The first time I ever heard any reference to a cult was when I was a kid. I think I was around ten or eleven but it could have been as late as thirteen or fourteen. And while there were things going on in the current era such as David Koresh or the Tokyo Train Sarin Attacks, I first heard about Charles Manson and The Manson Family through the movie Helter Skelter…and my fascination, bewilderment and need for more explanation was born.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary lists five definitions of “cult”. The first and most popular definition of the word is “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious”. But, just because something isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean it’s bad, evil or harmful. The second definition is a more explanatory definition, broken down into three parts, that basically describes a profound devotion to a person, idea, object, movement or work (such as a film or book) which usually involves said particular object of devotion and small group of people characterized by such devotion. Then, we finally get to what seems like a simplified meaning of the term with “a system of religious beliefs”. (Wait, what? Uh huh, that’s what it reads. Yes, that means it basically could apply to any religion.) After that, it gives a vague and more antiquated definition with “formal religious veneration”, which basically just means worship. But, the last definition has to go back a long time and I think is the strangest and yet it still makes sense to me, given that it too is obviously an antiquated definition. The fifth read, “a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator (promotor)”, so basically, health cults.
Anyway, the whole idea that people could subject themselves to the complete control of another human being was just baffling to me, even at a young age. I asked my father when we watched Helter Skelter how it was that Manson was able to get these people to do whatever he said. Now, Dad tried to explain but, there’s only so much you can grasp at that age. But we kept the conversation going over the years. As I got older I learned about more cults that have existed, even just in my lifetime. And over time, more information continued to come to light.
With the interest always being there, over the past nine months to a year, I have spent a great deal of time focusing on various cults and learning more about them, the leaders and their traits, the commonalities they all hold, the kinds of people that join them and what happens within them. (No, I haven’t gone out and joined any cults and No, I’m not looking to join so no recruiting, please.) I am going to share with you what I have learned and the observations I have gleaned from the information I have gathered. I do hope you find this as fascinating as I do. So, let’s get started. (Note: This information is based off of casual research from countless hours reading books, articles and watching documentaries on television and the internet.)
With those definitions in mind, there are two basic kinds of cults. One is benign. While their thoughts and beliefs may be different from the mainstream folks, they aren’t hurting themselves or anyone else and they aren’t a danger to themselves or anyone else. They pose no threat to society or National Security. The other kind of cult is the one we always seem to hear about. I would say these are malignant, which we know would be the opposite of benign. These cults would still have different thought and belief systems but they would also employ strategies and behaviors that would be considered harmful (either physically, financially, emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually) by the average human being. These kinds of cults pose a possible threat…to everyone. They also often produce “Doomsday Cults” like The Manson Family, David Koresh and The Branch Davidians, Jonestown, and the Heaven’s Gate Cult. The interesting thing I found is that the most simplified definition of the word ‘cult’ can apply to ALL organized and unorganized religion. In fact, the first known use of the word was in 1613 in reference to some manner of worship. And yet, when we hear the word today, we automatically give it very heavy and negative connotations, assuming it is a “Doomsday Cult” the second we hear about it (or we were informed that from the very start). It is this type of cult I want to focus on.
These groups always have some sort of leader. This is usually a very charismatic person that exercises complete and utter control over the flock. Usually a male, although there have been women cult leaders, this person is likely a master manipulator and skilled liar. These leaders tend to be good speakers, they have a way with words and engaging with others when they talk. They tend to label critics and detractors as enemies and use other buzz words in their vocabulary that are specific to their group faith to impact their followers. They are good at memorizing and reciting scripture, also at interpreting it often using scripture and religion to manipulate their followers into doing whatever they want to fit their needs.
These characters are a special kind of con-artist and are typically very adept at reading people and identifying general weakness, specific vulnerabilities and needs and exploiting them for their own gain. Cult leaders may very well lack a conscience of any kind. If they do have one, it’s almost non-existent and they function under the idea that “the end justifies the means”. Many cult leaders, if not all of them, are ego-centric but still highly insecure. Many of them had issues in their childhood ranging from abuse to abandonment, unloved to overprotected. They seek adoration and the feeling of being needed. They like feeling important and powerful.
I also found a number of them who were either failed musicians or once in a music related field as a profession. For example, Charles Manson and David Koresh were both failed guitar musicians and Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate) was once a music professor. Hitler also was a failed musician and artist. These kind of people can’t handle rejection so, being a failed “anything” is a real slam to their ego. Many of the male leaders are thought to be handsome and charming. Many of them turn out to be some kind of sexual predator. I’ve also found that they tend command a lot of manual labor and reap its benefits but, they never do that kind of work themselves. A large number of these leaders can also end up showing a violent or, at minimum, an aggressive side over time, making their followers more frightened of them. And ALL of these leaders are motivated by three things: power, money and sex…and in that order.
So, it’s clear the leaders tend to follow a formula in their personality composition. But, who would listen to and follow a person like that? Who would give up their lives, their thoughts, their families and their freedoms for such a person? Well, just like any other type of predator, these animals look for a certain type of prey.
I have found that there is one thing that all cult followers seem to have in common. They all feel that they are missing something in their lives. The fascinating thing about this missing element is that it can be anything. It doesn’t have to be a religious aspect that they feel is void from their lives. While there are some that are indeed looking for that spiritual faith and connection to a higher power and the guaranteed path to their salvation, many lack a sense of general belonging and acceptance. Others crave a sense of family unity or a need to fill a family member’s role, such as a mother or father figure. There are also a number of people who join up thinking that they are working towards not only their own eternal salvation but, a common goal of the betterment of the world and humanity. They can believe they are saving the planet and the human race. In addition to that, they may also be religious zealots that believe the current doctrines are not strict enough and a more concentrated devotion to the higher power of choice is required. And last but certainly not least, cult followers might be seeking answers to problems in their lives or to profound eternal questions such as “Why are we here?”, “What is my purpose on this Earth? In life?”, etc.
It is a very common misconception that those who are sucked into cults must be stupid and idiotic to fall for such blatant trickery and outright lies. This is just simply NOT TRUE. The people who join cults come from all walks of life, from all around the world, all races, all economic backgrounds. Some hold PhDs while others never attended a day of actual accredited school in their lives. David Koresh had not only a lawyer amongst his followers but, he was even able to convince a scholarly theologian to join his flock. David Miscavige, the leader of Scientology, has everything from doctors and lawyers to contractors and brick layers in his “congregation”. (I put that in quotes only because there is a lot of controversy going on right now, and has been for over a decade, about whether or not Scientology is a cult or a religion. Although the organization continues to maintain tax exempt status from the IRS, they also continue to battle repeated claims made by former members alleging not only abuse but that the organization is a BUSINESS of personal profit for L. Ron Hubbard when it was founded and now David Miscavige which goes against the requirements for tax exemption status.) So, clearly while these people who join may be suggestable in some fashion, they are not ALL lacking in intelligence.
There’s also a specific type of personality within these “incomplete” people that cult leaders will zero in on. They look for a certain set of traits, a set that suggests their prey will be easily suggestible, easily influenced and easily controlled. These traits would include things like a desire for spiritual meaning or connection, unassertiveness and/or an unwillingness to speak up or voice an opinion, especially if it were to be a dissenting opinion. They would possess a need for a black and white answer couple with a need for things to be resolved and answered quickly. Ideal recruits would be gullible. This could mean they were naïve or perhaps uneducated but, either way they would be easy targets for swindlers and the like. This means they will believe more and question less. Prospects would often seem to have a dependency issue, relying on someone for their well-being and care, whether it be health or financial or living quarters, something, somehow always depending on someone else.
Many leaders look for followers from other already established groups. They want these followers to be disillusioned with the current belief practices, the current culture climate, the current government, whatever their complaints may be, this new leader has the solution. The leader can then use that displeasure and disillusion to convert the member to the new group.
Finally, (as if all that wasn’t enough) a cult leader will dig into the basic goodness of a human being and use that against them. There are so many people out there that believe in the basic goodness of a person and that there is good in every human being. This is called “naïve idealism”. A leader can tap into that and by manipulating it, use the follower’s own belief in that very same goodness against them to create inner guilt if they do not follow the leader’s wishes. This would be like if the leader asked a follower to do something and the follower declined and the leader replied with, “GOOD people understand that this is required for salvation, for protection, for God. I know the good in YOU wants to do the right thing. Don’t be like our detractors, those non-believers. God will not love them in the end. You want to be on the side of the Lord when Judgment Day comes, don’t you? Then you must reach for the good inside you and do what I and God are telling you to do. We know what is right. You must trust and listen to me. And to God, who speaks to you through me.”
Sounds pretty whacked out huh? The thing is, after they’ve been listening to this person tell them for months (or years) that they are either God or are talking directly to God, they don’t even think to question it. But I’ll get to that in a second.
Now that we know who these cults are looking for, where do they find their victims of unwitting participation? When modern cults first started really actively recruiting members, what they basically did was type or draw up posters and flyers, get the copied and post them all over town stating meeting places and times. Then word of mouth would get around and the group would grow that way. Nowadays, with the advent of the internet, recruitment is in many ways a lot easier because the reach is so much farther is less time. However, the critics of the cult groups have just as far as reach in just as little time.
Most of the places the groups look for new members other than word of mouth still remain the same because the types who frequent these places remain the same. The main go-to recruit hotspots are college campuses, religious gatherings, self-help and support groups, seminars for spiritual and social change (regardless of what changes are being proposed in these seminars) and the unemployment office. That last one really tugs at me because that’s like kicking a person when they are down. I mean, what? You grab a seat next to some poor, struggling person at unemployment office and start selling them on traveling to space on the tail of a comet named Hale-Bop while they are trying to figure out how they are going to afford to feed their family of five that night and pay the mortgage payment that Friday…something you and the comet are obviously not concerned with. It just seems so cruel to try to snag a person when they are depressed and struggling and at their lowest but, I know that psychologically, that is also when they are likely the most vulnerable. So, that would be prime pickings for a cult leader. They would also be much more agreeable and pliable in that mental state as most people hit a wall and feel like giving in at some point during depression, even if it’s a fleeting thought and they never follow through. It’s a moment of weakness that a cult leader can easily pinpoint and capitalize on.
Okay, so now that we know about the creeps that run these groups and the people that follow them. Let’s talk about how these jokers get these normal everyday people to abandon all hope and reason for the lunacy they label their new faith and religion.
It always starts basic and innocent enough. A promise of peace and spiritual growth, a new holy foundation that will lay the path of righteousness to their eternal well-being and happiness…in general. They all have variations. Heaven’s Gate members thought they were aliens trapped in human bodies and were meant to go back to their planet on a mothership. Jim Jones preached he was God and could finally give his followers a society of total equality. Koresh said he was the Messiah and God was talking to him. Manson is said to have claimed to be the second coming of Christ. They all (well, almost all) start with the basics of already organized religion. Why? Because it’s what we are all already somewhat familiar with. Even Scientology doesn’t come out in the very beginning and tell their followers, “You are buying into a belief structure that relies on a galactic overlord named Xenu and that your mission is to clear the planet of everything we tell you to.” If they said that at orientation, there would be no Scientology, regardless of what Tom Cruise and John Travolta say.
So, once they get you to start showing up to meetings, it’s not like they just kidnap you and you belong to them. They have to make you think this was your idea, the idea to stay, to leave your life. First, they make you feel very comfortable and welcome. So welcome in fact, you will wantto stay and never leave. At that point, the real indoctrination begins. Followers are often separated from the outside world and sometimes from each other. Isolation is a key element in the breakdown of a person’s psyche. The cult will use sleep, light, food and water deprivation, all of which will drastically affect a person’s ability to think and function. It also creates a very heavy dependency where the follower must now choose between their life or their principles and while we all like to think we are very stand-up, principled people, when reality sets in the truth is we are still animals and survival instinct will knock out principles when you haven’t eaten or slept in days. They will control access to TV and radio, magazines and books, and of course, the internet, to prevent the follower from being indoctrinated against them in any way. Public humiliation, abuse and torture are very common ways to break people down AND to keep the flock in line. It quickly instills fear among everyone in a short amount of time.
Once the leader has full devotion of a follower, there really are no limits. At that point the leader can control when this person eats, drinks, works, sleeps, has sex (and with whom), when and if they have children, what they eat and drink, how much they get, who they talk to, what they say, what they wear, where they go, their money (if they get any at all, if they have any income by now it goes directly to the leader), when they can shower, EVERYTHING. The goal is that by dehumanizing the follower and leaving them with no identity of their own, the leader can then mold them into whatever they need that follower to be, like a soldier for their cause.
ALL religions practice some indoctrination. It doesn’t mean they are all bad. Like I said in the beginning, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s evil. The government does something very similar to cults with our military service people. Those eight to thirteen weeks of basic training (depending on the branch of service) are really weeks of the military breaking down the civilian behaviors of the enlisted people and rebuilding them into trusted armed service men and women. The only difference is that the military has to report to the government and justify their actions to at least SOMEONE, even if the explanation is sometimes a crappy one. Those actions are still sanctioned by the government.
Cults leaders answer to no one.
One thing that has always fascinated me was that, with all the brains a lot of these people in these groups had, nobody ever thought to question God’s choice of prophet. In the Bible it says God gave you free will. Why then would he choose a prophet that would go out of his way to take away your free will? No one ever questioned that. And there are other things that puzzle me. I mean, for instance, (and although I was raised with a religion in my childhood, I am not a religious person) I know that God sent an angel to talk to his only son. An angel. To speak with his only child. If that’s true, then why would God choose to speak directly to someone like David Koresh or Charles Manson or Jim Jones? I mean, it’s not like these guys would be front runners for the Prophet of the Year Award before they were cult leaders (or even after, for that matter). I’ll let that marinate in your brains while I talk about something else.
In the Bible, where so many of these flakes find their arsenal of ammo, God repeatedly says he wants man to work and prosper. That rich preacher in Texas, Joel Osteen, he knows ALL about the prosper part. So, again I ask you, why would God repeatedly pick deadbeat lowlifes for his messiahs? I know that Jesus wasn’t a rich man but at least he worked as a carpenter. And while we are always told that God loves everyone and God forgives everyone, I find it very difficult to believe that God would choose pedophiles as his prophets and then direct them to rape children, marry and impregnate them.
And yet none of this every occurred to anybody. To me it’s just common sense to be looking at Koresh or Manson and ask, “And God chose you because…why?” I would have been like, “Okay so, out of ALL the schmucks on the face of the Earth, you mean to tell me that God found YOU so special, above all else, he decided to make YOU the next Lord and Savior?” Yet this thought NEVER went through anyone else’s mind when they met these fools. And Jim Jones? Did it never strike anyone as suspicious that this man always had dark aviator sunglasses on? I was taught to never trust a man that won’t show you his eyes. If he can’t show you his eyes, he’s hiding something. Well, Jones was hiding the fact that not only was he a complete fraud but he was also a complete speed freak and on his way to speed junkie…fast.
And nobody ever noticed that not one of these leaders ever had to follow the same rules as the followers? They never had to do the same work? That their prophecies never came to fruition? Here’s another example: L. Ron Hubbard stated with complete certainty that through the learning and practicing of Scientology, man could heal himself of all ills and sicknesses, thus virtually never getting sick and never dying. Hubbard died of a stroke in 1986. You would think at this point people would have been completely bowled over with reality but, NO. A simple explanation in a twist of words by Miscavige and they were content and drawn in even deeper.
While many of us strongly feel that we would never fall victim to such schemes, we simply cannot rule out that there might be someone out there slick enough to manipulate us in our weakest state, just waiting for the opportunity to exploit our flaws and break us down for no other reason than to serve their purpose. Watch out for those things that sounds too good to be true. They often are in the end.
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The Countess of the Crypt