How To Be A Deranged Cult Leader

A Literary Mixtape by Samantha Hunt

This mixtape is an instruction manual, How to Be a Deranged Cult Leader. My novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is two novels, fraternal twins. One is a walk through haunted places: the odd jewels of a backwater, the late Erie Canal or the verge of motherhood. The second exhumes the ghosts of American huckster faiths. In a fundamentalist group home, child con men talk to the dead. While writing Mr. Splitfoot, I built my own religion to understand how it’s done. I collected the things I love like outer space, geology, mountains, and vinyl records. I came up with the Etherists. Their holy texts sample the Bible, the Book of Mormon, a classic rock radio station at 2 AM in Troy, New York circa 1978 and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. And while I like many things about the Etherists, their leader is a bad, bad man. Power corrupts, power corrodes a person’s insides. This mixtape examines that corruption. It is a soundtrack to carry one through each stage of creepy cult life.

(Part of the Literary Mixtape series, from Electric Literature.)


1. Have You Never Been Mellow?, Olivia Newton John

The lyrics to this song could be printed in a recruitment brochure and your job would be done. “There was a time when I was in a hurry as you are. I was like you. I don’t mean to make you frown. I just want you to slow down.” But the part of this track that seals the deal (other than ONJ’s ethereal, hypnotic vocals) is the series of questions posed in the chorus, questions that any tired soul will be so grateful to hear asked. “Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried to find a comfort from inside? Have you never been happy just to hear your song? Have you never let someone else be strong?” While it’s unusual to acknowledge submission is beneficial, you, as a cult leader, might want to make it the first thing you say in the morning, the last words you whisper at night. Even if you don’t mean it.

2. Trafalgar, The Bee Gees

A song both triumphant and melancholy that says, without us, you are lost and here is brotherly harmony in the form of Barry, Maurice and Robin. “I need someone to know me and to show me” is the hole each potential cult member strives to fill, while the refrain, “Trafalgar, Trafalgar, please don’t let me down” focuses on a word that makes no sense to an American cult member and so can be used in a mantra-like way, in accordance with the best cult-building advice: keep it vague, keep it mysterious. Stop making sense. Trafalgar. Trafalgar. Trafalgar. Trafalgar. Trafalgar.


3. Love Letters, Ketty Lester

Nothing has the power to brainwash quite as effectively as love.

Nothing has the power to brainwash quite as effectively as love. Consider the teenage crush and attempt to harness this wild force. Ketty Lester, the most beautiful woman in the world, with a voice as powerful, will assist you. The repetition and modulation of doo wop is the essence of hypnosis and Lester casts a spell with the lyric, “I’ll memorize every line and I’ll kiss the name that you sign.” That’s witchcraft. That’s good. Here’s an idea: you could spend an entire day playing all the versions of this song for your new recruit/convert. They are many and various: Dick Haymes, Joni James, Cilla Black, Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley, Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, Joe Walsh, Alison Moyet, Boz Scaggs, Frankie Miller, Ketty Lester. After that the new recruit will either be in love with you or will have gone insane, which might be just as effective.

4. Rocket Man, Elton John

As this is the period of induction and conversion for your followers, think in terms of electricity. Think scientifically or, even better, scientifical as, in a cult, it’s best to use words that only kind of make sense. John’s Rocket Man is well suited to welcome new members to your fold as it is both familiar and completely strange. The lyrics are creepy. We’re told he misses the Earth so much, yet, it’s going to be a long, long time before he returns. Why? “I’m not the man they think I am at home.” Then who are you? “All this science I don’t understand.” No, of course you don’t. Good thing I’m here.

Take Control

5. Oh, Daddy, Fleetwood Mac

Here’s where the power dynamic really shifts. Now’s the time to exploit your followers’ self-hatred. Everyone’s got some and your job is to turn it up. “Oh, Daddy. How can you love me? I don’t understand why?” Once you explain how you have special powers to love even people as lowly and underserving and lost as your followers, you can expect to hear Christie McVie’s refrain in response. “Why are you right when I’m so wrong? I’m so weak and you’re so strong.” I know, might be an appropriate answer.

6. Into the Night, Benny Mardones

This is also the time to begin planting ideas such as, God wants me to have a harem.

This is also the time to begin planting ideas such as, God wants me to have a harem. Really, that’s what God said and for this Benny Mardones could come in handy. “She’s just sixteen years old…but if I could fly I’d take you up, I’d take you into the night and show you love.” Which brings me to…

The Spiritual Honeymoon

7. Baby Give it Up, KC and the Sunshine Band

What works better than a pop-fueled dance track to convey the message, You are awesome! No one belongs here more than you! Just keep doing what you do (especially if that involves swallowing lots of drugs and signing over your bank account to me!) This song is pure affirmation. “Everybody wants you. Everybody wants your love.” And who can forget the mysterious album cover art? KC, in his bright blue jazz shoes, has caught a woman in his arms. While her shapely gams are exposed, her entire head is covered by a magenta scarf sending an important message, You can dance but try not to think too much.


8. Sex Planet, R. Kelly

Up next, freaky orgy. “Jupiter, Pluto, Venus and Saturn…I’ve got the control…once I enter your black hole…We’ll be gone for hours. I won’t stop until I give you meteor showers.” I appreciate how Kelly, like my cult in Mr. Splitfoot, exploits the mysteries of outer space in his pursuit of pleasure. Remember, followers like to feel they are doing something more important than just getting the leader off. They are on a mission.


9. Walking on A Wire, Richard and Linda Thompson

Whether it’s selling roses by the side of the road or producing toxic gases in your chemistry lab, everyone must suffer for progress. Except you.

Linda Thompson is one of the reasons I wrote Mr. Splitfoot. I love her. She survived life in a cultish sect of mystical Sufis where all the food was prepared by women. She built a family and a career only to lose her voice as her marriage dissolved and she still has a great sense of humor and love. I am very interested in what it means for women to be silent. Cults are excellent places to study this and this song raise questions about the boundary of the self. So, now that you have followers, it’s time to put them to work. Whether it’s selling roses by the side of the road or producing toxic gases in your chemistry lab, everyone must suffer for progress. Except you. And this song’s lyrics, “This grindstone’s wearing me. Your claws are tearing me. Don’t use me endlessly,” could be helpful in realigning any followers who might wonder why they are doing all the work.

Disguising your income

10. Arab Money, Busta Rhymes

A perfectly confusing song for cult life. BR raps parts of the Qur’an. “Alhamdulillah” (all Praises to God) rhymes with: “My billions piling.” Could be a helpful piece when obscuring the source of your wealth, especially if you are, say, drugging your followers, removing their kidneys and selling the organs on the black market.

Spiritual Zombie/Divine Madness/Paranoia

11. Moon Maiden, Duke Ellington

Just Duke and a celeste. Duke’s vocal debut, on the occasion of the Apollo 11, is accompanied by an instrument that sounds like a fairy tale gone deeply dark and twisted. Just like you. So this is where things start to fall apart. Did you take too many drugs? Probably. And even if you didn’t, all this power-tripping has pickled your brain. Aliens are all around. No one can be trusted and there are girls on the moon. But, they might want to kill you.

12. Le Goudron, Brigitte Fontaine

Playing her records, you can pretend you are equally interested in hearing women’s voices speak, women’s thoughts, while the whole time you’re actually keeping dangerous female ideas trapped in a vinyl groove.

Really you should have been playing Fontaine’s records right from the start. She’s hypnotic and her lyrics only kind of make sense. “Time is a boat and the world is a cake.” Plus, she’s French anyway so likely no one will understand. Playing her records, you can pretend you are equally interested in hearing women’s voices speak, women’s thoughts, while the whole time you’re actually keeping dangerous female ideas trapped in a vinyl groove. This helps to convince your female cult members of their great value in your harem because who else is going to do all the cooking and cleaning? You? No, I didn’t think so and speaking of cooking…


13. Cooking With Satan, Sun City Girls

The ATF is at your door or else you’re stirring up the cyanide Flavor-aid. It is important to invent an enemy so that your followers don’t realize the enemy is you.

The Ashes

14. Temps de Vivre, George Moustaki

15. Dream Baby Dream, Suicide

Years later when you are sitting alone in a Stewart’s convenience store, sipping fifty cent coffee and a microwaved hamburger, waiting for your sentencing hearing to begin, these songs will be playing on the satellite radio specifically tuned to crush what is left of your sorry, sorry soul.

About the Author

Samantha Hunt is the author of Mr. Splitfoot, a ghost story. Her novel, The Invention of Everything Else, won the Bard Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the Orange Prize. Her novel, The Seas, won a National Book Foundation award for writers under thirty-five. Hunt’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, A Public Space, Tin House, Cabinet, and a number of other fine publications.

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