The horrors of conformity are often overlooked in our society. We are told from a young age to fit in, follow the crowd, and conform to the norms and expectations set forth by those around us.
But at what cost?
Do we sacrifice our personal identity, our values and beliefs, our very selves in the pursuit of fitting in?
There are a lot of situations in which conformity is not only advantageous but necessary. Group cohesion and cooperation, for example, require that everyone be on the same page, so to speak. And the maintenance of social order and safety depends on having rules and goals that everyone follows.
But what could go wrong if you just conform without thinking about it?
Follow the Leader, or Think for Yourself?
Cults often establish conformity within the group as a way to maintain control over their members and to ensure that everyone adheres to the group’s ideology and beliefs. Cult leaders may use a variety of techniques, such as isolation, peer pressure, love bombing, fear and intimidation, brainwashing, and rewards and punishments, to encourage conformity among group members.
While cults can be controversial and often have a negative connotation, it is also important to recognize that not all cults are necessarily harmful. In some cases, being part of a cult can provide a sense of belonging and community for individuals. This desire for belonging is rooted in our basic human needs, as a recent study has shown that the need for social interaction activates the same region of the brain as the desire for food.
But When Guided by Evil’s Hands, a Cult Can Be Terrifying
You probably know of the Jonestown Massacre, The Ripper Crew, and Charles Manson’s followers, all cult groups that were manipulated into committing heinous acts by their leaders. What dark secrets do these leaders hold that allowed them to twist the minds of their followers, leading them to commit unspeakable acts of terror?
One word: charisma. As a society, we are often fascinated by the power of charismatic cult leaders and the hold they have over their followers.
But how do these leaders manage to sway their followers to conform to their beliefs and behaviors, even if those are considered heinous?
Fostering a Sense of Belonging
One tactic that cult leaders may use is the creation of a sense of community and belonging. As Peoples Temple grew in popularity, its charismatic leader Jim Jones fostered a sense of belongingness among its members that was unparalleled. He created a loving, welcoming atmosphere that drew people in, and his weekly services were filled with evangelism, faith healing, and youth programs that kept them coming back for more.
Jones’s own mesmerizing presence as a healer only added to the allure of Peoples Temple, as he used his weekly radio and television programs to showcase his abilities and attract even more followers.
But Jones’s desire for recognition and praise went beyond simply growing the church. He craved power and control, and he used his charisma and the sense of belonging he had cultivated within Peoples Temple to manipulate and exploit his followers. Those who resisted his authority were ostracized or worse, and Jones’s cult-like control over his followers ultimately led to the tragic events at Jonestown in 1978, where over 900 members died in a mass suicide.
Despite the horror of that final chapter, the sense of belonging and community that Jones fostered within Peoples Temple was undeniable. It was a seductive pull that drew people in and kept them there, even as the reality of the situation became increasingly clear. In the end, it was this sense of belonging that proved to be both the cult’s greatest strength and its ultimate downfall.
Fear and Intimidation
But cults don’t just rely on the power of community to keep their followers in line. They may also use fear and intimidation to maintain control. Ever heard of hell?
According to Russell’s argument in “Why I Am Not A Christian,” religion is primarily driven by fear. From the fear of eternal damnation to the fear of not living up to one’s faith, it can be a daunting and oppressive force. But it’s not just the fear of the divine that plagues believers, there is also the fear of being judged by others for not conforming to their expectations, the fear of exploring one’s own desires and beliefs, and the fear of those who are different.
But the horrors that Warren Jeffs, the former leader of the FLDS Church, inflicted upon innocent young women are beyond imagination. With a twisted and manipulative mind, he preyed upon these women, sexually assaulting them and using the most disgusting and gut-wrenching fear tactics to take advantage of them. As Warren said: if the Lord doesn’t name you to be with me in the heavenly session, then you will fall under a greater condemnation.
The way he refers to sexually assaulting two underage girls as a ‘heavenly session’ is truly sickening.
The documentary “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” reveals the disturbing reality of life within the FLDS Church. Initially, the community appeared to be a utopia of obedience and kindness. However, everything changed when Warren Jeffs became their new president and prophet.
Under Jeff’s leadership, the church descended into chaos and corruption. One of the most heinous crimes committed by Jeffs was the sexual abuse of two young girls, both members of the church.
Despite the growing sense of unease among some members of the church, they were too afraid to speak out. Jeffs used classic fear tactics to keep them in line, threatening their eternal salvation if they dared to question him. The result was a culture of silence and compliance, even in the face of unspeakable horrors.
The case of FLDS Church members is a disturbing example of how fear and intimidation can be used to control and manipulate people. By exploiting followers’ fear of eternal damnation and their deep-seated need to please him, Warren Jeffs was able to convince them not only to comply with his wishes but also to commit unspeakable acts of sexual abuse against young girls.
In addition to fear and intimidation, cult leaders may also exploit the emotional vulnerabilities of their followers. This can be seen in Ari Aster’s folk horror film, Midsommar, Florence Pugh’s character Dani finds solace in the macabre embrace of the Hårga cult, known for their pagan rituals and twisted beliefs in empathy and shared suffering.
Tragedy strikes when Dani’s sister commits suicide, taking their parents with her. Dani, in a state of profound grief, turns to her boyfriend Christian for comfort but finds none in their toxic, codependent relationship.
When Christian and his friends, Mark and Josh, receive an invitation to a commune in Sweden from their friend Pelle, Christian brings Dani along out of pity and an inability to break up with her. This sets the stage for Dani’s involvement with a cult, as her depression and lack of support make her vulnerable to their deceitful offer of a supportive family.
The film ends with Dani finally allowing herself to embrace the violent catharsis of the cult’s purging ritual, finding a twisted sense of belonging amidst the chaos. She smiles as the full weight of her grief is lifted, finally succumbing to the cult’s twisted embrace. The Hårga have claimed another victim, and Dani is forever changed.
Sure, some people might say that Midsommar is a good-for-her type of film, but it’s not. Because that’s what cults do, they prey on people who are in an emotionally vulnerable state and make them feel like there’s a place for someone like them—which is exactly what happens to Dani in this movie.
Charismatic cult leaders will stop at nothing to get their followers to bend to their will. They’ll use any tactic to get their followers to do what they want, including fear-mongering, creating a fake sense of community, and playing with people’s emotions. It’s all about control and manipulation, leading their followers down a dangerous road to who knows where.
The Murder of Banaz
In a short story called The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, the story shows how mindlessly conforming to a tradition can lead to a spiral of unbeknownst social ills. Each year, the villagers participate in a deadly tradition known as the lottery, in which one member of their community is chosen to be sacrificed and be stoned to death.
Despite the fact that the lottery has resulted in death every year, the villagers blindly follow this tradition, never questioning its purpose or fairness. They simply go along with it because it is what they have always done, showing a disturbing lack of critical thinking and an inability to challenge authority or societal norms.
Although the story is fictional, it illustrates how dangerous—and foolish—it can be to blindly follow tradition without considering if it serves any real purpose.
Tragically, Banaz Mahmod, just 20 years old, became one of the countless victims of the horrific practice of honor killings in 2006.
Honor killings are a disturbing practice in which a family member is murdered for bringing dishonor upon the family by acting in a way deemed socially or culturally unacceptable. These crimes are almost always perpetrated by male relatives, with 93% of victims being women. Husbands, brothers, and fathers are frequently the perpetrators, feeling that their reputation has been tarnished by a wife or daughter who has engaged in premarital sex, committed adultery, or otherwise broken strict moral codes.
The murder of Banaz Mahmod is a truly harrowing and disturbing event. As is all too common, Banaz was a victim of an arranged marriage that turned violent, with her husband physically and sexually abusing her. After leaving her husband, Banaz fell in love with another man, a transgression that was strictly forbidden by the honor code as understood and interpreted by her uncle, Ari Mahmod, and her father, Mahmod Babakir Mahmod.
The tragedy of Banaz Mahmod’s murder is made all the more disturbing by the fact that she repeatedly sought help from the authorities, only to be ignored and even threatened with charges for wasting their time.
In January 2006, her father and uncle enlisted help from some cousins to carry out the gruesome task of killing Banaz for bringing dishonor upon the family. The uncle lured her to a secluded location, where the cousins proceeded to kidnap, rape, torture, and strangle her with a bootlace. Banaz’s body was then disposed of in a suitcase, and buried in a Birmingham backyard. She was just 20 years old when she lost her life at the hands of those who were supposed to love and protect her.
The murder of Banaz Mahmod is eerily reminiscent of the violence and blindly followed tradition depicted in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.”
In “The Lottery,” a person is chosen through a lottery system to be sacrificed for the good of the community, without any regard for the individual’s own wishes or well-being. Similarly, Banaz was murdered by her own family members in the name of upholding their honor culture tradition, a tradition that valued reputation above all else.
“Emotional Exploitation” That could be a great idea.