Despite their omnipresence within popular culture, it's the mystique of the cult that keeps us coming back for more. The stories of charismatic leaders, emotional manipulation and an ideological yet ultimately destructive ethos which so often results in all connections to the outside world being severed. Tales of rainbow families, Kool-Aid coated rims, faux "Nazi-style" torture chambers, and an eight-month pregnant Sharon Tate tied up and stabbed to death in her own home, continue to circulate and captivate.
What's less discussed, however, is the sheer strength it takes to leave a cult; to escape not only with the fear of the consequences, should you be caught, but also of how you'll be accepted by friends and family upon returning to the outside world. If you make it out, feelings of relief, anger, confusion, isolation and insecurity — one would assume — are just the beginning. These intermingling emotions are captured in Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene starring Elizabeth Olsen, with captivating effect.
A lack of understanding from others — in this case Olsen's sister, Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson — is a reoccurring topic of turmoil for cult survivors. In an interview with Dazed & Confused, Natacha Tormey, who was born into The Family International (previously Children of God) — a group who believe Christians should live like the first disciples of Christ and that their female members should use sex as a recruitment tool — explained what life for her was like after she fled at the age of 18:
"Life on the outside was so incredibly difficult. Like many other ex-members, I suffered severe depression and even considered suicide on a few occasions. It’s difficult to explain how isolated you feel when you leave a cult. You feel like you’ll never belong in normal society, like no one will ever understand you. I was also naïve, and the men I dated took advantage of that."
For Tormey, the feeling of constantly skirting society is but a small price for the "happy place" she now finds herself in — a sentiment echoed by Brielle Decker who escaped from Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at the age of 26 after four failed attempts. Previously one of Warren Jeffs's wives — who's now serving a life +20 year jail term for raping his child brides — Decker was ostracized by her biological family after she left the polyamorous cult. She told Dazed:
"Even after I escaped, it was so hard. My family kept fighting to bring me back. I went to a domestic violence shelter in Salt Lake City, and they told my parents where I was. They were searching the roads for me in Salt Lake City. It took me two years until my paperwork was all done and I was finally free of them. My adoptive mum, Kristyn, literally rescued me by getting me taken off the missing persons list and fighting for me, even when I didn’t know it. I was so sick at first when I left; it took me months before I got clarity."
In books such as Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures with Extremists and brilliant yet haunting documentaries like 2015's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), you're given insight into exactly how such captivation with ideological cult leaders turns captive, and the emotional abuse that traumatizes its members thereon.
People's Temple survivor Teri Buford O'Shea escaped Jonestown just three weeks before Jim Jones and his 900 followers committed mass suicide in the jungle of Guyana in 1978. In an interview with The Atlantic in 2011, she described how Jones attracted the disenfranchised en masse, feeding the hearts of those desperately seeking salvation.
"Most of [the members] were African-American, but there were also white people, Jewish people, people of Mexican descent. There were religious Christians and communists. If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he'd be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally."
The image of Tom Cruise laughing like a man possessed in Going Clear has become something of a banner for the masses who are able to take a removed look towards cults as manic and unfathomable — but for survivors like Tormey, Decker and O'Shea, the dismissive nature in which society deals with cults can be almost as damaging as the cults themselves.
When asked by The Atlantic how it feels to hear people casually use the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid," like US Weekly did in 2011 when they reported "a source" saying, "Kris is not drinking the Kardashian Kool-Aid, and it's causing major problems," O'Shea responded:
"It makes me shudder. I know it's part of the culture now and I shouldn't be so sensitive to it. But Jonestown was an important part of American history, and it's been marginalized. We have to ask ourselves, why did 918 people leave this country and go with Jim Jones to Guyana? That's a big question. Why did this group feel they'd rather live in a jungle than in San Francisco, Oakland, Atlanta, wherever they were living?"
That is the big question then, to get to the bottom of why individuals are attracted to cults in the first place, especially now so much information regarding the damage is so readily available — and, how we provide better support networks for those brave enough to escape.