So, I’m not in a cult.
Probably. I think. No, yeah, I am definitely not in a cult. At this point (read: having spent spring break binging cult documentaries and listening to the audiobook of “The Language of Fanaticism: Cultish” by Amanda Montell) I would have no choice but to confront the harsh reality if I was in a cult. All this to say that it did make me ask the question: Could this happen to me? What makes me different from the innocent people who fall victim to cults?
My time immersed in the cult-universe did open my eyes to two things, however: anyone can fall into the traps of a cult, no matter their education status, class, race or ethnicity, and cults exist on a spectrum. They don’t have to be large and destructive, like the Jonestown or the Manson family cults. It could be something as commonplace as SoulCycle.
Let’s evaluate what a cult is first. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a cult as a group of people whose beliefs are considered extreme, dangerous or strange by many people. This is a largely abstract term, which is beneficial for the point I wish to make.
Ideally, people in cults show signs of longing for community. The cult provides them a chance to form bonds with people who share similar beliefs and also allows them to develop a sense of purpose and belonging. This isn’t inherently a negative thing. As I so often talk about, the student farm I am a member of here at the University of Connecticut provides me similar things— purpose, identity, connections. This brings me back to my original question of what makes me any different from people who fall into cults?
For one, cults have a leader. Notable examples include Charles Manson leading the Manson family cult and Jim Jones leading the Jonestown cult. This individual initially proves themself to be charismatic and hardworking. Commonly this is when your average folk fall into the lure of a cult; at first, the warning bells don’t ring. But then once the leader establishes their trust within their soon-to-be-followers, they start ensuring compliance with their followers. It’s smart: show yourself to be a good human, so then when people ‘disobey’ you, they will feel like a bad person.
Let me bring this back now into how this emerges in our daily lives. These behavioral patterns demonstrate themselves in programs such as OrangeTheory or SoulCycle. The consequences are not nearly as drastic as those in cults such as Heaven’s Gate, but it still embodies the idea of following one speaker and feeling negative about yourself when you don’t. When you attend more OrangeTheory classes, you are rewarded and belong more in the community. Of course, you aren’t going to be abused when you don’t follow guidelines like those in Jonestown were. This is why I reiterate the point of it existing along a spectrum with the famous cults on one far end and these exercise programs on the other.
The philosophy is to curate the perfect image of yourself. Attending five classes per week for months on end will leave me with my ideal body, positively reinforcing the idea that this community is good for me, therefore allowing me to idealize the person preaching these goals to me.
It all begs for critical thinking at every stage of your relationship with something, with anything or anyone. For me, watching these documentaries resulted in me evaluating the role that hobbies and people play in my life. Are the relationships mutually beneficial? Are they healthy? Do I have the opportunity to leave without facing severe social ramifications?
It still bothers me that anyone, truly anyone, could fall into the trap of a cult. This isn’t to say I think I am going to join one anytime soon; I actually think I am too transient of a person to ever accidentally join a cult. Still, the possibility of it is concerning. It’s why we all have to practice critical thinking and making mindful decisions of what we allow into our life and why.