WiHM 2023: The Horror of Cults

The Horror of Cults

By Kelly Florence 


Recently, I finished the documentary Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence (2023) on Hulu. It follows the story of college students who fall in with the manipulative father of one of their peers. It’s a disturbing and horrifying look into how a manipulative person can gain the trust of others, slowly convince them to lie, steal, and perform other terrible acts all for his own service. I won’t get into specific details (I do believe the three episodes are worth watching on their own) but will warn you that the footage and audio shared in the documentary is beyond disturbing. How, you may ask? Because the perpetrator, Lawrence “Larry” Ray, recorded these students over the years he lived with them, having them confess to things they never did in order to hold the footage against them in the future. It displays abuse, both physical and mental, that may be too strong for many viewers. I, myself, needed to look away several times due the raw, real nature of the footage.

As we discovered in writing our 2021 book The Science of Serial Killers, truth can be scarier than fiction and, in this day, and age, recordings, body cam footage, and videos from other devices like doorbells offer true crime documentarians a plethora of clips to use. This, coupled with the recency of many of the crimes and testimonials of survivors, truly puts into perspective the scope of these incidents and the humanity of the victims.

Often, the first question people ask when hearing about a cult is “why would they go along with that?” It’s important to understand cults from this perspective: it’s like the analogy of a frog in a pot of boiling water. If it jumped into a pot that was fully in a boil it would get out immediately, recognizing it as a threat. But, if a frog jumped into a pot of lukewarm, inviting water it would be likely to stay. Slowly, as the pot becomes hotter and hotter the frog loses perspective and by the time it’s fully boiling it may be too late to jump out. This is what a lot of abusive, manipulative relationships are like. No one would get into a cult at the highpoint of violence and abuse. It usually starts with care, thoughtfulness, and a feeling of safety. The manipulator then, having gained the trust of the victims, begins to gaslight them, blame them, and give them a feeling of guilt. This process is demonstrated very clearly in Stolen Youth, and it becomes easy to see how these students felt a sense of belonging and even allegiance to this man who was hurting them.

According to Dr. Janja Lalich, who we interviewed for our book The Science of Serial Killers, said, “In my opinion everyone is susceptible [to cults].  If there’s any common denominator it’s idealism. Most people join a group because they think they’re going to create a better world or a better life for themselves or maybe it’s financial success or the path to salvation. It’s an idealistic motivation on the part of most people. It’s not because people are weak or stupid, which is what the myths are. And it’s typically not the cult leader who does the recruiting. It’s his or her members. A charismatic leader, if we want to call them that, just needs to get a couple of followers. Those followers keep recruiting and sending the message out. Most cult leaders are pretty lazy. They just like to sit back and take the glory.”

People have always been fascinated with true crime throughout history, whether it was gathering at a crime scene to get a glimpse of the aftermath or attending the trial of an accused killer. In 2023 we are able to watch things unfold from a distance via news stories or documentaries yet get closer to the crimes by how much information can be shared in our modern era. One thing is for certain: we should never forget the humanity of the victims and survivors, their unique stories, and the truth that needs to be uncovered in these cases. 

Now, I’ll be off to watch the fictional crime in You (2019-) season four in which Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) has committed several crimes of his own. What a strange world we live in! But as Lydia Deetz said in Beetlejuice (1988), “I, myself, am strange and unusual.” 


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