It's both ironic and terrifying that the undead aren't even the biggest threat to humanity's survival in the zombie apocalypse. While walkers do pose a very real danger to The Walking Dead's survivors from time to time, it's living people who've proven themselves to be incredibly menacing— especially when in large groups.
Thinking back on past seasons, two of the most treacherous groups on #TheWalkingDead were Terminus and the Wolves; homicidal and even cannibalistic enemies hellbent on destroying Rick's group. What made them all the more dangerous wasn't their violent tendencies, but the way their groups operated: like a cult.
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What Makes A Cult?
Cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich believes there are four basic markers of a cult. The first and probably most important requirement is a charismatic leader. Then there are three systems of guidelines: one for very specific, "transcendent" beliefs; one for subtly influencing members; and one for controlling them (rules and regulations). It's a pattern we've seen more than once on The Walking Dead.
The Wolves were a classic example of a cult. They were led by Owen, who convinced them that they were the descendants of actual wolves. Owen also hinted at his group's "code", which seemed to include killing the weak.
In a slightly less insane but just as sickening example, Terminus also operated much like a cult. Though they once started out as a peaceful community, Gareth's group soon turned to a less philanthropic way of life after a truly horrifying experience. They adopted a cannibalistic way of life, and those they recruited could either choose to adopt their diet of human flesh or be killed. Much like the Wolves, the group definitely met the classic cult criteria— a dangerous formula in the apocalypse.
This is a pattern that's been carried on through to Season 7, and has become a lens under which we can analyze practically any community on the show. And if history has taught us anything, it's that Rick should be incredibly wary of groups exhibiting these behaviors.
But how many other communities could be considered cults on The Walking Dead? Alexandria and Hilltop definitely don't make the cut, but there's quite a few other contenders. Let's take a look:
Charismatic leader: Negan is the perfect blend of charisma, charm and intimidation. His followers kneel before him, he has a harem of women at his disposal, and the members of his group obey him without question.
Belief system: "We are all Negan" is the Saviors' creepy slogan, and they take it very seriously. While it seems like a unifying concept, it's really a reminder of their communal enslavement: everything they do is to serve Negan.
Influence system: The Sanctuary has an absolutely horrifying method of punishing those who disobey Negan (just ask Dwight). However, it also has subtle methods in place to encourage servitude and participation from its members. Residents work for points, and the higher-ups can even work their way towards some real luxuries: their own rooms, a night with Negan's wives, or the chance to run an outpost. While discipline is a massive part of the Saviors' lives, it's really only half of the equation.
Control system: Of course, the Saviors aren't all sticking around for the homemade pickles and haircuts. They're terrified to step out of line due to the threat of having their faces melted, losing a limb or just being straight up murdered. On a lesser scale, they confiscate weapons from certain communities, demand half of what they scavenge or grow, and often rock up unannounced to keep the communities who serve them on their toes.
Are they a cult? The Saviors are without a doubt the most shining example of a cult The Walking Dead has ever seen. Forget carving letters into foreheads and worshipping canine ancestors; the Saviors are the real deal.
Charismatic leader: It's hard to think of Jadis as "charismatic", but she certainly seems to have enchanted her fellow junkyard residents. They silently and obediently follow her every command, making it very clear that she's the only one in charge.
Belief system: Jadis' group is united by one guiding principle: "we take, we don't bother." While it may seem lazy, it's really a pretty smart way to get by. It's a unique way of life that unites them and helps them to grow stronger as a group.
Influence system: We haven't seen enough of the Scavengers to assess exactly how Jadis influences her followers, but there's one thing that's glaringly obvious: their clothes. The Scavengers all dress alike, looking like they've come straight out of a grungier version of Mad Max. It's a subtle way of erasing their identity and making every single member a part of the larger whole. The same can be said about their speech; their odd, jolting way of talking is off-putting, but it serves a greater purpose.
Control system: The Scavengers may avoid killing whenever they can, but that doesn't mean they're against murder. The true identity of Winslow the spiky walker was revealed at Walker Stalker Con in London. It turns out Winslow was a member of the group who challenged Jadis, but was killed and kept in the landfill as an example. That's one way to keep your group in line.
Are they a cult? It's hard to tell at this early stage, but the Scavengers are most likely a cult. How else would you explain a large group of people adopting such a syncopated and utterly ridiculous way of speaking?
Charismatic leader: Natania, a staunch woman with a knack for cooking a mean fish dish. She convinced Tara she'd grant her freedom, but secretly arranged to have her killed while being escorted away from the community.
Belief system: Not much has been revealed about Oceanside, though we know they don't like outsiders. They seem to have a zero-tolerance approach to intruders, and look out for each other at any cost.
Influence system: Oceanside are controlled by secrecy. They don't want Negan to find their location and enslave them yet again, so they keep their location on the down low.
Control system: Fear is more than enough to keep the residents of Oceanside in check. But unlike the kind of fear Negan exercises over the Saviors, it's not their leader they fear: it's an outside force. However, that clearly wasn't enough to keep Cyndie in check— she was willing to let Tara escape, despite the repercussions.
Are they a cult? Probably not. Oceanside may have some dogmatic rules, but that's just a result of having suffered horrendously at the hands of the Saviors. They do what they think they have to in order to survive, but there's nothing inherently controlling or cult-like about them.
Charismatic leader: Ezekiel, undoubtedly a former LARP legend and the apocalypse's most committed method actor. Not only does Ezekiel refuse to drop the jovial, medieval king act, but he's got everyone else in on it too. Apparently if you have a cool exotic pet, people will just go along with anything you say.
Belief system: The Kingdom doesn't seem to have a set system of beliefs. They maintain a peaceful ethos, but this is hardly cult-like behavior.
Influence system: The only thing keeping the Kingdom community in line is the prospect of living a happy life free from danger. They're free to leave anytime— but who would want to?
Control system: Non-existent. In fact, the Kingdom's lack of serious protocols may just be their downfall— it definitely doesn't pay to be laid back on The Walking Dead.
Are they a cult? If having a uniquely irritating and ridiculous way of speaking was a prerequisite for being a cult leader, then Jadis and Ezekiel would be the zombie apocalypse equivalent of Brian Jones. Fortunately, that's about as close to cult-status as Ezekiel, or the Kingdom, will ever come.
Can you think of any other examples of cults in The Walking Dead?
(Source: The Guardian)