Full Episode: Cults, Explained | Netflix


(gentle chime) – I think what attracted
India to the group was this sense of unified purpose. – [Narrator] The group was NXIVM, and its unified purpose
was self-improvement using a patented method of Rational Inquiry for Executive Success, led by a man named Keith Raniere. But the claim that Raniere had one of the world’s highest IQs, the way students had to bow to
a picture of him on the wall, and how they had to call him The Vanguard unsettled Catherine. – At the end, you know, India
came up to me, and she said, “You know what, Mom, this is for me.” My jaw dropped. I was in shock. – [Narrator] India would end up giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to NXIVM, and got drawn into something much more sinister than Executive Success. – I got a call from
somebody, and she said, “Within NXIVM, there is a secret group.” And that’s the first time
I heard this term DOS, dominus obsequious sororium. – [Narrator] It was sold as a female empowerment group, but– – That’s Latin for “master
over female slave.” I was then told that they
were branding these women. – [Narrator] The branding was part of an initiation into DOS. A new member would be blindfolded, told to take off her clothes,
and lie on a massage table. Three other women would then hold down her legs and shoulders,
and she was told to say, “Master, please brand me. “It would be an honor.” The women were told that the symbol represented the elements,
but they’d been branded with Keith Raniere’s initials. Thousands of groups like NXIVM have risen throughout history, groups that are often described as cults. But it’s impossible to know how many because most cults
insist they’re not cults and almost nobody in a cult
realizes they’re in one. So what makes a group a cult? And how have some been able
to make ordinary people do horrible things? – [Man] I shall be God, and beside me, there shall be no other.
– Yeah! – [Man] We want to share
this knowledge with everyone. – [Woman] It was felt that whatever method necessary was okay because we were heavenly children and God knew why we were doing it. – Waco is gonna bear
witness against the ATF. You want to keep playing that game, somebody’s gonna get hurt. – [Man] You are told
to replace your family and discard your old identity. – Your only chance to
survive is to leave with us. (man vocalizing) – [Jim] Love is a healing remedy. – Peoples Temple was unique at that time. It was black and white and
American Indian and Hispanic. We all walked in naively thinking, “Okay, Jim said he wants a utopia. “I want a utopia.” We thought we were joining a movement to make the world better. – [Narrator] But what
they were actually joining ended up defining for the world,
the modern idea of a cult. – Thank you, baby. Shh.
(audience cheering) – [Narrator] In the late 1970s, the group’s leader, Jim Jones, led nearly a thousand followers from the Peoples Temple in California to the remote jungles of
Guyana to build Jonestown, sold as a self-sufficient utopia, free of the violence and
racism that plagued America. – [Jim] You all happy, you here? You happy, Tom? – Yes. – Everybody’s happy down here. You can see that that’s an obvious fact. – [Narrator] But concerned relatives began pressuring officials with pamphlets about a nightmare at Jonestown, saying Jones was using mind programming, even holding mock mass suicides to condition them to die for the cause. California Congressman Leo Ryan flew down to Guyana to
investigate, and never returned. – [Jim] It’s too late. The congressman’s dead,
the Congress today is dead. If we can’t live in peace,
then let’s die in peace. (group cheering) – [Narrator] The images
of nearly a thousand dead, the largest mass murder-suicide
in modern history, horrified the world. – [Newscaster] Cultists
who believed in everything that Jim Jones said took their own lives. – [Newscaster] Some shot to death, most apparently self-poisoned. – [Newscaster] There were empty bottles of potassium cyanide. Entire families took the poison together. – [Newscaster] Among the bodies were those of the Temple’s fanatical
founder, the Reverend Jim Jones. – [Newscaster] Jones told them, “It is time for us to
meet in another place.” – [Narrator] Groups called
cults, led by charismatic leaders with extreme beliefs
and fanatic followers, have existed in almost every
country across the globe. But the scale of destruction at Jonestown gave the word cult a new
horrifying connotation and drove social scientists in the United States to publish research attempting to define what these destructive groups had in common. They settled on three
main characteristics. – A cult is a group or a social movement that’s led by a charismatic
leader who is authoritarian and who demands to be
revered as a godlike figure. – We were taught to
believe that what he said was straight from the mouth of God. In the community, as we called
it, he was God’s authority. – [Narrator] The second
key element of a cult– – The group has some form
of indoctrination program, sometimes called thought reform. – [Narrator] Or mind control. – It was almost like the
operating system was the Bible, and then he was putting
all of his programs in there on top of it. And people would kind of accept them because they accepted the Bible, so they shouldn’t question the Bible, so they had to believe it. – There is exploitation,
either sexual, financial, some type of exploitation of the members. – Whenever, you know, Sun
Myung Moon needed my parents for some kind of mission or anything, they had to put the cult leader’s needs before their children’s. Like, my father, he was
gone most of the year when I was growing up. – [Narrator] But there’s a small problem with this definition of a cult. – It’s a value judgment more
than it is a functional word. Every prophet of every major religion can be considered a charismatic leader. In fact, the biggest
joke in religious studies is that cult plus time equals religion. – [Narrator] Cult comes
from the Latin cultus, meaning to till or cultivate, and in antiquity, was used
to describe the sacrifices, offerings, and monuments
built to cultivate favor with the gods. In time, it came to mean
any unorthodox religion. – The Roman Empire referred
to Judaism as a cult. Some say that certain
versions of Islam are cults. Nowadays, most scholars prefer the word new religious movement, or NRM. – [Narrator] And many arose,
not to exploit their followers, but to help them survive in
the face of an external threat. – The collective’s very sense of self is under attack by the world, and the only way to salvage one’s identity is to come together under the leadership of this charismatic authority and to rebuild from scratch. Jesus of Nazareth lived in perhaps the most politically and
socially turbulent era in the history of the Middle
East, which is saying a lot. And so, Jesus was one of at least a dozen messiahs that we know of. – [Narrator] New religious
movements have arisen to help humans navigate turbulent
times throughout history. In Europe, many arose during
the turmoil of the Renaissance and as a backlash against
institutional religions. In India, they grew out
of social turbulence caused by a transition to agriculture, and later, as a response
to British colonialism. But one country in particular
welcomed new religions with open arms from its very founding. – Going back well into the 1600s, the American colonies had
developed a reputation as a safe harbor for religious radicals. – [Narrator] And there was
one small patch of America that was especially seized
by this new religious fervor, a section of land stretching
from Albany to Buffalo, known as the Burned-over District. – [Mitch] The Burned-over
District became the birthplace of Mormonism, of Seventh-day
Adventism, of spiritualism. – [Narrator] And a wide range
of other social, political, and religious movements as well. – Wherever you encounter
religious openings, you inevitably encounter
political openings as well. – [Narrator] Jemima
Wilkinson was one prophet from that area. She recovered from a near-death
experience with typhoid to declare herself a
reincarnation of a holy spirit named Public Universal Friend. – And it was probably the first time that most Americans had
ever seen a woman preaching or speaking in public, this kind of American Sinai where people felt they were receiving all kinds of messages and dispensations, not strictly religious in nature. This pattern repeated again and again. – [Narrator] And they spread beyond the Burned-over District, like to New York City in the 1930s, where tens of thousands considered a man, called Father Divine, to be God on Earth. – For all of humanity, I am broadcasting. (audience cheering) – One has to understand Father Divine as a very early progenitor
of the civil rights movement. Father Divine’s early followers
were involved in protests and petition drives and
letter-writing campaigns that insisted upon civil rights, at a time when that call was
very muted in American life. – [Narrator] But a call that would grow and touch off a new
era of social upheaval, with racial tensions
erupting into violence and a wave of political assassinations. Many began doubting the
war in Vietnam was just. Americans’ trust in their
government plummeted, and the specter of imminent
nuclear annihilation made the entire nation feel
like it was under siege. This drove a generation to
search for new kinds of community and alternative sources of meaning. – And so, what we saw at that time was the rise of these
charismatic individuals, some of them American, many of them drawing from traditions of the
East, particularly in India. “We are the righteous few. “We know the answer.” And that knowledge was an antidote for the turbulent times in which we lived. – [Narrator] But that knowledge
sometimes came with a catch. – The search for alternative
forms of meaning, these things have, at their
back, a very powerful appeal. And sometimes, people start out, even the leaders themselves,
believing in that appeal. But there is a break in human
nature in which idealism can very easily turn
into authoritarianism. – [Narrator] The same religious tolerance that allowed the country to thrive– – Take that step. – [Narrator] Made Americans particularly susceptible to manipulation. (audience cheering) Even Father Divine was
accused of taking advantage of his followers financially, including convincing
them to buy him a hotel, and bilking a woman
out of her inheritance. And one man was watching all this and taking notes, Jim Jones. – So Jim Jones, he studied,
you know, Father Divine to see how Father Divine
set up his community. – [Narrator] Jones’s
desire to learn from Divine was even immortalized
in a 1980 TV miniseries. That’s James Earl Jones
playing Father Divine. – But how could you
sustain such a movement? – How did my son Moses sustain his flock? – But the cost. – Ask and you shall receive, my son. Ask and you shall receive. – Jim Jones took some of the
appeals to social justice that were intrinsic to
Father Divine’s message, and he used them, first to attract people, and later, to manipulate people. – [Narrator] And it’s
when that manipulation becomes destructive that
a group becomes a cult, according to social scientists. – It’s really not about
the belief system, per se. It’s about the behaviors of the group and the ways in which it uses
various methods of influence and control to manipulate
and exploit the members. – [Narrator] Charles Manson
convinced his followers to murder nine people in an
attempt to incite a race war. Shoko Asahara ordered his followers to release sarin gas in the
Tokyo subway, killing 13. And Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate convinced his followers of this. – Periodically, that level
comes in close enough and offers a graduation class, offers life out of this evolutionary level into that evolutionary level. – [Narrator] Which led many to castrate, then kill themselves,
believing this would help them ascend to a higher plane. The eternal fascination with cults stems from the mystery
of how their leaders exert such complete control. – [Janja] What they’re using
is basic social psychology. They’re using everyday influence
and control techniques. – [Narrator] So as a public service, we present to you seven elements
that social scientists say can lead to indoctrination into a cult. Number one, you’re going
through a transition, perhaps a difficult one. – I was a starving, not
very successful actor in my 20s in New York. – When you’re in that vulnerable state, you’re going to be more
open to trying something, maybe, you know, pull a thing off on a bulletin board that says,
“Come to this yoga class.” – The first meditation began, and I felt the experience
of wave after wave of love and connectedness. – [Narrator] Which is all
part of the soft sell. – I had a questionnaire. Just, like, questions about
life and the universe, “Are you happy?” – Once you take that first step
and go to that first meeting or talk or meditation
group or Bible study, recruiters can work on
you and invite you back, and it basically is a process from there. – We’d encourage them to
go to this retreat center in the woods, you know, where we can further indoctrinate them. – [Narrator] This is the first step toward the creation of a new reality. – We were kept in this closed environment, no outside books, no TV, no movies, to protect us from, what
my parents would say is, the defilement of the world. – Over time, you’re going to become more and more enveloped in this, what I call, a self-sealing system. – [Narrator] Until your
most important relationship is with The Dear Leader. – They would have Sun Myung Moon and/or his family members come out. “Ladies and gentlemen, the
true parents of mankind, “Reverend and Sun Myung Moon.” – You’re in a group that
has found the answer, and you have this leader
who is the only leader who is the only one who
can take you on this path. And everything else and
everybody else is wrong. – Every Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m., we just bowed to a picture
of Reverend and Mrs. Moon. We were told to love
Reverend and Mrs. Moon as our own parents, but even
more than our own parents. – [Narrator] Which the
leader will often solidify by creating an external enemy. – He said to me, “You’re
going to be raped. “You’re gonna be beaten. “You’re going to be left in a ditch.” He said all these horrible things about what would happen to me if I left because the world was such an evil place. – This means that you’re
going to psychologically run to the cult leader. – You become in a
perpetual state of denial of your own reasoning power. You don’t reason anymore. – People in this state
of cognitive dissonance, they’re going to choose
over and over and over for the cult or the cult leader. – [Narrator] Which
brings us to the key way cult leaders scale up their
control, simple peer pressure. This fundamental human desire
to be a part of a group can override even our own
perception of reality. In 1951, social psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated this by placing
several students in a room. All but one were in on the experiment. – Your task is a very simple one. You’re to look at the line on the left and determine which of the
three lines on the right is equal to it in length. – [Man] Two. – [Man] Two. – Two. – Two. – [Narrator] 75% of those tested would end up agreeing with the majority, even when their responses
were obviously false. It’s this pressure to conform that the cult leader
uses to control members. – In a way, that’s what he
did the last day in Jonestown. He incited a riot, and then he sat back and
let peer pressure work. – [Narrator] All to serve the whims of a likely sociopathic narcissist. – He said, “You couldn’t live without me, “so since I’m dying, you’re gonna die too, “and you’re not that important “because I’m the one who’s essential.” When the kids were all
outside the pavilion, then he had his secretaries
and mistresses go out and shoot the poison in their mouths, and so he started killing the children. No parent could sit there, knowing that the child
died 10 feet from them, and think that they were gonna go back and live a life in the United States. – [Narrator] Today, a
different kind of threat is driving people to search
for new sources of meaning. There’s an epidemic of
social isolation so serious, it’s been recognized as
a public health threat in countries around the world. – Medical experts believe loneliness is becoming Australia’s
newest public health crisis. – [Newscaster] America is in the grips of a loneliness epidemic. – The government has appointed
a minister for loneliness. – People don’t necessarily
have a built-in community, be it at the level of family,
at the level of church, at the level of neighborhood. – [Narrator] As fewer people identify with organized religion and the communal gathering
spaces they offer, virtual communities are
helping to fill that void. – What the internet has done is, for the first time in human history, made the definition of community no longer geographically bound. – We are finding statistically small, but personally huge, groups
of like-minded individuals who will reinforce us
and reinforce who we are. – [Narrator] This has
led to a new generation of online leaders who are
using the tools of social media to attract fervent virtual followers. – You’re going to feel like
you have your own hands in your own clay because you do. – The only place where you can find what you’re seeking is within you. – You are accepting
yourself a hundred percent for who you are. If people don’t like it, too bad. They can hit the road. – You can disseminate information quickly to a bunch of followers if
you’re just in your room with no social connections. You’re able to, because of the
sheer size of the internet, find a community for almost anything. And that sense of reinforcement can be really, really powerful. – [Narrator] Teal Swan is one such leader. – Some people actually use depression as a way of avoiding suicide. – [Narrator] She’s
attracted a large following by offering controversial advice
to the hurting and lonely. – What suicide is is
pushing the reset button. It’s not a good or bad
decision in and of itself. – [Narrator] Some have
accused Teal of being an online cult leader, which she denies,
although she acknowledges she has “the perfect recipe for a cult.” “These people are desperate. “They need my approval. “They’ll do whatever I say.” And the built-in features of
today’s online gathering spaces can help lead the vulnerable astray. – You watch one video, and
YouTube will suggest others, and often, that can lead to, for example, a spiral of radicalization. – [Narrator] And a lot of online spaces, like message boards, can
create a cult-like community without a need for a leader at all. – These alternate movements,
they provide answers, and they provide a home. They provide someone to listen to them. – [Narrator] Vulnerable
people at a crossroads can easily find this content. There’s often a soft sell with
content that’s less extreme, like a forum where men vented
about sexual frustration that can pull people into a new reality, exacerbated by an external enemy and enforced by peer pressure. Other men urging each
other to seek revenge. – Just because they don’t
have physical spaces does not make these modern-day
cults any less potent. – [Narrator] And in the last few years, these scenes have horrified the world. – [Newscaster] The Santa
Barbara shooter, Elliot Roger, left a trail of threats online. – [Newscaster] He stabbed
or shot six people to death. – These forums are leading
to physical violence. – A van plowing into pedestrians on a busy street in Toronto. – [Newscaster] Incel,
it’s an online community frustrated with their
romantic lives with women. – [Narrator] Minutes
before the Toronto attack, the man responsible posted
a call-out to 4chan, his message board of choice,
referring to it as a sergeant, as if it was his commanding officer. – [Newscaster] A mass
shooting in New Zealand, a New Zealand mosque, leaves
dozens of people dead, with the gunman live streaming
the incident on social media. – [Narrator] And the
attacker in New Zealand boasted to his online community
about the mass murder, which was enthusiastically
endorsed by his community. One trapped in an alternate reality as complete as any physical cult. – These online cults do give people, who believe themselves to be disaffected or alienated from the dominant culture, an alternate narrative, an
alternate script to follow. – [Narrator] Whether that
alternative narrative is built online or in the physical world, on the promises of social justice or the promise of a better,
happier, successful self, they all use the same methods of control, and they’re all incredibly hard to escape. – [Janja] It’s hard to leave a cult because it’s your whole world. – [Narrator] In time, the
majority of cult members will leave on their own, often when they discover
their infallible leader isn’t so infallible. – It was very commonplace
for him to throw out a date when the end of the world would be. If you look at his track record,
he was very inconsistent. – [Narrator] Or when they find
their guide to a moral life is actually a hypocrite. – They all took vows of celibacy, pretended to keep those vows. Muktananda himself, I later learned that he was a very fervent,
prodigious sexual predator. – [Narrator] Or when their
constructed reality cracks. – My dad passed away. The leadership allowed
me to go to his funeral. Just getting away from my situation and looking at things from
a different perspective, I said, “I have to. “I have to get out, and I
have to get my kids out.” – The idea of leaving the cult and going into that
world is very terrifying. – I remember being scared
to cross the street because I was afraid that, you
know, God would take my life. – It’s difficult also
because you’re not used to making your own decisions. – About seven or eight years ago, I was in, like, a book
club, and it was triggering ’cause it was like, “What
do you think of this book?” And I was just getting agitated, and I could barely get a word
out, and I just stopped going. – People I loved, something I believed in, was suddenly proven to be
just a delusion, you know? So you kind of hate yourself for that. – It’s going to be exhausting, and hopefully the person
will have a safe place to put their life together. – [Narrator] The arrest and
conviction of Keith Raniere has allowed Catherine and India Oxenberg to begin the long process of recovery. – Ultimately, we are completely reunited. It’s a process. She understands that it impacted her and that she’s not broken, but
she’s not unscathed, either. – Parts of myself that
I had tried to kill off, they started coming back, and
it’s gonna sound ridiculous, but I began birdwatching, and that was a part of my old identity. My survival instinct had not been crushed. And whatever it was gonna
mean for me to survive, that’s what I was focusing on. – You find other weirdos. You find other people who feel a little offbeat or different. I mean, I’m an artist already, so. A lot of artists, we’re
all weirdos, right? So, stone by stone that you
turn over, you realize, like, “Oh, there’s really nothing to fear here,” and that I’m still, like, learning. – I was starting from a
blank slate in my late 20s. I still feel like I have that
ability to learn new things that maybe some people my age don’t have, and I think it’s because I
will always want to learn because I was deprived of learning. – I decided when I was 21 or
22 that I wanted to, really, at some point in my life,
be able to give back and to help people in a way
that I didn’t have when I left. Teaching them they can make
a choice for themselves, that they can do something
that’s good for themselves, and they can be independent like that. – You know, I’m a survivor,
and from pretty early on, I felt like every day that I survive, I was flaunting it in Jim’s face. – [Narrator] Laura Kohl
returned to Guyana in 2018 with other Jonestown survivors, the lucky few who happened
to be away from Jonestown the day the tragedy occurred. – So, I think that that’s something that doesn’t get said enough. It’s not Jim Jones and the people, it’s 917 people and that other guy. (chuckles) (upbeat music) (man vocalizing)

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