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Deities, Harvest And Human Sacrifice: What Netflix's 'Apostle' Has In Common With Real-Life Cults

The new movie tells the story of an evil cult offering ritual sacrifices to an ancient goddess; but is director Gareth Evans' latest based on true events?

By Eric Shorey
Doomsday Cults That Turned Deadly

Forced labor, brutal punishment, ritual sacrifice to an ancient power and fascistic control: The terrifying cult in Netflix's latest horror film, "Apostle," has got it all.

Director Gareth Evans, best known for ultra-violent Indonesian martial arts movies “The Raid” and “The Raid 2,” has crafted yet another bloody masterpiece with this nightmarish period piece. But, putting  supernatural elements aside, is there any truth to the story told here?

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Set in 1905, "Apostle" tells the tale of Thomas Richardson, who travels to a secluded island to rescue his sister, who has unwittingly fallen under the dark influence of a mysterious and violent religious organization. Flashbacks reveal to the viewer that Richardson lost his faith in God after being tortured while doing missionary work in China. Upon arriving on the island — undercover — Thomas is stripped of his belongings and forced to attend meetings run by the village's prophet, who claims to represent an ancient goddess for whom the town toils endlessly.

The townspeople are revealed to have first offered animal sacrifices to their goddess, but the island's crops recently became tainted while livestock were being born with hideous mutations, indicating to the people they now needed to up the ante and offer up human lives. Thomas eventually discovers that the goddess is actually quite real, kept prisoner against her will and force fed to keep the land fertile. After rescuing his sister, Thomas sets the entrapped goddess ablaze and the island begins collapsing while the cultists attempt to flee by boat.

Engulfed by the land itself as the credits begin rolling: Will Thomas become the island's new deity, or is the Earth consuming him as retribution?

The tradition of depicting sacrificial religious movements within the horror genre was firmly established by films like the original 1973 "Wicker Man," another movie about an investigation into a cult which sacrifices humans for the harvest (Evans even cited "Wicker Man" as a huge inspiration for "Apostle").

"'Wicker Man' was definitely one of the influences. So was ‘Witchfinder General.’ And then, ‘The Devils,’ Ken Russell’s film. Those films were such a key. They were such key moments in British folk horror as a genre," Evans told Uproxx. "There’s just something askew about their approach to it, and that for me is more frightening than demons and ghosts and creatures. It’s the idea of, 'No. It’s just real people, but they have a capacity for violence.'"

Although flammable effigies, as seen in "Wicker Man," were been burned by Celts to celebrate the harves, as reported in several ancient Greco-Roman attestations, archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifices were not regularly used in these proceedings, according to historian Peter S. Wells' book "The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe."

While small, isolated cults practicing ritual sacrifice in the 20th century and beyond are surely rare, offering human lives to gods for prosperity has been a part of civilization since prehistory, according to LiveScience.com, which adds that the discovery of human remains alongside lush offerings to ancient deities date back to somewhere between 26,000 to 8,000 BC.

Recent research underpins this assertion: A 2016 study in the journal “Nature” found evidence that ritual human sacrifice abounded in ancient societies, and also made those cultures less egalitarian and more socially stratified.

Meanwhile, different civilizations developed a plethora of beliefs around the function of these sacrifices.

"What [the data are] suggesting is that the Upper Paleolithic societies developed a complexity of interactions and a common system of beliefs, of symbols and of rituals that are unknown in small groups of modern foragers," writes Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa, Italy in "Current Anthropology."

Further, descriptions of humans being killed for the harvest can specifically be traced to 11th-century Sweden, as shown in historical texts like "Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum" and the "Gesta Danorum."

Resembling "Apostle," King Domalde, an 11th century ruler, was offered as his subjects' ultimate sacrifice after lesser sacrifices did not help the land prosper. The ordeal was described by Snorri Sturluson in the Ynglinga saga.

"The first autumn they sacrificed oxen, but the succeeding season was not improved thereby. The following autumn they sacrificed men, but the succeeding year was rather worse. The third autumn, when the offer of sacrifices should begin, a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsalir; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the times of scarcity were on account of their king Domald, and they resolved to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stalle of the gods with his blood. And they did so," wrote Sturluson in 1225.

As monotheistic religions that condemned the taking of human life garnered more followers, the practice of human sacrifice across cultural contexts lessened. In the modern age, however, suicide cults like that of Jim Jones bear some resemblances to the cult in "Apostle."

The Prophet Malcolm Howe stresses to his congregants in an opening scene of "Apostle" that his society works separate from the British kingdom: It pays no taxes, and its denizens exist happily and independently from the mainland government.

"Each waking day we rise equal. Compassion. There's no crime ... The goddess of this island saved us and chose my tongue through which to speak," preaches Howe. "Where is the land which has no calls for war? Alms? Money? Taxes? Our land is here. No tax gatherers will threaten our church. We are utterly free. We are free men."

Decades after the film is set, Jim Jones would establish a similarly isolated cultic society in Guyana.

Jones, a charismatic preacher, formed the so-called Peoples Temple in 1950.

Jones relocated his mostly San Francisco-based followers to Guyana in 1974, according to History.com. This seemingly innocuous commune, which unlike the "Apostle" cult put Jones himself at the center of worship, placed great value on the labor of the people and functioned through its own independent Marxist economy and harsh set of rules. Jones came under investigation for human rights abuses in 1978, catalyzing investigations into the cult.

As in "Apostle" (albeit far less magically) it was the intrusion from investigators that sparked the group's demise, with Jones ordering a mass suicide upon the intrusion of a fact-finding mission led by Congressman Leo Ryan. Nearly 1000 people died on November 19, 1978, with hundreds poisoned by cyanide infamously dosed via powdered soft drink (the origins of the phrase "drinking the kool-aid").

Cultic human sacrifice again garnered international attention in the late 80's and early 90's when a moral panic known as Satanic Ritual Abuse gained popularity following the publication of the book "Michelle Remembers."

In it, Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder (who she later married) claimed to have discovered several repressed memories of a young Michelle abused by a nefarious devil-worshipping cult that both tortured and murdered children and babies. In the wake of Smith's book, several similar accusations were made across the country—almost all of the claims made by accusers were easily debunk-able, according to The New York Times. And even though human sacrifice is strictly forbidden in the actual "Satanic Bible," the topic was covered widely on daytime television, including by Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera.

Ultimately, "Apostle" seems more inspired by a long tradition of British folklore and the sub-genre of British folk horror cinema that explores the fantasies around pagan cults than actual events. However, Evans did admit that some of the torture devices used to punish disobedient citizens of his fictional cult were based on real machinery of the past.

"I did some research, I read up on some old medieval forms of capital punishment and torture,” Evans told Uproxx. “So, far, far, far worse stuff out there.”

That being said, Evans has created yet another savage masterpiece with "Apostle." And although the events within are reminiscent of real-life situations, the film explores cultural fears rather than true crimes.

[Photo Credit: Netflix]

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