There are no dead bodies in Cults’ official “Go Outside” video, which premiered earlier this week on Boing Boing, and were it not for the clip’s intro — a vintage NBC News report concerning an incident at an airstrip in Guyana — viewers might not immediately realize who or what they’re looking at.
Using rare home-movie footage, director Isaiah Seret offers a glimpse inside cult leader Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, focusing not on the aftermath of the group’s notorious 1978 mass suicide — a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of more than 900 followers — but rather the euphoria that permeated that community four years earlier, when it was still based in California.
In a move that some will deem distasteful, Seret uses Forrest Gump-style special effects to insert Cults members Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin into the sea of swooning, smiling believers, many of whom appear to sing along with the New York City duo’s infectious single. Both Oblivion and Follin have backgrounds in film, and here, they fall right into character, staring into the camera with unblinking assuredness. They, like the real Peoples Temple worshipers, look as though they’ve found in Jones’ commune the answers to all of life’s problems. In the hands of another director, the concept might have seemed jokey or intentionally provocative, but Seret’s smart, well-executed video is every bit as affecting as the song itself.
Oblivion and Follin talk often in interviews about why they chose their band name, as well as why they relate to the idea of people joining cults. The pair started making music last year, while they were getting ready to graduate from college. They felt uncertain about their futures — as even talented, good-looking lovebirds are wont to do — and rather than turn to drugs or religion, they channeled their angst into deceptively cheery pop songs, setting frank self-examinations to hip-hop beats and Shangri-Las melodies.
“Go Outside,” the standout track on their self-titled Columbia debut, finds Follin urging a gloom-obsessed lover to pull up the shades and let some sunlight in. “I know what’s good,” she sings, her childlike voice masking an ominous bass sound. “Exactly those things night cannot behold.” It’s a classic half-full, half-empty scenario — only in the context of this band, the glass might be filled with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
In a statement on Boing Boing, Seret defends his use of the Peoples Temple footage, explaining that he had help from Jonestown expert Fielding M. McGehee III and support from several of the cult’s survivors. Seret was smart to issue the disclaimer, given the hubbub last year surrounding M.I.A.’s violent “Born Free” clip, but nothing about his video feels exploitative. It’s chilling, but more in the way of a cautionary tale than a horror movie.
Young and old, black and white, the people Seret shows us appear hopeful and vigorous — anything but doomed. In four years’ time, most will be dead, but as both the song and video suggest, their delusions aren’t so different from everyone else’s. They wanted to sing, dance, shake tambourines, grow long sideburns, eat organic produce and help other people. They believed that things were going to get better. In 1978, that meant following a messianic Midwesterner to South America. Nowadays, that may mean living in Brooklyn and listening to Cults.