Written by Shobanah Brind
Content Warning: Viewers please be advised, this post will contain potentially violent or distressing themes, including psychological, physical, and sexual abuse regarding the inner workings of cults. Please see the list of resources if you feel you are impacted by the information presented.
Cults are a universal social construct and phenomenon which likely exist in some form in every country across the world. Cults can be difficult to define, as every group (cult) vary from one another and adopt different characteristics such as beliefs, structures, and methods; there are very rarely two that are exactly the same. Generally, all cults will display authoritarian control, extremist beliefs, isolation from society and the veneration of a single individual. Some cults have been involved in the murder of civilians, many have been found to abuse children, some are known for crimes like tax evasion, and others are known for mass suicides. But, no matter how different each cult may be, the majority of the time they involve some pretty dark and devastating stuff.
Cults can inflict grave psychological, physical, economical, and sexual harm on its members, and can have catastrophic impacts on individuals, families, and communities. The gold standard for identifying cults is provided by Robert Lifton (1969), who developed 8 psychological themes that if possessed by a group, allow for them to be labelled as a ‘cult’. These themes are Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation, The Demand for Purity, Confession, Sacred Science, Loading the Language, Doctrine over Person, and Dispensing of Existence.; all of which we will explore later.
What are the different types of cults, and how many exist?
Often, the first thing we do when we hear the word “cult” is assume that a group is somehow affiliated with religion. However, it should be noted that not all cult groups are religious or based on identifying with some type of religious ideation (though they often do adopt some kind of religion or religious beliefs!). Researchers have indicated that they believe there to be between 5,000-10,000 cults (just within the USA) existing and operating on any given day, and the International Cultic Studies Association estimates that 0.5-3% of individuals are involved in a cult at some stage during their life and in Australia it’s estimated that 2-3% of the Australian population are involved in a cult, one way or another.
There are 3 ‘types’ of cults that we see more often than others. These include:
1. Doomsday cults: These groups have members come together to prepare for an apocalypse or perceived imminent end of the world. Members may have to complete certain tasks, activities and rituals, or behave a certain way and follow a belief system that will allow them to survive a doomsday event.
2. Political cults: A political cult has a primary focus on political action and ideology, and will hold radical, extremist views relating to politics or a political figure. Some experts also define hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan as a Political cult, as many beliefs held by hate groups often involve political standings about the rights that should be attributed to minorities or other groups of people.
3. Religious Cults: Religious cults often hold extremist spiritual beliefs relating to how society should function, which rules must be followed and what behaviour is accepted under the eyes of a particular God.
Often leaders of these religious groups preach that only they can receive and deliver the messages from God, or that they are God or Jesus reincarnated. Most cults have underlying religious roots, and others offer brand new dogmas.
These are not the only cults to exist, are cult ‘types’ include sex cults, destructive cults, cults of personality, polygamist cults and so on… Some cults may also possess the characteristics of more than 1 type of cult.
*The difference between cults and accepted religions and beliefs, is that religious cults have views that are different from larger and accepted religions, as they are deliberately altered by cults and their leaders to fit their own ideology; and that cults hold religious/spiritual beliefs that are generally extreme and dangerous. Religious and philosophical ideologies on their own should not be considered as a means of legitimising antisocial and illegal behaviours of cults and their leaders.
What causes someone to create or lead a cult?
The psychology of cult leaders is complex and varies between individuals. There is never any one direct cause that has led an individual to create a cult or become a cult leader. However, research has found some characteristics often shared by cult leaders.
An ‘effective’ cult leader will possess a Narcissistic and/or Anti-social personality. They will often have a grandiose sense of self-importance, believe they are “special” and “unique”, they require excessive admiration from others, will have a sense of entitlement, will exploit others to achieve their own goals or needs and will lack empathy. However, despite all of this, most cult leaders are quite charismatic, and have a natural ability to persuade and influence others.
Cult leaders may additionally have other underlying psychological issues that play into delusions (such as the world ending); or may have experienced some type of traumatic event/s such as childhood abuse, loss of a loved one, significant change in status, or have some underlying trauma from their own experience with religion or other spiritual beliefs.
"Why on earth would someone join a cult"?
The People who Join Cults
Many people may assume that individuals who join cults are of a lower intelligence, are psychologically unstable or socially maladjusted. However, research and anecdotal evidence on ex-cult members has shown that many of them are quite well adjusted, educated, and successful. You would also be incorrect in believing that having stable relationships, steady income, and high self-esteem will completely prevent yourself or others from joining a cult; however, they can act as a potential safety net, making it more difficult for cults to manipulate victims into becoming members.
The Humans Search for Desire and Purpose
As humans we crave and desire comfort from others and comfortability within ourselves, and many of us may search for a meaning in life. Many people do this through religious or other spiritual beliefs; and others search for purpose. Many people find their purpose through career aspirations, becoming a parent or through travel and so on.
People who join cults, are mostly trying to do exactly this - fit in and find meaning or purpose. However, these individuals are usually at an extremely vulnerable stage in their life; and often having recently experienced great loss (making them more susceptible to manipulation). This loss can look like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job/ loss of financial stability, loss of relationship, loss of their home/shelter, loss of health, or loss of identity. They are often looking to fill the void that their loss has left or find a solution for their ‘crisis’.
“No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘it’s about time I got involved in a cult’ and goes out looking for one. Instead, they become unwitting victims of deception and subtle techniques of psychological manipulation” (Haworth, 1997).
Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out
Cult membership and addictive disorders share similar characteristics: persistence despite damage, initial psychological relief, high psychiatric comorbidity prevalence, and possible social precariousness. Members who have been forced to give up their relationships, connections, careers, financial savings, education and homes may create have great difficulty integrating back into society if they were to ever leave the cult. They may believe that their best option for food, shelter, counselling, and relationships, is to remain inside the cult.
Cult Themes – What do cults look like, and how do they work?
Milieu control is a tactic used to control communication within a group, dictating what a person will see, hear, read, and write. Leaders may do this by controlling what can be discussed and taught, and having innuendo, slang or odd pronunciations used by the group that allow members to better identify with, and ‘belong’ with the group. This is often seen in cults through the banning of television, radio, or music.
Mystical manipulation is where experiences (and ultimately behaviour and emotions) are manipulated to appear as though they are spontaneous and have occurred naturally; though in reality, they have been very carefully and cleverly orchestrated by leaders. Group members are unknowingly manipulated by leaders (adding to the leader’s ‘power’ and ‘mystique’) into feeling as though they have control over their beliefs and actions. Common ‘mind control’ tactics used by leaders include sleep deprivation and forced confession.
Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, presented himself to his followers as a divine figure, with supernatural abilities, including the power to heal and enlighten. He would use a combination of mystical rituals, meditation practices, threats of violence and mind-altering drugs such as LSD to alter followers’ perceptions and consciousness, which manipulated them to depend on him as a spiritual guide.
The Demand for purity
For cults and their leaders, the world is often viewed in binary terms: individuals are either pure, or impure (or ‘good’ or ‘evil’). Members may be considered pure when their beliefs and behaviours align with or conform to the direction of the group; and anyone who goes against the group would be considered impure. Because their view of the world is absolute, ‘purity’ creates an environment where the ends justify the means, with things like deception and violence being acceptable if they serve to benefit the cult.
Confession is often used as a means of achieving ‘purity’. Individuals coming into the cult are often made to confess sins or stories of their life and will begin to view everything and everyone they were involved in from their life as ‘sinful’. After confessing their ‘wrongdoings’ of their old life, they will often feel unworthy and highly critical of themselves, making them less likely to question the ideologies of the group and the leader’s authority.
Many cult leaders claim to have a ‘special’ scientific insight, where their ideas about the way of the world are unproven, unprovable, and untestable; and those who disagree are ‘immoral’ and ‘unscientific’. This ‘sacred science’ can be incredibly dangerous.
A leader of the ‘Breatharian group’ believed that there is an energy force known as ‘prana’ within the earth’s atmosphere, which means that humans do not need to eat to survive and could live on air alone (defying what science has told us about what needs must be met for survival). Members would undertake a ‘spiritual cleansing’ which involved 7 days with no nourishment at all (including water) and a further 14 days only consuming orange juice. This resulted in the death of at least one known person.
Loading the Language
“The term loading the language refers to ‘literalism and a tendency to deify words or images. A simplified, cliché-ridden language can exert enormous psychological force reducing every issue in a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to embody the truth as a totality’” (Lifton, 1969). By cults adopting clichés and expressions, the group and its members are further separated from the rest of society and creates a sense of belonging for the cult’s members.
Doctrine over person
In cults that emphasises ‘doctrine over person’ the ideology and teachings of the group are the ultimate authority, and members are expected to prioritise the group’s needs, doctrines and rules over their own individual autonomy, personal identity, personal beliefs, and personal wellbeing. Their needs and desires are subordinate to the groups doctrines, and may invoke conflict between what they are experiencing and what the group says they are experiencing.
Dispensing of existence
“Those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense, usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist” (Lifton, 1991). Many cult leaders believe that non-members or ‘rule-breakers’ of the group are evil, unimportant and should or will face punishment.
Cult members may believe that the only way for them to be ‘saved’ from ‘the end of the world’ or be rewarded with a ‘special’ experience such as heaven or becoming an angel, is to remain in and follow the rules of the group. Cult leaders may establish themselves as the ultimate judge of a member’s worthiness, or God’s messenger. Leaders will encourage members to remain in the group through instilling fears into members regarding their survival or acceptance by mystical and supernatural forces, or by threatening harm to the lives of members or their loved ones.
In 1978, an example of where ‘dispending existence’ was taken literally; leader of the ‘Peoples Temple’ cult Jim Jones, ordered his followers to commit a “revolutionary act” after demanding and receiving unwavering loyalty and obedience. The group all drank fruit punch laced with cyanide, resulting in the death of over 900 people, including children.
The impacts of cults
Everyone is different, as are cults; therefore, every ex-cult member will have different experiences which will shape how they are/were affected by a cult, and their beliefs and understandings of the impact and level of harm that cults have on individuals and the wider society. Testimonies from thousands of people who have sought support after a cult experience suggest that cults are dangerous, harmful and hurtful.
Isolation: most cults require that group members cut off contact with friends, family and other forms of social networking outside of the group. Their only allowed means of communicating outside of the group usually involves the recruiting of more members.
Loss of identity: followers may be forced to give up aspects of their identity when joining a cult. They may be given a new name, must dress a certain way, behave a certain way and be asked to no longer affiliate with previously held beliefs or cultures.
Intergenerational impacts & reintegration: there are often significant intergenerational impacts for families who have been involved with a cult, or ex-cult members who go onto have families outside of the group. If that child raised in the cult ever chooses to leave the cult, they may experience economical, psychological, health, and social barriers which prevent them from being able to successfully integrate into society.
Children’s education and development: Limited education from outside of the group can limit children’s critical thinking skills, can have long-term impacts on their ability to succeed academically and professionally, and can restrict their ability to think independently and form their own identity. In some cases, children and adolescents are subject to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. This significantly impacts children’s psychological health and physical development and can warp their understanding of safe relationships.
Psychological and Emotional impacts
Testimonies and research on ex-cult members have shown that leaving a cult can have drastic impacts on psychological and emotional wellbeing. Though research in the area is limited, available research has shown that approximately 70% of individuals who left a cult experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), 60% reported experiencing depression, 80% experienced symptoms of anxiety and a study from former members of the ‘Children of God’ cult found that 44% experienced dissociative symptoms. As well as this, there have been reports of insomnia, isolation, struggles with substance abuse, and attachment or relationship issues.
Financial exploitation: cult leaders may encourage followers to donate large sums of money to the group or leader, causing significant financial hardship for followers who may give up their life savings, or risk going into debt to support the group.
Employment and education: Some cult leaders may discourage followers from seeking employment or education opportunities outside of the group. This can impact their ability to gain stable employment or develop skills that may be useful if they choose the leave the group.
Property ownership: in some instances, cults will encourage or demand that the ownership of a follower’s property or assets be transferred to the leader or the group. This can result in homelessness for some members if they ever choose to leave the group.
Tax evasion: cults will sometimes engage in illegal activities such as tax evasion or money laundering to fund their lifestyle.
Impact on communities: a cult may start a business or other kinds of operations in their community, which can negatively impact the local economy through bringing competition against other legitimate businesses and may also include labour exploitation.
Video on ex-cult members' experiences
“You Can’t Ask That”, Season 3, Episode 3, Available on ABC iView. ‘An unprecedented glimpse into the complex lives of 8 Australian former cult members – how they joined, what they were subjected to on the inside, and how they ultimately escaped’. Available at:
Ladbible Channel on YouTube. “I grew up in a cult”. Ladbible sit down with Hope, who was born and raised in an apocalypse cult. Available at:
What can we do about cults?
It is important to stay mindful in understanding that everyone is entitled to their own belief system. However, this belief system should not and cannot be used a means of justifying harmful, dangerous, or illegal behaviours.
Recognising the signs (themes) of cults, is key in preventing them and shutting them down. Some of these signs have been addressed in this article, however if you are looking for more information, or have concerns about a potential cult; visit the International Cultic Studies Association’s Website at: https://www.icsahome.com/elibrary/faqs
Many of us are intrigued by true-crime stories (I know I am!). Our intrigue for crime (cults included) comes from our desire to understand more about human behaviour, and what makes people tick. We may often enjoy true-crime through books or blogs, podcasts, documentaries, or docu-movies. It is important when consuming true-crime stories for entertainment purposes, that we step back and acknowledge that these stories weren’t shared with us purely for our enjoyment. The people we hear about and hear from in true-crime stories are real stories, with real people who have real pain. So, whilst it is totally okay to enjoy learning new things, and share our intrigue with others, it is important to remain mindful and considerate to the victims of crime, and appreciate their strength in sharing their stories.
Support Groups for Cult Victims and Survivors: https://www.icsahome.com/support/consultationsupportgroups
Lifeline - Call or Text 13 11 14.
BeyondBlue – Call 1300 22 4636.
Community Restorative Centre – Service available to family and friends of people in NSW Prisons – 02 9288 8700 (Monday to Friday)