Before the 2000s, when everyone suddenly knew everything thanks to computers in your pocket, it was believed there were people in the world who could solve all your problems, gurus who had an innate understanding of the intangible machinations of the universe and could explain them to you. You know, cult leaders. The '60s and '70s were the heyday of Hollywood cults, when a handsome guy with a three-foot-long beard and a set of white robes could invite you into his bungalow to change the world. While people mostly think of cult members as townies with nothing going on in their lives, there were a few cults in Hollywood that landed a big fish or two.
Los Angeles offers the promise of endless summer, and the possibility of making all your dreams come true, but it’s also filled with the harsh realities of what happens when your dreams wither and die. That atmosphere breeds desperation. People look for some way to give life meaning. Enter cults. Celebrities in cults doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it's incredibly strange. While there are a few starlets in cults you’re going to read about, most of the celebrities who were sucked into the cult world were men, which makes you think about how much more impressionable male celebs are than their female counterparts.
If you look at the life of Charles Manson starting around when he left prison in 1967 and hitched his way across California, it's obvious he was making things up as he went along. He spent most his life up to that point trying to survive by criminal means, while hopping in and out of prison. By the time he assembled his family of strung-out hippies in Los Angeles, Manson decided what he really needed was a record contract.
Rather that pursue a career as a musician via the traditional route of writing songs and playing shows, he strong-armed famous friends into listening to his tunes and hooking him up with infamously disastrous recording sessions ("When the session day arrived, Charlie failed to impress the talent agent as a musician, but did manage to catch his eye... for new film about a modern Jesus Christ that Universal was considering.").
Neil Young didn't care about all that. When he met Manson, Young was going solo from Buffalo Springfield and likely saw a compatriot in him. Both were weird, scruffy guys with an affinity for rambling acoustic jams. Young even tried to get Manson a deal:
"I asked him if he had a recording contract. He told me he didn’t yet, but he wanted to make records. I told Mo Ostin at Reprise about him, and recommended that Reprise check him out... Shortly afterward, the Sharon Tate-La Bianca murders happened, and Charlie Manson’s name was known around the world."
Young reiterates the notion that Manson had no real master plan in his assessment of the cult leader's music: "His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row."see more on Neil Young
From 1969 to 1974, Father Yod and his Source Family owned and operated The Source restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, an all-natural vegetarian joint rooted in the "dietary wisdom found in the teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Essene Gospels of Peace." When they weren't serving alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast, the Source Family taught classes on their chill vibes and utopian community, which was run by a man who wore crisp white suits and drove around town in a Rolls Royce.
Father Yod had 14 wives, was allegedly a former Marine, stuntman, and jiu-jitsu master, and fronted the cult's improvisational psychedelic band Ya Ho Wa13. He also killed at least two people, one in a justifiable homicide, the other in a manslaughter. After the cult left LA and moved to Hawaii in 1974, Father Yod died crashing a glider into the beach.
In the heyday of The Source, John Lennon was hanging out in LA with guys like Warren Zevon and Alice Cooper and dining regularly at the restaurant alongside Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. The degree to which Lennon was or wasn't involved with The Source Family and Father Yod remains unclear, but it's known for certain he frequented the restaurant, and most likely saw Ya Ho Wa 13 live, as they played there regularly.see more on John Lennon
Everyone can agree Charles Manson is crazy. But he understood he needed celebrities by his side to gain clout in Los Angeles. Throughout his relatively short run of cult leading and songwriting in the late '60s, Manson used the women in his Family as sexual bargaining chips to get what wanted, whether it be a place to stay or a record contract.
This is where Dennis Wilson enters the picture. The Beach Boys drummer met Manson when he picked up Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey, who were hitchhiking through Malibu, and dropped them off at his place before going to a recording session. When he returned home, Manson was hanging out in front of Wilson's house, which was populated with a bunch of groovy Manson Family babes. This was fine with Dennis Wilson.
In a 1968 article titled "Dennis Wilson: I Live With 17 Girls” the drummer talked about hanging out with Manson and his harem of swinging hippy women. His words are equal parts cliché and horrifying:
"I told [the girls] about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who’d recently come out of jail after 12 years. He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We’re writing together now. He’s dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have learnt from him."
After hearing Manson's songs Wilson introduced him to Terry Melcher, record producer and son of Doris Day, who Manson hated with a passion. Shortly after a failed recording session, Melcher's home was the scene of the tragic Tate murders - Manson instructed his followers to go to Melcher's house and kill everyone there, not realizing Melcher had recently leased the house to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.see more on Dennis Wilson
Of the cults covered here, The Children of God (or Family International, Family of Love, etc) is perhaps the most terrifying. It began in 1968 as a modernization of the Christian faith, but quickly morphed into an international cult in which followers were encouraged to have sex not only with strangers, to bring them into the church, but with their own children, as a way to show God's love. As of 2017, the cult exists under the name The Family International, and operates under the leadership of Karen Zerby, an original Children of God member.
A lot of celebrities grew up in the cult: Christopher Owens from the band Girls, actress and director Rose McGowan (whose father headed the Italian branch), and Joaquin and River Phoenix. Born in 1974, Joaquin Phoenix is a year older than Karen Zerby's son, Ricky Rodriguez, who murdered his long-time handler over childhood sexual abuse, then committed suicide.
Phoenix finds it annoying everyone wants to talk about CoG. In a 2014 interview with Playboy, he said
"When people bring up Children of God, there's always something vaguely accusatory about it. It's guilt by association. I think it was really innocent on my parents' part. They really believed, but I don’t think most people see it that way. I've always thought that was strange and unfair."
Phoenix's parents left the cult when their sons were adolescents. Whether they were tired of living in a dirty hippy commune or were aware of the child abuse happening within the church, is unknown.see more on Joaquin Phoenix