Jim Jones in Guyana, Aum in Japan, and David Koresh at Waco represent an aspect of human social response seldom understood by those who watch with horror as followers participate in ritual murder and suicide. What is going on here? To understand one must step back and watch the suicide cult at its beginning.
A key ingredient is the charismatic leader. The mystery of this figurehead disappears when one equates his role as the cult leader to the father figure in the ordinary household. What are the similarities, and where are there differences? Both are male, both take sexual advantage of those dependent on them, both are referred to as the ultimate decision makers, both are given legal or traditional authority which bolsters their control over those dependent on them, and both tend to be possessive of what they consider their territory. Many will be horrified that we compare cult leaders, whom they consider evil and perhaps even possessed of Satan, to the male head of household, but the factors that lead followers to ritual murder and suicide are found in the ordinary household.
Where we have described the leader, let us now describe the followers and equate them to the members of the average household. They are economically dependent, if only because they have given their worldly goods and services to the leader, in the same manner most wives hand over their earnings to their husband's control. They understand that to defy the orders of the leader will only bring punishment, such as physical isolation or food deprivation or even some form of torture as retribution, in the same manner that errant children may be sent to their rooms, spanked, denied dessert, and disobedient wives threatened with abandonment or the back of the hand. Since the followers are receiving support and in most cases love and attention from the cult leader or, in our comparison, the father figure, they convince themselves that the privations are reasonable and justified. This posture eliminates the discomfit of conflict. If the head of the household has an unreasonable rule regarding his supply of refrigerated beer, and an otherwise warmly treated wife breaches this rule by treating her hen party to the husband's supply, then she is likely to conclude that she had it coming to her when he later bloodies her nose. In this way life can go on.
Having set this stage, what happens to cause followers to commit ritual murder and suicide? Basically the cult leader, having established himself as the father figure or head of household in the eyes of his followers, begins to change the rules. This happens gradually, and in a manner not unlike what happens in households where the children begin to be sexually abused as an extension of the normal relationship between husband and wife. In this case the wife is told abuse of the children is her fault, as she is inadequate in some way. The cult leader also uses guilt, so that punishment of certain infractions becomes ritualized. Once so established the cult leader or abusive father increases the severity of punishments, until death of a follower or family member occurs. How often does it occur that children are found chained to the basement wall, starved to the point of death, while the mother is going against every maternal instinct to conduct the ritual punishment? We are told that the child had it coming to them, deserved it, for some slight misbehavior that would escape notice in the ordinary household.
Once the cult, as with a family group that has slipped to this level of dependent obedience, has witnessed and participated in ritual punishment that threatens life, then the line has been crossed. Identifying with each other, they see themselves dying also, so suicide has become mentally acceptable. Death has lost its horror.
What is going on inside the cult leader's mind as this occurs? This is best understood if one contemplates the family that every neighborhood knows. The husband insists his wife stay home, and becomes furious when she engages in social activities outside the home. His boys either become little mirrors of their father or leave home in angry rebellion. His daughters cannot date, and in all likelihood have been sexually abused in some manner. He chums around with a group of friends who think nothing is amiss in this setting, and give the frightened family members no hope of rescue. If the authorities are called at any point, the disturbance is called a domestic issue. What happens when this father feels a threat he cannot control? He would rather destroy what he possesses than lose it.