"It's a group performance where everyone's a player," says Christopher Allman, the creator and leader of the People of Ieya.
In 1978, more than 900 people drank the "Kool-Aid" and died from cyanide poisoning in a twisted murder-suicide at Jonestown, the Guyana settlement of the People's Temple cult led by Jim Jones. In 1994, 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple sect were found dead after suffocating, shooting, and burning themselves in a ritualistic slaying in a small Canadian town north of Montreal. In the early 2000s, the corpses of nearly 800 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were exhumed from the doomsday cult's headquarters in Uganda, the result of yet another mass slaughter by self-immolation.
It's pretty much a truism that by the time a cult is brought to the media's attention, something's gone terribly wrong. When you reflect on the insanity and death associated with high-profile groups like the People's Temple, it's easy to think that cults are just inherently bad. But that isn't necessarily the case, at least according to Chicago-based artist Christopher Allman, who is focusing on building his own "((((Sci-fi)))) cult," the People of Ieya.
Trying to summarize his cult's creation mythology in only a few words is an act of futility, mainly because it's all futuristic nonsense Allman admittedly pulled out of his ass. It does, however, have underpinnings of humanism in its core values, which are empathy, fairness, sincerity, and rationality, according to the cult's website—head there if you want to learn more.
Essentially, Allman—who grew up Mormon in Utah—is trying to take the best parts of the religious communal experience and dump the murder-suicides, molestation, and incest. This means participating in weed-fueled theological discussions over communally prepared dinners (good), but not forcing participants to leave their families, wear robes, and kill children (bad).
I spoke to Allman about the cult, how to eschew the trappings of power, and being targeted by the FBI.
VICE: So what's the first step in starting a cult?
Christopher Allman: For the past two years, it was trying to create the visual culture. Trying to make the imagery and belief system, essentially creating my ideal community. In terms of the mechanics of having people involved, I mean, this kind of happened from doing shows and performances and people being interested and saying, Hey, I wanna be involved. So I started handing out flyers, saying, "Do you want to join a cult?" Everybody that's physically interacted with the group is a friend or a friend-of-a-friend.
So how is this different from just a group of friends hanging out?
In some ways, it's not at all, I guess. But in another way, there's a sense of purpose we have, like self-improvement, or being interested in ideas and discussion. It's more formalized than a hangout, more structured. And there's one person who gets an extra amount of say than normal if it were just friends. On one hand, I'm totally into it, I love it. But at the same time, I have a certain level of detachment. I don't genuinely believe there are space-time travelers.
If you don't believe the cult's creation story, that's a pretty big disconnect, isn't it?
There's a certain element of role play, an RPG suspension of disbelief. You don't believe all of it, but you like the idea of it, so you want to behave as if you believe. It's a group performance where everyone's a player.
On your website, you also go into the details of your ideal utopian community.
That came tangentially. I'd also been an architecture major, and have long had fantasies about utopian communities. Like a lot of people who find this car culture a bit unsavory and wish they could have some sort of intimate village life. I would often fantasize about something like that. So creating a utopian community went along with that.
From Jonestown to, well, a lot of examples, utopian communities always seem to end up not so great. What would you do different?
A big part is that so many utopians are based on really dogmatic ideology, and I think part of what would be appealing to me is a strict rejection of any deep dogma or ideology that allows abuses and corruption. A lot of the negative examples of utopian communities tend to revolve around the show of a certain individual. Were my community built, ideally, there wouldn't be any one person who gets all the fame.
Why did you leave Mormonism?
A lot of people outside the church are surprised to learn this, but the church is really hemorrhaging members, particularly young people. It's mostly because the internet and issues with the church's history. All this crazy stuff is now online and people are finding it and leaving in droves. Basically, the official history versus the actual history are way different, and people are finding out and leaving.
How do your folks feel about all this?
It's hard for me to tell. I know they're not crazy about it, and don't totally get where I'm coming from, but don't ever outright say it. They try to be a little supportive, but clearly aren't crazy about it. Understandably. It's crazy, to make a cult.
Apparently, crazy enough to get the FBI interested...
Yeah, that. The FBI started following me. I think it was the first time I was doing a pubic performance of any sort. We were in this park and there was maybe ten to 15 people with us, and this guy shows up, and he's like, "Hey can I join?" He starts asking everybody a lot of weird questions, like, "Hey, who here drinks alcohol? Raise your hands." He was interviewing everybody like that. It's like, Oh, that's weird. And after that, there was this van parked outside my window for several days. Basically, for a month it was really overt surveillance of myself, my friends, my girlfriend. They weren't hiding at all, wanting us to know we were being surveyed. I tried to file a FOIA act, and only got back something that said we can neither confirm nor deny this.
What were they doing?
One time I was at the Baha'i Temple with some friends, and they were obviously, kind of comically, following us and taking our picture. They would be like, "Oh, hello Christopher," you know, somebody I never met before. Or, I had been in Utah, they were like, "How was your trip to Utah?" Somebody I never met before. There was so much stuff. For all I know they're still following me, and doing it secretly, but at least the in-my-face surveillance has stopped.
Where does the cult go from here?
I would love for it to expand. Every time I do an interview, I get a little more people interested. I would love to be able to establish a village as an alternative to modernity and normal capitalist structures. Whether or not that could happen, I don't know. I would love to have a building where we could be, and have art and religion be one in the same, and not necessarily have to believe it, but be fun and fictional and also fulfilling.
How about sweet, sweet tax exemption?
I haven't done that, but I want to. But I'm hoping to get it chartered like a real religion. Everything that's happened so far has been build up, trying to get it ready, get the website ready. It's at its earliest stages right now.
Real cult leaders are never off-duty, but it seems like you kind of go in and out of your role. If this expands as far as you want, will you be, like, a full-time cult leader?
I don't know how I'd navigate that. To be honest, I can't be an actual cult leader. It seems stressful and too much pressure. I wouldn't want people to actually take what I say to heart, in case I'm wrong. I'm probably wrong about a lot of things.
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