Cults have been a topic of interest and a popular theme within movies, literature, and television. Throughout history cults have risen and fallen, most recently, notable cults being the Manson family, Children of God, Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and Order of the Solar Temple. The psychological structure of cults have inspired ideas in many dark fantasy novels. Cults are humane and a very real aspect of our society.
The reason cults have gotten such a bad reputation is because of the blind faith and narcissism that almost certainly have to exist in order for the cult to function. It is common for a cult to have one leader, usually a man, that is charismatic and a lot of the time good looking. These leaders attract their following through the use of extreme ways of thinking and belief systems. These belief systems mix truth with lies, and attract others with empty promises of empowerment, transcendence, and whatever else the leaders claim they will help them achieve. In this article I’ve outlined a few books that contain cult themes and how those themes relate to the real life cults we’ve seen in our own society.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Evie Boyd finds herself drawn to a group of women that seem to be centered around a man named Russell. Like most real-life cult leaders, Russell is charismatic and magnetizing. Themes of group sex acts and out of the ordinary closeness exhibit how an actual cult might behave. Often times the cult leader will use the devotion the members have as a means to manipulate them into sexual acts and unhealthy intimate relationships. In “The Girls” a turning point happens when the group commits murders, much like how Charles Manson and his followers killed five people in 1969. This book mimics The Manson Family by showcasing the trials Russell and his following go through bringing them their infamous reputation thereafter.
Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
This darkly post-apocalyptic novel showcases a society ran by misogyny. Many cults are built on misogyny and the imbalance between men and women. Women are treated as bottom of the food chain and being born a man holds a great deal of importance in Melamed’s community. Actress Rose McGowan claims she belonged to the cult Children of God, and she witnessed the women members devote their lives to serving the men sexually, while the men had multiple wives. The main character of “Gather the Daughters”, Janey, lives a similar life until she decides to seek truth outside of the cults, much like many children born into cults do later in life. In this novel, themes of heinous sexual acts and abuse are in alignment with many real life cults. In the Church of the Most High Priestess, Mary Ellen Tracy, the cult leader, declares her magical gift of purifying anyone that sleeps with her. Because of her wildly inciting claims of spiritual cleansing, she totaled more than 1000 followers who all had sexual relationships with her during the cult’s run.
Those Who Prey by Jennifer Moffett
This psychological thriller follows Sadie as she’s introduced to “The Kingdom”, a cult on campus. This cult offers here acceptance, a boyfriend, and a chance to leave her area. This novel touches on the manipulation, control, and loss of power followers of cults experience. Sadie was later stripped of her money and communication to her friends and family. In many cults, the leader has an immense influence over what their followers think, feel, and how they act. An example of this is the Jim Jones Massacre. Congressman Leo Ryan began to investigate if some of Jones’ followers were being held against their will. To avoid legal percussion, Jim Jones influenced 918 of his followers to commit suicide in his final ritual, where he then committed suicide via a gunshot wound to the head.
Dark fantasy literature expresses some of the “shadow” aspects of the human psychology and behaviors, and more often than not—inspiration can be pulled from real life examples. With cults having so much influence over today’s entertainment and literature, we can begin to better understand the psychological aspect of how and why they exist in the first place.
Which brings us to the cure—Information & Education—which is the premise of Lisa Cron’s latest nonfiction blockbuster Story Or Die which deconstructs how stories get weaponized…and most importantly how to defend yourself and your loved ones.
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