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Could There Be Cults on Your College Campus?

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For some odd reason I started watching King of the Hill reruns a few months ago. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s a cartoon about the blue collar Hill family that resides in Texas. One of the characters, a student named Luanne, wanted to join a sorority on her college campus but a group of snotty girls wanted nothing to do with her and pushed her away. She was just about heartbroken, but she became extremely excited when she was recruited by a different sorority. Luanne decided to join the group, who soon told her that her new name Jane, she was no longer allowed to eat meat, and she had to go around town selling jars of Jane’s Jam along with the other sorority members.

Luanne, who is always portrayed as the stereotypical ditzy blonde, was too naïve to realize that she was being brainwashed and her new college sorority was actually a cult. She was eventually rescued from the cult by her uncle and his friends, who also helped dozens of other cult members to escape. It was a pretty funny episode but cults really can exist on college campuses and they can be dangerous.

What is a Cult?

Thanks to Dictionary.com I found a few definitions for cult: “a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader” and “the members of such a religion or sect.”

The word cult is semi-controversial because most people think that cults are religious organizations. Cults are not necessarily religious; there are actually several different types of cults. Some infamous cults were religious groups, but others were extreme political groups, and sometimes the word cult is even used to describe groups of people that are obsessed with a certain movie, TV show, or celebrity. Perhaps Wikipedia puts it best by explaining that the word “refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are reasonably considered strange.”

College Cults on Campus

Members of cults often prey on young college students who are homesick, lonely, or scared of all of the new things that are going on in their lives. Cults typically use young members that seem harmless to recruit new members on college campuses—such as the girl who Luanne thought was her new friend on the TV show that I was talking about. College students who are upset or depressed are usually willing to talk to someone that seems caring and empathetic, so cults often send members to large college campuses to act as recruiters.

Dr. Margaret Singer, who was a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley before her death in 2003, estimated that at any given time there are approximately 5,000 cults in the United States with many others around the world. She was a leading authority on cults, and as co-author of the book Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives she explained six conditions as to how cults psychologically create atmospheres which lure in new members.

Ways that Cults Gain Control

  • Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how attempts to psychologically condition him or her are directed in a step-by-step manner.
  • Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.
  • Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.
  • Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity.
  • Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity.
  • Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.

Even though she has passed away, Dr. Singer remains one of the top authorities on cults and cult behavior. In 2002, she told the San Francisco Chronicle “They’re all the same, really, these groups – they prey on the most lonely, vulnerable people they can find, cage you with your own mind through guilt and fear, cut you off from everyone you knew before, and when they’re done doing that, they don’t need armed guards to keep you. You’re afraid that if you leave, your parents will die, you will die, your life will be ruined. Flim-flam men, pimps, sharpsters – that’s what they are. Liars. Tricksters.”

Stay Safe on Campus

College cults probably aren’t at the top of your list of concerns and worries when you head off to college this fall, but it’s important to remember that they really are out there. Cults often recruit college members that seem unhappy—and small bouts of the blues usually strike us all at some point. The cults eventually cut people off from the outside world, encouraging them to quit school and cut all ties with their friends and family members.

Use your common sense when you’re invited to hang out with new friends that seem a little strange or want you to be with them all of the time, and listen to your friends and family if it seems like they’re trying to talk some sense into you. Cult members really do brainwash people—ever heard of the Manson Family, the Jonestown massacre, or the Branch Davidians? They all had young members, too.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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