It’s practically a requirement that any half decent cult needs to seem ridiculous from the outside. Strange beliefs, bizarre activities, a general aura of craziness; it’s almost as if there’s a checklist a potential cult leader has to go through before they’re able to start pulling in followers.
In season 1 of documentary series The Devil You Know, the focus was a disturbingly evil yet still somewhat understandable satanic cult leader who mostly wanted to get high, annoy his Christian neighbours, change his name to Pazuzu, and occasionally murder his followers. Season 2 makes that suburban Satanism seem almost cosy. It’s time to enter the world of the New Age Alien Agenda.
Sherry Shriner called herself “a granny from Ohio”. She graduated from Kent State University with a degree in journalism and political science and planned to make it in the mainstream media, maybe even as a host on CNN. Exactly how that dream fits in with her actual media career, which was built around a series of podcasts which lifted the lid on the shape-changing alien lizard conspiracy to bring about the reign of the Antichrist on Earth, remains something of a mystery.
Her beliefs sound crazy, probably because they are. In one clip Shriner says that “out of every four humans, only one is real”; a highlight of the series is when one cult member is talking about shape-changing lizards who take on human forms and an incredulous off-camera person asks, “you really believe that?”
Yet Shriner, who self-published a number of books including Interview with the Devil: My Conversation with Lucifer (and yes, there is audio in this series where she describes her actual conversations with the devil), was able to take this collection of classic conspiracy tropes and quasi-racist beliefs and turn them into the solid foundation of a cult built around obeying her every whim.
Using social media as a recruiting tool, she built up a devoted online following through her somewhat unusual interpretations of the Book of Revelations. Shape-shifting lizard creatures had manipulated humanity for centuries; everyone you saw on TV was a robot (no wonder her CNN career never happened). As the self-proclaimed “Messenger of the Most High God”, her followers swallowed her every word – even when that word turned them against each other.
The initial focus of the second season of The Devil You Know is investigating former cult member and doomsday prepper Steve Mineo, whose death after being cast out from the cult may or may not have been a suicide. His girlfriend at the time, Barbara Rogers, was the one who pulled the trigger. Initially police in Pennsylvania believed his death was a bizarre domestic dispute. At least they got the “bizarre” part right.
Interviewed in prison, Rogers says Mineo begged her to shoot him as a direct response to the pair’s dealings with Shriner’s cult. Having Shriner call her a lizard vampire witch with a demonic synthetic robotoid soul probably didn’t help matters; as is often the case, it’s when you split from the cult that the real trouble begins, and interviews with police, family members and ex-cultists present a picture of a couple whose lives fell apart once they fell out with Shriner.
It’s hard to tell how much of a victim Rogers is. Her time in the cult has definitely done a number on her, and the police came to the murder investigation with a story already firmly in mind. Even when she’s interviewed it’s difficult to come away with any clear sense of just how responsible she is for her actions. But when a second cult member is found dead, it’s clear that the cult Shriner built is doing serious harm to people.
The Devil You Know isn’t a sensational look at a crazed cult. If anything, its level-headed approach makes it even more creepy. The series makes it perfectly clear that the kind of demented radicalisation Shriner’s followers have gone through is increasingly just the result of the way business works online where the most extreme content gets the most views, and once you start on a fringe topic the algorithms are designed to keep feeding it to you.
Shriner herself died of a heart attack in 2018 – or did she? Her followers believe it’s a hoax, but they also believe in shape-changing lizard people. Whether she was motivated simply by power and money (she had a profitable sideline in selling evil-repelling trinkets) or something darker remains a question throughout much of the series.
The grim reality is it probably doesn’t matter. Seeing people simply as tools to be used and discarded is about as good a definition of evil as it gets.
Season 2 of The Devil You Know premieres at 10.30pm, Tuesday 12 October on SBS VICELAND. Seasons 1 and 2 are also streaming at SBS On Demand.
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