Why Do People Join Cults?

I come back to this topic every year, because it’s the most important thing I write about. It is the most confounding question and it has the simplest answer. People join cults because they are human, and they have unmet human needs. Ithink we want it tyo be something complex or difficult, some nefarious super secret exploit that cult leaders are hacking. But really they just take advantage of basic needs: to be loved, to belong, to have purpose, to have structure, to be punished and forgiven. 

Your cult is your mother and father, giving you identity, sustenance, and your sense of safety from the outside world. It feeds you, dresses you, and tells you who to marry. You rely on your cult to protect you, guide you, teach you, correct you, scold you, chastise you, and love you. This is not a balanced relationship of equals. You are dependent: a child at their feet, filled with wants and needs you can only hope they will fulfill. 

When the cult leaders and their agents do turn to you, do address your needs, you feel as if the sun was placed in the sky only for your joy, almost selfish in happiness. Senpai noticed me! It is spotlights, Christmas, Hollywood, Broadway, Vegas all wrapped up in one – the glow of of being near the leader’s bright shining light. They are no mere mortals, or at least it’s easy to forget they are. On the inevitably low quality videos they make in dated outfits with bad hair, their charisma never comes through and they are openly laughable. 

But to be in their presence is to fall under a hypnotic spell, to be enchanted and enraptured. They are mystics of the highest order. Part snake oil hucksters and part snake charmers, charismatic movement leaders have a special talent for making people feel seen and heard, without really looking or listening. A dedicated cult member in the presence of their master will feel peace, enlightenment, and spiritual awakening. A heightened state of being simply from exposure, a veritable contact high. 

My grandmother would take calls from devoted followers while cheating at crossword puzzles. When she couldn’t bear to feign interest in their ramblings any longer she’d snap two Lee Press On coated fingers at me as a signal. “Giggy!” I would cry out for her. “Oh my granddaughter is calling for me, I have to go,” she would give this technical non lie, then laugh in victory as she hung up. She’d pulled a fast one on them. 

I did see that side of her. I saw more sides than most and I still loved her, love her. It’s impossible to explain. I know she’s evil and yet I have never met anyone more loveable. She was easy to fall in love with. She made it so. She wrote a narrative that was compelling, told a life story I wanted to hear more of. She was all spark and sparkle, and yes evil too, but so fascinating she made that seem like a footnote and not the main story. 

In a world of dull, cult leaders shine like diamonds. No, like supernovas. And they promise to give everything the rest of the world doesn’t: safety and security, but also beauty and sparkle. And oh how I love sparkle. 

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