Writing Motivation For Doomsday Cults

Doomsday cults have been around for a long time, probably since the dawn of civilization. Writers and readers alike have found them endlessly fascinating. But, what motivates someone to start a doomsday cult? And why do people join?

In the titular panel, Gail Z. Martin, Lisa Hawkridge, Tom Doyle, and Darrell Schweitzer discuss real world cults and how to apply them to your writing.

Who Starts Doomsday Cults?

No two doomsday cults are the same, but many leaders share similar traits.

  1. A charismatic leader
  2. A need for control
  3. A professed conviction that something is wrong in society
  4. The ability to turn anything into a sign that they were right

Why Do People Join Doomsday Cults?

For those who have never been involved in a cult, it can seem fascinating and curious, but humans aren’t that complicated.

  1. Typically, people feel drawn to doomsday cults when they are in a transitory period in their lives
    • Leaving home
    • Ending a relationship
    • Death of an immediate family member
    • Job loss
    • etc
  2. Often people who have suffered personal trauma are vulnerable, especially to someone who says they have the answers
  3. They want to believe, and feel that by joining, they will be able to avoid death. Or have a clean death. Or be rewarded in the afterlife.
  4. People enjoy feeling smarter/better/more pious than everyone else.
  5. The peace of not having to make a decision can be addictive.
  6. And some were simply born into cults.

The 5 Stages Of A Doomsday Cult

  1. Recruiting and preaching. Doomsday is often about 30 years out, because it’s not too immediate, but a generation is soon enough to feel like you should care.
  2. Members are encouraged to give away their worldly belongings, and donate their money and services to the “good of the cult.”
  3. Isolate the members from normal society and other opinions.
  4. People start to see cracks in the leader’s story, but because of the sunk-cost fallacy, often don’t want to admit to themselves, (or others), that they were duped.
  5. Doomsday arrives.

What Happens After Doomsday?

When doomsday arrives and nothing happens, the leaders and the followers are left with few options.

  1. The leaders can make something happen
    • Jonesville – Revolutionary suicide – they drank the “kool aid”
    • Aum Shinrikyo – the leaders secretly set off the sarin attacks in Tokyo, causing the ‘end times chaos’ that the faithful expected.
  2. The followers may turn to violence
    • Turn on the leaders – riot, etc
  3. The leaders may double-down
    • Claim this was ‘a test of our faith’
    • Declare they miscalculated, and move the date out a few years
  4. The followers can outlive the leader
    • Either it slowly falls apart into nothing OR
    • It becomes a religion (7th Day Adventists, some say the Mormons, others say Christianity)

A lot to think about, but somehow simpler than it feels it should be.

Note, most doomsday cults take something from reality, some tiny grain of truth, and preach it through the looking glass. Understanding what factors go into real world doomsday cults can help you create people and worlds that contain them. And remember, when writing your own doomsday cult, you need something that is believable, truth can be stranger than fiction.


Anything the panel ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?

Let me know how YOU’VE incorporated doomsday cults in your writing. And your favorite fictional cult you’ve read!

And stay tuned as I share more writing tips from the over-24-hours-of-programming I hit at Balticon53.

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