How does a McDonald’s manager with three young children end up becoming a cult leader who believes she has birthed the entire human race, been reincarnated as Jesus, Joan of Arc, and Marilyn Monroe and is spiritually connected to late actor Robin Williams?
The series, which is currently streaming on Max, begins with Colorado police discovering a mummified body lying on an enshrined queen-sized bed, wrapped in a sleeping bag decorated with Christmas lights. As the police officer’s bodycam gets closer to the bed, his flashlight reveals that the corpse’s face is not only severely gaunt, but also distinctly blue with glitter around the eye sockets. Eventually, the body is identified as Amy Carlson, former leader of the cult Love Has Won. Autopsy reports would later conclude that Carlson died of alcohol abuse, anorexia and chronic ingestion of colloidal silver at the age of 45.
Fourteen years earlier, in 2007, Carlson had left her humble life in Kansas for a man in Colorado who had convinced her that she possessed otherworldly powers. Soon, Carlson would be known as “Mother God,” the leader of the cult Love Has Won. As a 19 billion year-old deity, Carlson claimed that she could cure cancer while also drinking herself into oblivion every night.
On her now-defunct website, lovehaswon.org, Carlson and her ragtag, chronically high disciples/roommates livestreamed videos about the power of “Mother God,” spiritualism and QAnon conspiracies. To support themselves, the cult members sold various “healing” products, including colloidal silver, a dietary supplement that the Food and Drug Administration declared unsafe to consume in 1999. Carlson ingested so much of the product that she turned blue at the end of her life, which the colloidal silver hastened.
Instead of relying on talking head cult experts and media clips, Olson uses Love Has Won livestreams and interviews with cult members who lived with Carlson as well as Carlson’s mother, sister and two of her children to tell a story that’s hard to believe.
Here, Olson breaks down how she chose what footage to include in the series, how she gained the trust of Love Has Won members — and why the cult was a very American phenomenon.
The members of Love Has Won filmed Carlson’s slow deterioration and her death, as well as her corpse being driven through various states. Some of that footage, which is jaw dropping, is in the series. How did you determine how much of it to show?
I sat with that decision for a very long time. I wanted to be really careful about what I showed, because of the very sensitive nature of the material. I really thought about what was important for the purposes of the story I was trying to tell. And I thought about what I would feel OK showing her showing [Carlson’s] daughter Madi, her mom Linda and her sister Tara. Could I show them those scenes and be able to sit with myself knowing that what I put in there was necessary for the story I was trying to tell?
After the starship with various dead celebrities doesn’t arrive, though it was supposed to pick up Carlson’s body from Earth, Love Has Won members decide to transport her via car from Oregon, where she died, to Colorado. There is no mention of how bad the car must have smelled. Did they say anything about that?
[Love Has Won] member Father God, Jason, says “You could smell God everywhere.” And I thought for a long time about whether I should include that line or not. Ultimately, it felt inappropriate.
You were able to get very candid interviews with Love Has Won members. How long did it take to gain their trust?
Not very long. Hope and Aurora started sharing what had happened with me as an extension of their mission. When I began filming with the members of Love Has Won, I was expecting to make a vérité film that would show what happened when a prophecy was unfulfilled. Over the course of filming with them that is not what happened. Their belief that Amy was God persisted — and persists — to this day.
So, what I did was just sat people down one by one and asked them to explain to me what had happened. Those interviews that you saw that are in the film were the very first round of interviews I did. They were done three weeks after Amy’s body was found. I was hearing the story for the first time as I was interviewing them. I wasn’t asking probing questions, I was just allowing them to tell me their story. I’m grateful for their candor and honesty.
At the end of the series, no one from Love Has Won has gone back to “normal.” They don’t seem to realize how messed up the whole situation with Carlson was. Do you think they will ever get therapy and realize they went off the deep end?
I think we expect that there’s some kind of deprogramming that can be done for cult members. But I think it’s actually very hard to do that. Who is going to pay for that? What does that even look like? Many of the members of Love Has Won do not have health insurance or disposable income, and there’s no mental healthcare in this country. So, in so many ways, the social circumstances that brought them down the wormhole persists.
Have the members of Love Has Won who participated seen the series? If so, what did they think?
Yes. They have seen it. They said, “Thank you for telling the truth,” which is the same thing that Amy’s family said to me. There’s a version of this film where I could have brought in cult experts and really diagnosed and pathologized the people in the group. That’s not the kind of film I wanted to make. I was much more interested in an experiment in subjective filmmaking and having empathy for people whose beliefs are really far out. I had to make really careful choices about the stories that I was telling, and the pieces of their livestream that I was using. I did not want to platform some of their more dangerous, hateful beliefs.
There is documented affinity between Love Has Won and QAnon’s 2020 Great Awakening, which is when Donald Trump was supposed to stay in power by declaring martial law. Was that one of their dangerous beliefs you didn’t want to bring to light?
I didn’t want to platform those beliefs, but I also feel like so much reporting has been done on QAnon and the alt-right. I felt like by laying it out at the end of Episode 1, when Amy said that Hitler was working for the light, and that the group was supporting Trump, and believed in the same kind of conspiracies, that it showed their beliefs without providing a platform for their reasoning behind those conspiratorial and bigoted beliefs. I treated those beliefs the same way I treated all of their other beliefs, which was just to state them without commentary.
As a whole, Love Has Won seemed to be at odds with capitalism. They hated corporate America, but they also took other people’s money and spent it on Amazon. What did you make of that?
Part of the thing that interested me about Love Has Won was the particular Americanness of the group. The consumerism and the celebrity worship felt unique to Love has Won, and especially American. But the other thing that is especially American about Love Has Won is the way that the lack of our social safety net creates the desire to look for ways online to heal your mind and body for free. Much the way that consumerism and the celebrity worship are part of the Americanness of the cult, so too is the lack of healthcare and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” — and find a way to heal your mind and body through a feeling, rather than a set of social resources.
At one point in the series, Love Has Won member Ryan Kramer (aka “El Morya”) is with the police after Amy’s body is found, and they tell him that he seems like an intelligent man. And his response is, “I know, and now I’m here.” He seems to be admitting that he knew the cult was a scam. What made you want to include that scene?
I was showing that he too had this disbelief that this fate had befallen him. El Moyra believed then and continues to believe now that Amy Carlson is God, but he also on some level knew that he was straddling the 3D and the 5D, and trying to reconcile his actions with the perception of those actions by that police officer. He was saying, “I know this looks crazy, but it happened.”
I included that because it resonated with me. It’s like we are all one trauma away from making choices we never thought we would. Life can change in an instant. Once you decide to go to law school and take out an enormous loan, deciding that you might not want to be a lawyer after you have that debt is very hard.
You met the Love Has Won members with empathy, and didn’t judge their beliefs. But when you were cutting this series together, were you thinking about how people might not be as kind and as empathetic as you? And were you worried about that at all?
The interesting thing about being around the members of Love Has Won, and what I hope the viewer finds interesting, is that at the same time that their beliefs are very far out, you know the social circumstances that created those beliefs are eminently relatable. Millions of people have lost a family member to the opioid epidemic or have military-induced PTSD or a mountain of medical debt.
So it was very important to me that at the same time that I was showing some of their beliefs that could be perceived as absurd, that I was also showing very relatable social circumstances.