Ex-cult member breaks down 11 cults in movies and TV

  • Ian Haworth is head of the Cult Information Centre in the UK. Ian escaped from a Toronto cult in 1978.
  • The Cult Information Centre is a charity providing advice for victims of cults, their families and the media.
  • He assesses scenes in movies and TV shows inspired by true stories, such as "Waco" based on the Branch Davidians, the Manson Family in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood," and "The Sacrament," about the events of the Jonestown Massacre.
  • Ian also myth busted some misconceptions about life inside a cult, looking at the movies "Ticket To Heaven," "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "The Master."
  • He discusses the influence of pagan and Christian practices in modern cults, such as in "The Wicker Man" and "Midsommar."
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Haworth: My name is Ian Haworth. I'm an ex-cult member. I escaped from a cult in 1978, and today I'm going to be looking at some clips from films all about cults.

PSI Mind Development Institute Ltd. I actually really wanted to quit smoking because I'm an asthmatic, my doctor had said I should quit, and I found there was a course in Toronto, so I went to the course in September of 1978, and it was Thursday night, Friday night, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, in a little motel, and we went home each evening after each session. And by the end of the course, I'd given them all the money I had, dedicated my life to it, and resigned from my job. I left the group in October of '78. So, after just two and a half weeks of involvement, I went through 11 months of withdrawal. The symptoms of withdrawal are today equated quite often with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Sacrament (2013)

It's depicting Jim Jones before he orders people to die in Jonestown, Guyana, in November of 1978. And I saw these bodies on the front page of Time magazine and elsewhere, and I thought, you know, I could have been one of those people. I think, for someone viewing it without knowing what's gone on prior, it will be difficult for them to understand. "Why would you listen to someone saying these things? They're idiotic!" Yeah, because you're using logic. But the people listening to that, in Jonestown, Guyana, were no longer able to use logic.


They had been programmed to understand that he had a special pipeline to God, if he wasn't already God himself. And so when he said drink the liquid that was laced with poison, they did it. Interestingly enough, some people did try and run away, and were shot to death. And if you've got a large population of people, such as they had about 1,000 people, you give an instruction that they are to die, in any population of cult members, some people are gonna be just a little bit closer to reality than others. We had such a good example of this, where some people thought, "Oh, hang on a minute, what's going on?"

And they headed for the jungle, and a lot of them were shot dead. But some made it into the jungle and eventually back to Georgetown, only a handful. What I don't like in this little clip is that you see very few people, because there were approximately 1,000 people there when all of this happened. He was wearing dark glasses because, the critics would say, his eyes were bloodshot, and he was covering that up. But what he told everyone else was the light of God in his eyes would knock people over unless he wore dark glasses.

Rating: 8/10

Midsommar (2019)

This is a good clip, in my opinion. It's a form of love bombing, not to recruit someone but to try and keep someone in the group at a point where their critical faculties have come back to the fore. So you bomb that person with love. You surround them with a lot of hugs and kisses. It's as phony as a three-dollar bill. It's conditional love, conditional on towing the party line. Everybody in a cult watches everyone else. And if anyone is weakening, or slipping, or whatever the terminology might be, then they'll pounce on that person psychologically and work on them.

A lot of cults used to be visually identifiable because of their clothing, but after the 1970s, most groups were much more difficult to visually identify. Very useful clip.

Rating: 8/10

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene (2011)

This is such a useful clip, as far as I'm concerned. When someone becomes a victim of mind control, there's pressure put on the human mind and a change occurs. You go through a change of personality. If this is the real you, it's pushed out of action, and a new you is created. This is such a concern for most cults that they'll have a person shadowing you so that if you were to make a phone call home, if the group knows about that ahead of time, they'll make sure that there's somebody with you, making sure that you say certain things that might even be scripted. So that's great.

Rating: 9/10

Holy Smoke (1999)

Overall, I was very, very concerned about and critical of the film because it depicted a deprograming that was so far from reality, it was just nonsense, but that clip is a good one. The issue of deprograming has always been very controversial, and what we're talking about when we talk about deprograming is a family hiring the services of somebody who would be involved in, shall we say, a form of counseling, where the person needs to be detained. And that's it. You've got to really detain the person. And so it's always very controversial, because families would grab the loved one, and the loved one would be taken away to what they would normally describe as a safe house, and the deprogrammer would start to talk to this person, and the person wouldn't be allowed to leave, and the average deprograming might take two, three, four days, something like that.

In those cases where deprogramings did occur, and they only accounted for a very small minority of cases, that was, indeed, exactly the sort of thing that would happen.

Rating: 9/10

Split Image (1982)

I think this is a great clip. I know when I was in a cult myself and I had to go out and meet people, I was given two instructions. One was, go for people you're attracted to. And two, stay away from space cadets. The lady that was talking to me to try and get me to go that meeting, she was very, very complimentary. You know, you can tend to read a little bit more into that than is actually there. They'll say anything to get you to go to that first meeting. Very, very good, that particular clip. There's a look that some people have called the thousand-mile stare, originally. We don't use it very often in the field now, but back in the 1970s, that's what it was called. It was usually associated with someone that had been put into a deep trance state and was sort of looking straight through anybody in front of them. Because they had been put into that state of mind by a cult recruiter standing about this far and locking eyes on them.

Rating: 9/10

The Master (2012)

If it's trying to show that they can dig out all kinds of things from your past that can be used against you, then that's good as well. Normally when one thinks of a cult environment, one thinks of a group of people, and the whole group is usually working on the individual. But in the group that that's portraying, there are certainly one-on-one sessions that aren't terribly dissimilar to what was shown there.

This is, presumably, trying to show the early days of what led to a situation where people are holding a couple of tin cans that are attached to wires and run to a meter that is supposed to measure one's stress level. We talk about techniques of psychological coercion being used against the individual, and the average, normal, healthy person is broken down and completely controlled in a matter of three or four days. That's all it takes.

Rating: 5/10

The Wicker Man (2006)

If we look at this clip in terms of is it possible for a cult to harm someone who comes in to investigate, no question about it. Cults will do terrible things to their own members as well, in terms of beatings. Would it be done in front of the others? Possibly. Needn't be, it could be done quietly elsewhere, so the rest of the members aren't aware. I remember, I gave evidence in a court case once in Canada and afterwards the judge said: "Should I be concerned about this particular cult that's on trial here? Is it possible that the cult leader will order something to happen to me?" And I said, "Well, Your Honor, if you say, 'Is it possible?' the answer is yes."

If the cult leaders control the minds of the members and then fill their heads with something of a pagan-related nature, then that would make sense. The key issue, rather than it being pagan or something else, is the mind control first. That's what comes first in every situation. And then you can get the members to do anything for you.

Rating: 6/10

Waco (2018)

In a typical cult, the leader will be charismatic, and so that's a good depiction of a charismatic leader there. What I also like is that he's singling out individual people in the group and talking about their academic or professional backgrounds, and that is so typical as well. You find in cults, they've recruited students, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, you name it. Cults recruit people, and a lot of them are professional people.

What we saw in that clip was David Koresh, he was being depicted by the actor there, talking to the members of the group, and they were based in Waco, Texas, and they'd managed to amass quite a lot of weaponry over the years, and they weren't keen on visitors. At one point in time, in the 1990s, the authorities laid siege, basically, to the place. Shots were fired from both sides. A lot of officers, with the authorities, were shot and killed; others were injured. A part of the building was seen to be on fire. And I remember doing a commentary at the time, as it was happening, for one of the television stations. And only one guy jumped out of a window.

And the rest stayed inside and... and died. And that is so typical of what you would do in a cult, because if the leader says, "Stay in and we'll die and then go to heaven," or whatever he's saying, then that's what you do. Yeah, as far as the setting goes, that seemed to be accurate. They had a building very much like what we saw in the clip there. He doesn't look terribly different from the man in real life, David Koresh, so, yeah, useful clip.

Rating: 7/10

Ticket to Heaven (1981)

I love this clip. One group calls it heavenly deception. Another group calls it transcendental trickery. And the whole film is based on a true story. So, what do they sell at the doors? It can be anything. Cacti, flowers, it can be little painted something or others. One group is known for selling paintings, just absolutely anything, and that can change from week to week as the leader would want it.

Rating: 10/10

The Wicker Man (1973)

Yeah. Some cults do have schools. The standard of education they get is another matter altogether. Normally in a cult, children are a problem. Children are often treated very, very harshly to keep them quiet. And if you keep them away from their parents, then the parents aren't gonna be distracted at all if you're programming them or doing whatever you're doing with the parents.

It helps to break down the bonds as well, because the last thing a cult leader wants is for a cult member having a loving relationship with someone else and for that loving relationship to start to interfere with the control that he or she, the cult leader, has.

Rating: 7/10

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Charles Manson ran a group called the family, the Manson family. When they see a tragedy in terms of people being murdered, as was the case with the Manson family, and they can relate to that as a problem, and rightly, I think some people think, "Oh, well, that's just an extreme example of what we're talking about in the world of cults." For me, it's not. Going around murdering people usually gets the police involved, and quite rightly. So, most cult leaders don't get you to do that sort of thing. They get you to go and lie to people about fundraising activities, and so you bring in a lot of money, and you bring in a lot of people.

Rating: 7/10

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