2 Docu-Series That Shed Light On The Psychological Mechanisms Of Cults

These two series depict the inner workings of two of the world's most infamous cults. Have you seen them?

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 08, 2024

The People's Temple and NXIVM stand as two of the most terrifying testaments to the cruel, violent and deadly nature of cults. These organizations—led by the charismatic and manipulative figures Jim Jones and Keith Raniere, respectively—showcase how even the most well-informed and intelligent individuals can fall prey to the insidious tactics of cultic leaders.

The following two docu-series depict how, through a combination of psychological manipulation, emotional exploitation and strategic deceit, Jones and Raniere were able to amass devoted followings—leading their followers down paths of suffering and destruction.

1. Cult Massacre: One Day In Jonestown (2024)

The People's Temple, founded by the charismatic and authoritarian leader Jim Jones, is a stark example of how psychological mind control tactics can be used to subdue and manipulate followers.

According to a 2003 report by the American Psychological Association, Jones employed psychological tactics that are reminiscent of the totalitarian strategies described in George Orwell's novel, 1984. These tactics enabled Jones to maintain an iron grip over his followers, culminating in the tragic mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978.

  1. Creating an environment of constant surveillance and control. Jones required followers to spy on one another and broadcast his voice through loudspeakers throughout the commune—ensuring his presence was omnipresent as they worked, slept and ate. This omnipresence helped solidify loyalty and fear among the members—similar to the posters of "Big Brother" in 1984, as well as the "telescreens."
  2. Self-incrimination. Jones instructed his followers to provide written statements about their fears and mistakes. He then used this information to publicly humiliate and psychologically torture them if they disobeyed him. This practice mirrored the fear-based control depicted in 1984, where the protagonist's resistance is crushed by his deepest fear.
  3. Suicide drills. Jones employed forced his followers to practice mass suicide drills in the lead up to their eventual mass suicide. This was similar to Orwell's notion that, in a dire threat, suicide was the preferred option before being captured.
  4. Distortion of reality. He manipulated the truth by making his followers express gratitude for good food and work despite them being starved and overworked. Ultimately, this blurred followers' line between words and reality—much akin to "newspeak" in 1984.

Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, a 2024 docu-series, provides an in-depth examination of the tragic events that unfolded at Jonestown, and provides a detailed narrative of the rise and catastrophic end of the People's Temple.

Through interviews with survivors, former members and experts, the series explores the psychological mechanisms Jones used to maintain control over his followers. The series documents how these mind control tactics created a closed, oppressive environment that ultimately led to the deaths of over 900 people. Viewers gain a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of cult control—from the initial idealistic promises to the eventual manipulation and coercion that defined the People's Temple.

2. The Vow (2020)

The NXIVM organization, founded by Keith Raniere, initially presented itself as a self-improvement group offering personal and professional development seminars. However, it soon garnered widespread debate over whether it was simply a genuine self-help organization or a full-blown cult. According to a 2022 study, this ambiguity made it difficult for researchers and the general public to draw a clear line.

The organization's blend of personal growth rhetoric with intense loyalty demands and secretive practices created a gray area, which led to divergent opinions on its true nature. Some saw NXIVM as a legitimate path to self-betterment, while others recognized the hallmarks of cultic manipulation and control. But, according to the author, there were several red flags in Raniere's behavior that ultimately point to NXIVM being a cult, as opposed to a genuine self-improvement group—namely his previous history of violence, as well as his history of entrepreneurialism.

Raniere was a known nymphomaniac, and had been accused of and charged with several sexual offenses. His history of sexual violence heavily influenced the tactics he used to turn NXIVM into a cultic organization. He created a secretive subgroup within NXIVM, where women were coerced into becoming "slaves" and were branded with Raniere's initials. These women were subjected to severe psychological manipulation and sexual exploitation, which sadly was under the guise of spiritual growth and personal empowerment. Raniere exploited their vulnerabilities and fears by means of blackmail and emotional abuse—which ensured their compliance and silence.

In addition to his history of sexual violence, Raniere's entrepreneurial skills played a crucial role in advertising NXIVM as an indispensable self-improvement group. He marketed NXIVM's seminars and workshops as life-changing opportunities for personal and professional growth, with slick advertising and persuasive rhetoric to attract new members. By positioning himself as a visionary leader with unique insights into human potential, Raniere created an image of NXIVM as a must-join organization for those seeking true fulfillment and success.

This allure served to bait potential followers, which ultimately allowed him to trap them in a web of manipulation and control. His entrepreneurial acumen enabled him to create an environment where members felt dependent on NXIVM for their personal development—which made it difficult for them to leave despite the abusive practices they experienced. This combination of psychological manipulation, sexual exploitation and savvy marketing ultimately cemented NXIVM's status as a dangerous cult.

The Vow, a 2020 docu-series, explores the complex and disturbing world of NXIVM, providing viewers with an in-depth exploration of its inner workings. Through interviews with former members, including high-ranking individuals who once supported Raniere, the series reveals the psychological and emotional manipulation that took place within the organization. The Vow chronicles the journey of those who escaped and fought to expose the truth, and details the recruitment tactics, hierarchical structure and the coercive methods used to maintain control over members. By exposing these horrific tactics, the docu-series helps viewers understand how NXIVM operated as a cult, despite its outward appearance as a self-help group.

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