Washington - Charles Manson, who died on Sunday aged 83, was a cult leader par excellence. Back in his heyday, he recruited a devoted set of followers to his “family”, some of whom went on to murder people for him and whose tragic story has inspired numerous books, films and TV programmes. But what did people see in Manson and how did he manage to manipulate and control people so successfully and with such terrible consequences?
It is said “love is in the eye of the beholder” and there’s no better example than the love and devotion intelligent and well-educated people have for cult leaders who portray themselves as the next messiah, but who look to the rest of the world like deceitful, abusive sociopaths.
Of course, people do not see an advert for an “abusive and murderous cult” or “how to end your life in trafficked drudgery”, but instead are told about an inspired and charismatic leader whose vision and purpose can transform their lives for the better - and the whole of humanity with it. So people go along to meet this extraordinary person full of hope and optimism - after all, their friend or the persuasive man or woman who told them you all those great things about the guy can’t be totally wrong, surely?
This is what psychologists call optimism bias, which indicates that we are wired to “look on the bright side” and in the case of people recruited into cults this is also because of what they have been promised and what they then hope and expect to find.
So Manson may have looked sinister to you or me - but we were not expecting a visionary messiah with a promised, powerful message and followers who look just like us. For those who were and choose to believe in this wonderful, life-affirming opportunity, the search for salvation in bondage to the cult leader had begun.
The key to Manson’s control was to ensure followers not only saw him as an all-powerful, messiah-like figure, but saw themselves as members of a superior elite that has the answer to the world’s problems - even if that means killing the rest of the world along the way. Manson persuaded his followers to commit murders to trigger “Helter Skelter”, a “race war” which would elevate him to world leadership. He espoused a rambling, incoherent apocalyptic world view that captivated his followers.