Netflix’s recent series ‘House of Secrets’, has viewers riveted, revisiting the strange case of the Burari deaths of 2018. Tantric beliefs and extreme group conformity are the prevalent themes in the series, which explores cult-like behaviours that are eerily hidden in plain sight behind the facade of a typical Indian household.
We all have beliefs, ideologies, a way of life, aspirations and visions for a better future. But when these beliefs spiral into a thirst for power, psychological manipulation and indoctrination, we enter the elusive world of cults.
The word, ‘cult’ itself is regarded as taboo, no one wants to be associated with it, nor would they agree that any of their ideologies fall within the purview of cult-like beliefs. However, the structure, psychological dynamics, devotion towards a belief, veneration of the often charismatic cult leader, the moral values systems they espouse, world view and how outsiders view these cults is a curious exploration and thus drew my interest immediately.
So what is a cult, anyway?
The word ‘cult’ has a variety of meanings and encompasses several kinds of groups whose beliefs fall on a continuum — some extremists and others who simply view the world differently.
A cult can refer to a new social or religious movement such as Raëlism. They can be both orthodox — Jehovah’s Witness, or unorthodox — such as a group of people who are inordinately devoted to a movie or celebrity.
There is extensive debate on the distinguishing factors between religion and cults. One viewpoint states that if a cult stands the test of time it evolves into a religion, yet, despite Mormonism being practised for centuries it is still perceived as a cult due to its radical beliefs.
On hearing the word ‘cult’, most would immediately think of an extreme group such as Scientology. Such a group is brainwashed by a charismatic, assertive leader who influences them into believing, following and even preaching an extreme ideology, and incorporates methods to discourage and actively punish skepticism and questioning of official doctrine.
Why join a cult?
While most of us can make our own lifestyle choices and have the ability, means, and resources to critically examine the world and its workings, in some communities, members are born, raised, and eventually die, within the same insulated community — in complete isolation from the outside world. Generation after generation is raised on the same unquestioning beliefs. The only way of life they know is the one presented before them. For instance, in the Amish Community technology and modern luxuries are regarded as a sin, and instead of cars, horse-drawn carriages are the norm, even in the modern day.
Alternatively, people may choose to join cults despite having knowledge of the world around them. Social psychology research shows that cults customarily recruit people during their moments of vulnerability, and capitalize on personal hardships by providing support in place of their family, and providing a sense of belonging and purpose. Sirkin (1990) sheds light on the five stages of joining a cult:
Hooking: A person finds members of a cult interesting.
Joining: Becoming attracted towards the group's ideologies.
Intensification: View outside life as negative and cult life as positive and critical thinking is compromised.
Social disengagement: Belief in good/bad world view is strengthened and ties with family are severed.
Realignment: Finding a new identity as a member of the cult.
Cults give members a sense of pseudo-personality, where individuals believe their opinions are uniquely held when in reality they are manufactured by the cult and held by all cult members. Members can also dissociate from the real world due to being isolated and exploited by ‘gurus’.
Joining a cult can also be through ‘introjection’ — where individuals unconsciously change their mindsets and ideas in order to adapt to the other members around them. Cult members are not necessarily weak-minded or less intelligent than others, it is possible for anyone to find themselves in one of these extremist groups if circumstances align to increase susceptibility.
Why leave a cult?
Leaving a cult has its own psychological hardships. The decision to leave can be perilous. It takes conscious decision making, breaking away from the force of collective influence, doing a cost-benefit analysis, and immense willpower to leave family and friends you have known your whole life, and plunge into a new world that you know nothing about. Julia Haart and Meghan Phelps-Roper are two former cult members who have since recounted their harrowing experiences escaping from the firm grip of extremist groups.
The Netflix reality series, ‘My Unorthodox Life’, follows the life of Julia Haart, the CEO of Elite World Group. Her current life is glamorous, but what doesn’t meet the eye is her past in a fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community where she lived for forty-three years. In this community, lives were built around preventing men’s “bad thoughts” about women. In her former life, there were ample rules about women's clothing, bodies, media consumption, dating, and interaction with the opposite sex. It was Julia Haart’s youngest daughter's questions regarding why she wasn’t allowed to dance and sing and talk to men that prompted her to find flaws in the doctrines she had long regarded as truth. She decided to save money and soon established a business, eventually paving the path for her children to leave the orthodox Jewish community and start life afresh in New York.
Meghan Phelps-Rope is a former member of The Westboro Baptist Church and has shared her experiences in her TED Talk. She was part of a family-centric cult that believes their duty to God is to save others from their sins and escape eternal damnation. The church has caused several controversies, for picketing soldier funerals with signs saying, ‘America is doomed’ and slurs towards the LGBTQIA community. Members of the San Francisco pride parade once stood on the opposite side of the road from them, with their own signs saying, ‘God Loves You’ and ‘We 4 give You’. Meghan Phelps-Roper escaped the cult by joining Twitter. Her initial intention was to promote the church, however, other Twitter users pointed out the flaws in their doctrine, causing her to drastically change her perspective and leave the cult.
Both Julia Haart and Meghan Phelps-Roper are now activists who encourage women to be strong, powerful, independent thinkers, who dress the way they please, go after their dreams, and support modern social causes and movements.
What is the future of cults?
Fitting into a group and conforming to a belief system is something humans are constantly seeking in order to gain acceptance. However, we mustn’t take our beliefs for granted and be stagnant in the face of change. So no, not ALL cults are harmful. But it is the inability to understand people outside the cult, being trapped within a belief system with no escape, and resorting to beliefs of fundamentalism and extremism in order to hold power that makes extremist cults hurtful to members and those impacted by their ideologies.
A cult, be it a religion, a social movement, or simply a group of people who share a common value system, can find a middle-ground, where no one is trapped or isolated and one leader doesn’t control the narrative. Rather, passionate communities with space to explore different systems, ideologies, opinions and struggles is the path of growth our society needs.
Arshiya Poonawala is a Mental Health Advocacy intern at Nolmë Labs. She is studying Psychology and Design and has a keen interest in Art, Literature, Music, Yoga, and learning about various, unique belief systems.