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Is Fandom a Cult?

Bestselling author Courtney Summers understands both.

Key points

  • There are both similarities and differences between fans who are passionate about what they love and members of a cult who blindly follow a leader.
  • Both cults and fandom can be a group within which to feel a sense of belongingness, rework identity and find comfort.
  • However, while cults tend to isolate members to control them, fans may find more healthy forms of comfort and belongingness in their fandoms.

One of the most powerful drivers of human experience is our need to belong. That can be a healthy impulse that motivates us to join sports teams, chess clubs or fandoms – or a drive that leaves us vulnerable to being drawn into cults, which can be destructive in isolating members from their families and support systems in order to exert control. Fans have sometimes been criticized for how passionate they are about the films, television, books or music that they love, accused of acting as though they are in a cult and mindlessly adoring whatever it is they fan. Are there similar motivations for being drawn into a cult or a fandom?

New York Times best-selling author Courtney Summers might be the best person to ask. Summers just released a new book, The Project, which follows two sisters who are drawn into an organization which turns out to be a dangerous cult. She is also a passionate fan of the television show Supernatural and a member of that fandom. I spoke to Summers just after the release of The Project to ask: What psychological needs might these groups be serving for the people who join them, and is there a significant difference?

Courtesy of Courtney Summers/Photo credit Megan Gunter
Courtney Summers
Source: Courtesy of Courtney Summers/Photo credit Megan Gunter

There are certainly similarities. The leader of the Unity Project in the book is a man named Lev, who is essentially a celebrity. Like the celebrities that fans look up to, Lev is charismatic, but there may also be something else about him that makes people worship him.

Summers says it’s also his ability to see people—to make people feel seen by him. That also happens in fandom, especially when fans are able to meet a celebrity in person for a photo op or autograph. Many times, fans will say that they felt like the celebrity looked at them and really saw them, even in a brief interaction. In both the case of Lev or a real life celebrity, they are of course not seeing the real person, since they don’t know anything about the individual, known as a “parasocial relationship”. Nevertheless, the sense of feeling seen is something all humans crave, going back to our earliest days of being mirrored by our caregivers as infants. According to attachment theory, that need to be seen is something that forms our view of self and others, and we never entirely outgrow it. Cults utilize this need to pull members in through “love bombing,” initially showering the individual with a great deal of attention and making them feel special.

The other attribute that makes Lev compelling, according to Summers, is his ability to sell himself and believe in himself. “There’s something aspirational about these people, because they have such an acute sense of who they are,” she said. “They have command over their space and the people in it, and when they’re generous with who they are, it’s even more compelling, isn’t it?”

You might call it celebrity charisma.

In the book, the fictional cult also offered an intriguing psychological benefit to its followers: overt forgiveness for whatever perceived wrongs they had done. All you have to do, the Unity Project told them, is join this group and take part in our “good deeds” and we will absolve you of all your wrongdoings. That sense of validation is also something humans look for from their communities.

Courtesy of Courtney Summers
Source: Courtesy of Courtney Summers

Summers sees some parallels there with fandom, saying that we just want someone to see us, accept us, forgive us, and love us as we are, not in spite of who we are. “Fandom,” she said, “Is often derided by people who don’t understand what a powerful sense of community it holds. It’s a place where you can be the best version of yourself. The difference between fandom and the Project is in fandom, someone wants to give you the tools to make that achievable, and in a cult someone like Lev wants to exploit that experience for their own gain.”

Courtney contrasts Lev with the Supernatural actors who she is a fan of, noting the reciprocity that exists between those actors and their fans. Many of the actors, including lead actors Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins, wrote chapters in the book Family Don’t End With Blood (edited by me), opening up about their personal challenges and how the show and the fans have changed their lives. Instead of the stereotypical parasocial relationship, that reciprocity was validating to fans who had experienced their own challenges. Lev, in contrast, kept himself on a pedestal, not sharing his own trauma history with his followers and not seeing them as individuals.

“They are respectful of what people have put into the fandom and they feel safe enough to be vulnerable back,” Courtney said about the actors. “They don’t owe anyone that information, but I think that’s the level of humanization that Supernatural gives its fans. It’s very easy to cut that off and protect yourself.”

Lynn Zubernis
Source: Lynn Zubernis

So the people “at the top” are different, but are the people who join cults and fandoms different? Summers says not really, it’s all about context.

“This is my thesis,” she shared, “That everyone would join a cult. There’s a presumption that anyone is better than finding themselves in this kind of situation, and the book is an exploration of and pushing back against that misconception. It’s where you are in your life and who comes along and what they’re offering and when. I’ve done interviews where the interviewer says, I don’t think I’d join a cult, and I’m like well, do you have a fandom? And they’ll say yes.”

We are all especially drawn to being part of a group at times of stress and times of transition, when our identities are altered. Adolescence, going off to college, becoming a parent, having children leave home, are all normal developmental transitions, but at those times it feels good to belong to a group that can help you figure out who you are after a big change. Freud argued that organized religion was a cognitive rationalization to provide comfort and help people overcome insecurities, and cults can work in the same way. Fandom can provide a similar comfort, without the destructive mind control.

Summers became a fan of Supernatural after her dad died, when she was feeling depressed and lost. “I felt like this is my thing, this sees me, and it helped me process my grief,” she said. “And I think, if it hadn’t been a television show, it could have been something else. If people say they’ve never once wanted community, it’s like, you’re lying to my face right now!”

Courtney says it matters who’s at the top. “The question is, are you exploiting an experience or are you creating a shared experience? The Supernatural cast looked at the show as a stepping stone to something more, less about them and more about everyone. Lev just wanted to control everything. The whole mission of the Project was to shut their doors to everyone who didn’t come into the fold eventually and just watch them burn. That was the mission beneath the mission.”

Luckily for Summers, the Supernatural fandom provided that sense of belongingness in a positive way – and came along at just the right time. While it’s fascinating to read about fictional people falling into fictional cults in a page-turner like The Project , in real life fandom can be a lot healthier!

References

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

Coates, D. D. (2011). Counselling former members of charismatic groups: Considering pre-involvement variables, reasons for joining the group and corresponding values. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(3), 191-207.

Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 19, 215–229.

Rousselet, M., Duretete, O., Hardouin, J.B. & Grall-Bronnec, M. (2017). Cult membership: what factors contribute to joining or leaving? Psychiatry Research, 257, 27-33. doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.07.018.

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