The Strangest Life I’ve Ever Known: Challenging Stereotypes With Eagle Rock

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Jessica Gibbons

It’s hard to say exactly what sparked my fascination with cults. First I read Emma Cline’s 2016 novel, The Girls, unaware beforehand of who Charles Manson really was and why he was significant. I’d heard of Jonestown, but only in terms of the phrase “drinking the kool-aid.” I believed, like many others, that they all had gone mindlessly and willingly to their deaths.

The novel that first sparked my interest in cults.

Throughout my experience reading Cline’s novel, which essentially fictionalized the Manson murders by changing character names and certain details, I became overwhelmed by a sense of discomfort with how much I identified with the titular girls. I was amazed by how many times throughout the novel I thought their group seemed like it would be fun to be a part of. But the book is told from the voice of a new recruit, Evie, who does not participate in the murders, and she gets to go on and live a normal life. She is never fully invested in the cult’s leader the way the others are. I was most interested in the girls that Evie spends the novel admiring, the ones who do become killers. Nevertheless, after reading it, I became hungry for the true story. I was curious as to what was the same, what had been changed, and essentially, the truth behind the fiction. Above all else, I wanted to know what would cause someone to be so devoted to another human being that they would take somebody else’s life.

This is where the idea for Eagle Rock began. A deep dive into Manson led to learning more about Jonestown and the People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, and many other of the twentieth century’s most infamous cults. I wondered about the women who often seemed to be at their forefront, standing beside their leaders no matter what. If Leslie Van Houten had never met Charles Manson, or Annie Moore had never met Jim Jones, or Gail Maeder and Marshall Applewhite had never crossed paths, would their lives have turned out any differently? Would they have had some sense of normalcy? Had families and careers, their freedom, and most of all, their lives, instead of sitting in prison or dying in their mid-twenties? I’m still not sure if I know the answer, but, with this short film, I at least wanted to explore not their morality or lack thereof, but their humanity. Because I saw a lot of myself in them, I started to wonder if things had gone a little differently for me, could I have become a killer as well?

A still from Jonestown: Paradise Lost, which recreates the last days of the Peoples Temple.

In an attempt to sort through all of this, the story and its protagonist—twenty-one year old Alex Altman—developed, and it quickly became a project I was eager to write and direct. Alex is purposefully not a parallel to anyone in particular. There are bits of both Leslie Van Houten and Annie Moore in her, but she is purposefully her own woman. In writing her, the goal has always been to make her an identifiable lead. Someone who we can see ourselves in. I was seventeen not so long ago, wanting to fall in love, wanting to believe there was more to life than what was being offered to me. In an article for Alternative Considerations of Jonestown, a website which aims, according to its mission statement, to “present information about Peoples Temple as accurately and objectively as possible,” Rebecca Moore writes of her younger sister, “How did Anna Banana—the comedian, prankster, artist, musician—come to decide that killing the children would be saving them, in word if not in deed? It is a question without an answer. Annie seemed to remain her effervescent self, at least in letters she sent to us.” Moore goes on to describe her sister as someone who was drawn to Jim Jones’s seeming desire to make the world a better place. By offering black and white solutions to life’s problems, empathetic and caring people are often targeted by cult leaders.

Paige Henderson as Alex Altman.

That is why I have felt compelled to tell this story. Collectively, we will never understand horrific events if we always distance ourselves from the perpetrators. By recognizing their humanity, I want this story to be a tool that helps others avoid going down the same path. With the Manson women, there’s also the layer of their femininity, and how it was inherent in the ways in which they were manipulated. In the story, we meet Alex in prison, but then we begin to understand more deeply—through flashbacks and her interactions with Jay, the cult’s leader—what led her there.

And that, above all else, is why people fall in with cults. They want a place where they feel loved and accepted. They want to feel like they belong. That’s a desire we’ve all felt at some point or another in our lives, so it’s unfair to say that this could never happen to us. In an article for, Kathleen Toohill writes, “cult members are typically psychologically healthy, often particularly idealistic, and may be going through ‘normal life blips,’ such as a breakup or another period of upheaval or transition, making them more amenable to a cult’s messaging.”

Currently, Eagle Rock is being crowdfunded, and a successful campaign will raise expenses for production next summer. Now, I know what you might be thinking. It may seem like there is currently an influx of stories about cults, especially ones directly about or inspired by the Manson family. But there’s a reason these stories continue to resonate nearly fifty years later. As humans, we all want to feel loved and accepted. And cults provide that. In telling this story, my goal is to understand these women. In her suicide note from November 18th, Annie Moore writes, “I want you who read this to know that Jim was the most honest, loving, caring concerned person whom I ever met and knew. He knew how mean the world was and he took any and every stray animal and took care of each one. His hatred of racism, sexism, elitism, and mainly classism, is what prompted him to make a new world for the people. What a beautiful place this was. The children loved the jungle, learned about animals and plants. There were no cars to run over them; no child-molesters to molest them; nobody to hurt them. They were the freest, most intelligent children I had ever known.” This is not fiction. These are the unfiltered thoughts of a woman who believed in her leader above all else. In the film, Alex will exude these feelings towards Jay. In seeing how they meet and how their relationship grows, we will understand how such devotion manifests.

A section of Annie Moore’s suicide note from November 18th, 1978.

To brush their stories off as insanity  is unfair to everyone, most of all ourselves. Our society today is more more divided and more distant than ever. We’ve forgotten how to talk to people, and because of that, we’re lonely. And if we recognize this, I hope this film will be a piece of a conversation to help prevent others from following down the same path.

By supporting our Seed&Spark campaign, you will be a vital part of telling a story that touches on important and relevant issues. Even the smallest donation helps so that we will have all the funds we need to produce this at the highest possible level, which our entire team is committed to doing. This means gathering the best equipment and lenses so the film looks its best, as well as props and costume pieces to make its world really come alive. This also includes funds for us to eat well and have places to stay so that the whole cast and crew is happy and healthy during production. We are all excited about bringing this story out into the world, but to do that, we first need to have a successful shoot. Thank you!

Be sure to support this awesome film through the Seed&Spark campaign. You can follow Eagle Rock on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and you can learn more about Eleanor by visiting her profile.