Is the word ‘cult’ is a bit dodgy? Whilst writing The Followers, I thought about this a lot. Certainly there are plenty of problems with ‘cult’ as a label.
For starters, it’s often used too loosely, to refer to any group that is seen as eccentric, or as having beliefs outside the norm (and let’s not even get started on how we define the ‘norm’).
‘Cult’ also has sensationalist connotations that can be a bit distracting. For many people, the word immediately conjures up images of horror and violence, ‘Helter Skelter’ daubed in blood, hippies in mini-vans, vats of Kool Aid. Academics tend to avoid using the word ‘cult’ these days. Some refer instead to ‘New Religious Movements’, but I haven’t found that phrase particularly helpful: many groups I’ve researched over the past few years, whilst ostensibly claiming religious motivation, don’t really seem to have much to do with religion at all. And what do we call groups with no overt links to religion, like the ‘Maoist cult’ in south London that’s featured in news stories over the past couple of years?
Back to ‘cult’, then. I’ve come to find it a useful label, so long as I remain very clear in my own mind what I mean by it. For me, a cult is a controlling or destructive group, one which seeks to manipulate its members, and which may involve coercive practices, limit members’ interactions outside the group and restrict independent thought. It may even, in rare cases, lead to violence.
Obviously I can see there’s still plenty of room for subjectivity in what we label as ‘controlling’ or ‘destructive’, and even what we classify as a ‘group’, but that’s the definition I think works best all the same. Sometimes I just refer to ‘controlling groups’, but that’s more of a mouthful. (Also, ‘cult’ tends to get people’s attention; apparently I’m not above trading on its sensationalist connotations when it suits me.)
So, my conclusion? Use ‘cult’ by all means, but use it with caution.
If nothing else, by applying the term to any old group, even if the organisation is perfectly open and benign, we dilute the word’s impact. Then what do we do when we come up against a group like the Manson Family, and actually need a word that is capable of conveying the full madness and horror?
 It was written as ‘Healter Skelter’ on the refrigerator of Sharon Tate’s house, because whichever of Charles Manson’s murderous idiots it was, they definitely couldn’t spell.
 Actually, Flavor Aid was used at the Jonestown killings, but for some reason Kool Aid gets all the bad press.