Episode 3.4: “The Cultic Culture Club” (part 4)
Updated: Mar 8, 2022
"The Messiah You Know; The Devil You Follow"
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 3.4, Chapter 1)
Charles Manson: “Which Jesus?”
There is an idyllic village near lake Tiberkul in central Russia—Southern Siberia to be precise, otherwise known as the middle of nowhere. There, far away from all traces of civilization, lives a religious community of about four thousand people who call themselves the Church of the Last Testament. Their leader is Sergey Torop, a former Soviet soldier and traffic cop who now goes by the name Vissarion—which roughly translates as "the giver of life”. Vissarion lives on a mountain, from which he might come down from time to time to utter prophecies and mingle with his doting believers. Decked in long flowing robes, long hair, a short beard, and the relaxed demeanor of a teenage stoner, Vissarion looks a bit like the Jesus you’d find on medieval relics, and even more like a cross between novelist David Foster Wallace and the mad Russian monk Rasputin. Unsurprisingly, Vissarion presents himself as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (Yes, another one!), sent to earth in these final days to prepare his faithful for the coming apocalypse—which should happen any day now, when the invisible planet Nibiru comes crashing into the earth…
Vissarion’s teachings are a mixture of Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, socialism, environmentalism, gnostic self-healing, and a sprinkling of space opera. They are contained in his book, The Last Testament, which he styles an appendix to the Christian Bible.
Whether or not we call this group a cult depends on how we define the term. But there is little doubt that Vissarion’s church displays all of the cultish behaviours we’ve discussed in recent episodes: the veneration of a quasi-divine leader; a rigid separation between themselves and “the world”; strict rules regimenting social relationships, gender norms, and sexual practices; apocalyptic teachings that keep believers obsessed with the imminent end of the world; and total obedience to the leader against the believers’ own health and well-being. Indeed, Vissarion’s rules include strict veganism, giving away all of one’s savings and property to the church, restrictions against leaving the commune and communicating with outsiders, and, most dangerously, the prohibition of medical care—which has been the cause of several avoidable deaths, including those of children and infants.
It is perhaps not surprising that Vissarion and two of his aids were captured and arrested last fall, and accused of psychological manipulation, endangering their followers’ lives, and financial extortion. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this isn’t the first time the Russian authorities have imprisoned a peaceful individual who posed some cryptic threat to the political establishment. And maybe you’re right. But when you look at the pattern of behaviour displayed by Vissarion and its harmful impacts on his followers and their children, it’s hard not to conclude that, left unchecked, this man’s ideas and influence is going to result in some serious physical harm to others. At least, that’s what many ex-members argued when they informed the authorities.
My fellow French Canadians are no doubt better acquainted with the case of Roch Thériault, another self-proclaimed messiah whose followers called “Moses”. From 1977 to 1989, “Moses” Thériault led a small, itinerant religious commune—he called them “the Ant Hill Kids”—to various parts of Quebec and Ontario, preaching a mixture of Adventist millennialism, mystical detoxification, and his own violent brand of pietism, which included purification beatings, improvised surgeries, tooth extractions, forced enemas, adult circumcisions and castrations, limb amputations, sexual abuse, murder, and the desecration of corpses (I’ll spare you the gruesome details). He gave his followers new names, cut them off from all outside contact, separated mothers from their children, and compelled them all to dress the same, eat little, engage in ritual public confessions, engage in sex only with his approval (and usually with him) and show him complete submission. Given to recurring bouts of binge drinking, Thériault tyrannized his little community for nearly twelve years—a group largely made up of women and the children he fathered with them—with promises of love and redemption in one hand, and emotional blackmail, threats of abandonment, and bloodcurdling violence with the other.
“A complex relationship bound Roch Thériault, and the members of his group,” write cult researchers Mike Kropveld and Marie-André Pelland. “From the inception of the group, members talked about their love and admiration for this man whom they described as infinitely good and all-powerful. […] Some members [even came] to accept the violence that Moses used against other members as proof of his favouritism towards them.”
It is hard for most of us to conceive that the members of such a group might prefer their slavery over the promise of freedom, and even less that they would return to him once they’ve been freed, visit him in prison, beget more children with him in conjugal visits, and to profess their enduring love and continued faith in his failed prophecies. And yet, like in many other cultish communities, that is exactly what happened. Moses Thériault was a callous and charismatic alcoholic with a natural ability to manipulate the vulnerable into believing his interests were theirs, that his venial urges were part of God’s will for their lives, and that their own conscience was the voice of the devil.
The 2002 film Savage Messiah, a docudrama on the life of this miserable commune, offers us some insight into the reasons why Thériault’s followers stuck with him so long. Here is a scene in which a social worker—played by actress Polly Walker—visits a group of Thériault’s female followers while he is absent:
Excerpt from Savage Messiah (2002):
Vissarion and Thériault were very different leaders: The first was a brooding mystic, the other, a raging psychopath. And yet the hold each of them had over their vulnerable flock through promises of purification, apocalyptic fearmongering, isolation, disinformation, and behaviour control, as well as the harm each of them caused to their disciples and innocent others, were not qualitatively different. Nor are they exceptional examples compared to many other devilish messiahs you probably heard of before:
Charles Manson, whose drugged-up bohemian flower children brutally murdered nine people in 1969, with the delusion that it would set off a race war;
Rajneeshpuram’s Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh and his lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela, who organized acts of bioterrorism and the attempted murder of a United States attorney in 1984-85;
Branch Davidian preacher David Koresh, whose disciples, after a set of bungled raids by ATF and FBI agents in 1993, died in a raging inferno that killed 75 men, women, and children—an act that was proven to be a self-inflicted murder-suicide;
Solar Temple grand master Joseph di Mambro, who triggered a series of murders and suicides in Canada and Switzerland in 1994 when his authority had begun to slip;
Heaven’s Gate UFO guru Marshall Applewhite, who in 1997 incited 38 followers to kill themselves with him, having convinced them this would help them leave Earth aboard a visiting flying saucer;
Scientology Chairman David Miscavige, whose numerous acts of violence, intimidation, sequestration and vengeance are well-documented by many of his victims;
Revolutionary pastor Jim Jones, who, well… you’ll find out all about him soon enough. [Listen to our interview with Peoples Temple historian Fielding McGehee]
And this list is only a sample.
So, what pushes gurus like these to resort to deadly violence, especially against their own doting followers? It’s hard to get into the mind of a cult leader, but many psychologists, sociologists, medical doctors, and other experts have identified possible clues.
The American psychologist Philip Zimbardo believes that high-control environments produce their own particular behavioural scripts. He argues that people living in closed authoritarian societies easily slip into predetermined roles. On one hand, the ones in control tend to develop a heightened sense of entitlement and, not being limited by any outside controls, push those in their care further and further towards their breaking point until tragedy ensues if nothing is done to avert it. Those without control begin in a position of unalterable vulnerability, and through repeated abuses become increasingly dependent and submissive, losing even the will to think for themselves.
Zimbardo was especially interested in the power dynamic between prison guards and prisoners, and how the former grow abusive, and the latter grow despondent. You may be familiar with the famous (and highly controversial) Stanford Prison Experiment organized by Zimbardo in 1971, in which a group of student volunteers were subjected to sequestration and verbal abuse by fellow students and took only a few days to grow passive, helpless, desperate and self-destructive. It’s a popular subject in many social psychology classes, and it lives on in many books, films, and documentaries. Here’s a clip from The Stanford Prison Experiment, a 2015 film by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez:
The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015), Film Trailer:
The Stanford prison experiment has been used as a measuring stick by many academics and journalists to interpret all sorts of power dynamics—legal, economic, sexual, and racial. (Think for example of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that happened in 2004). Others have critiqued it as a shameful, abusive, and non-generalizable miscarriage of academic research. Wherever you stand on this issue, there is little doubt that this was an exceptional study of psychological abuse, one so shocking that Zimbardo was compelled to stop the two-week experiment only days after it started. Perhaps that was a good thing, but that doesn’t mean it cannot give us some insight, Zimbardo argued in 1997, into the “the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects."
Zimbardo had designed his experiment to induce maximum disorientation, depersonalization, and deindividuation in his volunteer prisoners. He later claimed that he successfully showed that the careful arrangement of a dehumanizing environment—and not just the personalities of those who lived in that environment—caused them to develop either abusive or servile attitudes. Many see Zimbardo’s experiment as reinforcing the findings of psychologist Stanley Milgram—whose obedience to authority experiment was discussed in Episode 3.2—suggesting that humans are likely to ignore their own conscience and see violent abuse as acceptable—whether they dispense or receive it—when a trusted authority figure tells them that it is.
Over the last few episodes, I’ve described the typical cult leader as a “traumatizing narcissist”, a phrase I borrowed from psychotherapist and cult researcher Daniel Shaw, to describe the mindset of a breed of cult leaders who control and demean their own flock, going so far as to take part in dehumanizing acts of violence including torture, forced sex, suicide, and murder. Pathological narcissism can be defined as a pervasive need for admiration and a gross lack of empathy, often displayed in the following traits:
1. A grandiose sense of self-importance;
2. Fantasies of unlimited power, brilliance, success, beauty, and love;
3. A belief that he or she is unique and cannot be understood by “normal” people;
4. A sense of entitlement, manifested in exploiting others; great envy of others’ successes; and arrogant behaviour.
(By the way, if anyone in your life displays several of these traits—whether it be a guru, a boss, a spouse, or a coach—it may be wise for you not to assume that they will eventually change, and that you should not right now be carefully considering an exit strategy.)
Sociologist Gary Maynard argues that Jim Jones, David Koresh, and many other destructive cult leaders were most likely affected by Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a condition that led them, when their dreams of success and control began to fade, to destroy themselves and everything they had rather than risk losing more. Many narcissists, he explains, are “very attractive, talented, inspiring and charming, but this is mostly a front, intended to disarm [their] victims. The cleverer narcissist[s] are at manipulating their followers […] and in hiding [their] dark side […] the more powerful they will become and the more damage they can cause, not only to their followers but the world as a whole.”
“Narcissists,” he continues, “have a tendency towards feelings of vengeance against those they believe have harmed them by doing things that expose or weaken their position. [...] As the window of power begins to fade and family and friends begin to isolate [them], many narcissists panic emotionally […]. The fear of loss of power and the failed attempts to re-assert control can sometimes lead the narcissist to create a permanent solution to the rapid implosion of their life.”
Finally, Dr. James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist, draws a parallel between the self-destructive cult leader, and the perpetrators of “familicide”—those parents who, having lost a sense of purpose, self-worth, or autonomy, choose to kill their own family members and then themselves, not out of spite, but out of a demented belief that their family cannot—and should not—be able to live without them. The despondent perpetrator of familicide:
A. Is depressed, paranoid, intoxicated, or a combination of these;
B. Fears his family could not cope in his absence—including his pets;
C. Feels entitled to decide his victims’ fate;
D. Characterizes the murder of loved ones as an act of mercy or rescue.
“Confronted with ‘overwhelming threats to their roles as providers, controllers, and central figures in the lives of their families,” Knoll goes on to explain, “such individuals may become ‘desperate, depressed, suicidal, and homicidal’. […] When shame is combined with an inordinate need for control, violence may become deadly. […] The potentially familicidal-suicidal man is quite fragile, and merely awaits a precipitating event […] to stimulate him to enact his pre-planned violence.”
This, in a nutshell, is the endgame of many cultic communities who latch their hopes for a better tomorrow to the cart of some smooth-talking self-promoter and surrender their hearts and their minds to his ego. And more than any other community, it is the story of Jonestown. Of course, no amount of psychologizing will bring back its victims, nor will it help those who are still grieving forty years later to find closure.
But learning about these stories may help us better identify some present dangers, and keep us from letting ourselves be controlled by a seductive messiah with a forked tongue. Sadly, it seems the world has still got lots of learning to do.
Michel J. Gagné, 2021.
 Nataliya Zotova: “Vissarion: Is this Russian cult leader a fraud?” BBC News, January 24, 2020.  Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland: The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function, Chapter 4, Info-Cult, 2006. http://www.infosecte.org/phenomene/English/HTML/index.html.  “Waco: The Inside Story—Frequently Asked questions About Waco,” PBS: Frontline, October 17, 1995. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/waco/topten.html.  Kathleen O’Toole: “The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years”, Stanford News, 1/8/97, https://news.stanford.edu/pr/97/970108prisonexp.html.  Gary Maynard: “Jim Jones and Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (Parts I to IV), Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, 2012-13, https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=16551.  Maynard, op. cit., Part I.  Maynard, op. cit., Part IV. James Knoll: “The Jonestown Tragedy as Familicide – Suicide,” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, 2013, https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31403#_ftnref1.  Knoll, Ibid.
Readings and videos related to Episode 3.4:
1. Rocco Castoro: “Siberian Cult Leader Thinks He's Jesus,” VICE Guide to Travel, S1, E4.
2. “Sergei Torop: Russian religious sect leader arrested over allegations of harm,” BBC News, September 22, 2020.
3. Nataliya Zotova: “Vissarion: Is this Russian cult leader a fraud?” BBC News, January 24, 2020.
4. Armageddon (Touchstone Pictures, 1998). Dir. Michael Bay.
5. “The Deadly Messiah,” Very Bad Men, Season 1, Episode 3, Global Television, 2006.
6. Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland: “Roch ‘Moïse’ Thériault's group,” The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function, (Chapter 4), Info-Cult, 2006.
7. Savage Messiah (Astral Films, 2002). Dir. Mario Azzopardi.
8. Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. W.W. Norton & Co., 1974.
9. Karina Longworth: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood,” You Must Remember This (podcast), 2015.
10. “Waco: The Inside Story,” PBS: Frontline, October 17, 1995.
11. The Stanford Prison Experiment. Dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez. IFC Films, 2015.
12. Kathleen O’Toole: “The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years,” Stanford News, 1/8/97.
13. Gary Maynard: “Jim Jones and Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (Parts I to IV), Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, San Diego State University, 2012-13.
14. Dr. James Knoll: “The Jonestown Tragedy as Familicide–Suicide,” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, San Diego State University, 2013.
15. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples’ Temple, homepage. (Fielding McGehee’s website and writings). San Diego State University.
16. “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,” PBS: American Experience, 2006.
17. Peoples Temple: He’s Able, 1973. (Music from the Peoples Temple band, singers and children’s choir). Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, San Diego State University, 2013.
18. Summary of Q042, the “Death Tape”, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, San Diego State University, 2013.
19. Shannon Howard: Transmissions from Jonestown (podcast). 2017-2021.
20. John Judge: “The Black Hole of Guyana: The Untold Story of the Jonestown Massacre,” Ratical.org, 2015.
21. Matthew Thomas Farrell: “Escaping the Event Horizon (a rebuttal to John Judge’s ‘The Black Hole of Guyana’),” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, San Diego State University, 2018.
22. Rebecca Moore: “Annie: An Enigma,” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, San Diego State University, 2013.