Things About Cults Writers Need To Know
Planning to write about the creepy, destructive kind of cult? This article will cover some things that writers should understand about how they work and why their members think and behave as they do.
For the purpose of this article, a "cult" is defined as a group built up around an ideology, philosophy, or agenda, and:
- Ultimately abuses, exploits, represses, or otherwise harms people (including its own members or supporters).
- Claims nonetheless that it's just here to do good, help people, or to live in peace, and refuses to acknowledge, address, or rectify the bulk of the harm that it has caused; or claims that the harm that it has caused is actually justified.
- Claims to have (or behaves as if it has) a special, superior, or exclusive understanding of something important - EG, spirituality, morality, truth, justice, science, reality, etc.
- Permits little to no questioning or criticism of its teachings, methods, or actions, and/or shames, guilts, or attacks anyone who questions or criticizes it.
So with that established, here are some things to know about cults, and about their traits and behaviors.
Cults tend to rise up around charismatic leaders. IE, people who have a fairly good "stage presence," so to speak. Many cult leaders sound extremely passionate and sincere when they speak. They also typically know just what to say and do that will appeal to people. Often, this means appealing to their desires for peace, harmony, justice, and fairness. It can also mean saying things that make people feel special, important, or needed - EG, that they could be an important part of some grand purpose, or that they already are and just don't know it yet. It can also mean appealing to people's senses of guilt or shame by pointing out their flaws or wrongdoings - then offering them a means of redemption.
Cult leaders set themselves up as superior authorities. They may claim to have a special connection to God, or that they were given some special revelation or understanding, or that they have some special or unique life experience that gives them special authority on a topic, or that they and their followers alone are acting in the "real" spirit of some philosophy.
Most real cults are not overtly spooky affairs. In Fictionland, cults are often populated with obviously-creepy leaders and members who get up to all kinds of creepy and bizarre things. In reality, most cults (at least at first glance) don't seem to be too different from similar, non-cultish groups - aside perhaps, from being a little unorthodox in some way, or being a little more dedicated or devoted than usual. In fact, looking benign is in their best interests if they want to recruit new members or avoid public scrutiny, so many of them will make a deliberate effort to put on a good front for outsiders. (And members may even be forced to act as if they're happy and everything is fine, if the cult has enough control over them.)
Likewise, cults are not likely to go out of their way for creepy rituals, either. While fictional cults often have members conducting sinister-looking rituals loaded with dark or macabre elements, in reality most rituals and ceremonies conducted by cults are comparable to practices done by non-cultish groups of similar beliefs and philosophies.
While disturbing rituals certainly aren't entirely outside the realm of possibility, keep in mind that that rituals or practices that cause obvious harm to members, or that would leave behind any other evidence of illegal activity, is a great way for a cult to get into a lot of trouble with the law. Plus, many cult leaders deliberately exploit members so they and their cronies can live the high life. Elaborate rituals tend to cost money that they could be spending on themselves instead, and making members go through a lot of lengthy rituals takes up time that they could be using to bring in more members or to make more money. Though that said, cult leaders might enjoy rituals or performances conducted in their own honor, as these things make them feel respected and important.
Cults don't have to be religious in nature. While many cults are often religious or spiritual in nature, there are many which aren't. Some cults might be strictly business or financial (these ones tend to take the form of pyramid schemes or multi-level marketing companies). Some might focus solely on self-improvement (EG, solving one's emotional or addiction problems). Some might be political (these ones usually claim that they know exactly how to fix a country's problems).
Some cults hide their religious natures from new members. Some cults present themselves as something non-religious initially, but gradually reveal to members that they "need" to start following some religious or quasi-religious doctrine if they wish to progress.
Cults often frame joining them as some sort of liberation. For example, members who join might be told that they're "stepping out of darkness and coming into the light," or that they're being set free from their personal demons, or that they're finally freeing their minds from malicious control or influence.
Cults often pull people in gradually. They might ease new members in with the most agreeable, innocuous parts of their beliefs. For example, a new member might be told that the cult just wants to bring about peace and justice. Then the member might be told that what's really standing between them and peace and justice is some outgroup demographic. And then, that the only way to stop this outgroup demographic is through violent action.
Likewise, they may start by asking new members for relatively small favors or donations, but ask for more and more as time goes on - often with the threat of guilt, shame, or expulsion if they don't continue. (And members will often continue giving to the cult, because they don't want to lose out on whatever the cult offers them - be it status, a social network, salvation, a sense of purpose in life, etc.)
They might also not tell recruits about their more draconian rules or expectations until they've fully joined and committed themselves to the cult - at which point it's much harder for them to back out.
New members might be "love-bombed." New recruits might be lavished with attention and love, or praised and told how special they are or how much potential they have. They might be surrounded by people who show them sympathy and kindness. Of course, since this is just a tactic used to try to make people feel welcome and wanted, it will eventually taper off.
Cults often play themselves up themselves as underdogs. No matter how influential or powerful they actually are, cults may play themselves up themselves as persecuted underdogs constantly kept down by an unjust or corrupt system. (And thus, any criticism or opposition of the cult is easily framed as unfair or malicious - no matter how petty, bullyish, or callous the cult actually is.)
Cults often position themselves as the good guys in some epic good vs. evil conflict. And it's up to them and their followers to fight the darkness and keep it from taking over the world entirely, or somesuch. (Also, a common feature in such narratives is that the "evil" side is presented as being an all-pervasive presence in control of nearly everything, which can be fairly easily foiled if the members just stay faithful and steadfast.)
Cults tend to encourage a black-and-white view of the world in general. They may characterize themselves as honest, hardworking, peaceful, compassionate people, and characterize everyone else as deceitful, self-interested, cruel, and oppressive. Or they may characterize themselves as intelligent and open-minded, and everyone else as stupid and closed-minded. They may call agreeing with their teachings "thinking for yourself" or "seeing the truth," but accuse everyone else of brainwashing and indoctrination. They might say that they are happy, joyful people, but that everyone else is negative or toxic. (The worse they can make the rest of the world look, the less people will want go back to it! Plus, it makes it easier to make cult members willing to take violent action against outsiders, if that's the cult's thing.) Also, whether people are considered good or bad, or worthy of sympathy or support, or even whether they deserve to live might depend on whether or not they are part of the cult.
Cults typically blame anything and everything but themselves. Something not working out somewhere? It can't be that they have bad methods, or that they have unrealistic expectations, or that they're making unreasonable demands, nope. It must be that their members aren't working hard enough, or don't have enough faith, or that someone is sabotaging them somewhere.
Cults often come up with plenty of excuses for why others don't agree with them. EG, "Oh, they just weren't meant to believe," or "their minds are controlled by evil forces," or "they've been brainwashed by the enemy," or "their defective DNA makes them too stupid to understand," or "they just don't want to admit they're in the wrong." Or possibly, "outsiders are just too prideful and stubborn to follow God's word!"
Cults might claim that their own teachings are "common sense" or "plain truth." So those who disagree with them must be defective or evil somehow.
Cults often gaslight their members. Members might be told that they're delusional, lying, or seeking attention if they bring up observations or life experiences that don't dovetail with the cult's ideology. Or their experiences might be reframed or explained in a way that makes it so that what happened was "really" the members' own faults, or they might be told that it couldn't have been as bad as they're making it out to be. Complaints about the treatment they receive or the workload they're put under might be chalked up to pride, laziness, disloyalty, or wanting to receive "special treatment." Emotions and opinions that don't dovetail with the cult's agendas and teachings might be chalked up to selfishness or evil influence.
Members who don't live up to demands or expectations might face harsh or cruel penalties. Depending on whatever the cult deems acceptable, members who don't meet the cult's demands for purity or productivity may be punished somehow, such as through shaming, humiliation, physical punishment, shunning, deprivation of goods, withdrawal of privileges, or even ostracization.
Cults often discourage members from independent thinking. They might tell members that science and logic are tools of an evil system, or that doubts and questions are planted by evil beings or come from one's evil nature and should be dismissed. They might tell members that they're too ignorant or unspiritual to think for themselves yet and that they should rely on elders or leaders to do their thinking for them. Members might be told that their minds are still too full of external programming to be trusted, and that any thought they have that runs contrary to the cult's teachings just comes from that programming.
Cults might try to make members reliant on them. They might try to get members to sell their possessions and move to some place that they control. They might also try to get members to work for them full-time in such a location. It can be difficult, if not impossible for members to leave if the cult is their only source of support.
Cults are usually the first to deny that they are cults. Instead, they're "just trying to help!" or "just trying to live God's word!" Or they might say that they aren't a cult because unlike all those other people, they actually have the truth. They might even claim that they aren't a cult; it's those other guys who are the real cult.
There's no such thing as being "too smart" to join a cult. People don't join cults because they're lacking in intelligence or education, because smart, educated people join cults all the time. They join because they want what the cults offer them: friendship, family, a sense of purpose, stability, self-improvement, salvation, redemption, a better life, etc.
Nor do people usually join just because just don't want to think for themselves. Often, it's just the opposite. Many recruits are often disenchanted with the world in some way and are questioning much of what they've been taught and brought up with, which makes the cult's apparent rejection of all that appealing. Many cults and cult-like groups tell people who accept their beliefs that they're finally thinking for themselves now, or that they're finally breaking free of someone else's indoctrination or programming.
Failure tends to strengthen, rather than weaken cultists' resolve. When a doomsday cult's end of the world prediction fails to materialize, one might expect that members would realize they'd been taken for a ride and abandon their beliefs. But the reality is far different: while a few members may do this, the majority rationalize it away and carry on - possibly with increased resolve.
There's rarely any acceptable way to leave. Leaving is often framed or perceived as betrayal, or taken as proof that one was never truly dedicated to the cult or that one never had true faith in the first place. Or leaving might be framed as joining the enemy or "going out into darkness." Ex-members might even be demonized or made into scapegoats, and members might be encouraged to harass or harm them.
Cults often attract or prey on certain vulnerable types. Things About Brainwashing Writers Need To Know has some examples of what people vulnerable to cult recruitment can look like.
Cults brainwash people, whether deliberately or not. Things About Brainwashing Writers Need To Know has more on the subject.
Groups with no official leadership or hierarchy can have cultish dynamics and practices. And it might be that the vast majority of a group operates like this, or it might just be a few sectors where particularly corrupt individuals have seized this kind of power. It might be somewhere in between. Check out How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad article for more information.
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