As long as people feel lost or are allowed to slip through the cracks, there will be rogue messiahs to take advantage of them. Often, the cult leader is a natural. His (or hers, or theres) isn’t a calculated grift as much as the end result of some sort of disordered personality. I guess you could call it a gift.
I’ve always suspected that as society descended further along into oligarchy or autocracy (take your pick), these sort of gurus will only become more widespread — and so far, it looks like I’m right! That’s why I’m always going on about “cults,” and that’s why for the latest episode of the Failed State Update podcast I interviewed Anthony Russo, the author of Dragged Into the Light: Truthers, Reptilians, Super Soldiers, and Death Inside an Online Cult.
Sherry Shriner, the subject of Dragged Into Light, was the leader of an online cult based in rural Ohio. She preached that the end was near, politicians were secretly shape-shifting reptilian aliens, and the only way to protect yourself was through harnessing an occult energy known as “orgone.” She had quite a few followers, some of whom couldn’t spell the word orgone, much less pronounce it. (When taken in for the murder of her boyfriend, former acolyte Barbara Rogers confounded detectives with her repeated references to the power of “Oregon.”)
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Besides orgone, Shriner believed that angels walk among us and are part of the battle against the demonic extraterrestrials.
Unlike more cosmopolitan gurus Keith Raniere, Teal Swan, or even Gabriel of Urantia, Sherry Shriner’s following was decidedly low rent. Hell, she broadcast her online radio show out of a trailer in rural Ohio (although, as Russo pointed out when we spoke, there are nice trailers, and Shriner’s double-wide was one of the nice ones). And the class issue is important — people were attracted to her in part because she gave them an important role in the battle of good versus evil. This fed their ego, and in a world where working class and poor people are treated like absolute shit, there are plenty out there who need their egos fed.
Sherry Shriner died earlier this year at the age of 45. While her beliefs were bizarre, solely focusing on them does us all a disservice. The real danger is not that people like Sherry Shriner believe in aliens or rogue planets, but that they enrich themselves through feeding off of people’s helplessness and instability. And if the country keeps following the path that it’s on, the class warfare of the wealthy against the rest of us, there will only be more helplessness and instability for the foreseeable future. We’ll be left with widespread “conspiracy psychosis,” the crazy-making end result of a country that manufactures poverty and encourages the wealthy to prey upon the poor.