24 April 2019
The Structure and Psychology of Cults: How They Take Control
After a series of crimes and tragedies in the late 20th century, public attention turned towards the bizarre organizations known as ‘cults’; the source of these strange incidents. In the mid-20th century, a large movement occurred in western nations. A movement comprising of counterculture movements and new spiritual and religious ideologies spreading into western culture. This, alongside other major cultural shifts, such as the american Civil Rights Movement, were the basis of the New Age movement; a period of anti-establishment sentiment, open use of psychoactive drugs, and new spiritual beliefs that spread into western popular culture. As a result of these changes, the societal grounds were fertile for the sprouting of new religious movements. New religious movements were not uncommon, occurring usually due to splits in established religions. The new age religious movements, however, had much more variety in their ideas. Ideals of Hinduism, Buddhism, political activism, and occultism were a few of the bases for these movements. These movements could, in a broad sense, be considered ‘cults’ by definition, but, at the time they seemed harmless to the majority of people. In just a few decades, however, this view would change completely. In modern times, cults and violence are often connected inextricably in the public mind (Barker). This is a result of several cult related tragedies. Through the second half of the 20th century, the murders of the Manson Family, the mass suicides of Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, the Tokyo subway gas attack, and several other highly publicized cult related disasters, caused a widespread public fear of these new religious organizations. Additionally, many cults saw escaped members spreading stories of the bizarre and horrifying world they had experienced. The 1970s and onward saw the beginnings of the anti-cult movement. This period saw widespread anti-cult sentiment within the public conscious, resulting in governmental opposition, as well as opposition from religious institutions. So, what did these new religious movements do to their followers to result in this reputation? These cults were structured to take advantage of their members, monetarily, and also with psychological tactics such as indoctrination, isolation, and brainwashing. Despite potentially appearing harmless at first, cults are structured to take advantage of members through the use of harsh psychological regimes and depersonalizing manipulation which can severely damage a person, and society at large.
For indoctrination, cult recruiters seek out people who are susceptible to their influence. They often target college students or young adults. People who are beginning to form their own viewpoints on the world, or are newly independent. Many schools and colleges have banned these recruiters from campuses for these reasons. People in fragile psychological states, such as the homeless, drug addicts or people who have recently gone through emotional trauma are common targets and are often brought in believing that their problems will be solved by joining this organization. Recruiters will attract attention with a cheerful and friendly approach, quickly establishing a connection with their target through conversation, before asking about their dissatisfactions or doubts in life. From here, they offer a solution or remedy; a caring purposeful community based around an ideology or method meant to bring happiness or satisfaction in life (“Open Minds”). This order of events is very often the beginning of a person’s membership in a cult. Open minded and unassuming, these people will willingly enter these isolating, oppressive, and secretive organizations, covered merely in a thin coat of bright paint. Through these indoctrination techniques, large quantities of new members can be brought in, and turned into recruiters themselves, perpetuating the cycle and growing the cult larger and larger. What these new members are unaware of as they enter is the large hierarchical power structure the cult has employed to maintain its control and spread its message.
Cults often make use of large power systems to keep followers loyal and exploitable, while keeping the leaders and their associates on top. Janja Lasich describes that, “A typical cult requires a high level of commitment from its members and maintains a strict hierarchy, separating unsuspecting supporters and recruits from the inner workings (Lalich).” At first, new members are only aware of what they have been told by recruiters, and what they see externally of the cult. Cults take specific care in keeping outsiders from seeing the internal structure. The majority of cults are built around a charismatic leader, who surrounds themselves with like minded subordinates. Examples include Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, Charles Manson of the Manson, and L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology. Externally these leaders appear kind and charitable, but internally, they’re goals with their organization are selfish, or simply insane. These leaders often exhibit narcissism, and believe themselves to be above others, either morally or religiously. As an example, Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, a christian organization, would preach beliefs where God was denounced as false, and that he himself was God. Former People’s Temple member Hue Fortson Jr. described one of Jones’ speeches: “What you need to believe is what you can see. If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend… If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.” (“Jonestown”) This quote shows the high level of narcissism commonly found in cult leaders. Jones believes that, rather than believing in a God, his followers should praise and support him, and see him as a holy figure, displaying an extreme level of grandiosity. Apart from narcissism, other common traits of cult leaders are intolerance of criticism or questioning, demanding of loyalty, paranoia, and beliefs that they had the answers to everyone’s problems and should be revered. Of course when people in positions of power have these views, the result is a high probability that those in their organization are being harmed emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or financially (Navarro). The leader is surrounded by subordinates that do not question their actions, and they make use of ‘enforcers’ or, people who keep the cults followers in check. If a cult member has a problem with the system, and they attempt to be noticed by the leadership, they will often be discounted or ignored. If they continue to pursue the issue, they could face threats, scolding, or even expulsion. Expulsion is a very severe threat due to the amount of investment followers place into cults, and, in the case of communes such as Jonestown or the Rajneesh commune in Oregon, expulsion would have meant homelessness. At this point new members may be beginning to question the organization, but, under these threats that may befall them if they were to speak out, cult members most often remain quiet, in spite of the psychological and physical abuse tactics and financial fraud. Externally, however, cults will make specific efforts to mask their internal issues and only display a bright positive image of what the cult does to the media.
Cults make specific efforts to keep a positive media profile, which usually involves planning out media interactions in their favor. In Going Clear, a documentary describing the history and structure of the Church of Scientology, former church spokesperson Mike Rinder describes how he would approach the media’s questions: “My position as the spokesperson was to evade the questions ... or say something that I believed at the time (“Going Clear”.)” This describes methods that cults often use to dispel media criticism through coordinated false truth campaigns. Another common method used is to deliberately defame and slander vocal critics. Mike Rinder, of the above quote, as well as numerous other critics of Scientology have had websites specifically targeting and slandering them created anonymously by the church (Rinder). These tactics are not just done by the Church of Scientology, as many other cults make themselves appear as the victims of harassment to strengthen their appearance to outsiders. An example of this is the Rajneesh movement in Oregon which attracted significant media attention for its bizarre practices and antagonism of local residents. The cult’s media representative Ma Anand Sheela harshly accused critics and opposing political groups of racism against the groups Indian origins. Another goal of this was to bring further attention to the organization, so as to sell more of Rajneesh’s books and encourage more people to join the commune. Sheela would later say that, “Bhagwan (The cult’s founder) told me to be very, very strong in the media. I had to be provocative.” (“Wild Wild Country”) This displays the two sided relationship most cults have with the media. The media allows cults a place to show off their successes and belief systems, but at the same time it can also expose the poor conditions or abuses of power that cults often contain. Suppression of internal issues in the media, as well as suppression of criticism from within the cult can result in members being isolated, physically and psychologically.
Isolation is a psychological tactic used often as a method to control people. There are many techniques that can be used to accomplish this, and several of these are used by cults to control their members. A very common technique used is isolation from family or friends. When entering a cult, new members are often forced to cut ties with old friends and family to make room for the cult. Cult members will be completely isolated from the society they once inhabited, physically and also in ideology. One way this is achieved is through strict limitation of information. Cults will limit what media reaches its followers, and will take specific care to only allow cult sponsored media to reach its members. The goal of this is to prevent indoctrinated people from thinking critically or questioning the cult’s leadership (“9 Ways...”). In the end, cult members are usually physically moved far away from where they previously lived, and have contact with people they knew before cut off. They are in a setting surrounded by people who believe the exact same thing, and are constantly influenced by higher ups with intentions to keep them entrapped and dependent on the group. In many cases, cults are based in very difficult to reach and isolated locations. From Jonestown, a commune deep in the Guyanese jungle, to the Rajneeshee movement’s desert base in Oregon, to the Manson Family’s Death Valley ranches, strong efforts are made to keep followers in, and media out. Isolation is also used as a punishment or a threat in several cults. Scientology’s ‘Gold Base’ in southern California contains a building known as ‘The Hole.’ This building, containing barred windows and armed guards, was used to house critics of the church, or those the church deemed as threats. Scientology officials would isolate these people in this building if they stepped out of line, and would only release them when they were practically begging to do the church’s bidding. (“Going Clear”) These ideas of distorting facts, limiting information, and affecting behavior through a person’s surroundings are the foundation of the concept of brainwashing. The method by which cults are able to reform a person’s thoughts and reduce a their capacity to think independently, and when put into practice, they can have disastrous results, for people in and outside the organization.
If a paranoid, narcissistic, and short tempered leader with a large group of easily manipulated loyal followers decides to act out violently in some way, the outcome can be deadly. The Anti-Cult movement of the 1970s and onward was the result of a series of violent criminal acts perpetrated by these cults, and these actions were largely a result of the psychological conditioning and narcissistic leadership discussed earlier. Certain cults committed violent acts to further their strange religious or societal goals. The Manson Family, a hippie commune cult in California led by Charles Manson, killed several people in Los Angeles over the course of the summer of 1969. The reasoning for these killings were part of what Manson taught his followers. Manson believed that an apocalyptic race war would soon occur, and that he was going to be the one to initiate it. These beliefs were based on supposed ‘secret messages’ he had heard in Beatles songs (“Charles Manson”). Manson’s followers simply went along with these bizarre ideas, and agreed enough to take part in the series of crimes. Similarly, the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo launched a gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March of 1995, killing 12 people. The goal of this attack was both to impede police movement and to supposedly bring about the armageddon they had been planning for. These two cults are examples of destructive cults with ideologies based largely on ideas of violence. Both of these cults committed actions based on a desire for destruction. In contrast, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple acted based solely on their leader’s delusions. In 1974, an increasingly paranoid Jim Jones founded a commune for the People’s Temple called Jonestown deep in the rainforests of Guyana in South America. The main reason he did this was to escape United States federal investigations into his activities. In the four years he and his followers spent in Jonestown, he became increasingly mentally unsound and paranoid. After a U.S. congressman came to Jonestown in 1978 for a tour, Jones had him shot dead as he boarded his plane. Following this, he claimed to his followers that they would all be killed and tortured by the U.S. military, and that they all must commit suicide to avoid this, which would be done by consuming poisoned Kool-Aid. 918 people died, all based on the paranoid delusions of a mentally ill man who had been given too much power (“Jonestown”). He believed there was an great threat to him and his followers lives, when there truly wasn’t, and in the end his followers mostly went along with it. These tragedies committed by cults often had largely different motives. The 1997 mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate cult members was done out of a belief that those who died would be reborn aboard a spaceship traveling behind Comet Hale-Bopp. The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack, in which 751 individuals in The Dalles, Oregon were poisoned with restaurant food tainted with Salmonella, was committed in an attempt to prevent townspeople from voting in an upcoming election where the Rajneeshee had entered a candidate for their own political gain (“Wild Wild Country”). Regardless of the cult’s motivations for the actions they committed, every crime occurred due to leaders with deadly intentions surrounded by people who were ready and willing to do their bidding. The indoctrination, isolation, leadership, and brainwashing all played a role in each of these major crimes that would come to be the face of cults in the late 20th century and onward.
Despite being displayed as happy and peaceful, cults are built to take control of members’ lives through several harsh psychological tactics and manipulations meant to turn an individual into part of a collective, all to the detriment of the members and those around them. Cults make use of psychological tactics to indoctrinate new members, who are kept in the dark about the internal structure of the organization. These groups usually have a charismatic leader who thinks highly of themselves and surround themselves with agreeable subordinates. Enforcers are used to keep members silent about critique with scolding and threats, entrapping members with no way to escape. Meanwhile, the media is shown a disingenuous portrait of life within the Cult, where the cult’s leadership plan out evading questions and giving false answers. Isolation is used to prevent members from contacting outsiders or escaping, and is also used as a punishment, meant to mold members into a collectivised loyal group. In extremes, this can result in large scale tragedies; tragedies which would lead to the beginnings of anti-cult movements. The psychological manipulation cults use to control their members is extremely damaging to the members, as well as to society at large, and cults will remain a danger to look out for continuing into the future.
"9 Ways Groups Become Cults." Criminal Justice Degrees Guide, 1 Oct. 2016, www.criminaljusticedegreesguide.com/features/9-ways-groups-become-cults.html. Accessed 6 May 2019.
"A Case Study on the Aum Shinrikyo." Federation of American Scientists, 31 Oct. 1995, fas.org/irp/congress/1995_rpt/aum/part03.htm. Accessed 5 May 2019.
Barker, Eileen. "Watching for Violence: A Comparative Analysis of the Roles of Five Types of Cult-Watching Groups." CESNUR: Center for Studies on New Religions, 22 Apr. 2001, www.cesnur.org/2001/london2001/barker.htm. Accessed 26 Apr. 2019.
"Charles Manson - Life, Death, and Family." Biography.com, 2 Apr. 2014, www.biography.com/crime-figure/charles-manson. Accessed 5 May 2019.
"Cult Indoctrination." Open Minds Foundation, 2019, www.openmindsfoundation.org/cult-indoctrination/. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Directed by Alex Gibney, HBO Documentary Films, 2015. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Hexham, Irving, and Karla Poewe. "UFO Religion - Making Sense of the Heaven's Gate Suicides." Ucalgary.ca, U of Calgary, 7 May 1997, people.ucalgary.ca/~nurelweb/papers/irving/HGCC.html. Accessed 5 May 2019.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple. Directed by Stanley
Nelson, Firelight Media, 2006.
Navarro, Joe, M.A. "Dangerous Cult Leaders." Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 25 Aug. 2012, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spycatcher/201208/dangerous-cult-leaders. Accessed 5 May 2019.
Palmer, Susan J. (1988), "Charisma and Abdication: A Study of the Leadership of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh", Sociological Analysis, Pages 119–135. 1988, Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
"Why Do People Join Cults? - Janja Lalich." Youtube.com, uploaded by Ted Ed, Youtube, 12 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB-dJaCXAxA. Accessed 1 May 2019.
Rinder, Mike. "Church of Scientology - Ashamed of Their Own Websites." Mike Rinder's Blog, Mike Rinder, 8 Apr. 2013, www.mikerindersblog.org/church-of-scientology-ashamed-of-their-own-websites/. Accessed 5 May 2019.
Wild Wild Country. Directed by Maclain Way and Chapman Way, Netflix, 2018.