Escaping The Group Truth of Cults: Martha Marcy May Marlene

As part of its Orbiter Year-Round Series, Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival is proud to present the US premiere of the Horror film THE HERETICS on Wednesday, October 18 (7:30pm) at Flix Brewhouse. Director Chad Archibald will be in attendance and will do a Q&A after the screening.

In the film, a notorious cult kidnaps a young girl, and sacrifice themselves by the light of the locust moon. The next morning the girl awakes, caked in dried blood and surrounded by corpses...but safe - or so she thinks. Years later, the locust moon is about to rise again and the girl is captured once more by a surviving member of the cult. She is taken to a remote cabin where she learns that a demon has been growing inside of her all these years, and before the dawn it will rise.

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OWA team members have cults on the, OWA founder and artistic director Bears Fonte discusses how the sinister charm of the cult mentality are reflected onscreen in Sean Durkin's MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE.


Our Orbiter screening of THE HERETICS revolves around a woman who has been taken by a cult.  Without giving too much away, another major character in the film is someone who was in this cult, but escaped.  I always find those stories fascinating – people freeing themselves from oppressive group think which subverts their own needs. 

Which brings me to Martha Marcy May Marlene, or as I like to call it, 4M.  In Sean Durkin’s film. Elizabeth Olsen plays a woman trying to reorient to normal society after two years inside a cult.  Part of the power of the cult is the amazing capability of people to ‘go with it’ in order to find acceptance.  As Olsen described it upon the film’s release, “It’s these women who become your close friends, and they’re telling you that you’re selfish, if you do something else. If you play against it, that’s you being selfish and not being part of the group. If you want to be part of the group, you have to trust everything that’s happening.”

Durkin did extensive research for the film, but was inspired by stories a friend told him in confidence.  Every cult has its own belief system and structure, so every experience is individual.  However, each group is tied to a central figure, someone charming and who imposes his will on the collective.  In Martha Marcy May Marlene, that person is Patrick, played by the always mysteriously alluring John Hawkes.  "I wanted him to have charisma, to be charming, just like we know people like Koresh and Manson must have been initially," said Durkin, "He has attractive qualities, such as idealism in the face of materialistic values, and even musical talent which gives him a lot of appeal."


In fact, Patrick uses his musical talent as part of his invocation, rechristening Olsen’s Martha as ‘Marcy Mae’ in a song.  “You’re my favorite, and I won’t lose you,” he says to Martha. Ushering her into the group by removing the very thing that defines her, Patrick offers Martha what the young woman craves, acceptance and praise.  "People don't get sucked into these groups because they look bad from the outset. There's always something good at the beginning that is being offered, like love, community and acceptance,” says Olsen. "Then the abuse starts. But if there are people around you telling you the abuse is okay, your view of what is normal and acceptable changes."

In a matter of months, Martha gives up her individual identity for the one that has given her a group of supportive friends.  She also gives herself to Patrick in what she later tells a novice is a ‘cleansing ritual.’ It’s nothing more than community-sanctioned rape, but as an expected ceremony that everyone goes through, a cult member is likely to accept this as part of their new belief system.  Durkin believed this reshaping of standard attitudes happens very quickly.  His friend had escaped the cult she had fallen in with after six months. “She felt if she stayed a week longer she wouldn't have made it out,” he said “there's no clock, no calendars, no sense of time.”

What makes Martha Marcy May Marlene so powerful is that what happens in the cult is only half of the story.  A majority of the film deals with Olsen’s character return to ‘normal’ and how difficult it is to ‘escape’ in your mind even after your body has.  “You go into one of these groups with your personality, and they break you down to a child-like state, they strip you of your self and they re-program you,” said Durkin, “So when you go, you know something’s wrong, so you’re stuck in this in between, so there has to be things that were good there and kept you there, and things in this new world that you can’t adapt to.”


In many ways, Durkin’s film feels like two movies playing out against each other, throwing the viewer into the same sort of conflict as the lead character.  Even more troubling is the character’s progress in the ‘cult’ segment has a much more direct narrative structure to it, whereas in the house, the audience can feel like Martha has a ‘not goal’ as discussed in screenwriting.  She wants to not feel alone.  She wants to not share her past.  It is hard to pursue a ‘not goal,’ and this puts the character often at odds with audience’s desires.  “I always felt like when Martha is living at the farm house [with the cult], she’s continuing to progress as a person and she’s actually trying to get somewhere,” explains Olsen, “but when she’s at the lake house it’s like a regression. So as much as the cult took me to an unhealthy place it was still the place where she felt the most comfortable and progressive as a human being. It was going back and retreating into the world with her sister and her family life that made her retreat back.”

So… when you watch THE HERETICS this Wednesday (and you really should, its fucking awesome), think about the character you will meet who escaped the cult, and how difficult it must have been to redefine their life.  And how difficult it must have been for to face that cult again in order to do… what they do (yeah that’s right, you have to see the film).


-quotes sourced from interviews conducted by other news media in 2011