HBO’s three-part docuseries “Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God” begins with sirens and a scream. Grainy bodycam footage captures police officers making their way through a small Colorado house to a bedroom decorated with colored string lights shaped like flowers. On the bed is a body covered by a sleeping bag. Only a face is visible. The skin is blue and the eyes are missing, their sockets surrounded by glitter. Documentaries about cults don’t often end on a high note, but few start with the leader decomposing in her own bed, surrounded by twinkle lights.
That leader is Amy Carlson, a.k.a. Mother God. She started out as a young blond woman who could have been cast in “Barbie.” By her early 20s, she had three children and managed a McDonald’s. There was also the stuff of so many cult origin stories: possible mental-health issues, psychedelics, internet rabbit holes, abusive relationships. One night, at dinner with her family, Carlson excused herself and never returned. For years, the only way her mother, siblings and children saw her was via the videos she and her followers posted online.
In those videos she proclaimed herself a divine being, seducing a small group of devotees with her Mother God identity. Many documentaries depict the rise and fall of cults through after-the-fact interviews and archival images, but Hannah Olson, who directed “Love Has Won,” pulls from an astonishing wealth of content created by the group itself: They posted their everyday lives online like a reality show, offering anyone with Wi-Fi a front-row view of behavior many fringe groups would hide. They are like tech-crazed teenagers, rarely without a phone or laptop, sharing their every move, as focused on likes as on they are on enlightenment.
They also brought strikingly modern, Instagram-era attachments to their worship. Many cults have thrived online, and many have wound popular culture into their belief systems, but “Love Has Won” feels relentlessly current in its interests. There’s recurring mention of QAnon and 9/11 conspiracy theories. Members seem to have a soft spot for both Donald Trump and Hitler, along with a distrust of American institutions. They believe that “the Galactics” communicate with Mother God, and that this group of spirit guides is made up of deceased celebrities like Robin Williams, Whitney Houston and, of all people, Rodney Dangerfield. Among their few beliefs that trace back to a world before screens is the notion that an all-powerful deity will save humankind: Mother God, who was, in past lives, Marilyn Monroe, Joan of Arc and Jesus. In one interview, a follower who goes by the name El Moyra explains that as Monroe, she spread her message through movies, as Joan of Arc through revolution and as Jesus by having followers spread the gospel. “And in these moments,” El Moyra says, “We go online.”
The fact that so many of Love Has Won’s videos show them partying like bacchanalian college kids probably inspired a few recruits to ditch what Carlson called the “3-D” world and join their “5-D” enlightenment. Carlson promised them love and acceptance, an escape from drudgery. But they would also clean, make meals and shill products for the cause, like influencers. There are videos of core followers — Aurora, Hope, Faith, Commander Buddha — selling merch via Skype: pumpkin-spice body butter, branded hoodies and hair products. Among their most beloved items were supplements of colloidal silver, a substance whose benefits have been promoted elsewhere by the likes of Alex Jones (in a purportedly coronavirus-killing toothpaste), Mehmet Oz (gargling, throat sprays) and Gwyneth Paltrow (who has said she mists surfaces with it to kill viruses). Love Has Won members claimed it could cure almost anything and would take down the pharmaceutical industry. In one video, Commander Buddha touts their homemade colloidal silver by shouting, “Get your Kool-Aid!” — either because he has no clue that expression comes from the lethal concoction Jim Jones gave his followers in 1978, or because he’s engaged in a very modern register of trolling.
Across the series’s three episodes, Carlson changes from a euphoric, serene healer to a volatile woman, ravaged by alcohol and drugs, who berates her followers over things like an improperly made quesadilla. As more followers arrive, her alcohol consumption spirals out of control. We watch her pounding glasses of wine and vodka, tripping on mushrooms, cackling, screaming. None of her followers seem to perceive her as a fallible human hurtling toward death; they just keep filming. They also keep filming when Jason Castillo, the ponytailed petty criminal who became the “Father of All Creation,” moves in. When he switches off the group’s new-age electronica so he can thrash around to metal, you can feel the others in the room shrink from him; he is the living incarnation of bad vibes. Mother God, once so benevolent, starts manipulating her followers into eating and sleeping as little as possible. Drama and aggression replace serenity and partying. When Carlson becomes ill, possibly because of liver failure from her drinking, her followers have her chugging a “tincture” of colloidal silver multiple times a day. Her skin turns a bluish gray, and Castillo carries her skeletal frame around like a rag doll. Eventually she expresses doubts — “What if I made all this up? What if I’m just crazy and everything I’ve done was all just fake and it wasn’t real?” — but by that point followers like Hope and Aurora are the ones starring in most of the livestreams.
Carlson dies, in Oregon, of alcohol abuse, anorexia and chronic ingestion of colloidal silver. As her followers wait for Robin Williams or Jesus to claim her body, someone appears in a video moving her thin blue hand around; someone uses an electromagnetic field meter to see if her body is “still producing electricity.” Eventually they drive her body back to Colorado. Preparation for the next livestream plays out like carefree film-school students making a movie: We see people moving props, rehearsing lines, adjusting lighting. When Aurora and Hope start the livestream, they cheer and tell viewers that “Mom ascended.” If you look over to the chat feed, you’ll see the comment “you guys killed her.” You’ll also see comments like “yippie!”
Toward the end, Carlson’s mother and sister, watching her decline via livestream, contact someone they think might be able to help, someone who could easily have joined Carlson’s team of celebrity Galactics: Dr. Phil. When Carlson learns she’ll be a guest on his show, she seems disappointed, saying, “I thought it was Oprah that would reveal me and the truth on the planet.” She appears via Skype from Hawaii; she’s skin and bones and blue, wearing a ribbon atop her head like a little girl. She tells Dr. Phil that she has performed over 100,000 “spiritual surgeries.” He works to break down her claims and call her out as a fraud, which she denies. He asks how she could abandon her children and why she can’t heal herself, but he offers no real help. One promo for the show was titled “My Sister Is a Cult Leader Who Claims She’s Mother God.” In the end, instead of being the creator, Carlson became someone else’s content.
Source photographs for illustration above: HBO/Warner Bros. Discovery; Anna Efetova/Getty Images.