent and three percent of U.S. high school students (80,000 to 240,000) reported membership in some sort of cultic group in the mid-'80s, the heyday of America’s moral panic over satanic cults. These organizations may simply remain innocuous, but others are large and far-reaching.

The archetypical cults, described by Jenkins as “totalistic or all-encompassing in controlling their members’ behavior and also ideologically totalistic, exhibiting zealotry and extremism in their world view,” aren’t just few and far between; the description tends to sum up some accepted religious movements as well. Take, for example, the Amish. “Few movements are as totalistic as the Amish, who are respected and idealized by the wider society,” Jenkins wrote in Mystics and Messiahs. “They would never be described as cult-like, nor would Hasidic Jews.” But while the Amish and Hasids live their lives relatively free of social molestation, many historians argue the breathless media reports on doomsday cults—arguably the perfect cultural manifestation of the “it bleeds, it leads” newsroom manifesto—have solidified the cult as a watchword for religious zealotry.

Hollywood has done its part at making new religious movements all but indistinguishable from the doomsday cults of the 20th century. On a legendary episode of The Simpsons, most of Springfield joins The Movementarians, a religious sect eventually revealed to be little more than a con. In Parks and Recreation, a group of Pawnee residents await the arrival of lizard-god Zorp, despite the fact that the cult’s deity fails to show up every year. And cults, with their lurid apocrypha and bizarre rituals, are a favorite for popular crime procedurals like Law and Order and Criminal Minds. That Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows the comedic trope of new religious movements should surprise no one: For at least two generations of Americans, cults are the face of religion at its most perverted and corrupt.

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It may be the strange disconnect between America’s long tradition of cults and their more disturbing modern manifestations that helps make Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt so appealing. The show’s initial portrayal of cults as perverted and insane is the perfect plot device to justify the show-driving enthusiasm of the series. Upon Schmidt’s liberation, rather than toiling in trauma and uncertainty (her fellow captives remain in their hometown in Indiana), Schmidt exudes curiosity. She's got a fierce streak of independence, and it's as refreshing as it is funny.

The distinctive comedic style of Fey and Carlock has created a world where Schmidt’s cultish background becomes a footnote in a wider ecosystem of colorful weirdos. Despite Schmidt’s naivete, her fellow “normal” supporting characters are so complicated and idiosyncratic that it’s actually Kemper playing the straight man in a sea of egotistical and emotionally dysfunctional goons. After a while, Kimmy Schmidt’s alien cultishness melts away: Viewers relate to her deeply, and adore her earnestness, resilience, and independence—not unlike the traits of those pioneering cultists of the Second Great Awakening.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t pretend to be an after-school special about the dangers of cults, nor should it be. But it’s almost as though, amid the Jonestown-inspired doom and gloom apocrypha, there’s a sliver of America’s cult history embedded in Kimmy’s creative subconscious. After all—what’s more American than awaiting the apocalypse?

Lead photo: Ellie Kemper (left) plays the titular role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

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