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Unwrapping The Mystery of Cults

Shannon is a wife, mother, and educator who loves writing about everything she can.

Cult awareness: If you're following the leader for all of life's decisions and that leader is not you, it's time to make a change.

Cult awareness: If you're following the leader for all of life's decisions and that leader is not you, it's time to make a change.

"When you make major life adjustments because an outside influence is forcing you to rather than because of your own free will there's a problem."

Organization Vs. Cult


Free to come and go as you please

If not in attendance the group will send for you to be there. It's mandatory.

Choose your level of involvement

Pressured to increase involvement until you have no time for previously enjoyed interests

Your interests are accepted and are your choice

Obligated to change activity and behavior based on group or leader's expectations

Easy to practice beliefs on your own without help from the leader

Leader must be involved to understand or practice "correctly"

You are accepted as you are

You must change into the leader's or group's idea of what is acceptable

May maintain relationships with friends and family

Encouraged to abandon or limit contact with friends and family

Cult Activity Meter

What Makes It A Cult?

If it walks, talks, acts, etc., you know the drill. But, what makes the corner church a congregation and the storefront down the street a cult? It's a line that is blurry and slippery all at once. Here are some tell-tale signs to alert you and help you distinguish the difference.

  1. Guru Fever: It's your first time visiting the group. You listen to the leader's message and hear thought-provoking information that's been presented to you before, but not quite in that way. You feel that there are answers and inspiration in the content so you continue your involvement. Your adoration grows to the level that you begin to think of what the leader says or thinks in place of your own thoughts in your everyday dealings.
  2. Limitations: When you're building friendships with members of the organization they begin to suggest limits on behavior you previously believed to be okay. You've never really had an issue with the activities before, but since everyone in the group limits them according to the guru's instruction, they encourage you to limit or stop the activity as well.
  3. Life Control: As you become more involved the members of the group begin to invite themselves into your world. This becomes overwhelming to the degree that you are seldom alone anymore unless you're at work or otherwise obligated. They also attempt to keep you preoccupied with them anytime you don't have any other serious life commitments. Eventually you see a need to eliminate these outside obligations to spend more time on the organization's needs.
  4. Isolation: The group and the leader begin giving you reasons to disassociate with all the people in your life who are not in the group. This can be drastic, motivating you to consider cutting off close family members and lifelong friends because they don't ascribe to the practices or beliefs within the group.
  5. Appearance: In extreme cases the group has a "look" that makes them readily distinguishable from the mainstream. Due to the male supremacist structure of many of these groups it is usually the women whose appearance is most dramatically altered, though this is not always the case. You will be expected to "fix" your appearance the longer you stay. If you don't you will eventually be blatantly encouraged, if not required to adopt this new dress code as you spend more and more time with the group.

Taken by themselves any one or two of these characteristics may not be evidence of cult activity. Clubs have uniforms and religions have dress requirements. Some techniques and ideas have experts who help you improve in areas. It's logical to go to them to understand better, but it doesn't take over your life. The main issue here is not that you're changing your habits or beliefs. The problem is you're changing them to fit into the group because they say it's the right thing to do. When you make major life adjustments because an outside influence is forcing you to rather than because of your own free will there's a problem.

Why Do People Stay In Cults?

By the time people want out they're too far in. Once an individual realizes the organization has taken over their lives it's difficult to figure out how to live without it. It has taken over their relationships, both within and without the group, their financial resources, and in some cases, their ability to obtain gainful employment. They have to start all over again building an entirely new life. This is not only terrifying, but extremely painful.

The other remarkable answer is: regardless of what the group has become they believe in its original purpose.

Why Do People "Join" Cults?

Have you ever said:

"I'd never be in a cult." Or, "Why don't they just leave? There's no way I'd put up with that."

Consider this: no one ever goes to the Yellow Pages looking for cults they can join. No one says,

"Hey, I've been thinking about getting into a fringe group with alienating beliefs so I can lose my family and everything I hold dear for those strangers who are currently in the group.Let me look some up."

Of course, people don't join cults. They become a part of something they believe in because that's what we all do.

It boggles the mind when massive terrorism plots, suicide, or government stand offs hit the media. That's when we hear about a group and its inevitable demise ad nauseum, but no one ever thoroughly or correctly tells the narrative of how it got to that point. The slow, calculated ascent to heedless devotion gets very little attention while the tragic, sensational outcomes are pinned to the archives of our minds permanently. But the truth is the beginning of the tragedy is generally innocent for each individual. It's innocuous enough as people just seek out other people with like minds and goals who can help them make meaning out of the world they inhabit.

The Doorknob... Or A Portal To Another World


Not Always What We Think

Due to media and pop culture branding we generally think of religion when we hear the word "cult". But, every religion is not a cult and every cult is not a religion. Any sort of club and/or organization can morph into a cult when it takes on certain characteristics. It's our job as humans to think, evaluate, and discern the world around us with clarity. When an individual or group offers to take that job into their own hands and do it for us and we allow them to, we've lost our freedom and our identity. Don't allow this to happen to you. Be on the lookout for the signs and be sure to keep your guard up and your thinking cap operating at all times.

Guru Gateway

The leader of a cult uses the familiar to "blow your mind" in order to take a position of prominence in your life. They use alternative ways of looking at things you are fully aware of and familiar with. Take the following scenario for instance:

Guru: Look at that doorknob. What do you see?

Recruit: A way to get into that room.

Scroll to Continue

Guru: Of course that's what you see. It's typical. But, open your eyes. It's not just a way into that room. Doorknobs are spherical for a reason. They are portals into distant universes that we open all the time, but cannot see due to our limited wave frequency.

Recruit: Wow, that's profound.

Guru: Right, see I've opened my mind and gone to deeper levels of connectivity. That's why I see the portal. You can too. Just keep learning. Keep trying to understand and studying with me and you too will see, and walk through the portal.

Notice how the recruit is being taken in. By now they've dismissed the fact that the knob is not spherical, but cylindric. And, portal is a synonym for door. It's pretty basic. Still, a charismatic, but controlling individual who seeks to make one their muse can use your understanding of the Bible, Quoran, Bhuddist practice, whatever, and turn it on its ear so that it makes sense only to them, but sounds fascinating to you. Now you need them in order to practice this system. You can't go off on your own to do it because it's not something you've stumbled upon through your own self discovery. It's their pet project and now you have to follow them in order to benefit from it.

The road to cult martyrdom is long and arduous. It's also common and well-traveled.

The road to cult martyrdom is long and arduous. It's also common and well-traveled.

"I Could Never Be In A Cult" Yeah, You Could...and Me Too

Human beings seek to be relevant and therefore anyone is susceptible to cult activity. If this doesn't resonate ponder it the next time you go to work and your superiors have designed seminars and trainings that show you and everybody else one "best" way to do the tasks you have to do.

Or, think about it the next time you recommend a political candidate just because of the party you "belong" to even though you don't really believe they're a good fit for the position they're campaigning for.

How about the next time you turn on the television to watch your favorite pundit report on worldly matters you listen real close. You definitely agreed with them a while ago, or maybe even a couple of weeks ago but now you don't really pay attention because they already won you over. At this point you just make sure and tune in every day. Examine what's really happening here. Do you truly agree with their ideas every time? Or, did you let your guard down a long time ago because you felt safe that their philosophy is your own?

We are all either searching for meaning or sure of the one we've found. As such we're always open to ideas that further that agenda. We're not all explicitly vulnerable, but we're all vulnerable enough to end up in a cult. Human nature dictates it. We all have to be careful, watch for the signs, and avoid them.

It's Never Too Late To Get Out!


If You Are Being Groomed By A Cult...

It's never easy to admit we've gotten ourselves into a negative situation that we thought was going to be wonderful. It is also really hard to see the forest while treading through it. If you are finding that your latest personal undertaking to find meaning is no longer under your control, but someone else's, it's time to begin withdrawing from it. This can be dangerous, frightening, and difficult for so many reasons. Here are some things you can do to begin the process.

  1. Reach out and get help from your family and friends outside the group. You may have done hurtful things. You may have been prideful and alienating, but they most likely still love you because they know and understand it is not your fault. Call them.
  2. Cut off communication with the group and get away. Quit cold turkey. Anything else is too difficult and may result in you never leaving.
  3. Seek counseling. Giving away headspace is always daunting. When you get it back it can be downright jarring to figure out what to do with all the gobbledy-gook left over. Find a cult therapist or someone who specializes in deprogramming. Here's a link to a website that has a wealth of knowledge and resources you can use to help:
  4. Remember yourself and take time to validate who you already were before it began to change you. Accept you with all your faults since we all have them, even your former guru.

Disclaimer: The author is not a professional therapist, only a researcher, someone who has been close to membership, and a devoted friend of folks who have gotten into these situations. Please seek help and advice from professionals to get the help you need.

Be Supportive And Stand Strong


If Someone Close To You Is Being Groomed By A Cult

Be careful. Watching someone you really care about fall down a rabbit hole is terribly painful. But you must keep in mind that this new leader and group have taken a position of utmost respect in their life. Even though you disagree with the ideas, try to show respect to your loved one as they practice it.

  1. Don't punish or chide, as this looks like you're trying to control them. Understand they think they are in full control because they've got a hold of this unique philosophy that no one else understands. In their mind you are blind to the truth and in your mind they are. It's a battle of the mind, but don't make it a battle for control because the group or leader actually has the control at this point.
  2. Be a good listener. They need to have their voice heard and validated by someone outside the group. Make it a point to do this as often as possible so they don't begin to think the leader or group is their only support.
  3. Ask questions of genuine interest about what they're learning. This helps them process the questions they can't ask in the presence of the group due to fear or intimidation.
  4. Keep all lines of communication open. They're probably being encouraged to shut you out. Don't give them any reasons to do so.
  5. Consistently show love and respect for who they are.
  6. Be there when they need you to pick up the pieces once they realize they've made a mistake.
  7. Keep your wits about yourself. It's not easy to hear a new philosophy that you like and not get drawn in, but you see the deception in the control the group is exerting over your loved one's life. Stay aware of that and don't get taken in.

Disclaimer: The author is not a professional therapist, only a researcher, someone who has been close to membership, and a devoted friend of folks who have gotten into these situations. Please seek help and advice from professionals to get the help you need.

© 2014 Shannon Powell


RoadMonkey on March 13, 2015:

Very important to read and understand. Many groups, even informal ones seem to operate this way.

RoadMonkey on March 13, 2015:

Very important to read and understand. Many groups, even informal ones seem to operate this way.

Kiss andTales on March 13, 2015:

I truly appreciate this hub because people do not know the difference in an organization and occult. This hub clears claims of what people have called an occult. Also another mark would be some ties to magic, or spiritism.

Thanks for reposting this subject .

Debra Allen from West By God on March 13, 2015:

Sharing it again and adding your link to my blog.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on March 13, 2015:


This is a very important piece. And a very-needed hub. Loved you presentation.

In relation to your idea, I found out` in latter years that SOME churches operate on a cult engineering--think alike, live alike and grow stronger.

Just wanted to take a moment to tell you what a talented writer you are.

I enjoyed reading this hub. I also voted up and all of the choices above. I especially appreciate how you presented your subject and kept my attention.

I wish you my very best on Hubs and hope that everything successful happens to you.

Your Friend for Life,


Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 30, 2014:

Yes, so true. Gang affiliation is the most basic archetype of cult behavior. I suppose since it's so obvious that they're dangerous most people sort of automatically steer clear of them. The trouble with cults is that people let their guard down and don't immediately see the threat and then it's too late.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 30, 2014:

Spot on villyvacker, that's how it works.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 30, 2014:

Hi Faith Reaper and thank you. Wow, that is persistent, but I'm glad you knew the deal right away. The funny thing is many times this happens and people get "love bombed" by the group and feel so good about having an instant friendly family that they overlook the warning signs. So you're right, I imagine for every person like you who is aware of what's going on there must be another person who doesn't see through it and they fall into the trap.

Kiss andTales on July 30, 2014:

Very interesting but you are correct in the feeling you belong , like a gang that also belong ,but we know can be very dangerous to society. Similar because gang members also do not want to lose there members even to the point of violance if you try to leave. They also reserved in keeping control of who comes in as well. I would say they are the same ,just different in what there reason for becoming a cult. They both have danger as a common thread.

Billy Turnock from Manchester England on July 30, 2014:

Everybody wants to feel like they belong. And so it is with cults, they all belong and no one is left out. When I was young I was on a rugby team. We all thought we could take on the world, we were one and although it's not a cult, the idea behind it is still the same.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on July 29, 2014:

Congrats on the HOTD! This is an important hub here for all to read. When I was very young and just married, my husband was in the Air Force, and stationed in Tampa, Florida, I remember twice being approached by two different cults and they are persistent. Thankfully, I was level-headed and knew right away. Once I was downtown and two people of the same cult approached me while I was out job hunting. They were so young and so friendly too, and I just felt so bad for them, as I just knew. Then another time I was just walking back to my car from a shopping center and one approached me. I told him that I thought they were a cult, and he still persisted.

There is no telling how many other young people who actually went along with them!

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thanks krillco, you're right. Spiritual abuse is huge. In fact, in most of the groups it's the catalyst for control. Thanks for adding that.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you rebeccamealey. This is a topic I'm passionate about so I'm glad it's helpful.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you Jennifer Bart. I'm glad it was useful and I hope only the best for you as you adapt. Try the cult education website link as it has a lot of good info about a bunch of different groups and stories you can read about people's experiences. I think writing is one tool we have to get it all out and see things for what they are. Again, all the best

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you erorantes.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Yes momsdoworkathome! In my opinion the control is the worst part, but isolation is the hardest thing to accept about all of it. It's so hard for everybody to pick up all the pieces after being a part of a cult group. I've known so many friends and family who have a hard time finding their way back to being in a world without someone else making all the rules and defining it for them. It's so scary and so overwhelming. I research and study these groups all the time. If you haven't tried it yet, go to the cult education site. There's a lot of information there and it's pretty comprehensive.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Hi Searfarer Mama, I like the name by the way. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I've been close to unwavering devotion to groups like this throughout my life just by seeking deeper spiritual meaning. I understand now that the journey, as you mentioned, is a personal one. Incidentally I'm a regular at the cult education. Actually, I try to watch and read everything I can get my hands on about groups that work like this because I want to be informed and aware. I am also just fascinated by our flexible minds and how seemingly easy it is to set up communities with all these rules and ideas. And, I think you're spot on with protecting your personal relationship with the Creator. That's every individual's right and those who seek to disrupt it or redefine it are either misguided or being led by human intervention themselves. Your words resonate with me when you say we have to love each other so we can keep our family and friends close and mentally healthy. I'm so happy your husband is okay and that there were people there for him when he was set free from that bondage. Keep up the good work holding your family together with love and acceptance.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Hi DreamerMeg, I've never heard of that book before, but I think I'll check the library and see if I can find it. It sounds like a good read.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you suzettenaples. You're so right, some of the people who are deeply devoted to cults hold advanced degrees and positions of importance in our communities, but it doesn't stop them from seeking relevance and getting drawn in. It really is true that we are all susceptible if we are unaware.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thanks Say Yes To Life. It's amazing how things like groupthink are so common to humanity in general. I look forward to reading your hub.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thanks missirupp, I'm pleased to have evoked such an emotion. In fact, I'm downright flattered.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you rebekahELLE. You know, it's difficult in a world where so many messages are being delivered through media and pop culture to prevent our children from just blindly following everything. It's so true that we have to teach young people to stop, discern, and think rather than just hop on every bus going by.

William E Krill Jr from Hollidaysburg, PA on July 29, 2014:

Good piece; spiritual abuse is yet another aspect of cults, as is the strong and ill personalities that become the center of such evil. Voted 'up'.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on July 29, 2014:

I'm still not clear on just what a cult is, so I don't think I will fall prey. Thank you for making this problem aware to all from kids to parents. I know it will be helpful to lots of people out there. Good job, and congratulations!

Jennifer Bart from Texas on July 29, 2014:

Great read very useful and it's a very scary thought that anyone could become victim of a cult I am still trying to renew my mind after dealing with this type of situation so I appreciate your raising awareness about this issue so others don't fall victim to this trap.

Ana Maria Orantes from Miami Florida on July 29, 2014:

Congratulations on the hub of the day Mr. Srpowell. It is great to know how to get out of any cult. I am not part of any cult, but it makes sense. The steps to get out are perfect. People only need the desire to get out of any bad organization. Thank you . I like your hub.

Katina Davenport from Michigan on July 29, 2014:

I have been studying the symptoms of being apart of cults after dealing with someone that left a cult. I think people need to be more aware of any groups of people that are willing to isolate you from your friends and family members. If you have any feelings of being controlled by a group, then it is time to take a look at the organization.

Karen A Szklany from New England on July 29, 2014:

Just took a deep look at the cult education web site you provided a link for and it's awesome. I just saw how the old Cult Awareness Network has been flipped and turned into a cult (v. an entity that was meant to support the resistance against cult involvement) by the Scientologists. Thought it was the BCC..but it was the Scientologists who took it over and corrupted it.

Karen A Szklany from New England on July 29, 2014:

Congratulations on a well-deserved HOTD honor, SRPowell! This is such an important hub at a time when so many charismatic leaders are out there working hard to glean support for their "causes." They rely on the average citizen being too busy to really think deeply about all of the information presented to them...too plugged without giving themselves room and time to be themselves.

So many people are so eager to "drink the koolaid" around certain ideas without really looking at them and checking in with themselves about their own original perspective. We are often not given the time to think about what's really happening in the world. There are people who "drink the koolaid" of Fox News. There are people who "drink the koolaid" about ideas around accumulating wealth quickly. There are people who drink the "koolaid" around a certain type of education, style, or any type of trend. The social pressures around "buying into" a certain lifestyle can be tremendous. That's why it is so important to always know why we do things.

My husband became involved in a local Boston cult, but was able to detach. He reached to a trusted uncle while he separated and found his way back to where he was before. He became part of a cult awareness network, but that network was sued for defamation of cults, and they were bought out by the leader of that Boston cult, which quashed all of their outreach activities.

So now my husband and I home-school our daughter. He makes sure Philosophy is one area they explore together in all its branches that are age-appropriate. We make sure that she is given time to think about what she reads and hears....and processes it through writing and art. We are members of a UU church, who are very accepting and therefore a very good community to be part of...and another buffer against cult involvement.

Children deserve to feel safe and secure with their parents, and all of those child deaths in Jim Jones' cult are such a tragedy! Just watched part of a documentary about Jim Jones' cult over my husband's shoulder yesterday, and wonder now what you'd suggest to someone watching a friend or loved one with children becoming involved in a potentially dangerous plot? I can imagine it gets complicated because to "report" against them would alienate them, which we wouldn't want to do. Perhaps giving them some free child care at times may be a way to find out if the children are in danger. All I know is that after watching that documentary, I gave my daughter lots of extra hugs and affection above the usual....:0)

There is so much in the world that tries to separate and alienate us from one another. We must unify so that those forces have less and less power and we keep more of our own. Authentic love and acceptance are the way. If people want us to separate ourselves from the people we love, then it's a red flag that something is not right.

When someone who calls herself a Christian ask me if I have a right relationship with Jesus, my response is usually that it's a personal matter between me and Jesus. Whatever my relationship with Him is, it is for Him to determine whether or not I am saved, not anyone else. That question usually raises red flags for me and I usually try to end the interaction. That person has drunk the "koolaid" of fanatic evangelism and does not feel safe. They are not going to save my soul by talking to me like that, nor by telling me how I can be "saved." We save souls by loving each other, and being authentic about our love, and let the God of our understanding be the judge of our lives.

I will follow that cult education site link that you provided.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on July 29, 2014:

Really interesting. I read a book many years ago, called "The Wrong Way Home" that covered this too. It included a cartoon of Charlie Brown talking about "security" and I think he described it as being in the back seat of the car at night, going home and feeling sleepy and knowing your mom or dad would get you safely home.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on July 29, 2014:

Congratulations on HOTD. This is well written and well presented. It is amazing how many cults are out there and I have known people I have considered levelheaded and intelligent get caught up in cults. Thanks for writing such an important and informative article.

Yoleen Lucas from Big Island of Hawaii on July 29, 2014:

An ENORMOUS congratulations to you! I was in a cult myself, and so was my niece (I wrote about the experience in my hub, "My Experience in a Cult"). It really is all about mind control. Ultimately, we're all responsible for ourselves, so it's good to always suspect someone who demands blind acceptance and obedience.

missirupp on July 29, 2014:

Well done. The writing was so good, I started getting really creeped-out!

rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on July 29, 2014:

You've written an interesting, informative article. I think for anyone who thinks, "I could never be a part of one", that's a key point of how they recruit! Cults aren't simply full of empty, ignorant people. They prey on the hungry, those wanting more, something different. They seek leaders and the strong also, who will continue to recruit for them and inspire others to join. I think it's important to teach our young to ask questions and think for themselves. Congrats on your HOTD.

Kiss andTales on July 29, 2014:

My thumbs up to you!

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thanks for pointing this out Kiss and Tales. I read a lot of literature about cults and I have spent a lot of time on People's Temple and Jonestown and you're exactly right. So many times the closest relatives of the leader are deeply involved and most severely hurt by their actions. Even their own children are victims of their manipulation.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you Lady Guinevere. I love your hub handle!

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you Dolores, your words are so true.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you. I always hear people making that stretch that all religions are cults, but it's an exaggeration that makes one dismissive of the idea that there are truly dangerous groups.

Shannon Powell (author) from USA on July 29, 2014:

Thank you AnimalWrites, you're right on.

Kiss andTales on July 29, 2014:

Yes I must say ! You have a great hub! Informative ! In every way ! Also how to handle the situation when some one is a victim of an occult . The thing is people do not see them self under that title of danger like Jim Jones and his followers , that included his own blood relatives and many died of mass suicide from believing and following him. In this case one name ,one leader they all had in common. Another key to identify !

Thank you for taking the time to give this thoughtful and very powerful hub!

imake on July 29, 2014:

Awesome read; thanks for which!

Debra Allen from West By God on July 29, 2014:

Excellent article and HOTD! I did a hub way back about this very thing. This is great and I am passing it on and sharing.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on July 29, 2014:

Congratulations on HOTD. I like how you pointed out that we all search for meaning. I think that a person who joins a cult must be so empty, they need the validation of someone they see as strong, someone who understands and has all the answers. I imagine that quite a lot of people may be that vulnerable at certain times of life.

RTalloni on July 29, 2014:

Interesting read--congrats on your Hub of the Day award. Your point about not all cults being religions/not all religions are cults is an important addition here.

AnimalWrites from Planet Earth on July 29, 2014:

Congratulations on your HOTD! You have made some very good points about cults and how easy it would be for any of us to slide into being a member, especially if we were at a vulnerable point in our lives.

We all like to think we are so independent and clear-headed, but we all have emotional needs and want to be accepted into groups, so it is not too difficult for cult leaders to manipulate minds and emotions and get people hooked in.

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