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July 27, 2010

The Craziest Religions

by Benyamin Cohen
July 27, 2010
The Daily Beast

One man has made it his mission to document the bizarre, unusual ways people practice religion. Benyamin Cohen talks to Michael Largo about the strangest stories he’s uncovered and why he’s obsessed.

Mrs. Marion Keech of Missouri used to get collect calls from aliens. At least, that’s what she told people. It was the 1950s and the public believed lots of things. Mrs. Keech took careful notes of her extraterrestrial communications and informed America that a flood would destroy the world on December 21, 1954. But those who joined Keech’s cult could board a spaceship leaving her front yard at the stroke of midnight just barely avoiding the Apocalypse.

And one man has made it his mission to document and collect stories of religious fanatics, freaks, believers of all sorts just like this woman. That man, Michael Largo, noted author of half a dozen books on death, has just published: God’s Lunatics: Lost Souls, False Prophets, Martyred Saints, Murderous Cults, Demonic Nuns, and Other Victims of Man’s Eternal Search for the Divine. I recently saw him speak in Atlanta and then later interviewed him by phone.

Largo speaks of saints and sinners, of aliens and apostles. He regales the reader with tales of religion gone awry.

"He did mushrooms with a Druid woman, practiced a number of Eastern theologies, went on Christian spiritual weekend retreats, attended New Age lectures, ate matzoh ball soup in a Jewish sukkah, and met a medicine man in the mountains of Baja, California."

He tells the story of John Frum, a navy vet who washed ashore on an island in the South Pacific. The natives, who had little contact with the outside world, immediately hailed Frum as the messiah. Frum taught them that Uncle Sam and Santa Claus were revered gods and got them to believe that passing candy bars to each other was religious ritual. Frum died by falling (some say he was pushed) into an active volcano. His followers believe he’ll be resurrected in the year 2015.

Then there's the Patron Saint of Ice Skaters. The flying nuns (yes, there were many). There's heretic hunter Conrad of Marburg. There's Paschal T. Randolph, a nineteenth-century barber-turned-sex magician who allegedly coined the term "soul mate."

And then there’s the charismatic Pentecostal preacher known as Sister Aimee. In the early 1900s, her tent revivals often had standing-room-only crowds of thirty thousand. She built America’s first megachurch with a sanctuary could seat more than five thousand and reportedly had packed services three times a day, seven days a week. As if that wasn’t enough, she also created her own denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

She is perhaps most widely known for allegedly being abducted near Venice Beach in the spring of 1926. Most people assumed she had drowned, others thought she was kidnapped, and some believed she had orchestrated the perfect disappearing act. About a month after she disappeared, Sister Aimee miraculously emerged from a Mexican desert claiming she had been kidnapped and brutally tortured. But not many people believed her. Indeed, a male colleague who was reportedly romantically involved with Sister Aimee coincidentally also vanished around the same time, and the two were seen at a number of hotels during her disappearance.

It’s stories like these—hundreds of them—that fill the pages of Largo’s encyclopedic new work. To compile it, he kept an almost monastic writing regime, often researching for 18 hours at a stretch, and working on just four hours of sleep a night. God’s Lunatics sources more than 300 books, which Largo is still clearing out of his lakefront house. “I was getting kind of crazy at the end of the book,” he tells me by phone. “With all the different gods, it got hard to sleep. The blessing is I have insomnia.”

It seems whatever topic Largo tackles, he becomes a man obsessed. He has spent the better part of two decades laser-focused on death. Not his own mortality per se, but that of others.

In The Portable Obituary, he reveals how the rich and famous really died. In Final Exits, the book that brought him national acclaim, he painfully detailed the myriad ways humans can kick the bucket. In Genius and Heroin, he offered an illustrated catalog of how artists like Jackson Pollack and rock stars like Kurt Cobain have literally poisoned themselves for their work. No wonder he’s been dubbed the “Capote of kaput.”

He peppers everyday discussion with arcane and morose tidbits of deathophelia. He’s memorized famous people’s obituaries, he knows if more people die from toothpicks or lightning each year, and can cite trends of mortality from Roman times to last week. I ask him a question and somehow the answer includes the obit of atheist poet Percy Shelley. At the book talk he gave for God’s Lunatics, the audience was dotted with tattooed Goth groupies. Death has become him.

But Largo sees his new book on religion as a natural extension of his previous work. “Death and religion are good bedfellows,” he says.

A self-described “recovering Catholic,” (he vividly remembers the corporeal punishment he received from the nuns growing up), he doesn’t argue for or against God in his book. Instead, he opts for religious tolerance. “I try to present this as a consumer’s guide to religion,” he says.

God’s Lunatics is written in handy encyclopedic form. The first entry is “Abracadabra,” which at one time was an ancient code used by Egyptian priests, and ends with “Zoroastrianism.” In between, paired with rare photos from the Library of Congress, are hundreds of what he refers to as short stories on the banal and the bizarre. Everything from how to tastefully slit the neck of a kosher chicken to biblical masturbators. A section on divine hair reveals why Amish men don’t have mustaches and Orthodox Jews grow side locks. There’s even information on how to start your own cult. “A surefire way to get followers to your cult is to talk about the apocalypse,” he explains nonchalantly.

One of Largo’s favorite sections explores the “Ancient Astronaut Theory,” which hypothesizes that intelligent alien life forms landed on Earth thousands of years ago. Cro-Magnons were their failed genetic experiments and manna fell from their spaceships. “I think the early writers would make good sci-fi writers these days,” says Largo, who’s also written three novels.

While he enjoys writing about these religious quirks from a distance, Largo has experienced more than enough himself to fill a spiritual memoir. He was a Catholic altar boy who’s visited many of Rome’s holy shrines. He’s attended churches of every flavor—Baptist, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Calvinists just to name a few. He did mushrooms with a Druid woman, practiced a number of Eastern theologies, went on Christian spiritual weekend retreats, attended New Age lectures, ate matzoh ball soup in a Jewish sukkah, and met a medicine man in the mountains of Baja, California.

But he’s not yet ready to pen the stories of those personal journeys. At 56-years-old, Largo is waiting until he gets older when he sees death’s shadow on the horizon. Which isn’t surprising. With Largo, all roads are paved by mortality’s lining.

“It’s all part of the cycle,” he explains. “Focusing on death, I think makes the smaller B.S. stuff less important.”

Largo is now taking a few months off to figure out his next move. “My head got a little fried on this book,” he admits. But the grips of the Grim Reaper have already started to reel him back in. He says he’s tinkering with a book tracing dead people’s inheritances. “There’s that famous quote,” he says, “Nothing starts a good fight more than the death of a rich man.” And that’s in addition to the illustrated graphic take on burial customs he’s shopping around to publishers.

Michael Largo, it seems, can’t escape death for long.