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Secrets of Story Episode 25: What Can Storytellers Learn From Cult Leaders?

April 22, 2021

It’s another episode of the Secrets of Story podcast I do with Matt Bird! He’s my friend who has set himself as a storytelling guru, and is the author of a book and blog with the same name as the podcast. Matt usually gives storytelling advice, and I give pushback. We don’t always agree!

Every once in a while we switch roles, and I bring in my own crackpot storytelling theories. My latest hot take: novelists and screenwriters can learn a lot from cult leaders and the techniques of brainwashing!

Wait, don’t go! It’s not as weird as it sounds. After all, both cult leaders and storytellers are trying to do something similar: recruit an audience, suck them into their little world, and keep the audience there. Cults seem to be pretty successful, especially nowadays, so why not harness their dark arts of brainwashing to write better stories! As a bonus, over the course of the episode Matt and I recover repressed memories about our own experiences with cults.

I’m really proud of this episode! I think that in the back-and-forth of our discussion, Matt and I hit upon some truths about storytelling that I haven’t heard expressed before. That said, I actually got the idea for this episode from watching this video essay about one of my favorite recent movies, Midsommar. The video essay is called “How Midsommar Brainwashes You” by a YouTuber called “Acolytes of Horror,” and I recommend it if you’ve seen Midsommar and love it as much as I do:

In this episode I put forth a system of the 14 Steps Of Brainwashing, which is adapted from various sources including Robert Jay Lifton, who studied brainwashing in the 1950s, but with a few additions of my own. My contention is that not only does the hero of many stories go through these steps—it’s kind of like an alternate version of the Hero’s Journey—but these are also the very steps that the storyteller uses to lure, trap, and keep an audience. I’m only listing the steps here for reference; if you want to hear my explanation of how the steps relate to storytelling, listen to the episode. It’s a goodie!

Recruit the target
1. Find a vulnerable target
2. Invite the target to an innocuous event

Break down the target’s identity/self
3. Cut the target off from outside influences
4. “Lovebomb” the target; dangle the Prize in front of the target
5. Extract an agreement from the target that they want the prize

Exhaust the target with stress
6. Shut down dissent by threatening to withhold the prize, iterating between carrot and stick
7. Arouse guilt in target and lead them to self-betrayal
8. Bring the target to a breaking point
9. Offer leniency and clear steps to make things right: compulsion of confession, channeling of guilt, action to be done

Worship together / full communion
10. Release of guilt through ritual or signficicant act
11. Progress and harmony
12. Final confession and rebirth into new community and identity

Matt also posts about this episode in on his blog.

And now, since we’re talking about cults anyway, this gives me an opportunity to post one of my favorite skits from the old Ben Stiller show, a parody of Lassie, but instead of the family having a dog, they have a Charles Manson, played by the legend Bob Odenkirk: