Uses of the word "cult" and their relation to the fictional trope
The word "cult" (from Latin "cultus", "worship") can be confusing in its different uses. 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 1984 is very much a cult in this sense, though the term is not usually directly applied to governments — and they could also be sects within a larger church in the above sense. The idea is that such groups need to be recognised as such because they can be dangerous to members and/or outsiders. It's controversial whether this usage is acceptable, and regardless it may always be problematic to label some particular group this way, because it denies legitimacy to the group and its beliefs. Still, this definition can be one of the most specific and informative ones, and certainly some groups have shown themselves to be dangerous. 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. 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.
So what does Hollywood do with all this? They of course take the simplest 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.