Cults have long caught the popular imagination due to their inherent menace and the suggestion of a corruption of belief. People naturally want to believe in something bigger than themselves. However, when their belief is twisted by charismatic leaders, such as Charles Manson, Marshall Applewhite and George Roden, religion becomes a sinister mockery of faith.
While every cult, from Heaven’s Gate to the Davidians that occupied Waco, is different, they share some origins in common. Typically, cults form around some shared belief in a charismatic leader. The leader tends to operate the cult in order to make themselves the de facto ruler of a small community, which is part of why cults tend to form in isolated areas.
The human capacity to believe in higher powers and to put faith in leaders has long been central to human civilization. It’s a power so critical and so strong that when it is manipulated it can lead to horrible atrocities. Look no further than the Heaven’s Gate tragedy for evidence of this.
This is why cults tend to be so fascinating in the public imagination. Everyone wants to belong somewhere, and fit into part of something larger. As such, when we see that perfectly normal human psychological need manipulated to someone else’s will, it’s upsetting.
People that get caught up with cults tend to be otherwise normal people who simply find themselves swept up by charisma and circumstance. Often, those who join up with a cult are from smaller communities or are just looking for somewhere to belong. In some cases, people who have been abused in their past are more susceptible to being manipulated by cult leaders.
Religion is a divisive subject, but it plays an important role in society. Having values and ideals to believe in and aspire to is a very pivotal part of the human experience. Religions, by their nature, offer this. However, when these positive ideals are twisted towards the whims of a selfish cult leader, they become horrifying and sad in equal measure.