Analysis / Cult

Uses of the word "cult" and their relation to the fictional trope

The word "cult" (from Latin "cultus", "worship") can be confusing because it has several different meanings. You can barely say what it means at all without either being incomplete or taking a long time to say it. This is why the main page has been edited several times concerning the definition of the term. So as not to clutter the main page with it, here's a closer-to-complete exposition of the different uses and their problems.
  • Any system of worship. This is a neutral sense in which academics like to use the word. For example, they might refer to the "cult of Osiris" in ancient Egypt without implying it was a weird marginal group. The trope isn't about this; rather, it relates to variations of the next use —
  • Pejorative way of referring to marginal groups. People can just call groups "cults" without a specific definition in mind but implying it means something negative, and probably assuming certain stereotypes. This kind of use is often regarded negatively for obvious reasons. Some suggest instead speaking of —
  • New religious movements. Basically Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Another way is to look at the size and influence of the religious movements, where you get —
  • Church vs. sect vs. cult. This division has been made in more than one way (sometimes with "denomination" thrown in for good measure), but this is one at least: "Church" is a large and mainstream religious movement; "sect" is a distinct fringe offshoot within a church; and "cult" is a movement that fails to be either, being small and not part of a church. However, the word "cult" has been used for other things besides religious groups, eg. "therapy cults". One such use not limited to religion is —
  • "Dangerous" or "destructive cult". Some experts wish to use the word "cult", or at least "dangerous/destructive cult", in a way that is not even claiming to be neutral but still aims to be rigorously defined. In these cases, "cult" refers to a charismatic, authoritarian group with certain characteristics such as extreme control of members' thoughts and actions. These groups are not necessarily religious. The Party in Nineteen Eighty Four is very much a cult in this sense, though the term is not usually directly applied to governments. Controlling, oppressive groups like this could also be sects within a larger church in the above sense. The idea is that such groups need to be recognized as such because they can be harmful and dangerous to members and/or outsiders. It's controversial whether this usage is acceptable. Regardless, it may always be problematic to label some particular group this way, because it denies legitimacy to the group and its beliefs. People trying to "deprogram" members of groups thought of as cults to remove the group's "brainwashing" have been accused of doing brainwashing in the other direction, and it can be hard to tell in such cases whom to believe. Still, this definition can be one of the most specific and informative ones, since some groups certainly have shown themselves to be dangerous. The Useful Notes page for this trope has more information about this kind of cult. A more neutral term in the same lines also exists —
  • Charismatic group. This one's basically taken from Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion by Marc Galanter. He seems to only have put "cult" in the title to make it sound more dramatic, because the text is actually built around the idea of a charismatic group. If we take the previous meaning of "cult", "charismatic group" here is a more general concept that includes it. Charismatic groups are similar to cults in the previous sense, but they're not all dangerous — you could say a dangerous cult is a charismatic group gone bad.

Note that it's perfectly possible for any single group to fit more than one or even all of these definitions.note  This doesn't change the fact that all of them existing means that when something is called a "cult", you can't really know what is being said unless it's unusually clear from the context. Keep in mind that a charismatic person can form a type of cult around themselves with no religion involved.

So what does Hollywood do with all this? They of course take the simplest and most interesting stereotype, which is closest to the second or the second-to-last use of the word. At the same time, any and all of the other meanings may be mixed up with those ones. That's what the trope is about. The main page has further detail on how this is done.


Some of the listed books are also recommended on The Useful Notes page. This page covers other definitions, too, and lists books pertaining to those as well.

  • Cults in our midst; Margaret Thaler Singer
  • Bounded choice; Janja Lalich
  • Arthur Deikman:
    • The wrong way home
    • Them and us: Cult thinking and the terrorist threat
  • Cults: Faith, healing and coercion; Marc Galanter
  • The encyclopedic handbook of cults in America; J. Gordon Melton
  • Cults inside out: How people get in and can get out; Rick Alan Ross
  • Combatting cult mind control; Steven Hassan
  • Misunderstanding cults: Searching for objectivity in a controversial field; ed. Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins
  • George Chryssides
    • Exploring new religions
    • A reader in new religious movements
  • Spiritual choices; Richard Anthony, Bruce Ecker and Ken Wilber
  • Cults, converts and charisma; Thomas Robbins
  • Frank MacHovec
    • Cults and personality
    • Cults and terrorism
  • Cults, religion and violence; ed. David Bromley and J. Gordon Melton
  • Violence and new religious movements; ed. James R. Lewis
  • Revisionism and diversification in new religious movements; ed. Eileen Barker
  • Irving Hexham:
    • Understanding cults and new age religions
    • New religions as global cultures
  • Minority religions and fraud: In good faith; ed. Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist
  • Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge:
    • The future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation
    • Religion, deviance and social control
  • The Cambridge companion to new religious movements; eds. Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein
  • The cult experience; Andrew J. Pavlos
  • Religion in context: Cults and charisma; I. M. Lewis
  • Teaching new religious movements; ed. David G. Bromley
  • Cults wars in historical perspective; ed. Eugene Gallagher