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Charles Manson and Jim Jones are two of the most infamous, sinister cult leaders. But are they the exception, or the rule? Let's break down the myths surrounding cult communes, women-led cults, and the average demographic of a cult member.

Host Justin Dodd (@juddtoday) breaks down some common myths and misconceptions about the mysterious world of cults.

Cults: Sinister, fringe religious groups led by  charismatic, bearded prophets that prey on young, susceptible people. They’re the subject of  countless Vice articles, HBO documentaries, and debatably-exploitative podcasts. With  our generation’s obsession with true crime, it makes sense that these often  bizarre, affecting stories have become a staple of the genre. But therein lies the problem: we often think of cults as a piece of a  genre, just stories to be consumed.

So, we forget that they have a real history, with real  people. Today on Misconceptions, I, your host, Justin Dodd, will break down some common myths and  misconceptions about cults. Let’s get started.

I don’t know about you, but when I picture a cult leader, I picture a tall, bearded man with  long blonde hair and a white robe made of silk. Just me? Well, I bet you, too, are, at the  very least, picturing a dude.

Why is that? High-profile cult leaders like Charles  Manson and Jim Jones certainly play a role, but other factors contribute to this perception. Cults are often linked to illegal activity in the public eye, and some crimes—particularly violent  ones—are disproportionately committed by men.

That said, a number of cults have been led  by women, including Valentina de Andrade, who headed the terrifying Superior Universal  Alignment UFO cult. The Rajneeshees—whom you might be familiar with from the Netflix doc Wild Wild  Country—committed a mass but luckily non-lethal poisoning in Oregon. They were purportedly led by  their guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but actually for years had had most of their operations run  by a woman named Ma Anand Sheela.

But instead of going through a list of women-led cults in  an attempt to prove that there are, in fact, women-led cults, I think the point will be proven  by focusing on one woman-led cult in particular: Anne Hamilton Byrne and the Family. Hamilton-Byrne started her cult-career as a yoga instructor in Australia, catering  mostly to middle-aged women in Melbourne. In the 1960s, she helped start a group called  The Family which was based at Santiniketan, a property which also hosted religious  and philosophical discussions.

One of the members at Santiniketan managed  a nearby psychiatric hospital, where many Family members worked. Several patients  there were eventually recruited into the cult. It’s also where Hamilton-Byrne  acquired a fair amount of LSD, which was administered to members.

The theological  teachings of Hamilton-Byrne’s group involved a varied combo of Eastern and Western religions,  including Hinduism and Christianity. The kicker, though, was the claim that Hamilton-Byrne  was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. If this already sounds like a super disconcerting  cult, you should strap in for this next part.

Starting in the 1960s, Hamilton-Byrne  accumulated around 28 infants and young children. Some were children of members of the  Family who had been coerced into giving them up. These members were most likely under the influence  of hallucinogens.

Some of the children were   “adopted” using less-than-legal methods under  the supervision of lawyers within the group. The children were kept secret for years. They  also, creepily I might add, had their hair dyed blonde to match their “mother’s”.

The children  were administered sedatives, and later LSD, and purportedly abused, all while under the watch  of dedicated disciples known as the Aunties. Hamilton-Byrne was eventually arrested but was  only convicted of falsely registering the birth of three of the children, which resulted in a fine. All in all, this  yoga-teacher-turned-second-coming-of-Christ-turned-child-kidnapper definitely shows that women can be cult leaders.

But on a final note, if your preconceived notion of a cult member was a woman, there’s actually  some truth to that. According to various research, around 70 percent of cult followers are women. Cults, by many definitions, involve some type  of religion or spirituality.

For many years, that’s just what the word cult meant: a  group dedicated to a religious belief. Medium’s Egor Kotkin broke down some of Cicero’s  writing on the subject by defining ‘religion’ and ‘cult’ like this: Cult = mythology + rites  Church = lore + priests Religion = cult + church So religion is just… a cult with some priests  and some lore, according to that word-math. But where does the word cult come  from?

According to Merriam Webster, “Cult, which shares an origin with culture  and cultivate, comes from the Latin cultus, a noun with meanings ranging from ‘tilling,  cultivation’ to ‘training or education’ to   ‘adoration.’ … The earliest known uses of  the word, recorded in the 17th century, broadly denoted ‘worship.’ … By the early 18th  century, cult could refer to a non-religious admiration or devotion, such as to a person,  idea, or fad (‘the cult of success’). Finally, by the 19th century, the word came to be used of  ‘a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.’” But, in recent times, the word cult  has expanded to have a broader meaning. Pretty much any group (usually still unorthodox  or spurious) that has a very specific focus or lifestyle could be classified as a cult.

We can  even refer to a “cult of personality” without implying that adherents have a spiritual devotion  to the person at the center. The themes of these cultish groups span far and wide, but let’s focus  on some specific types of non-religious cults. Doomsday cults.

These are … pretty  self-explanatory: any group whose central ideology focuses on the coming end of the world. This belief is sometimes called apocalypticism, and it can take many forms. Obviously  these cults can be religious in nature, but sometimes the doom that’s supposedly coming  is a catastrophic natural disaster.

Other times, a plague. Sometimes, it’s aliens. Sometimes it’s  based on conspiracy theories, such as the belief that society or the government is attempting to  destroy the world, and only a select few can stop it (or protect themselves, at the very least).

The peculiar thing about Doomsday cults is that, while 100 percent of their predicted apocalypses  have failed to materialize, the cults still persist. One might think that if your leader was  predicting the end of the world on July 12, 2018, and that day came and went without incident, your  resolve as a follower might start to falter. But the opposite seems to be true.

A study conducted  by Leon Festinger of the group The Seekers showed that not only did followers of doomsday cults  maintain their beliefs after they were disproven, in many cases, they were strengthened. While  there have been criticisms of the study, Festinger attributed these oddly persistent beliefs to  the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is essentially the unpleasant feeling of tension when  one’s actions and beliefs are inconsistent. The individuals are then motivated to change their  behavior or beliefs to return to some kind of harmonious state.

In this case, it appears that  resulted in doubling-down on their convictions. Some other types of cults: Political  cults, who are focused on very specific political beliefs, and usually try to  influence elections and local government. Sometimes political cults are results of cults  of personality.

Commercial cults, meanwhile, are based around the idea of... making money. Think, a multi-marketing pyramid scheme of sorts. Racist and terrorist cults are a real thing—the  Ku Klux Klan is often described as a cult.

And then we have… whatever the heck this next one  is. The Unarians are a group of people who believe in the teachings of Unarius, an institution  founded by Ernest and Ruth Norman in 1954, who would come to be known as Raphael and  Uriel. Unarius is founded on the writings of Raphael, a.k.a.

Ernest, who was said to be  channeling alien beings from Mars and Venus. Eventually, the mail-order books of Unarius  grew into an actual academy, known as the Unarius Academy of Science. Unarius, of course,  stands for “Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science.” Which I  guess would make their institution the Universal Articulate Interdimensional  Understanding of Science Academy… of Science.

Essentially, the Unarians believe there are aliens  who have vast knowledge of both the sciences and spirituality, and they’re trying to educate  us here on Earth. There’s even some talk that   “space brothers” will come to Earth in 33  space ships that will stack atop each other, like some kind of giant alien game of Tetris. The most fantastic part about this small, alien  cult is Uriel.

She quickly became the face of the group, speaking publicly about their beliefs,  all the while dressed to the nines in fantastic dresses and wigs. It’s a bit of a tradition  now for Unarians to be dressed flamboyantly and extravagantly in meetings. Let me tell ya,  of all the cults I researched for this video, this is the one I would be HAPPY to join.

The ideal place for a cult is on a  remote farm somewhere in the mountains, away from the influences of society. Everyone lives together, works together, sings songs together, and wears matching white  clothes. Or… so the media would have us believe.

It’s true that cults thrive by using  isolation. Integrating an “us vs them” mentality is crucial for retaining membership. If  members feel separated from their peers, family, or society at large, they are more likely to stay  in the group.

So, it would make a lot of sense to literally cut people off from society by having  them live in a commune of sorts. If you’re all living together and only exposed to fellow  believers, you’d be more likely to stick with it, right? Well, the truth is, most cults don’t live  together in some big, utopian/dystopian commune.

Most cult members live in regular neighborhoods  and work normal jobs. They are, however, emotionally and mentally cut off from the  world, even while living in it with everyone else. High-profile cult communes like Jonestown in  Guyana are actually the exception, not the rule.

Which brings up a bonus misconception: that cults  all have a single leader. While cults are often portrayed as being led by one chosen, charismatic  figure, it’s usually not so simple. As I discussed in the cases of the Rajneeshees and Unarians, the  public face of a cult is not always the person running things behind the scenes.

Other cults  like the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments have a group of leaders. The idea  of one big puppet master pulling the strings is often blown out of proportion by tv and film. By now you’re thinking to yourself, “I would  never be dumb enough to join a cult.

Only an absolute FOOL would be duped into joining a cult.”  Well, we can nip this one in the bud right now, because the idea that “smart” people are  immune to cults is definitely false. Let’s just start this off with some hard data—you  know, SMART people stuff. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research in 2017 looked  at the demographics of former cult members, trying to identify common traits, tendencies, and  lifestyles.

It was found that more than 61 percent of former cult members had more than 12 years of  education, which sits about even with the general population, if not slightly higher, according to  2015 U. S. census data. These are college-educated folks we’re talking about.

Other researchers  have commented that a common denominator of people joining cults is idealism, not the  downtrodden pessimists you might be picturing. People join cults for any number of reasons. Many  former members (67 percent) expressed feelings of dissatisfaction with their lives previous to  joining.

Some (32 percent) expressed depressive symptoms, or family conflicts (22 percent). Most  former members described being welcomed into the group and experiencing feelings of acceptance  and friendship. Who wouldn’t want that to be a part of that?

Cults often become much more  sinister in their tactics to keep people in the cult, using various forms of peer pressure  and intimidation. Most former members expressed fears of humiliation, exclusion, and even  violence if they had decided to leave. Psychologist Steve Eichel describes it like this: ??"A very important aspect of [a] cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible  things will happen to you.

This is important, and it's important to realize. That people  outside of a cult are potential members, so they're not looked upon as negatively as  people inside the cult who then leave the cult." Joining a cult doesn’t mean you’re uneducated, and  stigmatizing people who have fallen prey to cults is counterproductive to reintegrating them into  society. Your predisposition to be manipulated seems far less based on your education than it  does your immediate psychological circumstances.

So, don’t write anyone off just yet. Thanks for watching Misconceptions. I hope we all got a little clarity into  the mysterious world of cults.

Or at the very least, were inspired  by Uriel’s incredible fashion sense. If you have an idea for a future episode, let  us know in the comments. I’ll see ya next time.