Cults In Our Midst

By Margaret Singer PhD:

Indirect trance induction also grows out of storytelling and other verbal experiences. Cult leaders often speak repetitively, rhythmically, in hard-to-follow ways, and combine with these features the telling of tales and parables that are highly visualizable. They use words to create mental imagery, commonly called guided imagery.
In these guided-imagery exercises, the listener is urged to picture the story being told. The speaker may say, “Stop reflecting. Just go with the picture.” Those who do stop reflecting on their nearby circumstances and go with the picture suddenly feel absorbed, relaxed, and very focused. And guided-imagery stories lead many people to experience altered states of consciousness.
A considerable number of different guided-imagery techniques are used by cult leaders and trainers to remove followers from their normal frames of reference. One technique is to tell long detailed stories that hold listeners’ attention and get them absorbed, while lowering their awareness of the reality around them. As a result, they enter a trancelike state in which they are more likely to heed the suggestions and absorb the content of what is being said than if they were listening in an evaluative, rational way. The leaders who use guided imagery and other verbal techniques navigate through these exercises according to how much the listeners seem to be attaching to the words, how submerged and quiet they become.
For many persons, entering a trance state is pleasurable. It provides a respite from thought about the woes of everyday life. Thus, for example, about sixty years ago, people used to get together to read trance poetry. This poetry was an aspect of Romanticism, a nineteenth-century literary, philosophical, and artistic movement that was a reaction to an earlier neoclassical movement focused on intellectualism. Among the influences on Romantic poetry were mesmerism, the opium-induced hallucinations of British writer Thomas De Quincey, and Germanic authors’ stress on imagination. When read aloud under suitable circumstances, a number of poems from this period have a decided trance-inducing effect. Poems such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Gray’s “Elegy,” Tennyson’s “Bugle Song,” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are of this type. Early in this century, groups would gather to have a good reader read such poetry aloud in order to induce a condition of rapt attention and intense emotional responsivity in a sizable portion of the audience. Some reported the experience was intense enough to be called “sublime ecstasy.” These group readings, as well as solitary silent readings of certain kinds of poems, produced what are best called trance-augmented aesthetic experiences.
Students of this phenomenon have listed six qualities of trance-inducing poetry: (1) freedom from abruptness, (2) marked regularity of soothing rhythm, (3) refrain and frequent repetition, (4) ornamented harmonious rhythm to fix attention, (5) vagueness of imagery, and (6) fatiguing obscurities. It is these very qualities that can be identified in analyzing the speech of many cult leaders, particularly when they are addressing groups of members and sympathizers.
Some leaders combine storytelling imagery with shouting, rhythmic clapping, and dancing to induce altered states. These processes, the reader will recognize, combine both overbreathing and trance induction in one event. So not all guided imagery is quiet, and surely not all cult leaders know the details of how trance induction through absorption works or the intricacies of hyperventilation. But from what has been described to me and others, I believe that the successful cult leaders monitor, observe, and learn from what they try and, as needed, revise and reformulate the folk art of persuasion.
One leader of a Bible cult repeated long, colorful tales of his childhood as the content for his guided imagery. The history he told was later found by ex-members to be mostly fictional. The main thrust of his tales was to point out how pure and clean and innocent he was as a child. He explained that these traits led him to his special mission as a leader. Ex-members recalled that they spaced out during his tales and left the meetings feeling subdued and obedient. Interestingly, they said his guided imagery often was about achieving a mind such as he had had as a child: “Get your mind as it once was, the mind of a child, free and innocent, not a thought in your mind. Let me think for you.”
Some of the psychotherapy cults and thought-reform groups use guided imagery to regress members back to childhood. The purpose is to stir up recall of past pain and loneliness and, at the same time, induce members to blame their parents for allowing them to be alone and neglected when they were children. The following brief sample of a regression technique comes from a man who had been in a group that used a great deal of visualization. He was told:
Close your eyes and go back in time to your childhood. See yourself at about age six. It is like a dream. you see yourself in a woods. You are you young and all alone. You walk between the trees to a clearing in the center. You see an old wall with a wooden gate that opens easily. You step inside, look around. you see some toys from when you were very young. The stuffed animal you loved, but it’s cast aside, all alone and neglected. You look over across the way and see some clothes torn. You see the blanket you used to take to bed with you. You see your old bed across the way. You begin to feel as lonely now as you did as a little kid in bed, all alone. Who did you long for? Did they come? Why are you crying all alone in your bed? Think about all those lonely times and all those broken promises. Dad forgetting to come home to play, Mom not coming to put you to bed. All those broken promises. They are still deep inside, pulling at you, you are crying out alone and no one comes.
This guided imagery has the psychological goal of stirring up emotions, causing you, the group member, to return to childhood memories and recapture sadness. It also has the goal of implying that there are even more painful memories yet to be found, intimating that your parents caused all the miseries in your life. This allows the leader then to show you the way to happiness through learning his message and way of life: to come to find your new family and to feel loved here, blame those awful parents and don’t go near them.
Guided imagery can have any content, and the group process of hearing others cry and sob as they recall past traumas has a powerful impact, for it induces a contagion of feeling and participation that can be heady for most persons.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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