“When people leave cults, they don’t know that they left a cult.”
-Sean Durkin

On November 18, 1978, 909 people, 304 of them being children, killed themselves in Jonestown, Guyana by ingesting Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide and a sedative.

They were all followers of the cult of Jim Jones.

What is the power behind that and other cults? What compels so many people to follow one person so devoutedly no matter how obsurd his or her philosophy sounds to the people on the outside?

In order to disect those questions, one has to start at the beginning.

Firstly, what qualifies as a cult?

The textbook definition describes it as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” Going even more indepth, several sources classify it as “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.”

How does it begin?

Generally speaking, it starts with the idea of one person (in most cases, it’s almost always a male as per statistics) introducing an idea that seems unusual and out of the ordinary. Perhaps the biggest example of this is L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, who wrote a book called Dianetics which first introduced the concept of Scientology.

The book, first published in 1950, suggested a system of psychotherapy that would rid the mind and body of negativity, be it physiological or psychological. That system, as years went by, became the basis of all the practices followed by Scientologists to “ascend” to higher levels.

While wildly criticized by people in the medical profession and scientists, the book resonated with readers everywhere. Nearly three years later, Hubbard established the first Church of Scientology in Camden, New Jersey.

Much like Hubbard, Saul B. Newton, a psychoanalyst and founder of the group nicknamed “Sullivanians,” offered similar unorthodox ideas proposing that family ties and monogamous relationships were the “root cause of mental illness.”

Nearly all cult leaders, be it Hubbard, Jones, Newton and/or Keith Raniere (founder of NXIVM) proposed a gateway into an existence that offered something that was otherwise, ostensibly lacking in people’s lives.

All leaders took their one idea, which varied from leader to leader, and were able to entice a group of people with it. That group eventually ballooned to a mass following.

In essence, the initiation of a cult always starts with an intrigue of what is being proposed by the leader. But what gets a person hooked beyond a point of return in spite of the proposed ideas never leading to anything significant? Is it the charm of the leader? Is it the strong belief that the ideas proposed will actually lead humanity to levels of superiority hitherto unheard of?

While the above reasons can all be true, and generally are, psychologists suggest that the reason with most prominence is a simple human trait: the need to belong.

It’s human nature to want to be accepted and loved by people. It’s human nature to want to be admired and listened to. And that’s the first appeal of almost any cult. Because the beliefs of a cult are almost always challenged by the outsiders looking in, cult leaders often instill the idea of “us vs. them” in their followers.

Now that the two basic principal factors of this topic, how a cult starts and how a following is attained have been touched upon, the next logical step would be to give specific examples of these ideas and much more.

Tune in for the second part of this article tomorrow which look at specific cases of people who joined cults and a few who eventually got out.

What do you think of when someone says the word “cult.” What is the first image that pops in your mind? Have you or anyone you know ever been in a cult? Share your feelings and experiences by commenting below.

Hi, I'm Neel! I'm a writer (fiction and poetry), a journalist and currently working in the advertising business. I'm also a mental health advocate, having been diagnosed with clinical depression a few years ago.
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