When the credits roll on the first episode of Nine Perfect Strangers, the show’s newly formed collective of lost souls is not a cult. If anything, the setup is more like a Saw movie, with Russian-accented self-improvement guru Masha (Nicole Kidman) serving as the omnipotent puzzle master moving unwitting pieces on a board only she can see. Whether Masha’s plan—what’s been revealed of it in the series’ first five episodes, anyway—is torture depends on your attitude towards recreational psychedelics—but it is arguably thought control. As Masha systematically breaks down her guests and rebuilds them in her own image, the wall between their thoughts and Masha’s begins to crumble. And by midseason, the answer to the question of whether Tranquillum House is a cult compound, and Masha herself a cult leader, is less clear.
Most of the guests at Tranquillum look up to Masha and admire her work. That’s how they found the place, after all. But if that was all it took to make something a cult, then the members of BTS would be the most successful cult leaders on the planet. Even the International Cultic Studies Association defers from giving a precise definition of a “cult,” providing instead a checklist of warning signs for concerned family members and friends. But many of those signs revolve around the presence of a charismatic leader whose judgement and authority can never be questioned. Author Jayanti Tamm, who grew up as a follower of guru Sri Chinmoy, writes in her memoir that cult leaders are “fierce in singular righteousness,” confident in their infallibility and able to spin unforeseen setbacks until they’re part of the leader’s master plan. Masha does just this when her “protocols” don’t go as planned. But there’s another wrinkle to be considered: The guests’ stay at Tranquillum has a fixed departure date.
At their core, cults are about coercion. Whether through threats of an imminent doomsday only the leader can prevent or overt threats of violence, another thing that separates a cult from a New Age book club or Baptist prayer circle is that cult members are unable to leave whenever they like. Scientology keeps wayward members in line by threatening to cut them off from family and friends, while NXIVM collected compromising “collateral” to be used against adherents if they decided to leak Keith Raniere’s secrets to the press. If, at the end of their 10-day stay, Masha physically prevented her guests from leaving, that would be a straightforward sign of coercion.
But Masha’s methods are more subtle. She prefers the Charles Manson-approved method of zonking her guests out on drugs, making them both susceptible to a leader’s whims and incapable of making an informed decision about whether they really want to stay at Tranquillum. Significantly, the guests are dosed without their consent. Even more significantly, Masha massages them into giving retroactive consent, and is aware of the legal definitions around consent in the locality where the story takes place. It’s often technicalities like these that bring down an abusive cult, and Masha seems prepared to defend her actions in court, proving that she knows what she’s doing is wrong—or at least illegal.
Many cult leaders, male and female, take advantage of the boundary-softening effects of psychedelics. Australia’s most infamous female cult leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, also used LSD to control her followers—known simply as The Family—who would gather for rituals that began with members dropping acid in a darkened room. Then, just when the drugs were kicking in, Hamilton-Byrne would appear in a white dress, standing in front of a bucket of dry ice that enveloped her like heavenly clouds. Hamilton-Byrne’s followers reported a similar sense of awe at this spectacle as Tranquillum guests feel around Masha, with one man saying, “Anne was waiting for me, and just welcomed me, and took me in… Looked at me and I was numb right through to my toes.”
In a 2018 Vice article about women-led cults, Cal State professor Janja Lalich says, “Cult leaders will always get their people to what I call ‘reframe their lives.’ They reinterpret their lives so they see everything from before the cult as messed up, and only by staying with the cult leader will they get straightened out.” This is the key to Masha’s indoctrination plan. Drawing from members of the listless upper-middle and upper classes, whose leisurely lives leave plenty of spare time for spiritual seeking, she uses manipulation and suggestion, public humiliation, restrictive diets, and manual labor (which she claims cures depression) to make her guests doubt themselves and their own minds, then steps in to fill this newly created void in their personalities. Really, the only classic cult-leader technique she isn’t using is sleep deprivation, although meddling with their dreams seems to have a similar effect.
One of the least convincing aspects of Tranquillum-as-cult is its lack of a social media presence. In recent years, Facebook and YouTube have proven to be fertile ground for cults, which draw in converts slowly using social-media algorithms until dissenting viewpoints no longer appear in their followers’ feeds. Social media has been useful for female cult leaders in particular, whose numbers have exploded in the past decade and who are catching up with their male counterparts in the extremity of their teachings and actions. One of the more famous, and murky, examples is Teal Swan, the YouTube guru recently profiled in the Gizmodo podcast The Gateway. Swan began to attract the attention of cult experts when one of her followers died by suicide, unearthing a disturbing thread in Swan’s teachings that embraces suicide as a “relief” and “reset button” for people who are unhappy with their lives. Swan targets depressed people with savvy SEO keyword tagging so that people contemplating suicide—and using YouTube to figure out how to do it—will stumble upon her teachings as if by magic.
Back in 2018, Vice interviewed Gizmodo investigative reporter Jennings Brown—in some ways a real-life version of Nine Perfect Strangers’ Lars (Luke Evans)—who went undercover to a Swan workshop in Costa Rica that cost “upwards of $2,000” to attend. In the interview, Brown describes Swan’s first appearance at the retreat: “She descends this stone staircase, and she has two close followers on either side, and she’s perched higher than everyone else. And one of the first things they do is a death meditation, where she said, ‘We’re all going to get suicidal for a moment.’” Masha has her followers dig “graves” and lie in them imagining their own funerals, in a similar depersonalization technique designed to make death seem, if not a good thing, less frightening. It should be noted here that death meditations are also common in Buddhism, and are not inherently abusive or manipulative—it’s the context around them that makes these examples suspect.
In appearance, Masha resembles Swan as well: They’re both tall, thin, long-haired white women who consciously cultivate an otherworldly aura, and who use their tragic backstories as proof of their therapeutic powers. Swan claims to have been born with clairvoyant abilities, for which she was bullied as a child. She also claims to have been ritually abused by a Satanic cult beginning when she was 6 years old, “uncovering memories” with the help of controversial Salt Lake City therapist Dr. Barbara Snow, who was placed on professional probation in 2008 amid accusations of “implanting false memories” in her patients. (Snow’s license has since been restored.) Swan uses this backstory to push her narrative about repressed memories as the cause of all mental illness—and Teal Swan as the person who can help others uncover and resolve them. Similarly, Masha claims that her near-death experience has given her a unique appreciation of and perspective on life: “You all have come to die. I will bring you back,” she tells the guests at the end of the series premiere.
Another of Masha’s more cult leader-esque techniques is using sex and love to control her inner circle of “wellness consultants,” Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone). Meddling with followers’ personal relationships, as Masha does to Yao and Delilah, is seen in everything from California hippie cult The Source Family to polygamous child abuser Warren Jeffs and his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints. Delilah’s devotion to Masha is reminiscent of Ma Anand Sheela of Wild Wild Country fame, whose service as a fixer for Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a.k.a. Osho) was driven by romantic love. There’s one key difference, however: Masha has sex with Delilah, while Ma Anand Sheela continues to insist her bond with her guru wasn’t sexual.
While having sex with everyone in sight and insisting that followers remain celibate is a stereotype (a correct one, but a stereotype nonetheless) about male cult leaders, female cult leaders have begun showing a willingness to sexually exploit their followers as well. One of the more bizarre female cult leaders to emerge in recent years, Amy Carlson only started attracting headlines when one of her followers was found naked and hallucinating in the California desert in July 2020. About nine months later, her followers began posting livestream videos featuring Carlson’s emaciated dead body wrapped in a sleeping bag and Christmas lights, glitter makeup still on her eyes. In life, Carlson called her group Love Has Won and herself Mother God, with a series of Father Gods swapped in and out at Carlson’s whim.
Seven members of Love Has Won were held for questioning in April 2021, after Carlson’s body was removed from the group’s Colorado compound. It was the culmination of 15 years of indoctrination that began—and ended—on Facebook. The core membership of Love Has Won numbered about a dozen people at the time of Carlson’s death. All of them lived together, and participated in daily livestream videos preaching Carlson’s peace-and-love doctrine of global healing. According to the cult, Carlson was the savior who would defeat forces of darkness similar to the “deep state” conspiracy preached by QAnon. (Online cults tend to cross the proverbial streams: Along with claiming that she had led 453 lives, including one as Jesus Christ, Carlson also believed that Donald Trump was her father.) “Mom just was in full consciousness for her whole life,” a spokesperson says in one of the group’s videos, reflecting their belief that Carlson was a 19-billion-year-old divine being who created the Earth and was preparing to lead 144,000 chosen disciples to the fifth dimension.
Actually living with her was another story, however. According to one ex-Father God, Carlson was an extremely heavy drinker who was casually cruel to animals and children, and would go off on abusive, profanity-laced tirades after the 10 shots of vodka she consumed every night. Unlike Masha and Tranquillum, however, Carlson and Love Has Won never owned up to using hallucinogens in their spiritual practices, explaining that Carlson drank because alcohol is “organic” and morphine, which followers say she needed for the cancer they claim killed her, is not. (Psychedelic mushrooms can also be organic, but that’s another story.)
In the months leading up to Carlson’s death, Love Has Won moved from Hawaii to California to Colorado, ousted from compound after compound by local communities who saw an obvious cult in their midst—or perhaps simply saw Carlson on Dr. Phil in September 2020. (Carlson’s gray skin from the colloidal silver that she took every day would have been another tip-off.) But would Love Has Won have been able to continue indefinitely if the group had, say, an isolated luxury resort at their disposal, and if they had the foresight to keep their teachings off of social media and daytime TV? Could a scenario like the retreat in Nine Perfect Strangers devolve into one where the “guests,” now permanent residents, release glassy-eyed videos in which they proclaim their faith in Masha as a living embodiment of God? Masha does have the otherworldly charisma and desire for control of a cult leader, and the process of breaking down mental barriers between her and her guests has already begun. The question really comes down to how badly her guests need a savior—even subconsciously.
In recent years, cult experts have begun to question whether brainwashing in the Manchurian Candidate sense of turning regular people into obedient automatons is actually possible. A group can systematically convince people to believe in just about anything, particularly under the influence of psychedelic drugs. As one of Hamilton-Byrne’s ex-followers concludes after decades of hindsight, “One can be extremely highly educated and yet have a real psychological naiveté.” But there also has to be a part of a person that desires escape from the world, an element of “voluntary self-surrender” to the cult leader, as historian and psychiatrist Robert Lifton writes in his 2019 book Losing Reality. The “guests” at Tranquillum are all running from something, and Masha is ready and waiting to receive them.
Nine Perfect Strangers is a work of fiction, and its characters have a better chance of getting out with their minds and finances intact than those who fall into a group like Masha’s in real life—especially if the limited series follows the ending of the book. Marketing for the show has emphasized the “wellness” part of “wellness cult,” opening a pop-up in an L.A. mall with “soothing self-care activities” and free smoothies. But that’s how a lot of these cults start: with personal improvement workshops or yoga classes or past-life regression therapies. Just as the line between wellness and New Age belief can be fuzzy—for many, it’s a short walk from organic skincare to crystals and auras—there’s another, scarier line that often isn’t visible until you’ve already crossed it. So walk barefoot in the sand and call yourself a “spiritual wanderer” if that’s what makes you happy. But if they won’t tell you what’s in the juice before you drink it? Make sure you’ve got a cell phone and a credit card stashed away, just in case.