Netflix streams the narcissism and megalomania of cult leaders

From Charles Manson to Shoko Asahara, a new series rounds up the charismatic and flawed features of the last century’s most alluring and dangerous people.

How to Become a Cult Leader
How to Become a Cult Leader

Netflix streams the narcissism and megalomania of cult leaders

It is a deceptive title for a six-episode documentary run on Netflix.

How to Become a Cult Leader contrasts with other instructional series titles, which usually cover less controversial aspirations, like How to Win Friends, How to Become a Millionaire, or How to Overcome Monotony.

But this series, under its sarcastic name, is about the very serious and covert stories of six cults that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century.

It sheds light on their leaders including Charles Manson and Jim Jones and their dark lives – with skilful narration from American actor Peter Dinklage – via testimony from researchers, experts and former cult members.

The American Psychological Association defines a cult as “a religious or quasi-religious group characterised by unusual and atypical beliefs, seclusion from the outside world, and an authoritarian structure”.

That definition precisely represents the six cults that constitute the documentary's theme. All of them were alluring enough to attract a large following.

Each embraced elusive and mysterious beliefs and ideas with attractive promises of a better future and fulfilled aspirations. But the reality behind this naïve was a series of horrifying tragedies and atrocities committed by the cult leader, who always turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

These leaders would usually present themselves as sincere people from humble backgrounds, with an aura of holiness. Later, the members would be exposed to opportunist, treacherous, and cruel behaviour.

As perfect charlatans, such leaders can conceal an awful reality behind a mask of wisdom, rationality, and compassion.

As perfect charlatans, such leaders are capable of concealing an awful reality behind a mask of wisdom, rationality, and compassion.

True to its wry title, the documentary looks at the difficulty of becoming a cult leader, which requires mastering several tactics and traits. Once someone does, they seek total control of their followers via unconditional love and loyalty to the person in charge.

Narcissim and meglomania

The biggest common denominator between the leaders of the six cults in the show is probably their ability to combine opportunism and deception with an excessive taste for narcissism and megalomania.

They resort to any means available to guarantee the loyalty of their followers, including arranging collective weddings, claiming the ability to miraculously cure diseases, drug abuse, cosmetic surgeries, and acquiring weapons under the pretext of fighting evil.

Cult leader Acharya Rajneesh is profiled in the Netflix limited series "How to Become a Cult Leader."

Combined with other peculiar styles and practices, the leader would promise his followers a path to utopia through the cult.

The documentary shows how cults grow. The more new members a leader attracts, the more influential and powerful he becomes, building a sense of legitimacy.  The loyalty of members is not only measured by how much they embrace and promote his ideas and beliefs, but also by their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the leader.

There is a risk that the series oversimplifies how cults work, especially in its portrayal of followers. These people are not merely a group of frustrated or naïve and gullible people.

Leaders, often obsessed with how they appear, actually fill an inner emptiness in their followers to subjugate them. This feeds their own obsession with control via money, sex and power.

Easy answers for life's big questions

But at the same time, the leaders need to strike a chord with their followers by pointing to answers to key intrinsic questions related to salvation and the meaning of life. They also tend to excel at clever rhetoric. This is how the leader presents the cult as the absolute answer and ultimate redeemer from all the chaos, disappointments, and agonies of daily life.

One of the ex-members in the series is a woman who said that the deep human desire to find easy answers for life's key questions was a weakness the cult leader knew how to exploit, presenting himself as the man who knows everything.

'How to Become a Cult Leader'

Another cult ex-member said how life leads us to moments of despair, pointlessness, and weakness, and this is where the cult leader would emerge with the idea of a  perfect remedy.

Promises of final redemption into a promised land aligns with key aspects of human psychology. They are powerful enough to make people relinquish their own identity and character to become faithful members of the cult. It represents salvation to them.

Then – over time and even as they seem hypnotised – the repulsive reality of what the leaders create is discovered.

Charles Manson and Jim Jones

Among the six cult leaders, Charles Manson  is a clear example of evil.

In the 1960s, he established his own cult, calling it the Manson Family. Its members committed horrendous murders across the US. One of their victims was Sharon Tate, the then wife of the renowned film director Roman Polanski.

Cult leader Charles Manson is profiled in the Netflix limited series "How to Become a Cult Leader."

The Manson Family believed in concepts that were in fashion in the 1960s, such as absolute freedom, anarchism. It rejected societal and ethical norms and had a tendency for excessive violence.

The Manson Family believed in concepts that were in fashion in the 1960s, such as absolute freedom and anarchism. It rejected societal and ethical norms and tended towards excessive violence.

Born out of an extramarital relationship, Manson had a miserable childhood that evolved into stealing from small grocery stores. His crimes escalated. He and a number of his followers were sentenced to death, but following the abolishment of the death penalty in California, they were imprisoned for life. He remained in jail from 1969 until he died in 2017.

Jim Jones established his group, Peoples Temple, and inaugurated his first church in the mid-1950s in Indianapolis. He called for equality between black and white citizens and integration for all ethnicities, which made him seem quite progressive for his time.

To enhance his public image, Jones often tackled themes such as soul healing and participated in humanitarian activities.

But behind his public persona, Jones was often cruel to his followers, and in 1977, media outlets exposed the truth. Consequently, Jones and hundreds of his devotees moved to Guyana in Southern America in 1978.

Suspicions over his mistreatment of cult members – including accusations that people were being confined amid abuse –  drew a former Congressman to Guyana. Along with a delegation, Leo Ryan looked into the activities of Jones' church.

Peoples Temple cult leader Jim Jones is profiled in the Netflix limited series "How to Become a Cult Leader."

As the delegation prepared to depart from Guyana and head back to the US, several gunmen from the cult set an ambush. They opened fire on the aeroplane as it was about to depart, killing five people including Ryan.

Following that attack, Jones ordered his devotees to commit suicide, and the result was the death of 913 people — the largest mass suicide in US history.

Jaime Gomez

The founder of Buddhafield cult was born in Venezuela. Jamie Gomez moved to Hollywood to try his luck as an actor, but he failed. Consequently, he started to exploit his charismatic personality to mind-control young men and women in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Headed by Gomez, Buddhafield cult members held their meetings in seclusion at remote and quiet resorts, where they practiced yoga-based meditation to achieve happiness and unleash their spiritual power.

Besides being obsessed with cosmetic surgery, the dark side of Gomez hardly differed from that of Manson and Jones, as he was constantly in search of sex, money, and influence.

Marshall Applewhite

Marshall Applewhite headed the cult Heaven's Gate. He assured his devotees that, by killing themselves, they would finally get rid of their "bodily containers" and embrace celestial eternity.

Marshall Applewhite headed the cult Heaven's Gate. He assured his devotees that, by killing themselves, they would finally get rid of their "bodily containers" and embrace celestial eternity.

Consequently, 39 people, including Applewhite, committed suicide in March 1997 at a house in San Diego after they were convinced that the passing Hale-Bopp comet would help them reach a higher realm of existence.

It turned out that the founder of this cult was not Applewhite, but a nurse named Bonnie Nettles who was immensely interested in the Bible. She met Applewhite in the late 1960s, and following extensive discussions, they concluded that their mission was to help humanity free itself from the limits of Earth. Nettles died in 1985.

Shoko Asahara

The Japanese cult of Aum Shinrikyo was founded by Shoko Asahara, a yoga teacher who had partially lost his eyesight.

Asahara founded Aum Shinrikyo, Japanese for "Supreme Truth", in 1987 as a cult that believed in a mixture of Buddhist and Hinduist notions, and the imminence of the end of the world.

Asahara persuaded many worldwide to believe in his cult through his books and university lectures. Most of his followers were Japanese university students.

How to Become A Cult Leader. Shoko Asahara from episode 105 of How to Become A Cult Leader.

The cult started with promises of a meaningful and bright life for the younger generation. However, later, it became a nihilistic group that believed in the world's imminent end through a third world war, stressing that cult members would be the only survivors.

It was responsible for a deadly 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway using sarin gas, which shocked Japan. Scores of the cult members were put on trial for their involvement, and 13 were sentenced to death, including Asahara who was executed in 2018.

Sun Myung Moon

Born in North Korea, Sun Myung Moon founded the Unification Church in 1954.

As a young man, he was accused by his country's government of espionage for South Korea. Thus, he was sentenced to five years of hard labour, which turned him into a hater of communism.

Moon founded and described his cult as "a Holy Ghost-inspired group for the unification of Christians worldwide". Later, its slogan was modified to "The Family Union for International Peace and Unification".

Its devotees believed in a creator that desired mankind to experience the happiness of love and that the failure of Adam and Eve spread an egotistical form of the emotion on earth. Redeemers were sent to fix the problem.

Moon cast himself as a new Christ, who would fulfil the mission of his predecessor, who in turn had failed because he remained unmarried.

As the cult grew Moon became a business tycoon with commercial interests in construction, food supplies, education, media, and football. He moved to the US in the early 1970s, where he founded the conservative Washington Times newspaper. Later, he was convicted and jailed for tax evasion. Following his death, his wife Hak Ja Han succeeded him in heading the cult.

Moon was renowned for being a staunch opponent of communism, and his cult is believed to have established firm relations with some global political figures, including Donald Trump, the former US president and Shinzo Abe, the former leader of Japan who was assassinated.

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