How to Design Your Diabolical Cult

In the summer of 1982 I had a life changing experience.  Although I was underage, I accompanied my father to see the new epic fantasy Conan the Barbarian, starring Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger.  While the film itself was amazing (especially the score), I was particularly impressed by its charismatic villain, Thulsa Doom.

As portrayed by James Earl Jones, this Thulsa Doom wasn’t the grotesque necromancer from the Robert E. Howard stories.  Instead, he was an appealing and persuasive speaker with the power to control the masses.  When he spoke, people obeyed him – even eagerly jumping to their death at his command.  He was, in short, a cult leader.

The Fascination of Cults

Conan was released less than four years after the infamous Jonestown massacre, during which more than 900 followers sacrificed their lives for their leader, the Rev. Jim Jones.  The world’s attention was captivated by this event.  The movie incarnation of Thulsa Doom was remolded in the image of Jim Jones, and frankly, this made for a far more interesting villain.

When writing a fantasy story, one of the prime considerations is to present evil in a memorable and menacing way.  It has been said that a story is only as good as its villain, and this is especially true in epic fantasy.  The best fantasy literature follows the classic paradigm of good vs. evil, and evil is typically portrayed as seeking or possessing power.  The tremendous power exhibited by a cult leader is an especially potent example of this.

A cult leader convinces an individual to surrender her freedom.  Exactly how they do this is a mystery to most of us.  The end result, though, is that cults possess a certain supernatural mystique that people find compelling.

What Makes a Cult Tick?

First, we need to understand what differentiates a cult from a mainstream religion.  In a nutshell, a cult exercises an unhealthy level of control over its members.  A religion may have an unusual – even bizarre – belief system, but if it respects an individual’s freedom, it isn’t a cult.

There are also common characteristics and behaviors which most cults feature:

  • A Charismatic Leader or Founder – Cults are usually started by a single individual who claims to possess special insight or powers.
  • Exclusivity – Most cults claim that they alone offer the path to “salvation,” whatever form that may take.  Conversely, anyone who leaves the cult will face doom or damnation.
  • Isolation – Members are made to have limited contact with friends or family outside of the cult.  Anyone who is likely to question the cult is to be avoided or approached with caution.
  • Love Bombing – Cults will lavish potential recruits with attention and instant friendships.  This is especially effective in recruiting lonely and socially awkward individuals, such a college freshmen and Trekkies.
  • Brainwashing – This is the process of instilling new beliefs in the cult members.  While there are many techniques for accomplishing this, some of the most effective involve sleep deprivation and repetition (such as chanting, singing or slogans).

If you find a group that displays several of these attributes, you should tread carefully.

Designing Your Cult

To create a cult for your fantasy story, the best place to begin is by studying real life examples.  Cults come in all shapes and sizes, and if you do the research you will likely find one to model your own cult after.  A good starting point for your research is the Rick Ross Institute Internet Archives for the Study of Destructive Cults.

Conducting this research will also help generate ideas for your villains.  Cult leaders tend to be colorful characters with complex, conflicted backstories.

Another valuable resource is Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert Cialdini.  This book is the classic text on using persuasive techniques to influence the beliefs and behaviors of others.  The truth is that there is no great unknowable mystery behind how cults influence their members.  As explained by Cialdini, there are scientific principles of persuasion which we encounter on a daily basis.  What cult leaders do (often unknowingly) is exploit these principles beyond all ethical boundaries.  If you want to understand the “magic” behind cults, Influence is the place to begin.

If you do decide to create a cult for your story, remember the cardinal rule of writing: avoid all clichés.  While I recommend using a real cult as a model, it is important to put your own unique twist on it.  Do something unexpected.  When handled well, a cult – and its leader – can become a memorable component of any fantasy story.

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7 years ago

I like Nathan’s idea of a story being in the point of view of someone who gets into a cult. I think I would make it where a young man maybe a college student gets into the wrong crowd and learns of a cult in his city. He joins the cult and after a year of joining the cult he is one of the second in command and is very close to the cult leader. However after a “mission” he realizes how bad everything is getting so he decides to just abandon the cult. This decision makes things very hard for him because of him being wanted by the FBI and now being hunted down by Cult members who now want him dead. I think it would be like a crazy cat and mouse game, full of twist and turns.

11 years ago

Hey Nathan,

That’s an excellent idea for approaching a cult-related story. Seduce the reader into the cult, so to speak. And then later on switch perspectives, showing the harmful side as well.

Reply to  Antonio del Drago
1 year ago

ik that im literally like 9 years late to here but i cant come up with ideas like idk how you guys do it i cant even start my story off

11 years ago

I think a really cool way to implement a cult in a story would be to have at least the beginning of the story take place through the eyes of someone being subtly coaxed into the cult. The reader essentially becomes a member of the cult.

If you want another good example of the usage of a cult, take a look at V.

11 years ago

An interesting post article once again.
Especially the “love bombing” aspect is something most Fantasy villains completley neglect. Many Fantasy authors seem to hate their main villains so much that they can’t force themselves to write them acting nicely towards someone. Not even if it’s happening for purely selfish reasons. And they aren’t allowed to have any arguments in support of their position that sound plausible, not even at first glance. Even if the story itself offers plenty of arguments for the villain such as, once again, Harry Potter does.

This isn’t a problem if the villain’s henchmen are Orcs or other members of an “evil” race or if they are zombies, golems or anything else only alive to serve the villain.
If the villain’s supporters are human and he does nothing but humiliate and torture them and kills them for tiny mistakes however, it’s not believable anymore.

These humans just being “evil” is not a good enough reason. Especially people who we would consider “evil” often are rather selfish and would not be prepared to endure any of that just to be part of an evil organisation. For this, there needs some sense of idealism to be involved as well and the author should tell us how the villain manages to inspire this.

Reply to  Sarah M
11 years ago

You are absolutely right. Since Tolkien fantasy literature has largely focused on the struggle between good and evil. And the evil portrayed is often unambiguous.

But a cruel, overtly wicked leader commanding the loyalty of his subjects and armies is an unrealistic scenario. There has to be something attractive or even inspiring about any leader who is able to illicit such loyalty.

11 years ago

I saw that a Conan the Barbarian remake is in the works. God help us. I wonder if Thulsa Doom will make an appearance?

Reply to  GreybeardSpeaks
11 years ago

Hi Greybeard,

No, Thulsa Doom will not be in the new Conan film. It will feature an entirely different villain, portrayed by Stephen Lang (of Avatar fame).

I do hope that this film uses some of the Poledouris music, though. Without it no Conan film would feel authentic.

Has anyone else heard any updates on this reboot?

11 years ago

At their very best, religions are not about control. They are about helping people to discover hope, and the freedom that can come from a connection with a higher power.

But you are somewhat right, in the sense that many religions do exercise a certain level of control. It could be as benign as admonishing members to follow the Ten Commandments, or to abstain from eating meat on specific days. The issue with a cult is that the level of control becomes extreme, to the point of squelching a person’s sense of freedom.

A positive religion will recognize a person’s free will as a divine gift, and will instruct them to exercise it with respect and care. A cult will try to obliterate the member’s free will, and will aim to completely replace it with the will of the group’s leader.

11 years ago

Interesting article. You say that a cult “exercises an unhealthy level of control over its members.” But doesn’t that describe every religion? Last time I checked, religions are in the business of controlling people.