We are witnessing a cultural predilection for joining or glorifying cults, particularly among our young people. While cults are not a new phenomenon, they have now infiltrated the mainstream and have even become fashionable.
Today’s youth colloquially use the word cult to describe something cool and niche, such as cult films, cult classics, cult following, cult chic, etc. This Halloween, I have noticed an array of cult themed horror shows on Netflix as well as numerous documentaries on this subject. Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media platforms are also featuring viral memes and ideals popularizing the topic.
A common assumption is that a cult needs to be religious or spiritual in nature. However, cults can also be political, business, or lifestyle groups.
This article discusses the reasons behind adolescents’ attraction to cults along with their pronounced susceptibility to cult members’ overtures.
Defining a Cult
In etymology, the earliest use of the word cult appeared in the early 17th century in writings describing the act of paying homage to divinity. Since this point, the term has morphed into something that can be far more perplexing, sinister, and widespread. The shift from paying tribute to becoming a national symbol of fear can be traced back to the Manson Family murders of 1969 and the Jonestown massacre of 1978.
A cult is defined as:
- A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object, e.g., “the cult of St. Olaf”
- A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister, e.g.,”‘a network of Satan-worshiping cults”
- A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing, e.g., “a cult of personality surrounding the leaders”
- usually as modifier, A person or thing that is popular or fashionable, especially among a particular section of society, e.g., “a cult film”
Cult groups earned mainstream recognition in the 1960s and 1970s, where as many as 3000 cult-type organizations were identified. This was a time of political upheaval, economic security, and uncertainty that included the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Kennedy assassination.
These events created mass anxiety and unrest, which caused individuals to seek comfort, security, and more significant meaning. History shows that people turn to spirituality in times of crisis and upheaval, with cults posing as an attractive antidote to the existential tumult.
We are now in a uniquely challenging time, with significant anxiety, doubt, and stress. Countless subgroups are appearing that purport to offer inclusion, acceptance, and a sense of belonging. Our adolescents are particularly susceptible to the allure of cults because they are at a tumultuous, tentative period in their lives with respect to their hazy future. There is now a cult for everyone, and what’s more, it is available at the touch of a fingertip.
The Attraction of Simplicity
Today’s society can be described as a tyranny of options with multitudes of opportunities. Young people are faced with overwhelming possibilities for their future, which often results in choice paralysis.
Throughout the ages, we can see a clear pattern that demonstrates how cults flourish at times of existential questioning and uncertainty. Our globalized, digitally connected culture offers numerous options for work, hobbies, sexuality, relationships, diet, aesthetics, and spirituality. Our society also places immense importance on the notion of self and creating a personal brand.
Therefore, a charismatic cult leader can be an attractive proposition, as such a person narrows the playing field considerably and helps people make decisions. Dr. Adrian Furnham states that humans crave clarity and find solace in the absolute answers a cult can offer. The clear, unwavering messages of a cult leader offer a simplicity that is nearly impossible to find in everyday life.
Quest for Intimacy
Humans seek community because it is essential for our survival and continued evolution. A group provides safety, security, and comfort. This desire to belong is often at its peak during the turbulent teenage years, during which adolescents quest for intimacy.
In addition, research has demonstrated that individuals in emotional distress are far more likely to gravitate towards the extended arms of cult members. Psychologist Jon-Patrik Pedersen states that fears and anxieties will cause an exaggerated longing for comfort. Cults make seductive promises and promote clear messages of community that tap into a teenager’s innate and vulnerable desire for acceptance.
Vulnerability and Susceptibility
It may come as a surprise that those who join cults are average citizens. You likely could not distinguish them from others in the street; they are no different from most of us in many ways. There is one key differentiator, however: cult members usually have pronounced low self-esteem issues. Those with low self-worth have a greater desire for acceptance and will likely respond favorably to the charisma, charm, and warmth that cults initially use to draw people in.
Teenagers are faced with uncertainty, a lack of self-identity, and raging hormones. Research has shown that women are more social creatures than men, and their self-image is primarily formed by the reflections of their group or sub-set. Therefore, it seems fitting that teenage girls and women are said to make up 70% of cult members.
Adolescence is a transitional period in which existential questions arise and adolescents attempt to make sense of themselves, the world, and their positions within it. Teenagers find themselves free to make ever-increasing numbers of decisions. However, the autonomy of adulthood remains out of reach.
Typically, adolescents strive for independence but paradoxically fear standing alone. It is a time of curiosity, seeking the truth, and being open to new concepts. Teens crave change, have idealistic values, and experience frustration with societal boundaries. Therefore, it is understandable that teenagers seek solace within a group that promises resolution of their turmoil in these times of crisis.
Joining a cult can have long-term damaging effects on both the mind and body. Renowned Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. John G. Clark famously studied cults and sects in the 1970s. During this period, he engaged in treatment of over 500 former members and their families. He noted that, “symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy are similar to those seen or reported as resulted from cult conversions: increased irritability, loss of libido or altered sexual interest, ritualism, compulsive attention to detail, mystical states, humorlessness, and sobriety, heightened paranoia.”
In this period of global uncertainty, parents, teachers, and professionals must guide our youth towards self-acceptance, finding a positive social group, and creating a safe autonomous future where they are free to be healthy and independent individuals.
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