Cult activity has been on the rise over the past few decades. With it there has been an increase in the fear surrounding it. From this fear, society has learned much about cults, how they get members and what to look out for as far as cult recruiters go. Society as a whole has also learned what can be done to deal with cults.
Cult activity and the fear that surrounds it
Throughout the last couple of decades more and more stories of illegal cult activity or murders by satanic cults appear on the news each night. This surge of reported cult activity has caused a spark in public interest. There has been a large increase in the fear that surrounds cults over the past couple of years. A cult is “a therapeutic or unconventional religious movement (McBride, 1985, 22),” and the more cults that fall beneath the public eye, the more serious the fear of cults becomes. Much of this fear has been sparked by major cult related incidents such as mass suicide by the People’s Temple or the murder of Sharon Tate. These incidents, and incidents like them, grab the nation’s attention and create widespread panic. But as the nation reads about these stories in the paper, the same questions seem to surface. Questions like “How does this happen?” or “What can we do to stop this from happening again?” are often asked.
The panic and fear of cult activity in our country seems to continue to grow with the more unbelievable stories that hit the news. The first big news event that was cult related occurred in 1969. Five dead bodies were found by the maid at 10050 Cielo Drive. Beautiful actress Sharon Tate who was pregnant at the time, and her friends Steven Earl Parent, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, and Jay Sebring were found butchered thoughout the residence (Bugliosi, 1974, 18).
The murders themselves grasped the nation’s attention, but it was when the murderers and their motives surfaced that the fear began. It was in February of 1970 that the motive of these murders was discovered (Bugliosi, 1974, 283). Through police investigation, it was discovered that the murders were cult related. Charles Manson and members of his cult, known as “The Family,” were to blame. Manson and family lived on a ranch in California. Manson was an avid fan of The Beatles and believed that this rock band spoke to him though their lyrics. He particularly liked The Beatles’ White Album which included the song “Helter Skelter.” Manson interpreted this song’s lyrics as a prophecy of a race war that would take place between the blacks and the whites. In this war, he believed the black man would rise up and slaughter all of the whites. So Manson’s plan was to take his family out into the desert and hide in a bottomless pit until the war was over. After the war, he believed the blacks would realize all they ever knew was taught to them by the white man, and if they wanted to survive, they would need a white person to tell them what to do. That is when Manson and his Family would surface from the bottomless pit, and be the rulers of the world as the master race (Bugliosi, 1974, 284-290).
The only problem with Manson’s prophecy was that Helter Skelter never came. So he sent Family members out to kill Sharon Tate and friends and instructed them to make it appear as if the blacks did it. He tried to accomplish this by writing words in the victims’ blood all over the walls like “Arise,” “Helter Skelter,” and “Death to the Pigs.” All this was done in hopes of starting the race war (Bugliosi, 1974, 424). The trial for this terrible crime was so publicized that it played a very significant role in creating cult fear.
The next largely publicized cult related incident occurred in 1979 with the mass suicide in Jonestown (Green, 1993, 34). Jim Jones started his cult in California. His cult was referred to as the People’s Temple, and his followers called him Reverend Jim Jones. Jones operated his cult under the cover of a home for depraved children. He managed to round up 300 children, some taken illegally, and around 600 men and women who wanted to help these children. Jones then left California, and headed to Guyana (Miller, 1990, 42). It was there that he convinced his 900 followers, made up of men, women, and children, to drink orange squash laced with cyanide. Jones called it “revolutionary suicide (Green, 1993, 34).” This event was such a big deal in the public eye because of the number of people involved in the suicide. 900 people were convinced to voluntarily kill themselves and when this hit the newspapers, fear of cult activity grew.
In April of 1993, the FBI became aware of man named David Koresh and the cult he led which was known as the Branch Davidians cult (Green, 1993, 38). He lived in a house on a Texas ranch with his followers who were known as “disciples.” Koresh believed he was Christ reborn, and he would not allow any of his followers to come in contact with anyone outside of the cult. The FBI got involved when they discovered that the cult was stockpiling weapons. When the FBI discovered the Branch Davidians cult was heavily armed, they surrounded the Texas ranch with FBI marksmen and a fleet of tanks. Koresh refused to allow any of his disciples to leave, and the stand off lasted several days. This stand off ended, however, when a fire broke out in the ranch and twenty-four people burned to death (Green, 1993, 36). This occurrence helped spread the fear of cult activity because a number of the people that burned to death were children who really had no choice in joining the cult. If their parents joined so did they.
Big news events like the Manson Family murders, and the mass suicide at Jonestown, only happen every so often. However, events that seem to continuously be in the news are those related to Satanism. Most of these events are small and isolated, but the massive numbers of them are stirring worry.
A highly publicized example of this occurred in Jasper County, in southwest Missouri. Three high school seniors Ron Clements, James Hardy, and Theron Roland II, were convicted of murdering Stephen Newberry. The three struck Newberry over the head with a baseball bat more than 50 times during a satanic ritual and then dumped the body in a cistern, which already had the remains of mutilated cats and squirrels. The three boys used their obsession with Satanism and devil worship as their defense during the trial (Futterman, 1989). Cases like these from all over the country hit headlines and widen the fear surrounding Satanism and Satanic Cults. Larry Jones, founder of the Cult Crime Impact Network, claims that Satanists slaughter 50,000 children each year (O’Reilly, 1993). With the quoting of statistics like these, it’s no wonder that the alarm over satanic activity is on the up-rise.
With all of the panic and fear surrounding cults, much research has recently been done to see who is at risk of becoming a cult member and how the cult leaders recruit them. For the most part the young are at risk. It has been thought that most cult members must have started off with deeply rooted psychological problems, but this is not the case. Predominantly, the kids are normal in every way, but are at some “in-between” part of their lives, such as entering college (McBride, 1985, 115). Usually the recruiter is of the opposite sex and approaches the potential cult member with a smile and an invitation to dinner with some friends. It is there that the complex method known as brainwashing begins (McBride, 1985,116).
Brainwashing, also known as mind bending or thought reform, is professionally known as psychological coercion. There are many different methods of brainwashing, each usually very subtle. Fritz Knabe, an ex-cult member, said “It’s very hard for people to understand brainwashing. People think that their mind is a temple and that nobody can force them to think anything. The point is, you can’t tell it’s happening if it’s successful (Green, 1993, 36).”
The main goal of brainwashing is as follows: (1) to drastically alter a person’s sense of reality, (2) to get the potential cult member to accept a new reality, (3) to alter the understanding of the potential cult member’s past, (4) to get the potential cult member to accept a new belief system, and (5) to get that person to be a loyal member of the cult (Miller, 1990, 96).
The book Coping with Cults outlines a very general method of the brainwashing process. The method is as follows: “Isolate the person and manipulate his or her environment. Control the channels of information and communication. Wear the person down though inadequate diet and fatigue. Replace uncertainty, fear, and confusion with the promise of joy but only as part of the group. And finally, assign repetitive tasks such as singing, chanting, or copying pages from a book (Miller, 1990, 98).”
A prime example of the recruiting and brainwashing process is Charles Manson’s method. He used the girls in the Family as a recruiting method. He would allow men to have sex with any of his girls as much as they like. After they did it once, the men were his, they would do anything Manson said (Bugliosi, 1974, 120). The family stayed on a ranch that had no clocks and was isolated from the rest of the world. There was also much drug use by Manson and the Family. The average family member ate LSD at least 300 times while they were at the ranch, while Manson preached about Helter Skelter or orchestrated massive orgies (Bugliosi, 1974, 431). Occasionally he would feed the family LSD and reenact the crucifixion of Christ with himself as Jesus (Bugliosi, 1974, 120).
How extreme the cult recruiters will go to get new members seems to be matched with how extreme people will go to get their loved one out of cults. The first method to get someone out of a cult came about in the 1970’s and is known as deprogramming. It was started by the “Father of Deprogramming,” Ted Patrick. Ted Patrick was an ex-trucker with no training in psychology or cults who decided something needed to be done. He offered his services of getting a loved one out of a cult for the cost of nearly $80,000. In his book, Let Our Children Go, he spoke of “fighting fire with fire” meaning going to extremes in order to get the loved one out of a cult (Miller, 1990, 109). His idea sounds good in concept, but deprogramming is illegal. Deprogramming involves holding people against their will after being kidnapped and then convincing them over many days not to go back to the cult (Miller, 1990, 111). He also openly took part in hundreds of kidnappings and went to jail repeated times for breaking the law. It is a sort of reverse brainwashing, only not nearly as subtle. Ted Patrick was quoted as stating, “I believe firmly that the Lord helps those who help themselves — a few little things like karate, mace, and handcuffs can come in handy from time to time (Green, 1993, 38).”
A much safer and legal way of getting the same result is known as exit counseling. It is a much better way of cult recovery because it doesn’t involve kidnapping or restraint, which is just as bad as what the cult leaders do. Exit counseling is really a quite simple process. It involves the cult member that the family or friends wish to get out of the cult having a meeting with ex-cult members and a psychologist. In the meetings, the cult member hears similar experiences from ex-cult members and they learn more about topics such as mind control (Miller, 1990, 110). After the cult member realizes what they have gotten themselves into, they need help getting out and rejoining society. Exit counselor Ayman Aksar, speaking on the topic of exit counseling said, “People can feel very insecure and afraid, and need help (Green, 1993, 38).” Continuing to meet with the exit counselor helps deal with these feelings.
Cult activity has been in the headlines for decades. With each story comes the heightening of the fear surrounding cults and cult activity. Cult activity can take the form of something as obvious and publicized as the Manson Family murders or can come in random and unrelated Satanic acts. With the fear from the public came many questions that were demanded to be answered. It was from this fear that society now knows who is at risk, what to look out for, and how to get someone out a cult safely and legally.
- Bugliosi, Vincent. (1974). Helter Skelter. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
- Futterman, Ellen. (1989, February 5). Hints of Darkness: Satanism Reports Stir Worry. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, pp 1A+.
- Green, Caroline. (1993, Febuary). The Far-out World of Cults. Focus Magazine, pp. 34-38.
- McBride, James, Sheperd, Williams C., & Robbins, Thomas (Eds.). (1985). Cults, Culture, and the Law: Perspectives on New Religious Movements. The American Academy of Religion.
- Miller, Maryann. (1990). Coping With Cults. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
- O’Reilly, David. (1993, July 18). The Devil, You Say. The Philadelphia Inquirer, pp G1+.