5 Reasons people are so obsessed with cults

Jo Thornely
·Contributor
·6-min read

I can only speak for myself, but I definitely qualify – there’s no doubt at all that I’m obsessed with cults. 

I started a podcast about them, wrote a book about them, have six different news alerts set up to let me know whenever a new one is uncovered, remembered, or busted. I am, it’s fair to say, not always great fun at parties.

Jo Thornely
Writer Jo Thornely is obsessed with cults. Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle

And it’s so, so clear that I’m not alone with my obsession – every few days there’s a new article, book, scandal, documentary, or podcast about cults. Our thirst for information about weird groups with bizarre beliefs and practices preying on innocent people doesn’t seem close to being quenched.

But why? Why do we want to keep hearing about them, reading about them, watching them? Cults are not fun. They can be exploitative, certainly dangerous, criminal, and deeply shocking – this is not the sort of thing anyone should be proud of finding entertaining. But perhaps ‘entertaining’ is the wrong word. Fascinating, maybe. We’re rubber-necking a cult car crash – we don’t want to, but we can’t look away.

True crime in general is a western, if not global, obsession. Normal, decent people like us can’t wait to poke around in the dark, shallow ends of the behavioural bell curve, finding out what can happen when someone’s psychology or ethics are tweaked a little differently to ours, and we peek at them through parted fingers. It doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves to see people suffer, but perhaps it does make us feel good to see the bad guys come undone.

It’s different for everybody, but I’ve spent a long time trying to understand why I’m obsessed with cults.

They feel like gossip

This is not a good reason, and not one I’m happy about. But it’s true. Hearing about a new cult, or even reading a story about an old one, feels like reading some kind of macabre gossip magazine. My mouth drops open, and I’ve been known to squeal “what?!” more than once watching cult documentaries. 

When a new cult story breaks in the news, I can’t wait to talk about it to friends I know who are also riveted. There’s a bit of adrenaline involved with hearing a story that’s scandalous, weird AND true, the true crime hat trick. It’s hard to justify, but that feeling of incredulity is both irresistible and addictive. God, what is wrong with us?

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They’re nearby

I maintain that unless you live in the country or the outback, there’s probably something culty within a kilometre of you at all times. Whether they’re physical groups in the real world or entirely online, most cults need followers and money, and both of those things can be found in the community. 

As a result, cults can also be found everywhere in your community. Right now, sitting here in Sydney’s inner west, I know that if I walk fifteen minutes up the road there’s a house where people in a globally-recognised cult go to practice their religion, and if I pop two suburbs over I can buy a vegetarian meal from a cult member at a regular Sunday farmer’s market. Sometimes there’ll be cult pamphlets in my letterbox or handed to me on the street, and any time I want to I can watch cult videos on YouTube. 

Their proximity is exciting and terrifying, especially because...

Everybody is susceptible to joining a cult at some point in their lives

It’s thrilling – in a bad way – to think that we’re not immune to joining a cult, however robust we think our skepticism is. Anyone who has ever done something under peer pressure, or tried something new because they badly needed a change can be sucked in if they’re targeted in just the right way at just the right time. 

If you’ve never been involved with a cult even at the fringes – buying one of their products or nodding agreement at some of their propaganda, it’s more because of luck than good life management. We’re not susceptible to cult-typical influence all the time, but you can bet we are some of the time, especially when we’re sad, bored, or lonely.  

It’s incredible to think that - gradually, through drip-fed indoctrination and coercion - a yoga workshop, self-help class, executive improvement program or Facebook group I’m in could turn me into a cult member if I wasn’t concentrating and trusted it enough.

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

We like looking into the shadows

Because of this nearness, it’s really astounding to think that the weird behaviours we associate with cults – extreme beliefs, sexual practices, weird punishments, stories about alien overlords – are just next door. We’re engrossed by the dark things other people do – it’s different to how we live our own lives. 

Unfortunately, it excites us. That feeling when we catch ourselves making a face of alarm or disgust when we’re watching television but don’t even consider changing the channel – that’s the feeling I mean. We want to be shocked and amazed. 

Some people get that same thrill by watching pimple-popping videos online, so I ask you: who are the real freaks here?

We like feeling superior to the bad guys

Typically, cult leaders are manipulative, exploitative egomaniacs. In the majority of cases, they tend to establish power by making others powerless and dependent. Whether we see that personality type and behaviour in a cult leader, a politician, a polluting billionaire, or a reality TV star, there’s something unbelievably sweet and fulfilling about watching those people go down. 

Seeing followers realise their leader is full of shit and finally getting out from under their thumb and deserting them. Seeing cult leaders get arrested, fined, accused and jailed, or my favourite – seeing them try to defend themselves in court and failing, because they don’t have the same influence in the real world as they do in their little group. 

Even just seeing cult leaders look ridiculous or pathetic feels fantastic. We’re familiar with the feeling from movies – when the music swells and the baddies get their comeuppance. 

We like it when bad things happen to bad people, and with cult leaders it’s especially uplifting because they can’t make bad things happen to good people any more.

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