Power preys on the vulnerable. It eats insecurities, chews them up and spits them back into a machine that turns and turns, becoming more and more controlling.
Power can make the weak feel strong, the poor feel rich and the insecure feel secure. Power like this has been harnessed by numerous toxic people throughout history, but seems to find a snug, comfortable home inside groups of people who become dazed by it. This overwhelming power is specifically harnessed in the minds of the enigmatic people who lead cults – self-appointed leaders who use this power to make others bend to their self-serving will.
Over the past few years, the explosion in popularity of the true crime drama has ushered in a renewed fascination with a specific niche of true crime – cults. There are currently four feature films in production about the Manson Family murders. Documentaries and reenactments of Jonestown, Children of God and other cults have been created, as well.
The difference between stories of horrific disappearances or serial killers and those of cults is that there are still many active cults in the world today, although their practices and recruitment have shifted and adapted over the years. Because the average age of cult recruits range anywhere from 18 to 25, college students can more easily imagine how someone may fall into these manipulative and mysterious groups.
University of Miami professor Dr. Elyse K. Hurtado, who looks at cults in her social psychology class, says research on vulnerable groups points to a number of risk factors. “There are some psychological factors that tend to contribute, in that they tend to come from dysfunctional backgrounds,” Hurtado said. “They might be looking for financial support, emotional support or be vulnerable in that way in which a cult might meet a need that they have.” The most important factor seems to be personal crisis. Cults attract someone who feels alone, alienated or disillusioned – someone who is searching for meaning or a sense of belonging.
It is important to note that people who find themselves in these groups are not predisposed because of a weakness, mental illness or personality deficit. It is purely the culmination of a perfect storm – being at a certain point in life, feeling a certain way and crossing paths with an individual who can read you like a book and whose charisma feels like a guiding hand in the dark.
Cults and their leaders offer solutions in two ways, according to Dr. David W. Kling, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami. “[For people who join a religious movement, they may feel] a disconnect between the real and the ideal; that is, there exists a tension between life as they know it and life as it should be. Sociologists have labeled this ‘an acute felt tension.’ In short, they’re disillusioned or dissatisfied with life as they know it.”
They also often have a belief that religion will solve whatever part of their life they are dissatisfied with and are typically at a turning point in their lives with little attachment to social networks or family.
The real power that fascinates in this situation are the leaders and the tactics they use to exercise power over their recruits. They often come from a background of trauma and dysfunction. They have incredible charisma and self-serving narcissism. So, how do they go from being the leader of a church – like Jim Jones, for example – to giving orders for mass suicide out of fear that the government is coming for them and their followers?
Dr. Hurtado emphasized that this shift isn’t a quick one and is usually sparked when leaders “keep breaking with reality.” In Jim Jones’ case, his break with reality came in the form of drinking, drugs and sex.
“It happens slowly,” Dr. Hurtado said. “You have to get in the mind of someone with narcissistic tendencies, the drugs addiction, the sex, the alcohol. Over time [Jim Jones] becomes more and more perverse, more and more strange. The thinking becomes more and more twisted – he had to keep breaking with reality.”
It is this progression that explains the willingness of cult members to follow their leaders down these increasingly darker paths. The Paramount Picture mini-series, “Waco,” details the 51-day standoff between the FBI and leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh. In it, Michael Shannon, the actor playing FBI negotiator Gary Nosener, says that “there’s a paradox to power. The more force you bring to a situation the more likely you are to receive resistance.”
In Jonestown, Jim Jones would have ceremonies where his followers would drink punch that wasn’t spiked to get them used to the idea of drinking it that way. This subliminally prepared them for his larger ask – drinking punch they knew would end their lives.
Charles Manson would ask his newer girls to perform smaller tasks, which then escalated to the girls using sex to find places to live and, eventually, the infamous Manson Murders.
Easing their followers into darker, twisted ideas and bringing them into their progressive breaks in reality can be seen as a practice in obedience. To be obedient, you must be following an authority.
Dr. Kling discusses charisma as a type of authority, saying, “typically, cult leaders possess charisma or certain personality gifts that attract people to them. Charisma is a kind of authority that is recognized by others. It’s different from our modern legal or rational form of authority where authority goes with the job description.”
To explain this, Dr. Kling gives the example of the president. While in office, the president holds tremendous authority. His exit from the oval office, however, coincides with his loss of authority. Appearance, voice, confidence and grandiosity of an individual, Dr. Kling said, are all indicators of charisma to their followers.
The famous psychological study called the Stanley Milgram experiment on obedience, specifically looks at the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. In short, the subject was paired with another person. The two of them drew to see who would be the “learner” and who would be the “teacher.” The experiment was skewed so that the subject was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s planted people.
The learner was set up with electrodes and learned a list of words. The teacher then tested him on his memory and was told by a charming scientist in a floor-length, crisp white lab coat to administer an electric shock to the learner every time he made a mistake, increasing the shock level with each wrong answer. The volts went all the way up to 450 watts – a shock the learners knew was strong enough to kill a person. About two-thirds of the participants went all the way up to 450 at the direction of a “person of authority,” the scientist.
If you compare this response to obedience with the practice of increasing the intensity of what followers are being told to do, the common ground is the charismatic authority figure. Since this specific type of authority is given by others, not taken on by oneself, the authority figure gains more power as their following increases.
With this understanding, it becomes clear how a single person can control so many people with such force. The authority is used as a tool of manipulation, and when you add the fact that followers live side by side with their leader, often having sex and doing drugs with them, lines become blurred and the reality of the situation becomes all encompassing.
Charisma is a powerful thing. When we consider the things to which we give authority in our own lives, often simply because they are shiny, convincing and hold promises of grandeur, we must ask ourselves, at what point is the authority misplaced? At what point does that power become poison? Trusting in something or someone who seems larger than you can seem easy. Trusting yourself and continuously evaluating your own reality, on the other hand, is not.
worlds_olivia stauber. photo_sidney sherman.