Why Do People Join Cults?
On November 18th 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple committed mass suicide at the Jonestown commune in Guyana. Under the paranoid leadership of Jim Jones, the members (including approximately 300 children) drank cyanide laced juice. Jonestown had long been under scrutiny from Guyanese and American officials for their coercive tactics and misdeeds.
Members of the People’s Temple reported being separated from their families, having their earnings and homes seized by the church, and being subjected to brutal physical violence. Members also murdered Congressman Leo Ryan and three reporters who had arrived at the colony to question whether its American ex-pat members were being abused or held against their will.
Orchestrating one of the most deadly mass suicides in history, Jones’ story of abuse, mind control, and violence lives on in infamy in our collective consciousness.
What is a cult?
While stories like the massacre at Jonestown represent the most extreme outcome of cult indoctrination, revisiting the story did get us wondering: when did our culture become so obsessed with ferreting out information about cults? And how did we start distinguishing them from religions or any other type of self selecting group with a shared interest?
Before, it was a word that slipped into the lingua franca to ubiquitously describe any organisation with a shady agenda and blissed out followers who have “seen the light,” cults were one of the big fears of the late 1960s to early 1990s. So, how did these groups exit the shadows and enter center stage?
To get things started we should first establish how people who study the structure and psychology of cults tend to define these organisations. First, at the top of the food chain, is a charismatic leader who is infallible to their followers and cannot be judged negatively for any of their actions.
Their word is the law and organizing backbone of the group. Second, are members who are drawn in with promises of community, clarity about life’s larger questions, and spiritual fellowship eventually finding themselves under the leader’s complete control.
Members of the organisation can range from the die hard faithful to the less committed and slowly integrated newbies. Members can move up the organisation to have greater access to the benefits bestowed on them by the leader. And third, there are members who remain loyal to the group eventually align their personality and their sense of self with the leader and with the organisation as a whole.
These are just a rough outline of what we’ve culled from psychologists’ reports, and you’re right to wonder if all of this sounds a bit too amorphous to pin down. Because while most of the cults that enter into the public consciousness are violent or dangerous, not every cult is. The ones that are the most dangerous are ones where there is some element of coercion or control.
How a Cult Starts
This can include requiring members to turn over their bank account information, making them sell their homes and move into a shared compounds, or submitting them to psychological and physical violence. The other listed traits can actually be applied to a super wide range of organisations, including some traditionally accepted and recognized religions. Because lots of religions have an infallible leader, make promises of a faith based community, and encourage you to enmesh your personality with that of the larger group.
The biggest way that people differentiate between cults and religions is simply based on size. Have 3 million followers world wide? Religion. Have 15 folks who gather every night in a basement in the middle of nowhere? Cult. And it is also precisely their small numbers, their sometimes secretive mythologies and their underground, but hidden in plain sight, methods that drove the public fascination with and fear of cults.
Are all cults a threat?
And as more and more stories began to crop up in the news, cults, as a great secret threat, became a disproportionate fixation in the latter half of the 20th century. One of the earliest observers of the cult indoctrination process (which later became more popularly known as “brainwashing”) was Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer.
Dr. Singer started studying mind control techniques in the 1950s by interviewing American prisoners of war who were captured during the Korean War and manipulated or tortured. She later expanded her work to include studies of homegrown cults, publishing numerous articles and books on her findings. Her contributions to the field of psychology and therapy weren’t without controversy.
Dr. Singer came to prominence in the case of heiress Patty Hearst, who in 1974 was kidnapped by a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst later participated in an armed bank robbery with other members of the group. Not everyone agreed with Singer’s interviews that Hearst was held against her will and effectively not responsible for her actions because she had been “brainwashed” and turned into a “zombie” through repeated torture by SLA members, who threatened her with death if she did not join their cause.
The testimony ultimately proved unsuccessful and Hearst was convicted and sentenced to 7 years in prison. But thanks to Dr. Singer, the concept that someone could have their mind altered by either a persuasive leader or by good old fashioned groupthink was now at the forefront of everyone’s minds. And related images were splashed across TV screens around the world, like Hearst wielding machine guns, or members of the Manson family after they were arrested in 1969 for murdering 5 people in an attempt to start a race war engineered by their leader Charles Manson.
High profile cases
Soon, other high profile cases of cult abuse started to fire across the country. Some of the accusations ranged widely, like the financial fraud and tax evasion of The Unification Church founded in 1954 by Sun Myong Moon. Then there were more violent crimes such as kidnapping and drugging children like in the case of Australian cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the head of a group called “The Family”.
But in other cases, the only accusation that arose against a “cult” was that they were a slightly odd, but ultimately a harmless organisation. But it was also the climate of the 1970s that made fear of cults and cult like behavior reach an all time high, propelled in part by mainstream backlash to emerging countercultures.
Because some of the behaviour patterns of these 1970s cults were also similar or identical to other benign and legitimate countercultural groups. Living on self sustaining farms, simplifying your lifestyle, caring collectively for your neighbour, giving away your worldly possessions and committing to communal living were often a big part of the rhetoric of counter culture groups that actually did a lot to promote positive community outcomes.
Is it a cult?
For example the Black Panther Party, established free lunch programmes and medical clinics in black communities. Also, non-religious communes sprung up around the US at an all time high in the 1960s and 70s. Historian Timothy Miller notes that one of the trickiest things about studying communes is estimating exactly how many people were even staying on them at any given time.
Similarly, it’s difficult to pin down hard numbers on cults, in part because of their secrecy and in part because we can never truly agree on the same running definition of what a cult is. Despite not being able to pin down the exact number of people who lived at a commune at some point during these decades, in the broader public, commune members were often branded as fringe oddballs who had peeled off from the rest of society.
Sound familiar? Well that’s because there was some overlap in the two categories. So from the outside looking in it was hard to say if your 3rd cousin had gone to plant organic fruits on a farm or if they were being indoctrinated into a more sinister off the grid enterprise.
By the end of the 1970s, the surge of communal living that had swept the nation in the previous decades was on the decline. And as the 1980s wound its way towards the 1990s, the bubble of interest in cults as the great secret threat to our society started to plateau and finally subside. In 1983 a group of psychologists under the direction of the American Psychological Association and led by Dr. Singer made recommendations for the treatment and study of mind control techniques.
But, the study’s findings were rejected by the APA who questioned the rigour of the research, leading Dr. Singer to later unsuccessfully sue them. Also, some churches and organisations began to say that describing their groups as cults was libelous and violated their religious freedom.
Amidst internal disputes over recognition and validity and a flurry of lawsuits, the public interest in real world cults as an ever present threat declined. Even though the idea of cults taking over society became more of an abstract idea than a pressing fear by the 21st century, fascination with these shadowy organisations persists in popular culture today.
We’d take an educated guess and say that after studying the historical antecedents, our continued curiosity about cults stems from a few different impulses: First, the stories of Jonestown, Patty Hearst, Charles Manson, and others may be history but they’re not ancient history.
We’re far enough away from the stories to observe them and be frightened by them, but still close enough to have living memories of when these things occurred. Those who survived the communities or participated in them are still alive and still giving their testimony to the rest of the world via the media.
Second, the question of cults is usually “could it also be me? Am I also potentially susceptible to mind control?” And no one really knows the answer to that. We’d all like to imagine that we’re independent minded, strong willed, and impervious to deception. But the stories of cult members are (usually) relatively identical to our own. And that’s part of why we can’t look away.