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Religious Cult Leaders and Disciples: Who Leads and Who Joins, Through the Lens of Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club"

Carla J. Swick is a freelance writer who resides in NW Pennsylvania and works in higher ed technology.



Imagine if you will, a crowded room in a house on Paper Street. Its occupants, like clones, all dressed in black with shaved heads, sit listening. One of their leaders enters the house; his thoughts are recorded as follows: “When I come home, one space monkey is reading to the assembled space monkeys who sit covering the whole first floor. ‘You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.’ The space monkey continues, ‘Our culture has made us all the same. No one is truly white or black or rich, anymore. We all want the same. Individually, we are nothing.’ The reader stops when I walk in to make my sandwich, and all the space monkeys sit silent as if I were alone. I say, don’t bother. I’ve already read it. I typed it” (Palahniuk, 1996, p. 134).

In the cult favorite novel, Fight Club, the space monkeys, or members of the fight club cult, accept the dreamed up doctrine of their leader while he in his humanity stands by preparing a sandwich. They hang on his written word as if it holds some kind of “divine” power, willing to do whatever he asks, whenever he asks. Is it a leader gone awry or just destiny for the “space monkeys” that they became so dedicated? In order to understand what types of people lead and join cults, we need to study the personalities and characteristics of these individuals in relation to their cult involvement. Understanding these profiles will enable both families and professionals to find preventative solutions to cult involvement.

“Anyone, regardless of family background, can be recruited into a cult. The major variable is not the person’s family, but the cult recruiter’s level of skill” (Hassan).

“Anyone, regardless of family background, can be recruited into a cult. The major variable is not the person’s family, but the cult recruiter’s level of skill” (Hassan).

The Disciples

No magic formula exists when it comes to determining what types of people become involved in cults. Three factors do; however, repeat themselves over and over in research material. The first of these three factors are human needs. Veteran cult apologetics researcher, W. Martin (1997) believes people are searching for meaning in life and their needs are threefold; spiritual, emotional and social with people seeking fulfillment of all three.

In his book, The Search for Significance, author R. McGee (1990) delves a little deeper. McGee sees humans as searching for something to satisfy their inner needs from the point of birth onward. It is this obligation that causes people to go to great lengths in search of people who will love them, accept them, and praise them. Love and acceptance, believes McGee, are only surface needs. The true issue, often lying underneath, is the hunger for self-worth. In his research about adolescent cult involvement, E. Hunter shares the story of M. Warnke (cited in Hunter, 1998, Para. 12), a former high Satanist priest. Warnke explains that people have primarily three areas of need: physical, spiritual and mental. Like an incomplete triangle, a person not getting all these needs met feels incomplete. This incompleteness, particularly if it is spiritual, sends the individual on a search for completeness. Desperation to be complete can take an individual many places and danger may be imminent.

The second factor that can prime an individual for cult involvement is vulnerability. In their book, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Tobias and Lalich (1994) inform that, “Individual vulnerability factors matter much more than personality type” (p. 27). M. Singer, (cited in Tobais & Lalich, 1994, p. 27) warns, “The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted or fatigued . . . About two-thirds of those studied have been normal young persons induced to join groups in periods of personal crisis, [such as] broken romance or failures to get the job or college of their choice”. Hunter (1998) also points to susceptibility factors such as uncertainty, separation from family, or feelings of hopelessness for the seemingly chaotic situation the world is in today.

The final factor that comes into play is the strength, frequency, and success of the manipulative tactics the group uses to draw an individual in. According to Tobias & Lalich (1994), it is the ability of a group to manipulate an individual according to their vulnerabilities that is one of the deciding factors in cult involvement. Anyone can be lured into a cult if the circumstances are right. One successful tactic that groups use is called “love bombing – showering attention, affection, and interest upon the unsuspecting lost souls” (Gorski, 2000, Para. 5). It is easy to see how a lonely, confused individual who is away from the confines of his family could be drawn. “Anyone, regardless of family background, can be recruited into a cult. The major variable is not the person’s family, but the cult recruiter’s level of skill” (Hassan, 1990, p. 77).

Who Are the Disciples?

According to Hunter (1998), cults attract youth from “all walks of life and from all classes of society” (Para. 15). Youths, however, aren’t alone as prey to manipulative leaders and groups. According to a newspaper article in the Edmonton Sun, “lonely, wealthy seniors” can also be trapped (Johnston, 1999).

Some may argue that people who join cults are crazy, mentally ill, were abused as children, lived in poverty or are just plain ignorant. In his book on the Guyana tragedy, C. Krause noted a study done by J. Clark, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (cited in Krause, 1978, p. 120). According to Clark’s studies, he estimates that 58% of those who join cults are either chronic or borderline Schizophrenic. The remaining 42% of those involved in the study were neither ill nor damaged. To shed further light on the popular belief that something is wrong with people who join cults, Hunter (1998) writes that, “Studies have indicated that a surprising number of cult members come from democratic and equalitarian homes and upper socioeconomic levels, rather than over-permission, overindulgent, dysfunctional and poor families” (Para. 9). Most members, Tobias & Lalich (1994) note, “are above average intelligence, well- adjusted, adaptable and perhaps a little idealistic. In relatively few cases does the person have a history of a pre-existing mental condition” (p. 28).

Although anyone of any age can become involved in a cult, adolescents are particularly susceptible. Adolescents are continually experiencing new situations and may not have the necessary experience to deal with these situations. This rapidly produces stress for the adolescent, and before they know it, they are in crisis mode. All this occurs during a very important time in the youth’s development and affects their identity. They begin to criticize what they’ve been taught by both their family and society, and they become impatient with all they once knew to be so. At the same time this is occurring, their thinking skills are maturing, and this makes adolescence a time of questioning, seeking and curiosity. It is often creative and gifted adolescents that are recruited, making it difficult to deduce that it is certain types of personality characteristics that make an individual become involved with cults (Hunter, 1998).

Consider one of the main characters in Fight Club, who was living what readers might describe as the normal, successful life of a young, corporate professional. Starting with factor one, the character had needs. He described his home: “a condominium on the fifteenth floor of a high rise, a sort of filing cabinet for widows and young professionals. The marketing brochure promised a foot of concrete floor, ceiling, and wall between me and adjacent stereo or turned-up television” (Fight Club, 1996 p.41). If, as McGee says, “the deep need of man is the need to overcome separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness” (p. 64), then we can see how the main character had a deficiency in this area. The danger occurred when he fell prey to sleep deprivation and dissatisfaction with his life. He was suffering from both when he met the charismatic, dangerous Tyler, and lamented to himself, “May I never be complete. May I never be content. May I never be perfect. Deliver me, Tyler, from being perfect and complete” (Palahniuk, 1996, p. 46). At that point, he begins to look to Tyler for salvation from his discontent and suffering, and Tyler is more than willing to offer him redemption.

The Leaders

"I love everything about Tyler Durden his courage and his smarts. His nerve. Tyler is funny and charming and forceful and independent, and men look up to him and expect him to change their world. Tyler is capable and free . . .” (Palahniuk, 1996, p. 174). What is it within a cult leader that makes ordinary people look up to them and expect them to change their lives?

Cult Intervention Specialist and Expert Consultant, Rick Ross (personal communication, April 16, 2002), was interviewed and offered this to say about cult leaders: “ Many cult leaders seem to be narcissistic personalities often fantasizing about messianic visions that will change the course of human history, while appearing to have little, if any conscience. Some make claims that they are the exclusive voice of God, [have] “physic” connections to historical figures or aliens from outer space. Often these leaders seem deeply delusional and disturbed, and some have been call psychopaths. Marshall Applewhite, the leader of Heaven’s Gate, was once confined to a mental hospital. Extreme examples of destructive and delusional behavior by cult leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Shoko Asahara have caused many mental health professionals to question their sanity. Still, others simply may be opportunistic con men or women, exploiting their followers for personal profit and self-interest”.

At meetings of former cult members, the term “cookie-cutter Messiah School” has been coined to describe cult leaders with surprisingly similar personality traits (Tobias & Lalich, 1994, p. 66). Let us examine some of these similarities more closely.


“To be a messiah, you don’t have to be big (Charles Manson was only 5’2”), you don’t have to be smart (David Koresh had an IQ of 89), and you don’t have to be good looking (though it doesn’t hurt). All you have to be is confident, to the absolute” (Milstein, 1994, Para. 2).

Charisma is a characteristic that is mentioned again and again when reading about cult leaders. P. Sellers (1996), in her article for Fortune magazine notes, “It’s [charisma] the remarkable ability to get others to endorse your vision and promote it passionately” (Para. 3). She goes on to discuss the traits of charismatic individuals. They are storytellers who have the ability to simplify and exaggerate their ideas, no matter how complex. They rebel against convention and embrace the eccentric. They love to take risks and feel almost empty without the thrill of a new risk.

Charismatic personalities have a magnetism that is inescapable, a style that is winning and a strong self-assurance. This charm or appeal is not dangerous, so to speak, but becomes lethal when it is used as a self-serving, destructive device to harm others (Tobias & Lalich, 1994, pp. 67-8).

Psychopathological Profile

Professional observations have revealed that the behavior of some cult leaders is very consistent with the disorder of psychopathy. A psychopathological profile of traits are commonly found in abusive leaders and are listed as follows:

1. Glibness/superficial charm. Leaders have the ability to effectively use language to beguile, confuse and convince. They are captivating story tellers, emanating a self-confidence that can verbally defuse their critics.

2. Manipulative and conning psychopathic maneuvers. The psychopath’s specialty is charm. This charm makes the victim into the cult leader’s ally. This is called emotional vampirism or terrorism.

3. Grandiose sense of self. The leader believes everything is owed to him/her and wants to be the center of attention. The leader presents him/herself as “the enlightened one, vehicle of god, or genius. This grandiosity may be a defense against inner emptiness, depression or sense of insignificance. He/she is often paranoid and creates an us-versus-them environment.

4. Pathological Lying. Psychopaths lie very easily even when it is obvious they are being untruthful because consistent truth is impossible for them. They lie for no reason, which is called “crazy lying,” even when the truth is the easiest and safest way. They are clever when it comes to passing lie detector tests.

5. Lack of remorse, shame or guilt. Leaders have deep-seated, repressed rage and no friends, just victims and accomplices. They feel justified in all they do, and nothing gets in their way.

6. Shallow emotions. Most leaders use emotions only for motive and pretense. They are cold and unmoved by normal upset and loving is out of their reach.

7. Incapacity to love. Leaders will give love substitutes and test devotees out of a need to be loved. They tell their followers that they are suffering due to the depth of their compassion for the followers.

8. Need for stimulation. The psychopathic leader is a thrill seeker and justifies this in possible preparation for martyrdom. He/she feels entitled to sin.

9. Callousness/lack of empathy. The leader will take advantage of others and hold contempt for any feelings shown. Followers will rationalize the leader’s callous behavior not realizing it constitutes spiritual rape.

10. Poor behavior controls/impulsive temper tantrums. Leaders will follow their poor behavior with love, which equals an addictive cycle. They have an inability to tolerate frustration, anxiety, or depression, which causes aberrant behavior followed by rationalization.

11. Early behavior problems/juvenile delinquency. Psychopathic leaders have a history of behavior or academic difficulty. They “got by” in school and struggled with common delinquency problems such as stealing, setting fires and cruelty to others.

12. Irresponsibility/unreliability. Leaders will leave a wreckage of lives behind them, and be oblivious and indifferent to it. They rarely accept blame and blame is shifted to others (in and out of the group), Satan, etc.

13. Promiscuous sexual behavior. Leaders will often engage in sex acts that are either promiscuousness in nature or abusive, such as child abuse, polygamy, rape, etc. While the follower’s sex is stringently controlled by the leader (arranged divorces, marriages, etc.), sex with the leader is not usually conscientious.

14. Lack of realistic life plan/parasitic lifestyle. The leader will often start over looking for newer ground to exploit. The leader will live a rich life, while the followers are poor. Promises made by the leader are never realized. The leader is preoccupied with his/her own health, yet unconcerned about followers and may also be a hypochondriac.

15. Criminal or entrepreneurial versatility. Leader(s) will change their image to avoid persecution or to increase income. They will relocate the group when exposed, and this becomes a cycle. They relocate to lower profile, but will eventually resurface (Tobias & Lalich,1994, pp. 72-9).

Author's Take

I certainly have experience with this topic losing my brother to an unsafe group over 30 years ago (see my family's story). Since researching, writing and presenting the information contained in this article, I have come to believe that one of the most damaging risks for an individual to become involved in and remain in such a group is isolation. One of the mistakes we made was arguing and disagreeing with my brother thus closing the door to communication. Big mistake - doing whatever it takes to remain in contact, even when you don't agree, is crucial. When groups isolate people, they gain the most power and control.


Another characteristic of cult leaders is the need for power. Volgyes (cited in Tobias & Lalich, 1994. pp. 27-8) explains the power dynamic: “Traditional elements of authoritarian personalities included the following: the tendency to hierarchy, the drive for power (and wealth), hostility, hatred, prejudice, superficial judgments of people and events, a one-sided scale of values favoring the one in power, interpreting kindness as weakness, the tendency to use people and see others as inferior, a sado-masochistic tendency, incapability of being ultimately satisfied , and paranoia” .

Imagine coupling the authoritarian power dynamic with another key ingredient - vision. Having a vision is essential to every leader. In their book, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge, W. Bennis and B. Nanus (1985) share the importance of vision. “. . . visions. . . are compelling and pull people . . . they draw others in. Vision grabs” (Para. 7). It’s when that vision, held by someone exhibiting the authoritarian power dynamic, becomes distorted and dangerous, that leadership can turn deadly.


The Report of the APA (American Psychiatric Association) Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control that met in 1986 lists recommendations for professionals dealing with cult involvement. Summarized, these recommendations suggest that more effort toward understanding the mechanics, effects, and ethnical implications of cultic techniques needs to be put forth. Furthermore, a study needs to be conducted on these techniques and how they can be resisted should be done. A revision of the APA casebook material in light of ethical implications should be looked into. Finally, psychologists should direct more attention to educating the public about techniques used by dangerous groups, and the APA should enforce stricter regulations regarding nonprofessionally run counseling-type programs (Singer, et al., 1986, Paras. 58-63).

According to Hunter (1998), it is the family and society that need to be aware of potential cult danger signs. He suggests that religious, civic, and government organizations, as well as educators, school and youth organizations, social workers and psychologists, work together toward prevention and invention. Adolescents, in particular, need to have positive role models and places they can go where they feel welcome and a sense of belonging.


The lament of Ruby Bohner, the fourth-grade teacher of Stanley Gigg (involved in the death of Congressman Leo Ryan in the Guyana tragedy), should be enough for our professionals, government and families to stand up and start to take notice. “I had a little boy in my room and his name was Stanley Gigg, and he was roly-poly and he had an awful trouble learning to read and write, but I liked him very much. The only thing in the world that Stanley wanted to be was a carpenter. . . I just don’t see how anybody could change that little boy, who wanted to be carpenter, into that kind of murderer” (Wooden, 1981, p. 57).

Understanding the profiles of leaders and the vulnerabilities of susceptible members, will hopefully enable society toward greater, more prompt, and successful solutions and prevention in the lives of cult victims. The time to work towards cult involvement prevention is now, and one of the greatest preventative measures that we, as a society, can take is to continue asking and answering questions - and to ask and answer them again.

The leader of the fight club cult addressed his followers: “‘This week’, Tyler told them, ‘Go out and buy a gun.’ ‘This,’ Tyler said, and he took a gun out of his coat pocket, ‘this is a gun, and in two weeks, you should each of you have a gun about this size to bring to meeting.’ Nobody asked anything” (Palahniuk, 1996, p. 122. -3).

And finally. . .

My personal story of losing my brother to a cult is here:

Carla J Behr appearance in Fight Club author, Chuck Palahniuk's, documentary where she did a presentation on her cult research. Palahniuk called her, "Powerful


Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: the strategies for taking charge.

[Summary of book]. Retrieved April 30, 2002 from the World Wide Web:

Four strategies are analyzed for successful leadership. Discusses leaders as perpetual learners and the Wallenda Factor. Concludes with myths of leadership.

Gorski, E. (2000). Eyewitness: why people join cults. BBC News Online. Retrieved

April 30, 2002 from the World Wide Web:


Individual who has grown up in a cult offers her impressions to online news source. Article tries to make sense out of why people join cults, and also tries to come to grips with the discovery of hundred of dead bodies linked to a cult in Uganda.

Hunter, E. (1998). Adolescent attraction to cults. Adolescence. 33 (131), pp. 709-14.

Retrieved April 10, 2002 from EBSCO online database (Academic Search

Premier 1290599)

Details the reason behind adolescents’ attraction to cults. Personality profile of an adolescent susceptible to cult overtures. Definition and characteristics of cults. What must be done to address the issue.

Krause, C. (1978) Guyana massacre: the eyewitness account. New York:


Eyewitness accounts of Guyana tragedy. The influence of cult leader, Jim Jones on his followers.

Johnston, S. (1999, May 2.) Experts ponder why people keep following the leader.

Edmonton Sun. Retrieved April 30, 2002 from the World Wide Wide: http://

Article regarding manipulative groups that attempts to answer the how and why of

cult involvement.

Martin, W. (1997). The kingdom of cults. Minneapolis, MI: Bethany.

An extensive collection of information on many of the most popular cults. Also gives some introduction to cult involvement with psychological structure of cultism as well as critiques of mind control.

McGee, R. (1985), The search for significance. Houston, TX. Rapha.

Discover the desperate quest for personal success, status beauty and wealth and how it doesn’t bring happiness. Learn what to base your self-worth on.

Palahniuk, C. (1996). Fight club. New York: Holt.

Cult favorite novel about an unhappy young, professional and how he begins attending support groups to help him with his insomnia. He meets Marla, who attends support groups for similar reasons. He ends up getting involved in a fight club with a charismatic individual and the story ends with a very strange twist.

Milstein, P. (1994). How to become a cult guru, or you too can induce mass suicide.

Retrieved April 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web:


Rules for becoming an unsafe leader put together in sarcastic satire.

Seller, P. (1996, January). What exactly is charisma. Fortune. Retrieved April 30, 2002

from the World Wide Web:


Discusses the attributes of charisma, and how it can empower its holder to success. Also warns of the danger of misguided charisma.

Singer, et al. (1986) Report of the APA task force on deceptive and indirect techniques

of persuasion and control. Retrieved April 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web:

Task Force reports on deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and

control with in unhealthy groups.Offers recommendations for professionals

toward prevention of cult involvement.

Tobias, M., Landu, J. (1994). Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from

Cults and Abusive Relationships. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Includes personal stories of healing and recovery from cult involvement. An

analysis of individuals most susceptible to cults and defines characteristics of cult leaders.

Wooden, K. The children of Jonestown. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stories behind individuals involved in Guyana tragedy.

© 2012 Carla J Swick


Carla J Swick (author) from NW PA on March 05, 2016:


Carla J Swick (author) from NW PA on November 10, 2014:

Thank you, Say Yes - it's hard to understand if you or a family member haven't been there. I appreciate your thoughts.

Yoleen Lucas from Big Island of Hawaii on November 09, 2014:

As someone who was in a cult, and has a niece who dropped out of high school to join one, I must say this article is PROFOUND. Voted up!

Carla J Swick (author) from NW PA on January 04, 2013:

Nurse Leah, Thank you for your insites!! Very chilling indeed. I lost a brother to a cult over 30 years ago and have been researching them since. The leaders in this case are a couple. There's another real story here when I am ready to put it together. Keep watching and please keep sharing your expertise. Thanks!!

Leah Wells-Marshburn from West Virginia on January 04, 2013:

Very well researched, informative article on cult leaders. I have only ever met one person who I truly believed could fall into this category. I've had many antisocial and narcissistic patients, but to have full-blown malignant narcissism, which is what your hub describes, is pretty rare. The one person I met with this disorder was what I would describe as undeveloped. I doubt he will be a true cult leader on a grand scale, but on a small scale, he already was. It's chilling to observe. People who I would never think of as followers followed him without question. Questioning the cult leader is forbidden, and those that do question are immediately made to look ignorant in front of the group in order to eliminate any power their doubts would have had within the group. If their doubts cannot be stopped, the person will be ousted from the group in a manner that makes other cult members believe the doubter was all wrong. The leader will explain this to the group with lies and what looks like hurt feelings. For example, "I am saddened that we lost Tom. I know a great many of you loved him, as I did. That's why I was enraged when I found that Tom was a wolf in sheep's clothing! Friends, Tom was here not to be a part of us, but to collect data on us and turn it in to the police (imagine the leader waving around undisclosed papers at this time). Tom didn't love you! Tom was pretending!" etc. Not only has the leader succeeded in eliminating doubt, but he also has created more fear among the followers and a distrust in each other, but full trust in himself. In this way, the malignant narcissist maintains total control, as in, "The only person in this world you can trust is me." Frightening, indeed.

Carla J Swick (author) from NW PA on December 23, 2012:

Thank you, Magdeline - it can be very complex and very simple at the same time. I lost a brother to a cult over 30 years ago - this has sent me into a whirlwind of research including appearances on a CBS affiliate and being interviewed by the Dr. Phil show. I just needed to know why my brother, who came from such a good family, ended up in this group.

Magdelene from Okotoks on December 23, 2012:

Interesting and alarming to say the least. It often makes me wonder why I seem to always want to know what makes others tick? Then if they tick loud enough, what drives others to follow or befriend them?

How do we not see, how do we not feel and most of all how do we begin to understand or can we ever truly understand?

Well written and very informative Hub!