True Stories of Mind Control and Murder
In her chilling book, Cults Uncovered, true crime author, Emily G Thompson examines eighteen criminal cults from across the world such as the infamous Manson Family, Jonestown and obscure cults such as The Ant Hill Kids, and those more recently in the news including NXIVM.
The Crime Hub decided to find out more…
Emily, what inspired you to write this book?
In the aftermath of a cult, people are quick to dismiss cult followers as naïve, gullible, and kooky fanatics.
However, that’s a sad misconception and that’s something I wanted to highlight with Cults Uncovered. People that join cults are mostly no different than you or I.
They join cults for the very best of motives and it all boils down to manipulation. Cult leaders mercilessly take advantage of the desires of many people – a longing for a purpose, a family, a higher being. They weaken their followers by isolating them and making them depend on the cult to survive.
A lot of people can be victimized by cults because it can be easy to fall into a vulnerable state and when in that vulnerable state, another person can maintain more influence over us than normal.
Cult followers are typically normal people made vulnerable by certain situations or personality traits such as dependency needs, disillusionment, desire for spiritual meaning and idealism. Destructive cults can blend in very well with society.
Are there common character traits that you found in the leaders of the criminal cults you researched?
While each chapter in the book covers a different cult, there is a recurring theme throughout the book: the psychological traits that are attributed to each cult leader. In particular, cult leaders all believe that the are unique in one way or another and therefore hold on to the belief that they are unique in one way or another and therefore entitled. It’s this perceived uniqueness that cult leaders use to entice members who are searching for answers, a deeper meaning in life or enlightenment.
A number of cult leaders are charismatic and authoritarian and while they lack empathy, they have a deep desire for admiration and reverence. Quite often, their entire identity is built on the respect they feel they deserve and demand from their followers and the fear they elicit.
Every cult featured in “Cults Uncovered” follows quite a predictable pattern that ultimately ends with their downfall. It is a manifestation of what can happen when a dangerous narcissist is in control of a group of people and has the power to convert these people to an extreme and sometimes violent ideology.
When cults descend into criminality such as violence and sexual abuse, are they merely expressions of the cult leaders own moral compass or do you think it comes from something deeper within the cult members as a whole?
Cult leaders have such a strong hold over their followers that their personal needs and problems become part of the group’s agenda. When they descend into criminality, it is typically an expression of the cult leader’s moral compass. Their followers truly believe in the ideology of the group and believe that what they are doing is for the greater good.
By definition, cults are not harmful or dangerous. They can be based on a number of things such as religious beliefs, self-improvement, politics, and even UFOs.
A cult becomes dangerous when the cult leaders isolate members from their friends and their family, interfere with someone’s ability to free thinking, persuade followers that the group’s goal is more important than individual needs, and instil fear in the followers.
Do you believe these cult leaders had a genuine belief in their doctrine/religion or was it just a cover in a hunger for power?
It really differs from cult leader to cult leader but more often than not, a cult leader is pathologically narcissistic. They all often have an over-abundant belief that they are special and that they should be revered by others. They claim divine powers in a bid to achieve their goals, whether they believe in their own divine powers or not can be debated in each case.
Their drive for power to achieve their ends will almost always stop at nothing and violence, abuse and sometimes death have become an all-too-familiar part of cults.
Your book references cults in the nineteenth century as well as those in the modern day. Isolation of its members is often a characteristic. Does the online world make them more of a rarity today?
Cults aren’t a 20th century phenomenon. Any time there is a huge breakdown in the structure of society, cults spring up to fill in the gap. For example, in the 1960s, they easily attracted people disenchanted with mainline religion and disillusioned with the Vietnam war. Their strongest appeal comes during high-stress times.
Cults in the modern-day are completely different and most often, don’t appear to be so outrageously different from mainstream groups and may therefore be more attractive to average people. However, we are living in the age of connectivity and with the internet, we always have an outside connection and available sources devoted to combating cults. There’s so much information available that can arm people with a deeper understanding of the nature of destructive cults and an improved ability to protect themselves against them.
While it’s more difficult to isolate somebody and indoctrinate them nowadays, it’s also much easier to find like-minded people over the internet than it is handing out pamphlets on the streets. The internet is a vast – and technically anonymous – network that ties millions of people together and it can have a dark and dangerous underbelly.
More about Emily G Thompson
True crime writer and investigative reporter, Emily G. Thompson has her own popular true crime website, Morbidology. She is the author of Unsolved Child Murders: Eighteen American Cases, 1956-1998 and the co-author of DK’s Unsolved Murders: True Crime Cases Uncovered.
Also available, now in paperback
A fascinating true crime book that makes you the detective, investigating some of the most infamous unsolved cases of the 20th and 21st centuries.
By Amber Hunt and Emily G. Thompson
Click here to buy Cults Uncovered
Interested in cults in crime fiction? See our review of Alex Marwood’s The Poison Garden