The answers, unfortunately, aren’t too difficult to conjure: cults offer a sense of belonging, and the promise of easy answers to life’s most confusing questions, all tendered by preternaturally magnetic figures of benevolent authority. If you simply offer yourself up to this network of like-minded souls, a cult says, then everything that seems so disturbing now will fade away to be replaced by effortless peace. In a fractured and isolating era where the nature of the truth has never been murkier, the appeal of a cult is depressingly clear.
And it’s this appeal, so alluring and so impossible, that Artemis Shaw’s Aquaculture synthesizes into a startlingly concise 11 minutes. The film’s central conceit is simultaneously absurd and intuitive: charismatic authoritarian Charlotte (Josephine Decker) has developed a method that will allow humanity to migrate underwater. On its face, the notion is ludicrous, an answer to a nonexistent problem. But just beneath the surface lies a perversely comforting truth—who among us doesn’t savor that brief weightless relief of submersion? And how hard is it to see this appeal as an unconscious longing for a return to the pure comfort we experienced pre-birth?
In the opening sales pitch video, Charlotte pummels the viewer with shocking buzzwords and pseudophilosophical concepts that may well be contradictory, but the overload becomes intoxicating. By presenting the ostensible agonies and dangers of terrestrial life as so overwhelmingly complex, Charlotte can make her bizarre solution sound like the most natural one in the world. It’s a microcosmic disinformation campaign, and after just a few seconds of mental battery the viewer is putty. There’s no choice but to stay along for the ride.
Much of the exhilarating appeal of Shaw’s short lies in its assured harnessing of uncanny dissonances. The design is paradoxically both futuristic and retro, an aesthetic that seems borrowed from ‘70s futurism, stories of distant utopias where personal style is defined by monochrome uniforms, the height of structural design is the geodesic dome, yet technology still relies on tubes and wires, and the ultimate artistic currency is plodding olde fashioned folk music (the fondness demonstrated by Shaw and cinematographer Ines Gowland for a good pan and zoom only drives home this retro feel that’s both distancing and soothing). Shaw, along with production designer Cynthia Talmadge, creates an aesthetic that floats somewhere between the past and the future, so thoroughly unmooring the viewer that the appearance of a smartphone towards the end is one of the short’s most shocking elements.
Where we’re most accustomed to seeing this sort of Aquarian experimentation take place amongst Southern California’s red rocks (if for no other reason than ‘70s Hollywood’s logistical realities), Shaw sets her story against an autumnal northeast backdrop, one more associated with flannel and apple cider than quasi-religious, quasi-scientific endeavors. And it’s this counterintuitive collision of familiar design elements that creates the space for eerie discomfort to grow. The philosopher Gordon Bearn defined eeriness as “the absence of what ought to be present,” and the bubble Aquaculture takes place within is absent of any of the worldly moorings we rely on for orientation, even in typical cult narratives. Shaw has created a universe all her own, one of swimming pools, melodicas, and possibly sentient yoga balls, discordant elements that fall into a defiant harmonic atmosphere operating on an ephemeral but undeniable logic.
If a cult like Aquaculture’s seems rooted in a certain Nixon-era vibe, that’s apt. Religious movements tend to emerge at these moments of mass existential crisis, from the Great Awakening that accompanied the lead-up to the American Revolution to the national “crisis of confidence” that coincided with Jonestown. And if our current ongoing crisis hasn’t yet spawned its own rash of new religions, then maybe 2018’s trend of turning cult stories into grassroots sensations was our toe-in-the-water experiment with their queasy appeal.
Cult stories so often land in the same bleak place, and so it shouldn’t be shocking when Aquaculture finds itself there as well. Yet that finale is no less chilling for its predictability—we’ve spent ten minutes watching Charlotte evince all the typical trappings of an unhinged egotist cult leader, and observing how wholeheartedly her followers have devoted themselves to her impossible dreams. So what’s most chilling isn’t the inevitable fate of Charlotte and the others, but rather protagonist Elsie’s (Nicole Paige Chaffin) despair over being denied the same brutal end.
Do cult stories appeal because they offer the chance to feel superior to a handful of vapid fools who fall for transparently hollow promises? Or do they instead touch some terrifying truths—that with just the right circumstance of existential longing, and just the right alluring guarantees, we would be powerless to prevent ourselves falling into a sway like Charlotte’s? Cult stories—from The Wicker Man to Hereditary—have always disturbed me more than any other subgenre of horror because at the core of a cult story is not cruelty but love and joy. Characters in a cult always look so happy.
In a world of climate change and rising tides of fascism, how often have I longed for that simple bliss? And what might I do if I really did believe I’d found it?