One of the best scenes in “Fight Club” is halfway through the movie when Tyler grabs Norton’s hand and drenches it in a powered chemical substance that immediately starts burning his skin. Norton starts convulsing and attempts to rip his hand away, but Tyler holds it steady between thick black gloves and begins a tirade of philosophical absolutisms while he has Norton’s full attention. After a few moments of agony, Norton begs for the vinegar that will neutralize the acid. Tyler says, “First you have to know that someday you’re going to die. It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
I remember the first time I watched the movie, and almost every time after, I had to pause the tape and sit with my thoughts before moving on. Somehow the film’s momentum, the violence, and sex completely lost my interest and all I could think about was the moment when Tyler says those final words. I repeat to myself, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
I became a member of Fight Club’s cult following because of that line. Something inside me was jolted and every subsequent watching provoked deeper feelings of intrigue and, surprisingly, fun. It was because the imagery flirted with both the grotesque and the beautiful—Norton tries to imagine a scene of meditating in the forest to forget the pain, which made the message even more excruciatingly vivid. Perhaps that is the making of a true cult classic: something that we find truth or pleasure in, something that shocks our normal patterns and makes us remember the weirdness of life, the moments of terror and love, or the complete tackiness of our own existence.
Of course, cults can manifest in many ways, religious cults being only the most obvious and feared version. In this issue of Cipher, we attempted to map the parameters of a cult, to find what pull they have over us, and how we fall into some kind of cult, almost inevitability. A cult can be something condemned, and often rightfully so, like the cult of serial killer enthusiasts, which one writer explores in her analysis of their extreme devotion (p. 31). Another writer explores how a cult can be something celebrated, encouraged and culturally sanctioned, like the growing prevalence of sororities on our campus (p. 45). Or perhaps a cult manifests as something we accept and propel without questioning, such as the construction of the literary canon (p. 35). The strangest kind of cult, however, may ultimately be the one we are in without realizing, like the “cult of complacency” one writer explores (p. 24).
Evident in these articles is a strange slippage in our categorization of “cult.” As social creatures, it seems that our inclination is to be part of a group, a group that reveres an object or a practice (like playing sports, p. 43) and that takes pride in a mutual connection. Together we are saved from our loneliness, so our fascination with almost anything can seem justified. Yet, “cults” evoke negative ideas, falling on the wrong side of the line in the sand delineating acceptable membership and unacceptable devotion. When does the human desire to belong bleed into the grotesque, the inappropriate? Membership of some kind of group is unavoidable, it’s just a matter of which cult we participate in and to what extent it influences our lives.
As for me, I’ve never enjoyed anything more than being a member of Cipher. It’s the kind of organization that I’ve seen garner a cult following in the past four years and I’m honored to have been a leader (hopefully more akin to a Wes Anderson leader than a Jim Jones one). As I step down from the co-editor-in-chief position this block, I will undoubtedly become a devotee, from the outside, once again. Thank you, to everyone who has joined us to turn this magazine into a culture-changer. With my final issue, I hope Cipher continues to fascinate, horrify and engage you—as all good cult material should.
-Han Sayles and the Cipher Editors