Though a cult is defined by a shared veneration and respect for a central being, idol or idea, the American concept of cults usually involves religious fanaticism. A set of rites of passage usually drives the members of a cult as they attempt to purge or separate themselves from an alienating world. For this reason, many contemporary American cults demand that their members cut off contact with anyone not involved in the inner system.
Colin Campbell’s Cult explores the origin of the sociological concept by tracing it to a 1932 classification of religious groups by sociologist Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch differentiated “sects” from “cults” with self-harm or violence inflicted on others as a defining line between them. Sociologists later identified a religious or ethical schism between members of a cult and the general public. The more friction between mainstream culture and the culture of a religious group, the more likely they are to be considered cult-like.
Members of groups known as Doomsday cults often subscribe to beliefs related to the impending apocalypse. In 1997, a study of religiously-affiliated individuals in America found that most cult members only turned to a catastrophic, nihilistic worldview after repeated attempts to join a mainstream religious community. One of the most often analyzed communities still holding apocalyptic values is the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda. In 2000, members of the Movement sold their property and livestock in large-scale preparation for what their leaders called the impending end of humanity, which the Movement believed would be ushered into realization by the Virgin Mary.
Following a feast on the evening of March 16, followers of the Movement settled in together to greet the apocalypse. When March 17 arrived, a massive explosion in the center of the meeting killed most the Movement’s followers. Many believe the cult leaders enforced this mass killing when they realized they wouldn’t be able to pay members back for their lost property.
In 1987, Japanese yoga instructor Asahara Shoko formed a cult in his yoga studio after an alleged meeting with the Dalai Lama in India. The cult, known as Aum Supreme Truth, taught its followers an amalgamation of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu ideals. The religious cult began to worship Shoko as a deity on earth, and on March 20, 1995 Shoko ordered five of his followers to board trains in Kasumigaseki and release poison, lethal gas on passengers. The attack killed 12 people and caused serious health issues for over 5,000 other passengers. In this instance, police were able to track down Shoko and his cult and dismantle most of their infrastructure.
Most current discussion of cults tends to center around existing entities like Scientology, which can easily be linked to groups like Heaven’s Gate through the newly coined term “UFO Religion.” That is, any religious sect which incorporates the existence (and usually the influence) of extraterrestrial life is considered by some to be a definitive UFO religion.
The early 1970s saw Marshall Applewhite rise to power following a near death experience he shared and analyzed with his nurse, Bonnie Nettles. Marshall and Bonnie agreed that Marshall’s miraculous revival linked them as the two witnesses to the apocalypse as described in the book of Revelation 11:3. They began teaching across the US as a duo; their sermons dealt with concepts of salvation and Christ’s love alongside what they believed to be access to alternate dimensions or other unseen worlds. After a few years, Marshall Applewhite began referring to himself as a direct descendant of Christ who was no longer even human, but instead an “evolutionary kingdom level above human.”
In his now infamous video tapes, Marshall outlined his ideals and plan for the eventual mass suicide of his followers, who all believed death was an escape from the earth’s eventual “recycling” where humanity would be wiped out by God a second time (the first time being the flood in the story of Noah). On March 20, 1997, thirty-eight of Applewhite’s followers committed suicide by ingesting cyanide and arsenic. They mixed an anti-convulsant chemical with applesauce, washed the mixture down with vodka, tied plastic bags around their heads to encourage asphyxiation, and laid down to die.
The image of Applewhite and his followers, dead under purple blankets wearing brand new Nikes, is a now an almost-cliche part of the American consciousness. As an additional chilling detail, each of the dead followers had exactly $5.75 in his or her pocket to pay interplanetary tolls.
Even more infamous than the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate followers is the stunningly large body count left behind by the charismatic cult leader Jim Jones. At the beginning of Jones’ career, his skill as a orator rocketed him to stardom in underprivileged, disenfranchised communities. As a Pentecostal preacher, the Rev. Jones attracted a large African American Christian following in Indianapolis before moving to Guyana to start his commune, the People’s Cultural Agricultural Project, now known as Jonestown. The Reverend and his congregation of thousands fled to Jonestown in 1997. Urged by the loved ones of cult members, and former cult members as well, Congressman Leo Ryan pursued a visit with Rev. Jones and was murdered by cult followers as soon as his plane landed.
That same day, Jim Jones oversaw the mass suicide of his followers through the distribution of Flavoraid mixed with cyanide and Valium. The death toll included nine hundred people, including more than two hundred children. This was the largest loss of American life due to a deliberate act until the events of September 11, 2001.
A question of terminology arises here: most analysis uses terms like “mass suicide” and “mass killing” interchangeably when discussing history’s most violent cults, simply because the psychology behind an act like the Jonestown massacre has not been entirely explained. Stanley Clayton, an early but ex-communicated followers of the Rev. Jim Jones, is quoted in Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple as professing “that man [Jones] was killing us.”
One of the tactics used by Jones early in the development of his followers was “self-incrimination,” cited often as a red flag for cult-like structures. In the early days of membership, followers of Jones were instructed to write down their most private fears and source sof guilt, which Jones had access to at all times. He used these admissions to shame followers publicly, and arguably created a more personal sense of faith for each of them, as though the followers had signed up themselves into their contracts just by confessing their flaws. The sociological concept of indirect “mind control” often centers itself around manipulative acts like this.
The breakdown of the individual in the face of an all-knowing, all-encompassing God is a trait shared by both mainstream religions and cult practices, but the enacting of these ideals seems to be the differentiating factor. Admittedly, though, the line is blurry.
Many believe those who fall in line with cult practices operate from dangerously low self esteem, or an overall sense of “not belonging” to everyday society. Again, studies have shown that all cult members attempt numerous times to integrate themselves into mainstream society before turning to a leader like Rev. Jones.
This set-up, of course, is akin to the Manson family as well, led by musician and infamously cruel cult leader Charles Manson in the 1960s. Manson targeted young, impressionable women who desired his romantic and sexual love enough that their connections to their families and everyday society proved weak, and eventually snapped. Manson often gave his female followers new names, integrating them into his nomadic, artistic lifestyle at the height of the “hippie” mindset in the states.
To read an analysis of Charles Manson’s concept of Helter Skelter as it related to the music of the Beatles, I’d recommend the NPR interview with Jeff Quinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson.