Cults. They’re oddly fascinating. And while it’s easy to get lost in footage of people drinking the metaphorical kool-aid (our recs: Going Clear and Wild Wild Country for documentaries; Midsommar and Sound of my Voice for fictional movies), it’s good to remember that most cult members actually start off as regular people looking for answers and a sense of community – much like the rest of us.
So what kind of scary stuff have cult members gotten themselves into? Let’s dive in:
Let’s start with one you might not have heard about. In the early 2000s, a man named Lou Castro set up camp in a sprawling area outside Wichita, Kansas. He called it “Angel’s Landing.” Why? You guessed it… Lou considered himself an angel.
He managed to convince a whole slew of followers that, as an angel, he could tell you exactly when you were going to die. Now, of course, the challenge with that kind of prediction is that it can pretty easily be proven wrong if that particular date comes and goes.
So Lou solved that problem the way most psychopaths would – by occasionally killing his followers. But the kicker was that Lou would convince his followers to take out huge life insurance policies, and the money would go to him. So each time someone ‘accidentally’ died on the compound, Lou got richer.
Lou was eventually caught after moving to Tennessee. Turns out his real name is Daniel Perez, and people formerly in his cult have since told tales of rape, sexual abuse, and murder.
Thankfully, Perez was sent to jail for 80 years.
Have you ever seen the movie Leap of Faith, starring Steve Martin and Deborah Winger? It’s great. You’d like it. It tells the story of a faith healer who scams his way through rural America, taking advantage of people’s belief in God. But it’s a Steve Martin movie, so it’s lighthearted and funny.
Well, the People’s Temple is like the horror version of Leap of Faith. Jim Jones was originally a faith healer and huckster who convinced a slew of people he had magic powers. He first set up shop in Indiana, then built a compound in Redwood, CA.
Before long, Jones decided that Guyana, a small country in South America, was the best place to bring his followers. They created a compound there they called “Jonestown.”
Before long, a few members of his cult leaked info to the American press that Jones was having his followers practice for a mass suicide. Disturbed by the news, a congressman named Leo Ryan went to Jonestown to look into it. But Jones wasn’t going to let anyone get in the way of his plans—he had Ryan shot, along with the three journalists he brought with him, and a cult defector.
Then, as planned, Jones had all his followers drink a poison-laced drink. Nine hundred of them died. This is actually the very grim origin of the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.”
If there was one cult that probably should have been started by Quentin Tarantino, it’s this one. Not because it has anything to do with cinema, but because it’s all about feet.
It all started in Japan, where a man named Hogen Fukunaga claimed to be both Buddha and Jesus reincarnated. Not only that, but he assured his followers that he could look at their feet and instantly know their future. Fat toes equaled good fortune, for example. You know, basic science.
Now, maybe that’s not the most outrageous thing you’ve heard of, but here was the kicker: He convinced his followers that if you didn’t get your feet examined, your health would rapidly decline. Add in the fact that he charged them an arm and a leg for each exam, and it eventually became apparent this was more of a money grab than any real religious society.
Fukunaga was eventually found to be a fraud and ordered to pay back $2.12 million to a slew of people from whom he swindled the most money.
NXIVM (pronounced “Nexium”) is an upstate NY-based cult that was all over the news a couple of years ago. And with two prominent documentaries as well as ongoing trials and jail sentences, it appears the public’s fascination with this story might only be beginning.
NXIVM is the brainchild of Keith Raniere, a long haired, slightly dweeby, volleyball-obsessed psychopath. Under the guise of self-improvement and improving the world, Raniere developed a multi-city cult that had the (purchased) blessing of the Dalai Lama, as well as influential celebrities and wealthy backers (like actress Alison Mack and the daughters of Seagram tycoon Edgar Bronfman, Sr.)
But instead of helping his followers, Raniere developed what has been called a combination of “pyramid scheme, a sex-trafficking operation, a cult, and a sex cult.” Some members were manipulated into being sex slaves, others were deprived of food and freedom, and anyone who tried to defect was ruthlessly pursued. Oh, and certain female members had to brand his initials on their nether-regions.
Fortunately, Raniere was finally brought to justice and sentenced to 120 years in jail and a $1.25 million fine. Other members of his inner circle are currently being tried, and may face similarly grim fates.
Side note: If you’re gonna watch one of the docs, we recommend Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult on Starz. (The other prominent one, HBO’s The Vow, was done by former members who conveniently didn’t document how involved they were in the wrongdoings.)
So why am I reading this?
You might be thinking to yourself that you’d never be dumb enough to join a cult. But most of us, at one time or another, have felt lost or alone, and would give up a lot for clear answers and a strong sense of belonging. And let’s admit it: many of us have also fallen for the idea that if we just do _____ (fill in the blank), our lives will be so much better.
So what makes NXIVM a cult … and Crossfit only cult-like? (jk jk, we’re totally cool with Crossfit, guys)
Most cults seem normal – even helpful – on the surface. When you first join, you might be invited to activities like meditation and self-help lectures. Because there are no obvious red flags in the beginning – and because ⅔ of cult members are recruited by someone they know – new recruits start to trust the organization. It’s only after some time has passed that cults start to exert their vice-like grip over people’s lives.
What differentiates cults from other organizations is that they start to demand more and more out of their members – including time, money, and personal commitment. Cults isolate their members from the outside world and demand absolute commitment out of their followers. Because members are surrounded by other people who are modeling total faith in the organization, and because it’s increasingly difficult to leave, they end up conforming.
The reality is, though, that even non-cults have been known to exhibit cult-like qualities. For example: fraternities and sororities have been known to haze and even brand their members. The leaders of some religions and organizations – like Bikram Choudhury of Bikram Yoga – have abused their power and taken advantage of their members.
So here are a few questions to ponder …
? Do you think cult members see themselves as being part of a cult?
? Can most people tell the difference between an “authentic” spiritual leader and a false prophet, scam artist or cult leader?
? The world’s 5 major religions are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If a new major religion gets formed, how will we know it’s “legitimate”?