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This Is How Cults Work

Ian Haworth, an ex-cult member, has been running the Cult Information Center since 1987. I caught up with him recently to get an insight into how a modern day cult operates.
Illustrations by Dan Evans

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

Cults will always be associated with the big names. Your David Koreshes, your Jim Joneses, your Charlie Mansons—the guys you'll have seen hogging half the Netflix documentary section like they're the only megalomanic sociopaths to ever grace a fortified compound. But there are plenty of other, more humble, groups out there still suckering people in and fleecing them for all they're worth.


Ian Haworth, an ex-cult member, has been running the UK-based Cult Information Centre since 1987. There, he and his team provide information, guidance, and assistance to those who want to leave a cult, those who have already left one, and to concerned friends and families. I caught up with him recently to get an insight into how a modern-day cult operates.

VICE: Hi, Ian. How did you end up joining a cult yourself?
Ian Haworth: I was doing some shopping one day [in Toronto] and met a lady who asked if I could help her with a survey. I agreed. She then told me I'd probably be interested in joining a community group she represented, saying "Isn't it time you considered giving something back to the community instead of taking from it all the time like most people do?" The meeting consisted of a talk, followed by a coffee break, followed by a film. When the break was called, people started to come into the room with all kinds of food. I'd paid $1.50 to attend, so I thought I'd get my money's worth.

I then decided to go for a cigarette, when someone rushed over and said, "Oh, we didn't know you smoked. You can smoke out here, but have you ever thought about quitting?" About a month before this my doctor had told me I'd probably die by the time I was 40 if I didn't quit smoking, so she'd hit my area of interest. The course spanned four days and they guaranteed success. At the end of the course I'd given them all the money I had, decided to dedicate my life to them, and handed in my resignation at work.


That was quick. How did you eventually end up leaving?
I was a completely different person, but of course I didn't know that. Friends knew that, my roommate knew that. People were scared of me, people felt sorry for me, people had a variety of emotions but didn't know what to do. People at work were stunned that I'd handed in my notice because I was doing well. When I was working my final month, the group [PSI Mind Development Institution—now non-existent] were exposed in the media. I hadn't yet been programmed against the media, so I was open to media input. It reactivated my critical mind and I managed to leave. I then went through 11 months of pretty severe withdrawal.

Do you believe intelligent, educated people are more likely to be recruited than people in turmoil or who may be considered unstable?
This idea of troubled people is the eternal myth. People want to imagine this is the case because they don't want to consider themselves as "vulnerable." I don't use the word vulnerable very often, but I'd argue that we're all vulnerable to the techniques used by these groups. The late Dr. John G Clark, who I quote a lot, said the safest people are the mentally ill. The easiest people to recruit are ones with alert, questioning minds who want to debate issues with other people. You take a strong-willed, strong-minded person and put them into a cult environment and the techniques used will break a person down very, very quickly. The smarter, the healthier the mind, the quicker and easier you are to control. It's just one of these tragic realities.


What have you found to be the primary motives for setting up and recruiting people into cults?
The common denominators would be people and money. Some may just enjoy the power they have over a mass of people; others may well be wanting, from the word go, to acquire financial benefits and amass great wealth; others may have other ambitions of taking over the world. Then there are some who may well actually believe they are God, or whatever. I think those are the ones who are quite often mentally ill, so there's quite a mix of leaders and they may well have slightly different motivations. But, again, the common denominators are people and money.

You estimate that there are currently between 500 to 1,000 cults in the UK. Are they on the rise?
Yes. If someone is recruited into a cult, that person—among other things—is going to be going out to recruit other people. Either in a formal way or an informal way, they'll be obeying instructions from the group on how to do that. Or they'll simply do it because they've been radicalized, are on a high, singing their praises and can't wait to recruit. So, as each person recruits others, you'll get an exponential growth of that organization—and the same applies to all the others. Then you get power struggles and splits in some of the groups. You get other groups, from different parts of the world, setting up branches in the UK, so it's a phenomenon that is growing.


Do you ever infiltrate cult meetings to acquire information?
No, that would be foolish. We'd never recommend going to any meetings that cults have because the techniques they use work on anybody, including me.

What usually triggers a member into wanting to leave a cult and to seek help from you?
Because cults use mind control techniques to recruit people, a person's mind is controlled by the group. Therefore the person no longer has control or normal thought processes; they are impaired, and the person can no longer critically evaluate. You become someone else. What is common is that something reactivates the critical mind of the cult member. It could be something you see or hear that you're not supposed to see or hear within the group; it could be something that somebody—when you're out recruiting or soliciting funds—says to you. If you're programmed to understand that people are evil and will be hostile toward you, and then they're kind and gentle in dealing with you, that will upset the apple cart.

During this period, how active are the cults in trying to get members to return?
It varies. If you consider what it's like to be in a cult, you're programmed to think that this group is the be-all and end-all, and that anyone leaving this group is going to suffer horribly. So you would see it as helpful, as a cult member, to try and contact somebody who is an ex-member and try to pull them back in. So it's not unusual for someone to be pursued.



Are these techniques always psychological, or have you encountered any instances of violence or physical threats?
I've dealt with people who have come out of cults and who have died. There was a case that was supposed to go before the courts—the government was looking at a particular group and possibly looking at removing its charitable status—and a key witness, who was an ex-member of the group, was found hanging from a lamppost. Some people say it was murder, other people say it was suicide. I don't know.

One chap I spoke to in Canada had fled from an organization and was really shaken up badly. I normally just speak to people on the phone, but I offered to meet up with him. He was at university and had a lot of work to do because he was just about to start his exams, and I said, "Well, can I have somebody phone you once or twice a week while you're going through your exams, just to make sure you're OK?" He said fine, and that happened.

After the exams were over he was found with his throat cut from ear to ear and, again, some said it was murder, some said it was suicide. The police said it was suicide. His family suggested it was murder. Perhaps you could say the family would, but his father was a doctor and said there wasn't enough blood at the site where his body was found for it to have been suicide.

If cults are rising in the UK, what can be done to curb this? What preventative measures can be put in place?
The sooner the government realizes what cults are all about, they will then realize how much more can be done to combat terrorism. Not just the terrorist groups that are operating abroad, but also those that are radicalizing people in this country. If we start to recognize what cults are about and apply it in this area then we can perhaps be a lot more effective in trying to help people who want to come back to this country from Syria, or wherever they've been to, and return to normal and then be great sources of information.

Ex-members of cults are great sources of information. People who are perhaps captured as extremists can be counseled back to reality as well, so a lot can be done in that area. I think a lot needs to be done in terms of public education on this topic, but it all starts with the government recognizing what's going on. I think there needs to be an educational program in general to help British society become aware of how cults operate, what to watch out for and, therefore, avoid, and how to help current and former members to back to reality.