Cult of Personality: Two crime writers discuss the allure of cults in their own dark fiction
I’ve always been intrigued by cults. The idea that someone would be willing to give up everything: their wealth, family connections, personality or livelihood, to be a part of something presumably greater, something more all-consuming than religion, fascinated me. I knew, at some point, I’d want to write about it. I didn’t get the chance until I started my fourth crime novel, Blackout, which hits in May from Polis Books—the latest in a Miami crime series featuring recovering alcoholic private investigator Pete Fernandez.
The idea of a lost, forgotten Miami cult resurfacing and tying into a decades-frozen cold case stuck with me, and I knew I had the kernel of a good novel. But before I could dive into the writing, I needed to do my fair share of research. That journey got me thinking about great crime/thriller novels that featured cults prominently. One of the first ones that came to mind was The Program, by acclaimed and best-selling thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz. Gregg—whose new novel, Hellbent, just hit shelves, the latest in his internationally bestselling Orphan X series—knows a thing or two about research, often taking an immersive and comprehensive approach to whatever topic he’s writing about. The build-up to writing The Program was no exception.
The novel follows Hurwitz hero Tim Rackley as he races to pull the daughter of a renowned Hollywood producer from the clutches of an insidious cult known simply as “The Program.” In the process, Rackley faces off against a barrage of psychological manipulations and more.
While The Program and Blackout are very different, they both come from a similar, immersive and well-researched place. Like Gregg, I tend to dive into the subjects I think I’m going to write about before putting pen to paper on the actual book, so I can come at it informed and able to tweak and alter what I’ve learned to serve the story.
Gregg and I got the chance to kick back and discuss cults and what drew us to the subject in our books, the deep psychology behind these groups and how powerful and disturbing they can be in real life and fiction.
GREGG HURWITZ: So your new book deals with cults? Tell me about it.
ALEX SEGURA: Yes! I don’t know if you were familiar with the Yahweh ben Yahweh cult in Miami? It started in 1979, lead by this guy, Hulon Mitchell, who referred to himself as Yahweh ben Yahweh. It gained a lot of traction because of the work the group did in the community—often in poorer areas of Miami. But their leader went down for basically having murder as an initiation rite – he conspired to kill people that didn’t conform to the “church.” I remember the story vividly from my childhood, and just being completely drawn to the idea that people would commit these crimes because this charismatic man told them to – and I wondered then what point you’d have to reach to be that flexible, mentally. So, then I wrote Blackout, which deals with a cult like that group, but it’s also faded away and become – well, forgotten. But it’s still powerful and holds some sway over key people, so Pete has to investigate this cult because it ties into a case that he failed to solve before, when he was drinking really heavily. Now that he’s in recovery and clear-headed, he can revisit this case, and he’s disturbed by what he finds. I’d of course read The Program years ago, and that was a huge influence, so it made me wonder what made you want to write about cults with The Program?
GH: Well, the short version is, I had a friend who lost a sister into a mind control cult. I talked to him at length. It was utterly fascinating. As you know, one of the great things in crime fiction is we get to punish people who piss us off. And what's captivating about mind control, it's a whole variety of things. I'm always interested in psychology and how it can influence human decisions, especially when you can short-circuit the cerebral cortex and just talk directly to the lizard brain.
And with mind control, there's nothing illegal about it. I mean, it's using incredible coercive powers to make people seemingly make their own mind up. And so I wanted to write and dig in, so I researched a lot of the psychology. I've actually lectured about mind control cults at UCLA, different campuses. And then when I was done doing that, I went undercover into cults for research and submitted to cult testing and did a bunch of that.
AS: Oh, wow, so you went actually undercover. That's insane.
GH: Yeah. And so, what was really interesting to me is that we have this misnomer that cults prey on weak or useless people, but it's not the case. They actually want people who are healthy and appealing, with resources. And what they do is they catch people who are ordinary, capable humans during times of transition. That's why you see recruiting take place on college campuses and at airports, at bus stations, when people are new and are sort of looking for something.
AS: Yeah, and they're open to, I guess, the change.
GH: Right - and they want people who are appealing to then recruit other people. And then it started to really interest me about the ways that you make it work. So, you go to a meeting and the cult leader is pacing onstage in a manner that is hypnotic. There's a lot of repetition, often they'll spike the food or you're hitting high-sugar foods, are in your system so that they're playing with it. They'll regulate the temperature in the room. This usually happens at these big, major—
AS: Revival events?
GH: Exactly. And then, there's a lot of games and I witnessed these firsthand. And part of the challenge for me when I was undercover was to push so that I could keep seeing the next layer and the next layer, but not to push so far because they rely on pluralistic ignorance, meaning everyone's miserable, but they can't talk to each other. And so if I push too hard and they identify me as it goes, they would have removed me from the event. But I was pushing to see who the next person was, pushing through some of the nonsense language and stuff, to keep getting to the next person and the next person.
AS: Did you ever feel it tugging on you personally, like ...
GH: No. I'd done a ton of research and there was a line, there was a point I wouldn’t cross. After a while, if you get far enough, someone says, "Oh, my God, you're so amazing," and, "We want you to come to a weekend event." And that's where you're in trouble, and that, I didn't do. It takes three days to get somebody under the full influence of your control, and that's where they put you in the back of a van, there's no windows, you're filling out forms and questionnaires and answering questions. You're not paying attention to where you are, you wind up in the hills out of cellphone range and, well, you get the idea.
AS: That's terrifying.
GH: Yeah, then they start the privacy deprivation. Anywhere you go, somebody goes with you, even to the bathroom. They put you in a cabin with a broken sprinkler that keeps you up all night. The events start at 5:00 in the morning. They start inadvertently moving in with sleep deprivation, and there are these subtle... See, we're such social animals that we don't realize that a lot of the things that they're using to influence us are actually positive traits, like the rule of reciprocal concessions. Which is a very healthy instinct. Imagine with your wife, if you're saying, "I'm not gonna do anything 'cause I don't trust you'll do something back," it's the basis of sound financial exchange. You send your ships overseas to land somewhere with a line of credit assuming someone will pay you back. That's the technique of people leaving a flower for you at the airport and then coming back and asking for money. Donations go up, right?
There are all these tools that they start to use where they're giving you stuff and giving you a lot of eye contact, and then there's the very, very subtle conditioning. We're very social animals. And so I was in a meeting where you're in a big horseshoe shape, the seats, there's 500 people. And they say, "Everyone ready for change stand up?" And the social pressure exerted when there's 499 people standing looking at you is fairly intense. You know what I mean? We've all been there at the Broadway musical that's kinda shitty and everyone stands up and you're in the fifth row center and you, don't wanna be the asshole sitting down so you rise for an inadvertently semi-socially [chuckle] coerced standing ovation.
AS: Yeah, just so you don't seem like an outcast.
GH: Exactly. Or an asshole.
AS: Right. [laughs]
GH: So, it relies on that, and then what they do is these cult members, if they're working on you, Alex, they split into two Alexes. There's you with your own ideas, and notions, and beliefs, and hesitations, and skepticism. And then there's cult Alex, which is all the things they want you to be for the cult. And every time that you say something like, "Yeah, I don't know, this is a little weird." No eye contact. People look away. You get all these nonverbal cues that are conditioning, in a Skinnerian sense, that are moving you off the mark. But if you say like, "Gosh, I'm having fun," they lean in with the eye contact and the love bombing. And this is intense.
AS: It's the two extremes.
GH: Yeah. People call me a lot having read The Program, someone will say, "Can a friend who lost her daughter into a cult call you?" And the first thing I say is, "Do not send any articles saying that the group that they're a member of is a cult." They've already inoculated that. They've already gotten a speech that says, "Your family and friends are so envious of you and your progress that they're gonna be crazy. They're gonna even be as crazy to say that we're a cult." And so you can't hit it head-on. We're seeing this in politics now, inoculation to outside information, inoculation from the media. It's sort of the tyrant's playbook.
AS: Research is such a big thing for you—how does that play into the new book?
GH: Well, the new series, the Orphan X series, with Hellbent, one of the things I did came about because I have a friend who's a world-class armorer and sniper in Vegas who supplies stuff for a lot of the black ops government groups, who got me on every gun that Evan shoots, from rocket-propelled grenades to Benelli combat shotguns. I trained in mixed martial arts fighting for a while, just getting my ass kicked, [chuckle] introducing my face repeatedly to the training mat.
It's super intense, but the aim of all of this, which you know, is to be able to experience something firsthand so that when we're writing about it, we're not just writing a kind of conglomeration of TV and books that we've already read. It's stuff that's firsthand. And so literally, for me, if I'm in a chokehold being choked out, there is a way that I can write about that experience that I hope will have a ring of verisimilitude beyond stuff that I've observed from cop TV shows, like, "I saw stars." That's what we are trying to avoid, is the clichéd.
So tell me about your book—it's about a group that's gathering and collecting people to use to their own aims?
AS: Sort of. We kind of find the cult after its heyday, basically. It’s a shell of its former self. The book, Blackout, hits in May from Polis Books. The whole journey’s been interesting because it's the fourth in the series, so by the time you see it in the book, the cult's faded out. So my detective, Pete Fernandez, is almost dealing with this echo of a cult and its residual effects. The members are still doing bad things and as you read the book, you realize there's this ledger of information that has been building over time, even after the cult’s fall from grace. And the leaders of the cult, while indoctrinating members, they’ve had them basically download everything terrible they've done.
So there's this master document, and Pete discovers its existence as he's investigating this fallen cult that's somehow tied into this cold case. Now, this is a cold case that ties into Pete’s personal history in a really meaningful way, so there’s a payoff for longtime readers who’ve followed the series—but it’s also the kind of novel you can dive into blind and still get a sense of what the big pieces are. But in terms of the cult, the group itself just doesn't exist. It's no longer a viable organization, but there's still this trove of information that ties into a lot of key people in Miami, and so that's the hot button. It's almost... I mean, it's pretty self-explanatory. If we all downloaded these terrible secret things that we did and somebody has it and they're making money off it, they're using it as a blackmail tool and as a way to manipulate members and former members.
GH: It's like this explosive treasure trove. That's a great premise.
AS: Yeah, and it's obviously a metaphor for blacking out while you're drinking because Pete, when the book starts, is in recovery with a few years under his belt, but we flash back to his bottom, when he was on the precipice of getting sober, so returning to this case that reminds him of those dark times really weighs on him, and he’s dealing with that. And a lot of people, I think, mistakenly liken 12-step programs to cults, or clump them together, so there's a lot of that, defining a cult and defining the differences. I thought it made for an interesting contrast.
GH: Right, and the 12-step programs are actually amazingly simplified, franchise-able, Cog B, behavioral steps to save people's lives. It's an amazing template.
AS: And it's also how you work it; it's not an all-encompassing thing where you have to do everything and you're cut off from society. It's a la carte self-improvement, which is interesting. And I thought the cult idea and the whole recovering alcoholic concept created an interesting duality, especially with Miami as the backdrop. There’s also a cold case that ties into Pete’s past, as I mentioned, and that pushes Pete toward this cult, and that case was inspired by real crimes in Miami from when I was a kid or teenager—where kids like Adam Walsh or Shannon Melendi went missing and it really drove the community into a tailspin. I wondered what it’d be like if one of those cases just…never got solved, and what if it tied into Pete’s own past directly? Where this person Pete knew as a kid was still gone, and he somehow decided to investigate it himself? So all those elements blend together, hopefully successfully, with the over-arching theme being that, yes, even as we get older we can alter our lives – for better or worse – but we also need to still be present for those changes, and pay the consequences for what we’ve done before. It was all really interesting to research. It’s eye-opening how people are just pulled away and, like you said, they're just reprogrammed. And they really believe that this is their calling, that they're in the right.
GH: Yeah, it's stunning. There are 5,000 cults operating in America. 20 million people recruited into cults over the past two decades. I mean, it's a huge problem.
AS: Yeah, and I think people just default to the Manson idea, like, "Oh, it's just bad. It's people living in a farm somewhere just killing... " And it's not that linear and it's not that literal. That's a very extreme and not really common example, I think.
GH: Did you find that doing a ton of research helped your writing?
AS: To some degree, yes. I think the challenge for me was retrofitting the research to become an interesting story. When the reality is so compelling on its own, how do you take these little elements and make something fictional that’s even more engaging? I found the idea that these groups, who, in retrospect, did a lot of terrible things, also did some sliver of good—usually early on, while trying to build their base—was extremely interesting and compelling. In Blackout, I took that a little bit and tied it into the '80s where you have the Mariel boatlift in Miami and you have a lot of Cuban immigrants coming in and not knowing what to do, and then you have this cult—or volunteer service, kind of a social service, and that's where they pull people in at first. Not just immigrants, but the poor and ignored or left behind. And that was really interesting to me because there is some shred of good that obviously gets eaten up by the evil of it, but people forget that.
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