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In my world, there is a notorious cult. Despite its weird (and comical) origins, it manages to be one of the most infamous cults ever in existence. Originally, it was one big cult, formed during their Renaissance, from people losing faith in existing gods, but now it exists as several small cults, unique depending on their region and local culture.

However, despite all that, I am trying to make my fictional cult sound believable, as if it could actually exist. For some of my notes on how it survives:

  • They target people who are mentally and emotionally weak

  • They promise an eternal paradise

  • While the founder was the stereotypical madman, the future leaders are cunning, charismatic, and have a cult of personality (no pun intended)

  • The cult keeps out outside information (and most branches do this by targeting isolated villages and communities)

  • Cult members will publicly humiliate followers who are out of line

  • The cult has the appeal of being against murder and executions and having support towards rehabilitation, though by "rehabilitation", they mean torture, brainwashing, etc.

Aside from the list, what are ways that I could make the evil cult seem realistic like an actual cult, rather than the stereotypical fantasy cult?

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    $\begingroup$ This seems like a request for brainstorming ideas rather than a specific worldbuilding problem. May I suggest being more specific and perhaps making separate posts for specific questions? $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Nov 27, 2022 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ try researching actual cults, like the peoples temple which operated almost exactly as described. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 27, 2022 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielB Cults tend to be smaller, newer, and more secretive than something like Christianity. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 27, 2022 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ Try this as a starting point: springhole.net/writing/… $\endgroup$ Nov 28, 2022 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ Such cults have a shelf life of up to about 100 years. After that they're either dead, or grown into widespread religions with enough political influence to run interference for its activities in whatever passes for government. Also keep in mind that in the once-a-century revivals and religious hysterias, these tend to "be somewhere else" or bad stuff happens. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 29, 2022 at 14:29

12 Answers 12

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You seem to have forgotten that any cult:

  • has the adepts cut ties with anybody who is not part of the cult
  • has the adepts donate them all they possess

In this way making the act of leaving the cult way more difficult, due to the lack of emotional and material support outside of the cult.

Paraphrasing the Eagles

you can check in anytime you want but you can never leave

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  • $\begingroup$ I believe the Eagles are speaking about drugs here, but the comparison still works ! $\endgroup$ Nov 29, 2022 at 15:22
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Study Real Cults

Make a cult that real people would want to join -- even if their magic turns out to be a loada garbage.

Aside from the list, what are ways that I could make the evil cult seem realistic like an actual cult, rather than the stereotypical fantasy cult?

Study real cults and shamelessly steal whatever looks good. The common perception on Scientology already hits five or six of your bullet points. Another common one:

  • The cult has many secrets even from its own members. The hierarchy of the cult is not clear to the neophytes. You must be promoted before they reveal how deeply the cult has corrupted the establishment.

rather than the stereotypical fantasy cult?

The stereotypical fantasy cult does things like summoning demons and blood sacrifices. For realism you must make these rituals (a) rare enough that the cult can exist secretly inside of civilised society and (b) have some tangible benefit for the cultists.

Ritual kidnap, dismemberment, and burning of virgins is dramatic sure. Burying your members up to their neck in the alkaline mud flats and force feeding them slime until they turn into a tree, is fantastic of course. But what benefit do these bizarre rituals offer to the members? Who wants to join this cult anyway? It sounds terrible!

Perhaps the bizarre rituals grant favour from the Slime Lord who will smote their enemies? But this does not happen for real cults so will always sound unrealistic.

Most of the day-to-day working of the cult should be mundane crime and emotional manipulation. Blood rituals happen a few times per year but not everyone is invited. The victims are people who the cult wants to get rid of anyway. Rather than just murdering them, the cult murders and sacrifices them, in a big ceremony that is good for community spirit.

Most of the motivation for joining the cult is the same motivation as for joining a real cult. Anger, frustration, desperation, comradery, and material gain.

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  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me of the cult depicted in Ebott's Wake (spoilers for Undertale). Lots of criminal activity, relatively little in the way of sacrificing virgins and such. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Nov 28, 2022 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Kevin That is an awful lot of Keywords on that fanfic. It looks like the author doesn't quite follow the idea. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 28, 2022 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ Keyword spam is unfortunately endemic on AO3. I'm describing my overall impression from reading the story, not from skimming the tags. It takes quite a lot of setup before it actually gets to the cult-related bits. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Nov 28, 2022 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ Tip: a useful place to start learning about real cults could be could be Sarah Steel's podcast "Let's Talk About Sects" ltaspod.com $\endgroup$
    – bvanlew
    Nov 29, 2022 at 16:43
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The exact distinction between religions, sects, and cults is sometimes contentious, with some of the contention being cultists claiming to be a religion, etc. One possible set of definitions is that

  • a religion is a moderately coherent system of belief, which has survived long enough to develop institutions and traditions,
  • a sect is a splinter group of a religion which does not qualify either as a new religion or as a cult, and
  • a cult is a system of belief driven by the personality of the leader(s), which has not yet developed the institutions and traditions to sustain itself regardless of the individual at the top.

By this definition, except for the third bullet point in your description, your cults may actually be religions, or possibly one religion split into different regional branches. And the definition I proposed does not exclude charismatic personalities at the top of a religion. It just says that there is enough scripture and bureaucratic structure to do without charisma if a leader is lacking in this regard.

So you have a religion, not the majority, persecuted by the majority religion(s) in the area, having to maintain coherence in the underground (and possibly failing in this, see your note on branches). There are plenty of historical precedents for persecuted, surviving minority religions, from crypto-judaism to to catholicism in England and of course the Thirty Year's War.

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Brainwashing isn't real.

This is one of the big barriers that a lot of people who study religions find, when they're trying to make a realistic cult, along with the idea that faith is just blind trust.

People routinely leave coercive religious groups that don't offer them benefits- people actually stay in more mainstream religions longer than cults because they don't like being abused. People can be manipulated, conditioned, but humans are very capable of breaking manipulation and conditioning and just going to tell authorities that there's an evil cult fucking people over.

Think of any child. They routinely rebel against parents, despite the parents having years to mold them in formative years. Humans are very rebellious. You can't just get weak minded people, because people are rarely weak minded. You need to persuade people your cult is good.

Cults bring people benefits.

Cults give you connections in a world where it's hard for the average man or woman to raise you up. They give you community in a harsh place where you don't know who is gonna betray you. They give you meaning as you understand secrets about the world outsiders don't know. They give you free food and housing often, because they need loyal workers to get stuff done.

They bring style. You wear fancy robes and have rituals that make you a better person. They claim to have secret magical powers that will get you the position in society you deserve. They bring excitement as you do dangerous things that others are too afraid to do.

When cults are evil, it's for the greater good.

If your cult is torturing people and abusing people who go outside, it needs to make sense. Play up how harsh the outside world is. Play up the conflicts between often corrupt and cruel government officials and the cult.

Of course, in reality, a lot of this conflict is manufactured, and there is similar badness on the inside. But, it needs to make sense why people do evil. Few people are the villain of their own story.

The cult needs to be likeable.

To make a cult believable you need to make it fun. For the average member who is following the path and not speaking out it should be fun. You should be able to see why someone would want to be a member of the cult and why they would go to dangerous and desperate measures to stop outsiders ruining their experience.

That makes for a better story as well. Who wants to read about a group of people who are boring to be around?

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    $\begingroup$ I like how that article of yours basically says brainwashing isn't real, here's how people get brainwashed. It seems like little more than a semantic argument and the way it's written promotes the harmful idea that anyone in a cult is fully aware of and actively consenting to what's happening (which is also simply false, as argued by the very same article). $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 28, 2022 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ The article says people can be influenced into taking bad roles, but that the effect is fairly limited, and most of the more serious examples of what we see as brainwashed involved coercion from religious leaders, or people acting badly under the pressure of violent governments that like to dehumanize them as brainwashed, both sorts of external pressure that are little to do with any sort of mental control. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Nov 28, 2022 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ The article is pseudo-scientific garbage that contradicts itself, misrepresents science (which denies pretty much the entire field of psychology in the process), and builds its own entire narrative around cited facts that don't support the conclusions it's arguing for. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 28, 2022 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ The APA, at least, doesn't see enough evidence to adopt a formal position on whether braindwashing is real. There are some who believe in it, and some who see it as pseudoscience nonsense. The entire field of psychology definitely does not revolve around it. They have generally rejected any formal admission that it's real. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Nov 28, 2022 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ "Brainwashing" is a colloquial term for the very things the author accepts as fact in that same article. The author seems to partially realise this (and mentions people "abandoning the term" and proposes "terms that can replace brainwashing") and she seems to partially argue against some fictional idea of irreversible brainwashing where victims lack any sort of autonomy. And her conclusion relies on the latter, which is fictional, and it doesn't make much sense in the context of the former, i.e. the actual usage of the term. The whole thing is just a confused mess. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:06
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They have something we want!

The cult may have a virtual monopoly on some desirable good, service, or technology.

European Christians believed all kinds of untrue terrible things about Jewish people but tolerated them (sometimes) because they were the only ones in the money lending business. Maybe your cult discovered distillation ahead of everyone else and kept the process secret. Maybe they mastered some weaving process. Maybe they figured out how to make steel.

There are lots of possibilities. Here’s a fun story. Betting was really popular in coffee houses in Britain in the 17th century. One coffee house located near the London docks specialized in bets on shipping. The owner, Edward Lloyd, discovered through shrewd analysis that he could give good odds and still make money. Ship owners would bet against themselves so that if their ship was lost, they could collect their bet from Lloyd and stay in business. Thus, the first insurance company was formed: Lloyd’s of London.

So your cult might be the only ones who have figured out actuarial tables. Or they are masters of training homing pigeons. They have a monopoly on some plant or animal. It is because of their isolation and brainwashing that they are able to retain control of whatever it is that they make or do.

Depending on the exact nature of the evil that the cult is involved in, different technologies may suggest themselves.

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Can you write a persuasive and at least mostly-true pitch for belonging to the cult?

If not, why does anyone join?

If so, you already have your answer.

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There's a lot to unpack there.

Originally, it was one big cult, formed during their Renaissance, from people losing faith in existing gods,

So you had a religion forming in opposition and compensation of the loss of the existing one. What is the main religion before the Renaissance ? Is its teaching different or similar to your cult ? Is it a more fanatical version of that main religion ? Or is it a replacement ? (For real life example, look at scientology, that have little to do with christianity, and mormon that are hyper christian).

but now it exists as several small cults, unique depending on their region and local culture.

Are those smaller cults just regional chapters of one big cult ? Or are they the result of multiple schisms in your big cult that result in your regional cults as likely to be friends than foes depending on the particular schism ?

They promise an eternal paradise

That probably doesn't happen just by joining the cult, but by following principles, teachings, rules or other ways of life. What are those rules ? What happen if a cultist doesn't follow up on that ?

While the founder was the stereotypical madman, the future leaders are cunning, charismatic, and have a cult of personality (no pun intended)

You may think of them as a madman, but for the first generation of cultist, they were a prophet. What did they left behind to study ? To teach ? What drove peoples to join at that time ?

Also, when did the following leaders took their place ? Do they act as a group, maybe with some kind of "board" and "director" (scientology with the Watchtower society) or are they just the leader of their local chapter / fraction / branch, or are they the one leader of the whole cult, but have to deal with a cult fractured between all those smaller cults ?

The cult keeps out outside information (and most branches do this by targeting isolated villages and communities)

Do they target already isolated communities and make sure to keep them isolated ? Or do they create those isolated communities by bringing members to build and live in new villages in remote places ? Do they keep contact with other cultist communities ? How do they integrate with the local power if there is one ?

The cult has the appeal of being against murder and executions and having support towards rehabilitation, though by "rehabilitation", they mean torture, brainwashing, etc.

How is one better than the other for a cultist ? How is the other one better for the non-cultist ? Is there debate on this issue outside of the cultist/non-cultist or is it something already divisive in the general population ? Do the cult just hide cultist that should be executed by the local law from the local law enforcement ? Do they actively fight against the law enforcement ? Corrupt them ?

All those questions will help you have a clearer idea of the cult and it's values. Some answer may even be incoherent with the others as long as the cultist have an explanation to that incoherence ("thou shall not kill" is a christian value, yet death penalty was/is still happening in christian countries, with various explanations on how to reconcile that paradox) It will also help you better understand how your cult meshes with the outside world, and if/how it clashes with it.


The common point between all of those questions is, how does your cult meshes and interact with your wider fantasy world ? Cults are often not believable because no one join something obviously and utterly evil just for evil sakes. The cult itself may be full on evil, but it still need an internal justification for it.

In short, you need to ask yourself why they drink the kool-aid (sorry for that pun). The original one was that they weren't supposed to die, but to join aliens gods instead, and drinking was an act of faith, at the end of a long time slowly recruiting and persuading and promising heaven to those peoples, convincingly enough to make them either bring their families or cut themselves out of their families.

Maybe your cult bring medicine and order to very remote places that are not helped in other ways ? Or they bring a renewed faith to desperate peoples ? Or community to people that are cut off from other newly atheists and religious peoples ?

For the rich and powerful, maybe it bring access to important political or business allies that are themselves cultists ? Or new ways to assert their power in places where they couldn't project power before ?

You may also watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyL8FH3Su4M (Terrible writing advice, episode on cults)

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The Cult actually does some good things. Most religious and political organizations of any note will at some point do things that are in some way humanitarian, if for no other reason than good PR. Whether this is running soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or in the case of the infamous People’s Temple, it might consist of Civil Right’s activism You could lean in on the whole anti-death penalty stance you mentioned in your question. Have the cultists actually do some good things for people in prison (writing letters, donating books, donating snacks etc) and good things for people who have recently been released from prison (employment, interest free loans, love bombing them to join your cult/community). It is very rare to have a successful organization that is top to bottom evil, and even rarer to have organizations that are evil to not make at least token effort of doing good works.

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Cults need to recruit new members to sustain themselves for longer than a generation, and they need their members to feel isolated from the outside world - not just to be isolated, but also to feel like they cannot just leave the cult and go back into the world. That feeling is what makes them want to stay.

Fortunately, as many real cults have already figured out, the first problem is the solution to the second. The recent recruits are the ones sent out to "spread the word" about the cult. Besides getting a few more people into the cult, this also has the effect of making the recent recruits into pariahs; society at large actually doesn't treat people very well when they are trying to recruit for a cult. Then those recent recruits will go back to the cult after a hard day's evangelising, and see the contrast between the society which scorns them, and the cult which embraces them and understands that feeling of being scorned.

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How to Keep Your Cult Followers Subjugated: A Step-By-Step Guide:

1.) Members must be kept overworked and underfed - This is an extremely common situation in real-world cults. It puts people into a more pliable mind-state. Lack of sleep is also big.

2.) Isolate members from the outside community

3.) There should ideally be an insulating layer of deniability between the leaders and the "Leader".

  • i.e. "I might be in charge, but I'm not God. God just speaks to me directly and only to me and no one else. Not God myself though."
  • This provides wiggle-room for the leader. They're not necessarily required to be infallible in all situations, or all knowing. They are simply a person blessed by God/Diety of your choosing/Secret Chiefs of the Ancient Schools/whatever gobbledygook your cult is into. This was utilized by Cults/fringe occult groups ranging from Theosophy, Thelema, The Order of the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate, Scientology, Mormonism...the list goes on.
  • This also gives the cult longevity beyond the specific leader in power at the time. Any person may become the next potential contact.

4.) If your cult is apocalyptic, specific end dates are a weakness. It should be vague, that way it's always hanging over the head of the cult and there is no timer. Christianity has been saying the world is about to end for +1000 years now. Belief systems that choose an end date too close in proximity are subjecting themselves to a timer, forcing themselves to pivot.

5.) The Outside World is out to get the members. Many cults self-engineered persecution complexes within their members. Famously, Jim Jones went as far as faking an assassination attempt on himself. After you've isolated your cult members, convince them the outside world is evil, and people are actively plotting to destroy the cult.

6.) Even the punishments/humiliations must be portrayed as trying to "help" the members that are being punished. The LoveBombing doesn't stop even when you're being actively attacked, you're being attacked because you were bad, and the cult is good.

I would say these factors combined with the other top answers and what you've suggested already encompass a lot of what drives cult behavior.

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When designing fictional religious organisations, then it can be useful to study which functions religions in the real world fulfill and make sure that your fictional religion can plausibly fulfill the same functions. Those are:

  1. Explaining what can not (yet?) be explained by science
  2. Providing a moral code that helps the society to function
  3. Give the members a sense of belonging

Explaining what can not be explained by science

An internally consistent theory of how the world came to be, how its cosmology looks and how certain natural phenomenons function can be a useful pillar of a religion. Curious people want answers to unanswerabel questions, and a religion can provide them.

In order for the religion to be plausible, those theories don't necessarily need to be true (although fantasy authors often like to make them true). However, they should be plausible in the context of the story. When the theories of the cult directly contradict what is (believed to be) common knowledge in your world, then it might be difficult for them to become a mainstream religion. But they could probably prey on the uneducated or the rebellious skeptics who reject science out of a disdain for authority. But those often make great recruits for an evil fringe cult.

Providing a moral code

The reason why many societies throughout world history have exactly one state-religion is because a religion is a great source of a moral code that allows the society to function. A strong and well-organized government can create a code like that in form of secular laws, but a divine justification for it can make it easier to find acceptance among the population.

A society can only function when everyone follows the same moral code. Which means that anyone who doesn't follow the religion is a potential threat to society. Which is why many religions try to convert or ostracize any "heathens" or "heretics". This creates a pressure to accept the dominant religion in order to avoid repercussions.

Religions with a moral code that makes it difficult to function as a society ("you can steal from and murder your fellow believers as much as you like") are inherently unstable. So if you want to create an "evil" religion, then it can be useful to have a moral code with a clear distinction between the moral rights and obligations towards people who belong to the in-group vs. those of the out-group. This also leads us to the next point.

Give the members a sense of belonging

This is an aspect of religion which is often overlooked, but actually very important. It is arguably the main purpose for many religions in today's world, where neither science nor law require divine legitimization anymore.

A religion fulfills an important social function. It provides people with an in-group of people they belong to. This can be really useful if the target demographic are "mentally and emotionally weak" people, because those are probably people who have difficulty to fit into any other social groups. Social outcasts often feel right at home in fringe religious cults, because it finally provides them with a group of people who welcome them and with whom they can identify.

Once people joined a cult in order to find social belonging, there is a strong pressure of conformity. After all, the only reason why those people hang out with each other is because they all believe in the doctrine of the religion. The social standing within the group is probably tied mostly to how pious the members seem to the others. The pressure to appear pious in order to obtain and maintain social standing often results in actually becoming pious. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance, the members will soon start to actually believe in what they say and do.

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Deception

Oh boy, forming cults! This is always fun. If you don’t want your followers to leave, while increasing their blind faith, you might want to use a somewhat backward method. Props to Vi Hart for her “How To Ruin Everything in 7 Steps” video that gave me the main idea. Step 1: Get as many followers as you can, but WITHOUT revealing what your cult does. Keep it secretive. Step 2: Once you have your members, do a bunch of crazy, weird, creepy, but completely harmless initiation rituals. Make sure these rituals will defile public/sacred places. Repeat until your cult has gained maximum infamy, and some action has been taken against it. Step 3: Play up how your cult is hated by all non-members, while stating how much you love and want to protect the cult. You now have a super loyal, super angry cult under your command. Step back and watch the sparks fly!

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