ByJancy Richardson, writer at
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Jancy Richardson

Cults & Conspiracies seeks to understand the evil that we do to each other and the psychological drives that inform those actions. Inspired by season 2 of Hulu's , Cults & Conspiracies investigates how cults and radical ideologies work their dangerous magic on the unsuspecting.

MP Super News's dark-leaning, inquisitive show has looked at the Jonestown Massacre and de-programming techniques, but this episode talks to ex-cult member turned sociology professor and cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich.

Check out Cults & Conspiracies episode 4 here.

See also:

How Do You Define A Cult?

A cult in action in 'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]
A cult in action in 'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]

Dr Lalich defines a cult as "a group or a social movement" that incorporates the following four tenets:

  • 1. A Charismatic Leader (alive or dead, as their teachings can be continued)
  • 2. A Transcendent Belief System offering an answer to everything, a "Recipe for Change" to "tell you exactly how to transform yourself" with explicit instructions, not just the wider teachings of a religion i.e. "be good to your neighbors."
  • 3. Systems of Influence: pressures to keep conforming, such as "guilting, shaming, some form of criticism."
  • 4. Systems of Control: rules, regulations, practical measures

Is There Something Specific To Our Society That Breeds Cults?

Dr Lalich states that cults are a universal, and there's no identifiable factor in present-day USA that makes cults more likely:

"Cults exist all over the world, and cults have existed since time immemorial, there are always going to be con artists, people who want to take advantage of people, people who've had some sort of mystical experience or delusion..."

Are Cult Leaders Mentally Ill?

A cult in action in 'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]
A cult in action in 'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]

Although all cult leaders can be considered to have a type of narcissism and megalomania, Dr Lalich identifies two types of cult leaders: those who believe what they teach, and those who do not. The first type:

"Either had a psychotic break and believed some angel came down and spoke to them... some of them may start out with good intentions.

The second type are con-artists who:

"Start out as just straight-out charlatans... they will often use religion because it gives them credibility, it's familiar, it's not gonna seem so unusual to new recruits."

The nature of the leader is paramount to what the cult becomes, Lalich says:

"Most cult leaders are some form of sociopath, whether undiagnosed or not... Some of them over time become straight-out crazy (take someone like Jim Jones, who because of the drugs was completely mentally-addled)...

Religious, political, self-help: it's not about the belief system so much as the structure that's set up to influence people and get them to conform... Whether [the cult] is gonna be violent or not has more to do with the proclivities of the leader than the belief system."

Cult Life: A Personal Experience

A cult in action in 'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]
A cult in action in 'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]

Before her current incarnation as Professor of Sociology at Cal. State, Dr Lalich was actually in a cult herself! Despite being a bright woman in her '30s, Lalich ended up in a political cult in '70s San Francisco for ten-and-a-half years, under the volatile leadership of a woman who was a "severe alcoholic and completely cuckoo." This cult eventually overthrew their leader, although the experience of cult life (both during and after) were traumatic:

"We believed we were martyrs and, of course, martyrs are supposed to suffer...

My brain was fried, I was not a person that I knew before... I did bad, mean things to people... you're like a shrunken person."

Ultimately, Lalich believes that education is the greatest defense against cults, although it's difficult to advocate in schools, as "it's almost impossible, because they think that you're gonna talk about religion and you're gonna offend somebody."

Catch a new episode of Cults & Conspiracies Wednesday on MP Super News. Next week we'll be talking to an ex-member of the notorious Children of God cult, to discuss the dramatic process involved in escaping the clutches of a cult. After giving over your life to a potentially dangerous movement, what does it take to get it back?

If you've enjoyed today's discussion of Cults and Conspiracies, check out Hulu's original series, The Path, streaming now.


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