I am fascinated by cults. 

From why and how people join them, to trying to uncover how cult leaders develop and wield their deadly charm like a weapon of subtle destruction, there is something unbelievably compelling about learning about the psychology behind their motivations.

Because, that, no doubt is part of the strange intrigue about cults isn’t it?

Wondering how it is possible for someone to have so much charisma that what they say or do somehow results in people blindly following them without sensing any inherent danger in their situation until it’s too late.

Because the truth is that not everyone who walks away makes it back, and even if they do, it takes years for the victims of cults to recover, if they ever truly do.

Peer pressure and mass suicide

While cults often share similar traits in that there is always an authority figure who marks himself (or herself) as the leader or guru, not every fanatical sect is based on the same beliefs.

Rick Ross from The Guardian reports on the findings of psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton on the marks of what makes a cult – some of which include the authority figure as mentioned above and two additional main markers as listed below:

  • A process of emotional and sometimes physical manipulation and indoctrination.

    The idea here is to not only make people become completely dependent on the viewpoint of the leader in question, but also to convince them that the authority figure has their best interest at heart.
  • Exploitation

    It could be in the form of enforced labour, sexual slavery (as has been alleged in the reports above), monetary and any situation where the victims are coerced, under the guise of manipulation, into giving up anything of value to them.

1. The one that took place right on our doorstep

The News24 documentary reveals the horrid details of a story about a religious cult that saw about 100 girls being rescued from a compound in Ngcobo, a small town in the Eastern Cape.

According to the report, the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry was a cult, operating under the guise of being a church, which allegedly held girls as sex slaves in an environment that has been shrouded in secrecy up until the rescue of the girls which resulted in a deadly attack and shoot out that left 6 people killed.

10 people have been arrested in what has become one of the most shocking events of 2018 so far.

What is even more shocking is that according to additional reports from City Press (via News24), it has emerged that the cult was known to the state and that the so-called church, which was run by the seven Mancoba brothers and their mother, was a huge concern particularly for  the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities who first rescued 18 children back in 2016.

To help us gain better insight into the full story, News24’s team of journalists went to Ngcobo and spoke to some of the victims’ family and those closest to the case.

WATCH THE NEWS24 DOCUMENTARY: ANGELS OF DEATH


2. The sex cult with links to Hollywood

A story that’s been making the rounds recently involves Smallville actress Allison Mack who was recently arrested for charges of sex trafficking

According to Alexis Reliford from Refinery29.com, the actress, known for her role as Chloe Sullivan in the abovementioned hit series, was reportedly involved with NXIVM (pronounced Nexium), a group that assumed and operated under the mantle of running a women's mentorship and empowerment program. 

Under the leadership of Keith Raniere, who has also since been arrested, the group has been not only been facing charges for sex trafficking but also for extortion, forced labour (in order words slavery) and branding victims, according to Joe Tacopino and Priscilla DeGregory from the New York Post.

Emerging complaints have alleged that sex slaves would be branded with Raniere’s initials in rituals that could last up to 30 minutes.  

It’s also revealed that the women had apparently been groomed specifically to cater for Raniere’s sexual appetites, and that they would need to remain in good health (read: skinny).

There are many different types of cults that unfortunately exist in world, but the NXIVM one gives us a clear indication that some of the scariest and most dangerous cults include the type where women are subjugated to the will of a man whose level of entitlement instills in him a deep belief that women are nothing more than sex slaves.

What Raniere did here is not only create an atmosphere of fear through blackmail (the inner group would apparently demand that the women provide them with nude photos with the threat that they’d make them public if any details of the “program” were leaked), but he stripped away their dignity and made them dependent on him, as if he was their only lifeline.  

And Mack, for her alleged involvement is rumoured to have helped create that environment.

For the victims, it will be the start of a long recovery process (do they ever recover?), but hopefully the courage that a few of them have had in stepping forward, will go a long way to not just start the healing process, but help others in the same situation.

3. Have you ever wondered where the expression “ don’t drink the kool-aid” comes from? 

A phrase to warn someone against doing something foolhardy because of peer pressure, what might be surprising to some, is that it actually stemmed from The Jonestown massacre.

WATCH THE TRAILER: JONESTOWN


Charismatic (aren’t they always) leader Jim Jones, was according to Chris Higgins from MentalFloss.com, a communist and Methodist preacher who started his own version of church in the 1950s.

Except, the Peoples Temple Full Gospel wasn’t quite your average church – using the guise of Christianity, the Peoples Temple was a sect that was based on Marxist principles but later devolved further into a cult fuelled by obsession with the apocalypse.

According to The Huffington Post, a big part of his appeal was because he promoted a society that was free of racial discrimination, and in fact atracted many African Americans who would join his compound.

By the 1970s Jones was completely paranoid and had abandoned any pretense of being a religious figure. With the aim of creating some form of utopian society, he and his followers settled in Guyana, South America in a settlement he named Jonestown.

In those years Jones was gaining increasingly negative publicity and rumours of fraud and abuse were prevalent.

When U.S. representative and politician Leo Ryan eventually went to South America to investigate, it set off a chain of events that led to what has been dubbed as one of the worst instances of mass suicide-murder in the history of the United States.

According to History.com, on November 18, 1978 Ryan and his team were gunned down after trying to assist members who were trying to escape from the cult.

On the same day, Jim Jones urged his followers to commit mass suicide – he laced Flavour-Aid (not Kool-Aid although this is where it originates from) with cyanide which saw many people dead before others could even get around to drinking the poisoned cool drink.

Needless to say more than 900 people died that day.

Ever since then folk have been using the controversial phrase (many complain that it trivialises the tragic events), when warning against doing something influenced by peer pressure.

4. How one man inspired havoc involving one of the most talked about mass murders of all time 

Cult stories like the one of Charles Manson and his followers who committed nine murders is one that almost all of us are familiar with.

In fact, there’ve been plenty of discussions, essays and even books (you should get your hands on a copy of Helter Skelter) that delves into the psyche of a man who was the mastermind behind the murders of nine people and who convinced his group of followers to kill on his behalf.

WATCH THE TRAILER: THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER


Victims included actress Sharon Tate who was married to Roman Polanski at the time and was eight months pregnant. She was, according to CNN.com, killed in her home along with four others who were friends.

Even thought Manson has since died, he remains one of the most disturbing and fascinating figures in cultdom since even in prison, he continued to have a strong fanbase who were unrelenting in their belief that he was innocent.

It says a lot about our world that there’s actual merchandise that’s available for purchase too (no, we’re not linking to that).

READ MORE: How one woman’s book caught a killer who evaded the law for more than 40 years

5. The scariest cult ever? (MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS ONE)

The thing about cults is that no matter how many articles there are about them, it feels like we’ve barely scraped the surface of them.

While extreme belief systems form the heart of many fanatical groups, there are darker and scarier ones that not only delve into murder, but are involved in ritual sacrifices and terrorism.

One example of a rumoured cult that involved human sacrifice was a 1980s Mexican based one led by a Cuban American and Mexican woman who apparently dabbled in witchcraft and satanic worship.

According to Jorge Rodriguez-Jimenez from Wearemitu.com, Aldofo Constanzo, Sara Aldrete and their gang were responsible for claiming at least 15 lives in ritualistic murders, one of the most gruesome murders being the killing of student Mark Kilroy.

When Kilroy’s body was found, the first thing that police authorities discovered was his brain in a cauldron, in what looked to be part of a human sacrifice ritual. Reports add that his brain was boiled in blood with a turtle and horseshoe.

The reasoning behind this is that Aldofo thought that sacrifices like this would protect him and his gang from the police.

6. How one South African woman escaped from a religious sect

Arguably, the most harrowing stories are the ones we often hear from survivors. The unimaginable trauma, the psychological impact and learning to rebuild life after years of indoctrination seems unfeasible.

Lesley Elizabeth Smailes from the book cover Cult Sister


And yet there are some remarkable stories about women and men who do. And one of those women is South African, Lesley Elizabeth Smailes, whose book Cult Sister was first published back in 2017.

The book chronicles her journey about what it was like to be in one of the U.S.’s most secretive cults and how she eventually made her escape.  

In an interview with Cape Talk, she talks about the irony of rebelling against her mother’s advice – her mother told her: “don’t get married and don’t join a cult”- and how she came back from an arranged marriage within a sect, a completely different woman.

When she arrived in New York, Lesley says she was seduced into joining a very secretive and nomadic group run by Jim Roberts.

Obeying without question was a mantra and way of life she’d have to get used to or else face being onstracised completely.

In an excerpt published on W24, she relates the story of how her wedding day never felt like a wedding day and that she should have known then that it was the start of a bizarre lifestyle that she’d eventually want to leave.

Her book is available for purchase from Raru.co.za.

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