I caught Cocoon on FXM the other day. I only saw about the last hour of the movie, but it nonetheless brought back waves of nostalgia.
For those who don’t remember Cocoon, it concerned a group of St. Petersburg, Florida nursing home residents who discover a source of youth and vitality in the swimming pool of a mansion next door to their home. It turns out that the pool is the nesting area for alien eggs, and the aliens who came to retrieve them take most of the elderly people with them when they go. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie starred Wilford Brimley, Jack Guilford, Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Jessica Tandy and Gwen Verdon.
Cocoon was filmed about a mile and a half from where I lived. The creepy old house in the film was the empty Barnett mansion, a little over a mile away. I had never seen what the old house looked like before the movie came out; all I could see was the high white stucco wall surrounding the property and the thick tangle of banyan trees and undergrowth I glimpsed through the wrought iron gates that closed off the white shell driveway.
I played all the time at the park where the final chase scene started. My father fished for bait where the Wilford Brimley character and his grandson fished. There was a field close by where we would park our motor home on a Friday night so dad could catch small fish to be used the next day, when he went out in a small boat looking for snook. Given that Wilford Brimley is a dead ringer for my father, that scene caused me to miss my dad, who died in 1996.
All in all, watching Cocoon was a lot of fun.
But the movie brought back other, less welcome, memories as well. And thein hangs a strange, unsettling, tale.
When I was in middle school, I had a best friend, Ann. She and I were in almost all of our classes together; I was the fourth saxophonist in the band, she the second clarinetist. (She was more ambitious than I, always trying to move up, whereas I simply resigned myself to being mediocre at best.) We used to walk home together, and I would sometimes hang out at her house in spite of the fact that she had been told in no uncertain terms that she was forbidden to have friends over. I wonder now why I became friends with her; she browbeat me into giving her a birthday present, and told me I needed to use the diet supplements her father sold for a living because that was the only way I would attract the attention of boys.
In the spring of our eighth-grade year, Ann became cagey. She hinted that she knew a great secret, and since I was her best friend, she would tell me eventually.
She did. Apparently, she and her parents would be whisked away by an alien spaceship about a month hence. She seemed completely sincere. Since I was her friend, she could get a place for me on the spaceship as well.
I totally fell for it. Partly it was her clear belief that yes, the alien rapture would happen, and partly her faith in the omens she kept pointing out to me. (I later realized that these “signs and portents” consisted of a combination of natural phenomena and coincidences.)
I was all in. At that point, I would have done anything to escape a miserable home and school life. Being taken away to outer space seemed like a good deal to me. We were to get our best things and put them in a suitcase, and on the day of the ascension wear something attractive but comfortable. I put on a satin caftan I had snagged from my elder sister: pretty and cream-colored and covered with blue roses, and sneakers.
Obviously, the deal fell through. We were not taken up into the skies. Ann gave me a lame excuse that she had called off our participation in the pseudo-Rapture because she had an important part in the upcoming spring concert and she didn’t want to let people down. To say I was disappointed was an understatement – I’m not sure I ever forgave her.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she told me. “If you do, I will say you’re lying. They will lock you up and throw away the key.” After some thought, I decided she was right. Besides, I was embarrassed that I had ever been that gullible.
I went through high school – and Ann and I drifted apart. I finished high school, attended college, got married, graduated law school, had children, and never told a soul. Not my other high school friends. Not my friends in college and law school. Not my husband. I was frightened – had I really been so psychotic as to believe such craziness? – and ashamed – had I really been so stupid?
Fast forward to 1997 and Heaven’s Gate.
You remember Heaven’s Gate, right? It was a cult who committed suicide in San Diego. They were discovered all wearing new track suits and sneakers. The more I looked into it, the more the cult resembled the bizarre plan my friend had told me about in eighth grade. At least one member had ties to the Tampa Bay area.
Had my friend participated in an actual cult? Had her parents? Had their friends? Had she been initiated or simply overheard things she was not meant to hear? What was the real reason she didn’t continue? Clearly, the Heaven’s Gate founders had not gone through with a suicide pact in the 1970s, if indeed they had planned to at that time.
At any rate, Heaven’s Gate raised a question I thought I had answered in the affirmative years before. Had Ann simply created the scheme out of whole cloth? All of a sudden, I could no longer answer that with a definitive “yes.” I asked a friend of mine, a priest, whether it sounded like she had invented everything. That depends, he answered. Was she bright enough and imaginative enough to create such a ruse? And why would she?
No, although somewhat bright, she lacked the imagination and the acting skill to carry off such a complicated hoax. She was also egoistic enough that she would have tried to bamboozle the whole school, not just me.
I broke down and told my husband and psychiatrist, both of whom seemed unconcerned. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” the psychiatrist told me when I asked if I had been psychotic. “Everyone’s psychotic when they’re thirteen.”
I think about my brush with cults every now and then when I read about some of the far-right conspiracy theories making the rounds. Q-Anon makes alien abduction seem almost quaint. What are a few spaceships compared to a Democrat child-sex trafficking ring run out of the basement a DC pizza parlor, that’s going to be exposed and smashed by Donald Trump? Or a massive revolution (“The Storm”) that’s going to remove the legitimate government and install Trump as “rightful” president/dictator?
I know the seduction of a cult, of a secret knowledge that only a few special others know about. I know what it’s like to believe the unbelievable. I know how some of these people are going to feel if they come to their senses. If they were not so damned dangerous, I might almost feel sorry for them.
Almost. But not quite.