One of the reasons that I write stories—whether they take the form of a novel, play, or TV show—is being drawn to investigate a topic. I became fascinated with exploring cults and what happens to people when they’ve spent time in isolated communities. I was particularly interested in how people manage to get out of these organizations and the ways that their experiences within cults affect their lives moving forward.
Needless to say, when I heard about the true events of a young woman who had escaped from a satanic cult and moved in with her psychiatrist’s family, I had to tell that story. This became the inspiration for Devil in Ohio, and the tale of Mae, Jules, and the Mathis family.
During my preparation to write the novel, I dove headfirst into studying the world of cults. Here are the top five scariest moments I had while researching Devil in Ohio:
Watching the Documentary Holy Hell
For 22 years, Will Allen was a member of Buddhafield, a Los Angeles-based cult led by a sociopathic leader named Michel Rostand. As a former filmmaker, Allen documented the cult’s hundreds of members, who were encouraged to cut off ties with their families and work, live, and meditate together in an effort to seek enlightenment.
However, as the years went by, it became clear that Michel was psychologically abusing his disciples and even forcing them to have sexual relations with him. What terrified me the most was how long Allen remained in the cult, even when he started to become aware of his leader’s nefarious behavior. Allen was so embedded in the group and brainwashed by its messaging that it took him years to extricate himself. I’m glad he finally did and gained enough distance and perspective to put together this absorbing and disconcerting documentary.
Reading Lawrence Wright’s Book Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory
Wow, this book was disturbing. Wright’s book expertly weaves the unfolding events of a true case about a 1980s Washington State family torn apart by allegations of abuse. Two adult daughters of respected Deputy Sheriff Paul Ingram accused their father of extensive molestation, torture, and rape, which Ingram at first denied but then eventually grew to “remember” had happened. What unfolds is part family drama, part psychological detective story, and wholly confounding. Although lack of evidence against Ingram points toward the allegations being invented fantasies, and his memories of it appear to be falsely conjured by the suggestions of law enforcement, this perplexing true story creeped me out from start to finish.
Watching the Film Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene
I really enjoyed this fictional thriller from director Sean Durken, which stars Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. The movie flashes between Martha’s past, when she lived in an abusive cult in upstate New York led by a charismatic man called Patrick, and her present, as she tries to recover from her disturbing experiences in the home of her uptight sister and brother-in-law. As Martha’s painful past rears its head within her memory, she begins to lose her grip on reality, causing paranoia and difficulty relating to others. I won’t give away the ending because I highly recommend the film if you haven’t seen it. But what scared me the most was the concept that after spending time within the grips of a cult, one may never be able to fully escape its grasp.
Reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I wanted to explore a novel structure that alternated between points of view, so I read Flynn’s excellent thriller to see how she navigated the storytelling. If you’ve read the book, you can probably guess which moment truly scared me.
[Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book!]
Revealing that our narrator is actually unreliable—and, in fact, could be considered a perpetrator—was a surprising and scary twist. Although I understood that she was seeking retribution for years of micro-abuses, the fact that she’d been plotting her revenge the whole time truly disturbed me.
Speaking with the Source of the True Story on which Devil in Ohio Is Based
I will never reveal details about my source, but suffice it to say, it was quite horrifying to hear the details of how a young woman escaped from the satanic cult she’d grown up in. Since many of the perturbing aspects of the story in Devil in Ohio were based on true events, my stomach churned whenever I heard about the scarring rituals, planting of mind-control triggers, and perhaps the most disturbing, how it tore a formerly tight-knit family apart.
While an unsettling topic to research, I loved learning more about cult communities and how they operate—even the scary parts. I hope you enjoy reading Devil in Ohio as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
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Daria Polatin is an award-winning playwright and television writer. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and her new play Palmyra, about a young woman who joins ISIS, will be presented in New York and Los Angeles. She is a founding member of The Kilroys, an advocacy group for female and trans writers that promotes gender equality in the American theater, and is a writer for the Amazon TV series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, starring John Krasinski. Daria is of Egyptian heritage and grew up traveling on five continents, loves hiking and inventing recipes, and lives in Los Angeles. Devil in Ohio is her debut novel. dariapolatin.com.