Once Upon a Time seasons 1-5 spoilers
Story crafting is creating a narrative woven of truths, half-truths, and lies; a story that tells the recruit their place in the world and how everyone thinks of them. Villains in each of the above examples used this in some way. This tactic holds each of the others together. The most common cult story sounds something like this.
“You are special and amazing. You are one of us and you belong. You’re doing important work and that makes us love you. That makes us family. Not like those other people. They only pretend to love you. They’re secretly waiting for you to fail, and what makes you think they’ve forgiven you for all you’ve done wrong? Don’t forget what a mess you were when we rescued then. No one loved you then and no one but us will ever love you again.”
This is what Ingrid tells Elsa, what Anita tells Red, what Cora tells Regina. No one else will understand you, accept you, love you. It is a devastatingly effective tactic in the real world, especially when it seems to be true. Over 400 victims of Jonestown were never claimed, making it easy to understand why they may have felt that had no one else.
So how do you win? Well on Once, the heroes win by proving the villains wrong, by loving the unlovable. By giving guilt laden souls an opportunity for redemption. Time and again, they defeat the bad guys by showing kindness, by being understanding and accepting. By not being as cold as the villains swear they are.
In a show that could have easily gone a black and white, heroes v villains route, the writers have instead chosen to portray gray. Heroes aren’t perfect and villains can be redeemed, but not without support. Not without love. By not giving up on people who are weird or don’t fit in or hate themselves, the heroes break the evil spell of the villain’s lies.
This sings to the cult survivor inside of me. Cults and other abusers promise to provide worthy things humans need: love, family, purpose, acceptance. Telling people those needs are bad or wrong or weak won’t save anyone. Suggesting victims should have needed less or known better is actively damaging. The right way to defeat cult leaders and other abusers is by taking such good care of each other, no one’s needs are so unmet an abuser’s false offer of love is the only offer they have.
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