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When shit hits the fan: The negative side of cults

This article was originally published in the “Cults and Gurus” issue of Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience in the app. You can read Tribe now on Android or iPhone.

You have to watch out for the word “cult”.

Like any label, it has seriously negative connotations, and overuse can erode the serious and dangerous implications of branding an organization as a cult.

Think about it:

We’ve all heard people casually dismiss something as a cult just because its participants were a tad zealous.

Soulcycle? Is it a cult because the cyclists all scream call-and-response style while pedaling to intense music? Probably not.

But branding Soulcycle, improv classes, or tech company culture as a cult runs the risk of watering down what the word cult truly means.

Further, when everything slightly zealous is a cult, the truly disturbing and abusive organizations can get a free pass.

If Soulcycle is a cult and Jonestown is a cult, how do we differentiate between the two?

That’s a lot of rambling, I know. However, it provokes two valid questions:

  1. How do we define a cult
  2. Why do we define a cult?

Let’s tackle the first question.

How do we define a cult?

Historically, a cult referred to the worship of a specific individual, god, or object.

We see “the cult of Dionysos” or “the cult of Demeter” crop up in ancient Greece, referring to intense venerations around a specific God out of many that were part of a state religion.

In Rome, you have these same intense venerations toward deities. However, you also get what’s called the “Imperial Cult,” a cult that cropped up regarding the Emperor as a divine being.

This type of cult can be thought of as quite similar to the cults of personality that many dictators have developed throughout history.

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While modern dictator Josef Stalin never claimed he was a god, he was presented as all-knowing and venerated through art, songs, and public displays of affection.

Cults of personality can be very dangerous. They ascribe God-like powers and God-like infallibility to a fallible human.

When a leader’s followers insist that their leader can do no wrong, they legitimize every decision the leader makes–for good or evil. If Caesar is a God and he decides to massacre the civilians of a renegade province, that simply means Caesar is meting out divine punishment.

Right?

You can see how dangerous this ideology is.

Let’s take a look at the last type of cult – cult in a modern sense. This is where the definition of cult breaks down, causing countless organizations to fit into the umbrella of the cult definition, which means that the term is in danger of becoming useless.

That definition would be “a group or sect with unusual beliefs or practices.”

That definition could apply to anything unusual.

Who determines what organizations are unusual? This overly broad definition runs the risk of becoming a word that opponents will use to label anything they don’t like.

Do you think it’s weird how that tech company does yoga every morning before they all begin their workday? They must be a cult.

This is why I want to cut through the malarky. I want to hack away these vague definitions and present an easy-to-understand checklist for cults. Then, using this checklist, we can easily determine what organizations meet the definition of a cult and why being a cult is so dangerous.

We’re going to determine what happens when you follow the rabbit down the rabbit hole, drink the kool-aid (flavor-aid), or whatever other cult-inspired mixed metaphor you’d like to throw in.

Let’s find out what happens when the shit hits the fan

When shit hits the fan, shit sprays everywhere, or the fan breaks (or both).

In terms of cults, shit is perhaps one of the biggest components. That is, the cult purports it to be the source of absolute truth–no one else’s opinion or facts are tolerated.

How do believers wind up in a position where they’re, for lack of a better phrase, swallowing that shit?

Let’s keep diving.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton identified three characteristics that all cults have in common:

  1. The group is led by a charismatic leader who becomes the object of worship, surpassing the group’s original principles as the focus. There are no checks or accountability on this person’s power.
  2. There is a process of coercive indoctrination and thought reform.
  3. Economic, sexual, or other forms of exploitation are endemic.

These are the three cornerstones on which cults are built.

You have a charismatic leader that serves as the font of truth and authority. An organization initiates new recruits into this ideology through coercive indoctrination (brainwashing). Following this, the leadership exploits these vulnerable members like a parasite bleeding their host dry.

Robert Jay Lifton has an additional 10 characteristics of unsafe groups if an organization doesn’t quite meet the criteria for a cult but is still dangerous:

  1. The group’s leadership wields absolute power.
  2. There is no tolerance for questioning the leader.
  3. There is no financial transparency.
  4. Members have an unfounded fear of the outside world.
  5. The group says there is no reason to leave.
  6. Former members tell similar tales of abuse.
  7. Outside agencies have documented the abuse.
  8. Followers feel they’re never good enough.
  9. The group and leader are always right.
  10. The group and the leader are the exclusive sources of truth.

This breakdown of cults is pretty similar to the three characteristics we identified earlier.

In this case, it’s perhaps a bit granular. However, when you look at the two lists together, you can start to easily identify what sets a cult apart from other peculiar organizations.

Notably missing from these lists are the religious beliefs and tenets of the organization. Having an unusual founding myth or religious text doesn’t make a group a cult.

Suppose you and I came up with a religion stating that the universe was one giant pie. We honor the giant space pie by cooking the pie. All good Pieians baked three pies a week, giving one to the homeless for good measure. That wouldn’t make our religion a cult.

What would make our religion a cult is if we started indoctrinating people into our religion, cutting them off from their families and making them sell their house and give us the profits.

It would also be a cult if we forced them to believe that we were the only ones able to communicate with the space pie – and whatever we say is the will of the space pie.

If the members wanted to survive the end of the world, they’d do what we say when we say it!

That’s what would make our religion a cult.

So, let’s take a look at a few real cults – ones that really shoveled the shit until it hit the fan–and determine the devastation that their exploitation brought.

On March 20, 1995, a group of cultists released nerve agents on five different stations in the Tokyo Subway system, killing 13 and injuring hundreds, if not thousands.

That, right there, is terrifying alone. It was a terrorist attack on the unsuspecting public.

However, when you start pulling the thread from the sweater, you unravel an even more grotesque and horrifying story–one that had the potential to kill tens of thousands, if not more.

In short, the shit that hit this fan was just the only shit that didn’t miss its target.

I’m talking about Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese Doomsday Cult that (miraculously, ha) is still around to this day.

Led by the mysterious Shoko Asahara, Shinrikyo mixed Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christian millenarianism (the End of the World is Nigh!) into a seductive New Religious Movement with Asahara at its center as the literal Christ. Asahara was a man who proclaimed he could absolve sin and would help his followers navigate the end of the world.

The religion was very popular in Japan and Russia, with approximately 10,000 members by the early 1990s.

With this gain in membership came increased financial resources. A gain in money afforded Shinrikyo access to technology that would get any of us put on a wanted list.

Founder Asahara was increasingly convinced of the end of the world, so they purchased old military equipment and land for compounds in Japan, Australia, and Russia. In Australia, the cult began performing nerve-agent tests on livestock, determining how to kill large numbers of animals effectively.

There’s nothing weird about that, right?

At the same time, Shinrikyo had fallen down a slippery slope of illegality.

A cult member had died following an accidental drowning during an initiation gone wrong (it’s always those pesky initiations), causing the organization to illegally dispose of the body.

This set off a chain reaction of coverups. Shinrikyo assassinated non-members looking for their deceased friend, family members of Shinrikyo initiates considering leaving, Shinrikyo members themselves, and (most gruesomely) an anti-cult lawyer along with his wife and 1-year-old child.

Let’s recap.

The cult leader murdered members and non-members (including children) to intimidate and silence critics and initiates. Strip away the strange religious dogma, and you’ve got a mafia.

But that’s not all!

Shinrikyo went from being convinced the end of the world was upon them to decide that they were going to bring about the end of days.

To this end, they embarked on a chemical and biological weapons program.

Prior to the Tokyo subway attack, they attempted to cultivate strains of both anthrax and botulism, going so far as to spray liquid concentrates of these bacteria on the Japanese Parliament Building and over the streets of Tokyo.

Luckily, Shinrikyo didn’t correctly manufacture the lethal strains of these bacteria, and no deaths were caused. However, they refocused on chemical weapons, testing them on Matsumoto residents, where they killed eight people in the run-up to the Tokyo attack.

The Tokyo Subway attack is only the apex of Shinrikyo’s depravity by sheer happenstance.

Shortly after the Subway attack, Shinrikyo planted a cyanide bomb in the Shinjuku station. The detonation would have set off a bomb of cyanide gas into the station’s ventilation, killing 10,000 people.

Fortunately, a cleaning woman found the bag containing the bomb and moved it slightly, knocking the detonator out of alignment. The bomb simply caught fire instead of exploding, and a passerby put it out before any real damage occurred.

After these attacks, Shinrikyo was raided. Its leaders were captured and convicted. In 2018, 13 years after the attack, Shoko Asahara was executed by hanging.

Do you want to know something crazy?

The cult still exists. It goes by the name of Aleph and has over 1,000 members to this day. While that’s a far cry from their 10,000 in the 1990s, it’s a testament to their disturbingly broad reach in Japan and Russia.

There is no shortage of cults with stories ending in tragedy, so I had a hard time picking which ones I wanted to talk to you about. I ended up picking one whose ending was less violently carnal but filled with somber and pitiable death.

I’m talking about Heaven’s Gate.

Heaven’s Gate got its start in the 1970s. Led by Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate proclaimed that Earth would be wiped clean, and he could help believers launch their consciousness into space to avoid Earth’s fate.

Under his tutelage, followers would send their consciousness to a waiting spaceship to take them to Heaven.

How did they try to get their consciousness onto this spaceship? How did the shit hit the fan?

Well, let’s back up a bit to see how the shit shoveling began.

What’s important to remember is that cult indoctrination isn’t a lightswitch; you don’t go from being a normal person to beaming your consciousness onto a spaceship overnight. It’s a process, and processes take time.

Heaven’s Gate stressed the importance of all cult members doing exactly the same thing throughout its multi-decade existence.

Cult members sold their homes and possessions, cut off all contact with their relatives, and followed a life plan that Applewhite commanded. They abstained from sex, all ate the exact same meals, and all wore the same clothes.

In this way, Applewhite removed their individuality so that they believed themselves as special people – people who trusted Applewhite with their salvation.

Applewhite taught them that they would not have to die to beam their consciousness onto a spaceship but gradually changed this teaching over several years.

Eventually, it became clear to the group that they would have to die to be set free.

Again, this didn’t happen overnight. Instead, Applewhite eased them into it. They dressed the same, ate the same, and thought the same.

He encouraged members of the cult to be castrated to enforce his commandment of celibacy. Amazingly, eight members volunteered to have the procedure done. Reportedly, they were giddy about the procedure.

By 1997, the comet Hale-Bopp was approaching Earth and regarded by Applewhite as the celestial vehicle that would whisk the group to Heaven.

Over three days, the group committed collective suicides in stages. A group would consume food laced with sedatives, place a bag over their heads, lie down, and suffocate.

After three days, 39 men and women had died, hoping to follow Applewhite off to the comet Hale-Bopp.

Heaven’s Gate is a fascinating cult that never used violence or raw intimidation to force cult members into doing their bidding.

Instead, it gradually wore away members’ individuality and agency until they could barely function without guidance from Applewhite. Applewhite never ordered members to kill themselves. Rather, they feared being left behind when he ascended to Heaven.

Ultimately, cults are about control – controlling members’ actions, thoughts, and lives. When cults succeed in exerting this kind of unprecedented control, rampant exploitation and abuse take place.

This abuse can be:

Economic:

They force people to give their livelihoods to the cult.

Physical:

Painful initiation rituals can lead to permanent bodily damage.

Sexual:

While we didn’t explicitly cover sexual abuse, cults such as NXIVM have well-documented histories of forcing initiates into sexual servitude, going as far as branding women with the founder’s initials.

Thought-control:

Cults reform your ability to think critically, putting you at risk of causing harm to others or yourself.

In the examples of Shinrikyo and Heaven’s Gate, the founders did not directly perform any murders.

Instead, they convinced their followers to kill others or themselves, demonstrating the power of the charismatic cult leader: getting others to perform the vilest deeds in the name of salvation.

Written by Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis is a Manhattan based playwright and poet of Floridian extraction. A graduate of NYU Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he served as a Rita and Burton Goldberg Fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Writing for the Stage in Spring of 2015. His most recent play, Lord of Florida, was workshopped by PrismHouse Theatre Company in the Fall of 2017.

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