Why are we Fascinated by Cults? Preview of an upcoming FSS ep – Heaven’s Gate, Waco, NXIVM, Jonestown, Charles Manson & more

When someone brings up a story or interesting fact about a cult, the listeners eyes invariably pop open.  We, almost universally, are fascinated with the stories (and horrors) associated with cults.

A brief scroll through streaming services and other pop culture reveals a number of titles worth exploring – Hulu alone has a number of titles ranging from the very-well produced (through A&E) “Cults and Extreme Belief” series, Louis Theroux’s “My Scientology Movie,” the ABC News specials, “Truth & Lies: Waco” & “Jonestown: Paradise Lost,” plus multiple looks at the NXIVM cult via “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult” on Starz and Lifetime’s “Escaping the NXIVM Cult.”  Starz also boasts “The Cult of the Family”  Meanwhile, Netflix created the incredible docs-series “Wild Wild Country” on The Rajneesh movement in the 1970s & ‘80s and the recently-released book “Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them” by Max Cutler & Parcast is a must-read.

Clearly, there’s a big market for cult stories.

The topic of cults, understandably, comes up from time to time during conversations on The Fantastic Story Society podcast.  Most notably, we discussed the Heaven’s Gate cult with Lisa Van Buskirk as we toured a haunted location in Madison, WI that was the suicide location of a member of the cult who is not counted among the 39 members who took their lives in that 1997 mass suicide near San Diego.  As perhaps the first cult in the Internet age, Heave’s Gate traveled the country, attempting to recruit new members from college towns like Madison and may have had considerably more members who stayed in touch using email and their (still live) web site.  We may never know how many people actually did participate in that mass suicide when considering individuals taking their own lives on that same day in March of 1997.

I often create a post on this site after we release a podcast episode.  This time, however, I thought it would be good to organize my thoughts and possibly get feedback from you on the topic.

I am very excited to announce here that we will be interviewing cult expert and specialist on de-programming people who have been warped by cults, Rick Alan Ross. For all episodes of “The Fantastic Story Society,” I go down the research rabbit hole.

Two important questions that can lead to a lot of discussion are (the previously mentioned) Why are we so fascinated with Cults & What defines a cult?

I’m sure I can research this and find a checklist of sorts, but I’d like to come up with my own list based by observations from researching recent, higher profile cults.

After interviewing an actual expert, Rick Ross, I will update this list with actual information rather than my speculation. But for now…

here is my guess at what factors define a cult:

  • The leader is elevated in some way: Super human (Keith Raniere of NXIVM claimed to be the smartest person in recorded history), in communication with Biblical figures or even the embodiment of them.  Similarly, aliens can stand-in in similar ways to Biblical figures.  Or possessing other mystical powers.
  • Isolation – separate the new member of the organization from their friends & family.  Remove anyone that can give a different perspective.
  • Recruitment – Only once the member has total commitment to the organization can a member then reach out to friends to get them to also join the cult.  However, the cult member should probably only reach out to more distant friends, rather than the closest friends from their pre-cult life.  Also, as seen in “Cults & Extreme Belief,” the FLDS (a Fundamentalist sect of the Mormon church is fully against recruiting and instead focuses on procreation within existing members.
  • Total control – In addition to isolation being the first level of control (control of who you are allowed to converse with), cults find ways to make members fully dependent on the organization.  This is by having members give up all possessions (they no longer have the financial ability to go out on their own) or give up all decision-making.  In NXIVM, members were on strict calorie counts, their food intake totally regulated.  When and how much sleep is permitted is another way cults make decisions for members while also wearing down their mental ability to think clearly.
  • Abuse – While everything else on this list can be considered abuse, the most extreme cults eventually rely on more overt examples of abuse, which can mean forced unpaid labor, beatings, child abuse, sexual abuse, pedophalia, coerced murders and mass suicide.
  • Create a desire/need to ‘level up’ – If the leader can create a hierarchy, members will work to get ‘promoted,’ allowing them to carry out even the most extreme tactics without the leader having to oversee all day-to-day actions.  In some cases, the secondary-level leaders end up more extreme than the founders (I’m thinking Sheela’s military-like leadership of the Rajneeshees while leader, guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh seemed more content to live a free-love hippy lifestyle – albeit with Rolls Royce’s to cruise around in & the fact that Marshall Applewhite was initially against his disciples wishes to castrate themselves within the Heaven’s Gate cult).

In the near future, I intend to create a graphic that features examples of how the most well-known cults could be identified as cults, using the above bulletpoints as a sort of rubric.  1) It should hopefully be interesting and 2) Someone who might be reading this article wondering, “am I in a cult?” could use that chart to independently observe their own group as a safety check.

On to the question about our interest in cults…

Is it the same as our fascination with Serial Killers or any type of true crime?  Or simply a the gawker’s delay where everyone wants to look at the car accident while in traffic?

Similarly, I think some of that comes with the terror that, deep down, we are afraid of ourselves being vulnerable.  Some may use these stories to feel superior over people who are taken in by the cults, thinking of members as easily manipulated, naïve, damaged or desperate loaners.  “As long as I don’t fall into that category, I’ll be okay.”  

Consider this:

Would you find a philosophy appealing that’s crafted by a collection of messages from successful people like Andrew Carnegie, verses from the Bible, messages of peace from Beetles lyrics & even some future thinking taken from science fiction books?

On the surface of it, sounds good to me!  This was the source material for the hypnotic lectures of Charles Manson.  On deeper look, we see that yes, Andrew Carnegie was a successful businessman, but Manson used his corporate business negotiating tactics to learn how to influence & persuade people.  And while the Bible itself is full of beautiful life lessons of compassion, The Old Testament (utilized by countless cults) also has messages about woman’s inferiority compared to men.  Oh & the science fiction? Those books in question were written by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology.

While there may be instances of some people being more vulnerable, there are just as many examples of smart and successful people being totally taken in by cults.

Cults aren’t region-specific.  They have ties to the Midwest, East Coast, the West Coast, the South, with cults making big impressions in countries around the world.

Some other questions I’ll be asking:

  • I hear the phrase “Destructive Cult” a lot.  While some are obvious (Jonestown, Waco, Heaven’s Gate, etc.) isn’t this is a redundant phrase?  Is there a such thing as a non-destructive cult?
  • I see people talk about the Manson Family as a cult.  While they definitely check a number of my boxes, it seems different.  Do you consider them a cult?
  • The word “cult” has a lot of emotional impact.  Is it overused today?  Likewise, are there aspects of human nature or pop culture that SHOULD be considered cult-like?
  • It might be common to ask the difference between a religion and a cult (which we will cover too), but where is the line between conspiracy thinking and a cult-member mindset?
  • The idea of ‘brainwashing’ is a misnomer and not formally recognized as real. People are manipulated artfully enough that they aren’t believing things without thinking – they end up WILLFULLY believing outlandish things. Is every susceptible? How can people reverse course and see things clearly once again?
  • If you have other questions you’d like addressed, please leave a comment!


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