Waco, Texas, the Divine Lorraine, and Jonestown were radically different, yet each existed within a similar American terrain—rapidly globalizing, urbanizing, and increasingly fearful. Made from material odds and ends, their leaders sought sites that were neither here nor there: an abandoned hotel, an unused ranch, a barren desert, or a cheap tract of land in a faraway country. They chose land that no one else wanted and no one had time to visit. Both distinct and stubborn, the architecture of the American cult becomes a way to understand them.
Architecturally, the American cult denies past use and creates a "utopia" in or on their chosen site. Like the walls of the Watchtower or Rajneeshpuram’s city-within-a-city, these compounds negotiate and politicize their relationship to the outside world. They are massive in scale and their totalizing vision reveals an earnest anxiety about the future. Compounds demarcate space so that time can move differently (or not exist at all) within the designated area. Particularly in the case of doomsday cults, they create an unshakable urgency that reveals a deep fear of being in the present. The walls of the compound manage small worlds—taking their followers out of the real and placing them within an imagined other. Their insularity confirms our world, while satiating our desire for drama.
Perhaps this is why the media continues to cover them? When the FLDS opened their gates for Oprahin 2009, America was mesmerized. While, the program enjoyed a record ratings spike.
Online one can easily find directions to Rajneeshpuram, Spahn Ranch, the Divine Lorraine, and even Jonestown. Or, even more strangely, travel accounts. One man says about his visit to Jonestown, Guyana "There's nothing left but an old tractor, a turned over van, and a mass grave". In this way, former cult compounds have become a site of ruin porn. Both short-lived and massive, intentional communities are often the site of horror and loss. Afterwards, they become a site of haunting. For the voyeur, cult compounds confirm the horror in us and also keep it safely at bay. Like both real and imagined lost cities -Babylon, El Dorado, Atlantis- cults exist mainly with an American imagination.
So, what kind of bathtub does Warren Jeffs prefer? How does Charles Manson accessorize his lair? What color do you paint your sunroom when you have 28 days to live? And, finally, how many pentagrams are too many pentagrams? Read on.
1. Spahn Ranch
When the Manson Family moved into the Spahn Ranch they had no idea that it was a former film site, but in fact Manson's home can be seen in episodes of Bonanza, Zorro, and The Lone Ranger. Much like Charles Manson, Westerns describe a seemingly endless landscape, a fight, the power of a gun, and, of course, the great American man. Fixed in national mythology, the ranch is a palimpsest of both good and evil—separate in our minds, but geographically the same.
Rajneeshpuram was an intentional community in Oregon. Bought by an Indian guru, the community transformed 60,000 vacant acres into a thriving community of 7,000 people. It became so big that they nearest town was incorporated into it. Followers created a post office, a public transportation system, a police and fire department, a reservoir, a huge building for guns, townhouses, and, most importantly, a mall. One Oregon resident said of the cult, “I think there were a lot of masters and maybe doctor’s degrees out there, but it didn’t mean they had any sense.”
Built in 1981, the compound was deserted by 1986. Which is really not that surprising, considering the residents were obeying the commands of a guru who said he could turn water into gold but chose not to because he “didn’t want to."
In case there are any prospective buyers, the entire compound now lies vacant. It would make a comfy if arid vacation spot for your cult; however, the guru’s 90 Rolls Royces are not included in the lease.
After his inspirational bookstore went bankrupt, Marshall Applewhite made the logical next step: proclaimed himself a reborn biblical character. Mixing elements from a burgeoning New Age movement and ancient Christian concepts of apocalypse and salvation, his followers, the people of Heaven's Gate, settled in to a 40-acre compound in New Mexico. Built as a monastery, their settlements had a distinct architectural style thanks to their innovative use of old tires, tin cans, and packed earth. They worked on their compound religiously and pre-dawn workers were rewarded by drawing EB on whatever they had built (early bird).
Like many Doomsday cults, they left their home spotless after their death: every chair, article of clothing, and book was in it's place. Watch their initiation videos here or buy their book on Amazon.
Article by Katherine Wisniewski