How apocalyptic cults use psychological tricks to brainwash their followers

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Roch Thériault was an intelligent and charismatic religious extremist who, in the 1970s, founded a commune known as the Ant Hill Kids in the woods around Quebec. Thériault had persuaded a dozen or so followers to live with him “free of sin.” Thériault told them to wait in the commune and obey his every command to survive the “end times,” which he claimed would occur on February 17, 1978.

When that date came and went, Thériault doubled down. The problem was that the commune was not free enough from sin. Thériault became increasingly violent, abusive, and unhinged. He would make people eat dead mice and feces. He punished people by breaking their legs or cutting off their toes. He tortured and murdered children.

The strange thing about the Ant Hill Kids is that few ever wanted, let alone dared, to leave the cult. Gabrielle Lavallée fled once after being tortured, only to return because she couldn’t cope with life outside the cult. As a punishment, Thériault pinned Lavallée’s hand to a table with a hunting knife and used a cleaver to forcibly amputate her arm. Lavallée fled again and reported Thériault to the police. He was finally arrested and imprisoned in 1989, ten years after he began his horrific doomsday cult.

Why do these doomsday cults attract such unwavering loyalty among their followers? How is it that a person can persuade people to do terrible things — to themselves and to others — in the name of some bizarre prophesy? Here we look at three common techniques these cults use.

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