On the morning of November 18, 1978, the tiny nation of Guyana was shaken by scenes straight out of a fever dream. Guyanese officials had arrived at the small settlement of Jonestown to find it littered with hundreds of bodies—918, to be precise. It would later come to light that the 918 people had lost their lives in what was a mass murder-suicide led by Jim Jones, the leader of the infamous Peoples Temple cult. Roughly a third of the deceased were children. The rest: some willing, some unwilling Temple members. It was, at the time, the single most significant incident of intentional civilian death in the United States. The Jonestown Massacre was the first of many incidents that would change how the world looked at cults and the tremendous influence they could garner.
Unfortunately, the Jonestown Massacre isn’t an isolated incident. There are plenty more extremely bizarre cases just like it.
The Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians are infamous for their standoff against the FBI, which lasted 51 days. On February 28, 1993, under the suspicion that the leader—David Koresh—was hoarding weapons and ammunition, officials raided the cult’s compound. Much to their dismay, this turned into a massive shootout. Tanks were brought in, and the compound consequently caught on fire. At the end of the 51 days, the death toll stood at 80.
The Heaven’s Gate incident is yet another tragic mass-murder suicide case. The members believed that aliens would come down to earth and escort them to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ The group planned to carry out a mass suicide just in time for the Hale-Bopp comet, which they thought was concealing the alien spaceship that would take them away. 39 members ingested sedatives mixed with vodka, suffocated themselves with plastic bags, and died. 9 of them had been castrated, as the group believed in celibacy.
What are cults?
How do cults hold enough sway over members to be able to drive them to take their own lives?
Broadly speaking, a cult is not as notorious as the negative connotations of the word may make it seem. Pop culture has a lot to do with the belief that all cults are evil. Cults are usually just a group of people with the same ideas or shared interests, some of which are often unusual in nature. These beliefs may be religious, philosophical, or spiritual. Most cults are a small group of twenty or so members who may have unusual beliefs but do not intend to do anything nefarious. An internet community of ‘flat earthers’ can technically be called a cult, even though they do not intend to cause harm to the well-being of others. At least, not at the level of a cult like, say, Heaven’s Gate.
An important thing to note is that it isn’t beliefs that lead to a group achieving cult status. Most cults have three factors in common: an authoritarian structure, shady recruitment tactics, and the level of control they exert on their members.
If you want to figure out whether you’re in a cult or not, look for these signs:
- A charismatic leader—most cults have one leader who acts as the face of the cult. Everything that happens in the cult revolves around the leader, and he is often touted as ‘supreme’ or ‘all-knowing.’
- Reformation of thoughts—if there is some coercion going on, there’s a good chance you’re in a cult. They often look to engineer members’ views in such a way that their life revolves around the cult and nothing else.
- Exploitation—if they’re looking to get you to give them something that you own—money, property, or even your family members—you’re definitely in a cult.
How do these cults go about recruiting their members?
There is a widespread false belief that cults mainly recruit people suffering from mental illnesses, but that isn’t the case. Most cult recruits are just regular, everyday people. Cultists look for relatively stable people who are going through a rough patch. People from all walks are susceptible to being influenced to join a cult under the right circumstance. Research shows that people who are stressed, emotionally vulnerable, neglected or abused as children, have tenuous or no family connections, or are living in adverse socioeconomic conditions are more susceptible than others. College freshers are a great example. Since they are separated from their families and still finding their way around the world, they are liable to cult influence.
Another way cults get recruits and get them to stay is by ‘love-bombing.’ It involves identifying a stressed and emotionally vulnerable target, and flooding that person with affection. Further, cults provide a sense of belonging and community that most people look for.
This tactic has been used by cult leaders like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and David Koresh to convince followers not only to join their cause but also to commit terrible atrocities in their name.
Once recruited over the promise of a higher purpose or self-improvement, the recruits are isolated from the outside world. TV, books and internet usage are all censored to ensure that the cult’s ideals are not compromised. Recruits are separated from their friends and family, and also sometimes, from each other. The cults ideologies are instilled into them over the next few weeks.
Mob mentality is another big hindrance to decision making once you are in a cult. When you are cut off from the rest of the world, and your peers do everything they are told to do, how could you object?
All these factors lead to brainwashing, which makes cult ideologies hard to escape even after you have left the cult.
How does being in a cult affect its members?
Ex-cultists face difficulties adjusting to regular life. There are rehabilitation programs to help the re-assimilation into society easier but success is not a guarantee. Furthermore, these programs are expensive and most ex-cultists can’t afford them.
Growing up in a cult makes it especially harder to leave since one has never been in contact with the outside world. Most children who grow up in a cult have difficulties reading, writing, and communicating their emotions.
Michael Young was a member of The Family International, a Christian cult that gained notoriety under the name The Children of God. He grew up in the cult and has said that many children in the cult were sexually abused.
Anna LeBaron was the daughter of Ervil LeBaron. He was the leader of the Church of the Lamb of God, a cult that encourages polygamy. He and his brothers have allegedly murdered dissenters. Anna was one of Ervin’s 50 children with his 13 wives, escaping from the cult at the age of 13. She describes moving on as a painful and slow experience.
Governments usually keep track of cults and their activities, even though this information isn’t readily available to the public. Cults have been around forever and will continue to be around forever. All that has changed lately is our access to free information. While this might help people be more aware of cults and their tactics, it can also connect the vulnerable to several malicious cults. There are more cults than ever today, the internet providing a great forum to spread their ideologies.
For as long as humans exist, there will be some among us looking to manipulate and cheat. All we can do is watch out for tell-tale signs and not fall for bogus claims. Let’s face it—more often than not, if something sounds too good to be true, it almost definitely isn’t.
Written by Swagat Sarkar and Sabarish Padmakumar for MTTN
Edited by Rushil Dalal for MTTN
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