At a glance:
- Subcategories Of Cults
- What's Your Niche?
- Providing A Sense Of Belonging.
- Distancing Yourself From the World.
- Maintaining Cult Operations Through The BITE model.
You've seen them. You’ve heard of them. But there’s still a lot of mystique hanging over cults and what they do. The first recorded cultic activity was discovered at an archaeological excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a city in Judah. Large rooms served as cultic shrines and were present during King David’s reign.
Cults started gaining a foothold in popular culture with news reports of mass suicide at Peoples Temple; the Branch Davidians’ shoot-out with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the sarin attack in the Tokyo subway. There’s a fascination with these groups and their ideologies that borders on romanticism.
The word ‘cult’ is often used in a pejorative sense and refers to fringe groups with weird spiritual or philosophical beliefs, but that sort of classification is subjective.
Would you consider a group of people who espouses the ‘flat earth theory’ as a cult? What about people in a religious movement? China lists the Falun Gong as xie jiao (Mandarin for ‘heterodox teachings’), which the Chinese government sees as dangerous to the Chinese Communist Party and not religious; is the Falun Gong a cult? What about Christianity and its many sects—mainstream Christianity sees Mormonism and Christian Science as cults.
There’s a common thread on how the majority views the minority or as, according to religion scholar Megan Goodwin, “[a cult] is shorthand for religion I don’t like”. Goodwin continues that while many would focus on the extremities of cults—Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate—there needs to be attention cast on the root causes for cults. “These things don’t come from nowhere and I don’t think it’s helpful to frame them as inherently irrational.”
Brands are taking cues from cults to develop their own products. There are similarities between cults and cult brands: they both have a loyal base that approaches fanaticism.
Consumers of a cult brand buy into a specific lifestyle that a product provides and that becomes his or her identity. The same goes for actual cults as followers are searching for an identity and a sense of belonging. Cult brands, when pitted against mainstream brands, tend to be less recognisable but still draw enough of a crowd.
These days, cults undergo a rebranding of sorts: the new religious movement. It’s hip. It’s fancy. It denotes something new. Of course, this movement faces opposition from established religious and secular organisations and, again, there’s no agreed criterion on what classifies as a ‘new religious movement’ but as the term suggests, NRMs should be a different movement and of a recent formation but as to how recent… that’s still up for debate.
You've got an individual, with a unique worldview. Maybe you believe that dog poops are the cure for AIDS. But that conviction by itself is just encroaching on coo-coo for cocoa puffs territory. So, what kind of cult should you form? Given the nebulous categorisation of cults, there are some readily agreed subcategories (that sometimes overlap with one another):
These are groups that are adherents in Apocalypticism (“Behold a pale horse!”) and Millenarianism (less Gen Y and more ‘radical societal changes after a major cataclysm’). Rapturist groups like the Seekers, who believed that they would be taken by a UFO on 21 December 1954. That date has passed without much fanfare. What’s more embarrassing about an unfulfilled prophecy? Awkward eye contact and forced conversation after nothing had transpired.
The Ku Klux Klan is described as a ‘heretical Christian cult’ by sociologist and historian, Orlando Patterson. According to historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, clandestine Aryan cults in Germany and Austria were instrumental in the rise of Nazism.
While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints issued a statement announcing the cessation of plural marriages, it didn’t stop splinter groups from leaving the Church to continue its practice of plural marriage. Sects like the Church of Jesus Christ Restored still operates with an attendance of about 40 members.
According to psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the anti-cult group, International Cultic Studies Association, a destructive cult is “a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits”. Often these sorts of cults employ an authoritarian approach with an individual or a group that have dictatorial control.
(The term, ‘destructive cults’ is in contention. John A Saliba, a professor of religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, sees the term as ‘overgeneralizing’. But that’s a whole other article entirely.)
What's Your Niche?
Okay, before we dive into brainwashing plebeians, let’s get the fundamentals right. The current cult market is already pretty saturated (at literally thousands worldwide), so you have to be really clear on what you’re selling. Otherwise, why do this at all? You could just go back to advertising.
Here are your four main pillars:
You probably had an interaction with this back in school. Those nights you prayed at the altar of the Bell Curve God before and / or after taking a paper.
Really costly enlightenment workshops, like therapy.
Your standard pyramid schemes or the people who buy into Hypebeast merch not knowing their poor ROI.
Following a government-type dogma. Nazism, taxes, etc.
Here are some questions to consider: What is your niche? How will your cause fill the cult gap? Why would your sheeples want to pledge their undying loyalty? Remember, it’s all about the ultimate goal. Are you aiming for daily orgies? Mass suicides? You’re not here to improve the lives of your members or humanity for that matter. Repeat this: self is key. Not the selves of others, your self.
It’s all about you. Everyone else is just here to let you benefit off their finances, time and devotion. You need them to build your empire but they must never know this. They need you more than you need them. The people need a figurehead to pin their unsatisfied gratifications to, someone to lead them into the new world. By stripping them of their identity and free choice, you are giving them true freedom. Freedom unobtainable by natural human means, and only you can give it to them.
Picking the right targets.
Now that we’ve settled half of the 5W1Hs, let’s focus on the Who, When and Where. Identifying who best to enrich the circle and the ideal circumstances to strike are crucial building blocks.
People are not dumb, but their thinking they’re not dumb makes them dumb
The good news is, this brilliant concept called the ‘self-serving bias’ exists. The average Joe skims through an article on cults, pauses on the sex-related scandals, shakes his head at the absurdity of the degrading acts people can submit themselves to, all the while thinking to himself, “I can never understand why people would join a cult, I certainly am not brainless enough.”
But guess what? A vast majority of cult victims are regular people, especially those who are confident in their aversion against cult influences. Simply put, people think they are healthier, smarter and will live longer than in reality. The lack of defence being an overestimation of their actual defence capabilities will eventually cause their downfall. So in this case, it makes them more vulnerable, or should we say, optimised to receive your message.
There are plenty of fish in the sea
Lucky for you, the odds are working in your favour. Research shows that only a third of cult members suggest depressive symptoms, and according to cult expert Margaret Singer, only five to six percent emanate psychological problems prior to recruitment. Meaning your base comprises healthy, properly functioning individuals of society and boy don’t we have enough of those.
If anything, you’d want to steer away from people with issues because you need resourceful, constructive folk who can contribute to furthering the mission. Plus, the appeal is stronger when you have convincing ambassadors. That said, there are some hacks that expose people to a better response. Loneliness and uncertainty, prevalent in people encountering new situations, work very well. Factors that cause cravings for structure, authority and community that can be swiftly and easily accessed. Which brings us to our next point.
Make the most of the times
Cults prosper in periods of political and social unrest. World War II saw cults arising in Japan, Eastern Europe after the Communist regime collapsed, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution and all the way back to the fall of Rome. The turbulence as a result of civil divides pushes people to seek assurance.
And that’s where you come in. You are the solution provider. The saviour, if you would. You have all the answers. You represent a purpose, a plan and a people. We don’t have the best tumultuous culture here. We barely have geographical crises, so the recommendation is to find soil with a little more instability and hostility. Then go forth and seed.
Everybody Wants To Be Loved
Whether it’s the giddy rush of romantic love, the warmth of companionate love or the comfort of familial love, the innate need to fulfil that sense of belonging in one way or another is inevitable.
Better than the Star Wars box set, Coachella, Comme des Garçons, dark chocolate thickshakes, Jeff Goldblum—the feeling of being socially accepted and valued cannot compare.
In his 1943 paper, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, American psychologist Abraham Maslow said the need to belong must first be met in order to eventually complete one’s total understanding of existence: self-actualisation. Certain situations have the unfortunate tendency of exposing and exacerbating the individual’s desire to feel valued—and it is this desire that cult members leverage on, manipulating said individual to their advantage to fulfil a larger agenda. Of course, it’s all for ‘the greater good’.
Where do the lonely people belong?
So, you’ve heard of the Moonies. They prefer to go by the name Unification Church, but eh, potayto, potahto. The movement’s doctrine maintains that since Jesus’ noble plans were interrupted by the Crucifixion, an almighty gloom was left in his wake, forcing the great Creator to send down another saviour—the church’s founder, Sun Myung Moon—to finish what was started: forming the perfect marriage to become the ‘true spiritual parents of all humankind’. Enter love-bombing, a recruitment technique designed by the Moonies to make individuals going through a difficult phase of their lives feel as though they belong to a loving community.
Love-bombing is a form of behavioural conditioning, used as a control tactic to perpetuate a cycle of systematic abuse by feigning friendship or concern in the recruit. The love bomber first employs positive reinforcement on the poor unfortunate soul, lavishing them with attention used as ‘transactional gifts’ to bolster their self-worth, along with messages of encouragement entwined with promises of a new way of life. Step two: commence isolation. To be truly accepted, recruits had to eschew all possessions and reject their families in favour of Moon and his second wife as the True Parents of Mankind. Their purpose? To establish trust and persuade the recruit into believing that they have not only found their place in a community where they truly belong but also derive meaning from having a higher purpose to serve and an important quest to fulfil.
Good old-fashioned family values
Let’s kick it up a notch—here’s where playing Happy Families gets a little more insidious. When the recipient breaks the pattern of control, the love bomber withdraws affection and begins the devaluation stage. This often involves silent treatment or unleashing a spiteful torrent of vitriol designed to tear down the recipient’s self- esteem. Through repeatedly establishing themselves in a position of power by controlling access to love and affection, the individual is conditioned to rely on the love bomber’s feedback as a measure of their self-worth and indication of their validation as a valued member of that cult.
Case in point: leaders in the Mooniverse were not allowed to sleep if they or their team of recruits had not achieved their personal sales target for the day.
Multi-level marketing cults
Selling by misrepresentation is not a technique unique to the Moonies. In fact, you have probably already experienced this through close encounters of the manipulative kind: multi-level marketing (MLM). More commonly referred to as network marketing, MLM companies rely heavily on a continuous cycle of recruiting sales representatives to sustain the business.
MLMs have drawn an unscrupulous reputation for employing cult psychology behind their deceptive recruitment practices, designed to exploit our essential needs of security and belonging: all you have to do is sit back, relax and wait for the substantial financial returns to pour in—after an initial investment in their products, of course. After all, all progress happens outside the comfort zone, no?
In itself unsustainable due to its pyramid hierarchical structure with a few enjoying the profits at the top and the majority toiling at the bottom, substitute the promise of fulfilling that love for companionship with a love for financial profit and you’ve got yourselves a marketing cult.
Riding on the wave of female empowerment and promises of a stable future with high earning potential, US-based legging empire LuLaRoe’s brand promise of ‘having the freedom and flexibility that comes from building your own business at your own pace’ neglected to mention the mandatory investment of USD5,000 for an initial order kit or the continuous purchase of additional monthly items in order to be eligible for potential bonuses. Since then, disgruntled former consultants have fled the business by the thousands—including 10 women who were forced to file for bankruptcy—and have yet to receive a refund for the unsold items. On a bittersweet note, the state of Washington filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for deceptive practices. Karma is indeed a funny little thing.
So, maybe you need to give this some thought and reconsider your options.
Us Against The World
So, you’ve made the decision to cut all ties associated with your past self and embraced your cult family. What’s next? It’s time to take your self-esteem out of the dreary basement and boost it towards the pressurising penthouse.
Cult followers never second-guess their decisions—it’s either black or white, never grey. Dr David McDermott, alternative health and personal development specialist, said that “a cult’s vision is the sole truth. Therefore, any definitions other than their own were dismissed. This explains how group members end up distancing themselves from family and friends. They were made to believe that outsiders (those not in the group) are a bad influence and are stopping them from growing, evolving, progressing in some way. Words like ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘everyone’ were used frequently.”
Segregation and Solitude
Both physical and mental isolation must be established for followers to commit willingly. Firstly, isolate followers from external influences by extending the furthest possible physical distance between them so that escaping isn’t an issue. Isolation may also occur within a room of a town or city; even public places are effective if no opposing messages reaches an individual’s ears.
Emotional isolation lies with trust. Familiar with the phrase: ‘Trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair’? Cult scouters will detect uncertainties of an individual and widen it, like suggesting family and friends do not care anymore. Once fear takes over, solitude strikes too.
Self-esteem takes a rollercoaster ride
False promises made by cults provide a comfortable security net that will ensure total dependence and loyalty of its followers.
Associate professor Dr Theodore B Feldmann and clinical assistant professor Dr Phillip W Johnson from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Louisville School of Medicine discovered that cult membership in any group that provides a sense of acceptance and importance may also offset underlying feelings of isolation, vulnerability and emptiness. These feelings may lead to intense disintegration anxiety.
Not all cults are destructive. The promise of weight loss has caused diet cults to be the rage among beauty and health fanatics. In Los Angeles during the 1970s, Jim Baker (aka Father Yod), founder of religious group and spiritual commune The Source Family, opened The Source restaurant which served vegetarian and, of course, locally sourced food. Heavily influenced by the teachings of India-born-American Yogi Bhajan, spiritual director of the 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization), The Source Family and its restaurant successfully lured in like-minded devotees including celebrities such as John Lennon and Marlon Brando.
According to VICE’s Chloe Schildhause who interviewed Damian Paul, third son of The Source Family, Baker ‘was into the idea of discipline’. They had no choice but to submit to the leader’s orders. With a controlled diet, “members were expected to adhere to a strict regime and put on various vegetarian diets—one consists of only eight ingredients including eggplant, filbert nuts, tomatoes and alfalfa sprouts—consumed for 30 days. To this day I can’t eat filberts and the smell of wheatgrass nauseates me,” Paul said.
House rules are in full effect
Similar to clubs and communities, rules and regulations are enforced to safeguard a cult’s intentions. Want to succeed in supervising an abiding collective? Execute these steps:
Alexandra Stein, author and former associate lecturer in social psychology at the University of London, did a dissertation which examined a New York-based ‘Leftist’ political cult called the Newman Tendency. Lead by Fred Newman, a former university lecturer in philosophy, she identifies that “all leaders want utter control over others. Money, sex, free labour or loyal combatants are all fringe benefits and certainly, most leaders take advantage of these, some in a big way. But absolute control over their relationships is the key.”
Information control is essential so that conflicting messages do not appear by accident. Mainstream media such as television, newspaper and radio can be censored and replaced with cult-produced media and literature. If all parties agree to express a uniform message, followers are likely to accept that the information is true. The same data gathered from different sources are proven to be more persuasive than from a singular source.
Stein noted if “an exclusive belief system is controlled entirely by the leader, it’ll empower him or her through the creation of a fictional world of secrets and lies”.
Followers who accurately confirm the core message remain inclusive and will be rewarded while social isolation will happen to followers who contradict the intended message.
Stein observed that “people in totalist organisations are pressed so tightly together that their individuality is erased. Followers face triple isolation: from the outside world, from each other within the closed system, and from their own internal dialogue, where clear thinking about the group might arise.”
Keep Stringin' Them Along
Your cult is up and running but you need to add coal to the fire; you gotta keep operations running.
We recommend the BITE model—behaviour, information, thought and emotional control. Steven Hassan, the author of Combating Cult Mind Control, developed the model after finding key methodologies found in cults’ usage in recruitment and maintaining control over people.
Ask yourself, how do autocrats keep their people in line? How did Kim Il-sung or Josef Stalin earn the worship from their followers? The answer arrived in Nikita Khrushchev’s report at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Titled, On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences, the speech was critical of the lionisation of Stalin. He was able to get away with acts like ‘purging’ members of his Communist Party who were deemed ‘undesirable’ through a ‘cult of personality’.
This is made possible through a healthy dosage of mass media, propaganda and lying through one’s teeth. A sterling example would be Kim Jong-un. The personality cult started after Il-sung, grandfather of Jong-un, took power in 1948. Combined with the Confucian ideology of familism, the cult of personality requires absolute loyalty and imbues the Kim family as the only ruler through successive generations.
Like waves continuously crashing against a cliff face, you’ll see the erosion of critical thought as the Kim family is deified through propaganda and state media. They are seen as gods and they are above human functions like defecation and urinating.
Taking a page from North Korea, as a leader of your own cult, you’ll need to continuously bombard your followers with your own propaganda. You’ll need to alter their reality. Have them see the world as to how you’d see it.
Remember Basic Military Training? The first three months of enlistment, your head is shaved and you’re given a uniform. This is to reduce your individuality and forces the narrative that you’re a cog—an important cog nonetheless—in this machine. That’s the same with cults. The followers in Heaven’s Gate wore black tracksuits and black-and-white Nike Decade sneakers (Nike phased out this particular model after the mass suicide at Heaven’s Gate). They had the same routine, they ate the same food (grain cereal in the morning, low-fat sandwich for lunch, meat with vegetables; repeat), their haircuts are the same. Group-think is highly encouraged, individualism is banned.
To control behaviour, you’ll need to stem the flow of information. No mobile phones or the Internet, no newspapers or contact with the outside world. You don’t want your followers to come across some wayward piece of info that might jeopardise your standing.
Since you’re the only one they will have to look to, lying is highly recommended. If you’re skittish about the act of verbal falsehood (sheesh, what a time to suddenly develop morals), think of it as telling a story, a story that puts you as the hero. Which brings us to…
Make this story palatable to your followers. This story has to be seen as gospel and one of the clearest ways to do so is to curtail the complexity of the narrative.
This world is clearly a mix of choices, a symphony of greys. Your world is simplified to be either/or; good/evil; us/them. If your follower develops a doubt, utilise thought-stopping techniques. Often used as a cognitive intervention trick prescribed by therapists in disrupting and removing problematic thoughts, this thought-stopping technique can also be used to erase doubts in your followers.
You can do so through positive self-talk, where your follower can coach him or herself until the doubt dissipates. Or auditory distraction, through chanting or singing.
And keep telling your ‘story’. Don’t let up. A continual bombardment of your ‘truth’ will render your followers to think of nothing else but that.
And, who knows, maybe in time, you too would come to believe it.
When reason fails, go for the gut.
You’ll be surprised at how much people are ruled by their heart instead of their head. Even when the evidence is in front of them, they would follow their intuition.
You can use that to your benefit.
Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings your followers might develop. Impart to them that these emotions are evil. Gaslight them to think that whatever problems that arise is their own fault. You missed your daily ration? You didn’t have enough faith. You scraped your knee? It must be something you said. If they feel anger towards you, use emotion-stopping techniques.
Guilt is a very handy tool to use against your followers. Fear too. Oh, the sweet potency of fear when you have them be afraid of independent thoughts or delusions of leaving the group or questioning your authority. After a while, you’ll get a handle on how to string your followers along like a marionette. Love-bomb them one moment and the next, impress upon them that they are in need of your salvation.
If all else fails, there’s always imposing of threats of harm to their family and outside friends, but this should be done sparingly. Remember, you’re a benevolent god. You don’t want to push them to the point of atheism. Always keep them dependent on you.
If you’ve followed most of our guide, your cult will be flourishing and—if you played your cards right— is on track to becoming mainstream. Now, whatever end you plan for your group is your prerogative.
But remember the most important thing when you’re forming your own cult: just have fun. Good luck!