What do we mean by ‘cult’?

'On Wednesdays we wear red.'

‘On Wednesdays we wear red.’

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[1], hippies in mini-vans, vats of Kool Aid.[2] 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?


[1] 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.

[2] Actually, Flavor Aid was used at the Jonestown killings, but for some reason Kool Aid gets all the bad press.


About Rebecca Wait

27-year-old writer based in London. Author of 'The View on the Way Down'.
This entry was posted in The Followers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What do we mean by ‘cult’?

  1. tillyv says:

    All so true. I vividly remember the Manson case, sadly, and I think it was one of the most brutally shocking things I had heard to that date… rather a hippy peace-and-love era wake up call. Not sure even the word cult is adequate to define that group. There was pure evil at play .. a phrase that also requires cautious use.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s