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People in the Neighborhood: ‘1BR’ and the Cultic Milieu

“So many people in the neighborhood… I don’t know if they’re very good people.”

–Ween, “So Many People in the Neighborhood

Starting in 1927, the specter which had allegedly been haunting Europe made its way to China. What followed from 1927 to 1949 (interrupted by the united effort against Japan during World War 2) is known as the Chinese Civil War, a conflict between the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party; the last phase of this conflict, from 1945 – 1949, is generally known as the Chinese Communist Revolution. Big changes were afoot for China, many of them long overdue (in particular, reform of the nation’s agricultural and property ownership systems) but all of which were executed, at best, imperfectly. One function that the newly empowered Communist Party took upon itself was the wholesale reeducation of “troublesome” elements of the population, a plan which would eventually evolve into the bloody totalitarian nightmare known as the Cultural Revolution. Before the “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution, however, the Party experimented with and perfected a technique known as “thought reform,” although it would come to be known by a more common, less euphemistic term: brainwashing.

The earliest psychological examination of this process took place starting in 1953, when Dr. Robert Jay Lifton conducted a series of interviews with Westerners who had been ensnared in and then released from the first “reeducation camps.” In 1961, he published the results as Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: a Study of “Brainwashing” in China. It’s a phenomenal and important book, and one about which I’ve written fairly extensively in the past – I don’t need to reiterate all my thoughts here, but if you’re curious about the salience that I think Thought Reform still holds, you can read it there. Lifton’s book is better known outside of the world of totalitarian politics, in the study of new religious movements (which are themselves better known by the term “religious cults,” although I think that’s a loaded and pejorative term with little descriptive value).

Lifton’s model is imperfect, and our understanding of the psychology of totalism has evolved beyond the concept of “brainwashing.” Despite that, much of Lifton’s work – in particular his eight features of totalism – have tremendous utility, perhaps more than ever in our age of QAnon and “alternative facts.” Later thinkers like Colin Campbell would come to call the swirling stew of publications, cross-pollinated membership, and counter-cultural structures common to these movements the “cultic milieu,” a tapestry of sentient dolphins, extraterrestrials, crystal healing, and “energy” that is perhaps best defined by a common sense of oppositional defiance and seekership.

To an extent, being recruited into a cult is a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong state of mind. By contrast, 1BR, the new horror film tearing up the Netflix charts, has very much arrived in the right place (a streaming service) at the right time (during a global pandemic) and when audiences are in the right frame of mind (isolated, paranoid, and starved for community). Although it was quietly released in 2019, 1BR did not arrive on Netflix until recently – and while it was made before quarantine, lockdown, and plague, our present state of affairs hangs over the atmosphere of the film like a second, invisible plotline, which both complicates and simplifies the story of the film’s unexpected success (unexpected because both audience ratings and critical responses to the film have been tepid).

It simplifies things because it explains why the odd, claustrophobic atmosphere of 1BR works while that of a film like Lady in the Water fails miserably (although, full disclosure: I have a soft spot for that ridiculous Shyamanlan folly, too). The hunger for connection that we all currently feel makes 1BR feel more relevant than it ought to. I say “ought to” because to enjoy 1BR as what it is – an unexpected piece of accidental QuarHorror – one must disengage from what it is not, which is a good film about brainwashing, community, and the cultic milieu. While any film involves a willing suspension of disbelief, the attention paid to detail in some aspects of 1BR’s treatment of thought reform indicates, to me, that the film’s writer and director were aware of the work of psychologists like Robert Jay Lifton and B.F. Skinner, and chose to misrepresent their work. That they would promulgate discredited psychological theories for the purpose of propelling a narrative places 1BR in a category of movies along with Sybil and two other Shyamanlan films – Split and Glass – that treat so-called “Dissociative Identity Disorder” (AKA “Multiple Personality Disorder”) as a real phenomenon, rather than a rather florid literary conceit.

Which is too bad. We need a movie about radicalization, one that tackles indoctrination without being doctrinaire. We need art that responds to the vortex of mirrors and madness that exists in spaces like 8kun and Breitbart, One America Network and Gab. Our nation’s newest political-religious cult has a growing body count, and is – in many ways – scarier than anything 1BR throws at audiences. In the end, 1BR’s discredited vision of human psychology and “brainwashing” is a fundamental misrepresentation of cults – how they recruit, how they work, and how one escapes. Under ordinary circumstances, that would simply make it lackluster. In our current climate of plague, QAnon cultists, and political radicalization, 1BR feels like an inadequate statement and a wasted opportunity.

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