Is Servant’s May Markham Inspired by a Real Cult Leader?

The Apple TV+ psychological thriller series ‘Servant’ is a layered tale about faith, relationships, and the circle of life and death. Philadelphia-based affluent couple Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) lost their son Jericho after an overwhelmed and exhausted Dorothy accidentally left him in an overheated car. To help navigate her subsequent psychotic break and catatonia, Dorothy was given a reborn doll as a coping method. Things become further complicated when Dorothy hires a young woman named Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) as the nanny, who brings baby Jericho back to life.

In the season finale, May Markham (Alison Elliott), the supposed aunt of Leanne, makes an appearance and instructs the younger woman to leave the Turner home with the baby. It is revealed that she is the leader of a dangerous cult named the Church of the Lesser Saints. If you are wondering whether Aunt May is based on an actual cult leader, here is what you need to know. SPOILERS AHEAD.

May Markham is a Fictional Character

May Markham is not a real cult leader, though there are plenty of real-life examples associated with questionable organizations that are just as manipulative and dangerous. Dorothy first learned about Markham while reporting on the Church’s stand-off with the police and the ATF. There were gunshots and explosions, and May apparently died along with most members of her cult. It is generally believed that the organization disbanded after this, but that’s not what happened; it simply went underground. George tells Sean that many Church members thought Leanne had perished in the fire. This allowed him and May to bring Leanne to Pennsylvania and raise her there.

Because of her supernatural abilities, Leanne has a special place in the organization’s hierarchy. When May speaks to Leanne during Jericho’s baptism ceremony, she asserts that Leanne is their servant, not Dorothy. And that underscores the relationship that Leanne probably has with the Church. May and the others know that their cult would not exist without Leanne. So, they tried to control her when she was with them, and after she escaped, they went to extreme measures to bring her back.

M. Night Shyamalan, the executive producer and showrunner of ‘Servant,’ said in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment that he had always been fascinated with cults, though he denied the notion that the second season was inspired by HBO’s ‘The Vow,’ a documentary on NXIVM. When season 2 of ‘Servant’ was in production, ‘The Vow’ was released. “It didn’t have any impact on our piece,” ‘The Sixth Sense‘ director stated. “We had kind of talked about this cult aspect at the end of Season 1… and as soon as it came up, I was like ‘That’s it, we’re definitely doing it.’ They’re very scary and you get to do that kind of invasion of a home feeling over and over and over again with a cult.”

May Markham seems to be an amalgamation of some of the most notorious female cult members in the last seven or eight decades — from Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, the women whom Charles Manson instructed to kill seven people, to Allison Mack of NXIVM to Anne Hamilton Byrne of the Australian New-Age group The Family to Ma Anand Sheela of the Rajneesh movement to Uriel (also known as Ruth E. Norman) of Unarius Academy of Science. Like Manson’s accomplices, May breaks into the Turner home during the baptism ceremony and proves herself to be as resourceful, controlling, and terrifying as the others mentioned above.

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