How to Become a Cult Leader (2023) s01e01 Episode Script

Build Your Foundation

[narrator] Unconditional love.
Endless devotion.
And the power to control people's minds,
bodies and souls.
All of this can be yours.
[people cheering]
You just have to follow this playbook.
A series of tactics
that aspiring cult leaders use
to convert themselves
from humble mortals into living gods.
[melancholic music playing]
[narrator] But tread this path carefully
or things could get out of hand.
Ready to save some souls?
What is a cult anyway?
A cult is a group
that's centered around a powerful,
charismatic, often autocratic figure.
[man] Often these groups
involved an element of mind control
and suppression of free thought.
And in almost every instance,
they end up in bloodshed and death.
[siren wailing]
[narrator] But what cults really
offer people is the chance to belong.
It's part of being human
to want to have easy answers,
to want to be part of something
bigger than yourself.
I never thought
that I would've been in a cult,
but it was so inviting.
We were making the world a better place.
All of us end up in times in our lives
where we are feeling a little bit lost
and feeling a little bit vulnerable.
And, a good cult leader will come in
and say, "I've got just the thing."
[ominous music playing]
[narrator] With this playbook in hand,
you too can harness human vulnerability
and make it work for you.
[christopher] It's definitely about
telling people what they want to hear
and seeing us as little machines.
They're just trying to find
the button to push,
the carrot or the stick that we need
for motivation to do what they want.
[narrator] But before you can
transform people's lives,
you need to start by reinventing yourself.
Nobody did this quite like Charles Manson,
the petty criminal,
and failed folk rock troubadour
who went on to become a legend
in his own unique way.
I know your fears.
[mid-tempo guitar music playing]
I see through your minds.
[narrator] This is the face
Charles Manson revealed to the world
as he stood trial for murder.
One year earlier,
he inspired his followers
to embark on a brutal killing spree.
- [reporter] Do you have feelings about it?
- Feelings?
All my feelings are good.
[narrator] One thing you can't deny,
the man made the most of his abilities.
[Ivor] He was an actor
and he loved the role.
And he got into the role even deeper
than anyone would ever imagine.
[narrator] Ready to follow
Charlie's path to legend status?
It starts with having
the right priorities.
[Jeff] You don't get to be
a cult leader by saying,
"Hey, I'm just like the rest of you."
The most successful are going to claim,
and sometimes even believe,
that they've got something else.
[narrator] Or to put it another way
Cult leaders, every single one of them,
has pathological narcissism.
They don't give a fuck
about anybody but themselves.
[narrator] As I'll demonstrate,
the best gurus were practically born
looking out for number one.
[mischief music playing]
[narrator] As a kid,
Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones
would order his cousins to do his bidding.
If they didn't,
he would beat them with a stick.
When Shoko Asahara,
future leader of Aum Shinrikyo,
was attending
a Japanese school for the blind,
he would earn spending money
by extorting his fellow students,
forcing them to pay for his protection.
While the Reverend Sun Myung Moon
claimed that on Easter Sunday,
when he was just 16 years old,
Jesus appeared to him and revealed
that Moon was the new Messiah
and must complete his unfinished work.
Jesus did not show the same interest
in young Charlie Manson.
Manson started out as an unwanted child.
[Ivor] He was born in Cincinnati
to a father he never knew
and a wayward mother.
When Charlie was still a toddler,
his mother and uncle
were arrested for robbery,
sent to a West Virginia state prison.
He was taken in by his uncle and aunt
in McMechen, West Virginia,
which is about as backwoods as it gets.
[narrator] That's where Manson's destiny
starts to come into view.
[chill out music playing]
[narrator] Charlie's just five years old
when he arrives
to live with his relatives.
Still, he already has a habit
of protecting his interests.
[narrator] As the new kid at school,
little Charlie quickly becomes a target.
Manson yearns to get even,
but he's too small to do it alone,
so he turns to his natural talent
for persuasion.
He finds some sympathetic ears
and lays on the charm.
A few days later,
Charlie's new friends
dish out his revenge.
When everyone's called
to the principal's office,
the girls claim little Charlie
put them up to the job.
Charlie denies it.
Just like that, Manson skates by,
cementing a new bad-boy reputation
while his partners take the fall.
Discovering your power is a great start,
but becoming a cult leader
requires more
than just the right attitude.
You also have to craft
a unique belief system
with yourself at the center.
And don't be afraid to get creative.
[intense music fades slowly]
[Lola] Cults come in so many forms.
You have religious cults.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Another huge category of cults
would be the self-help cult.
[Lola] The success cult,
where it's really all about achievement.
You have New Age cults
that are about spirituality.
And then you just have cults
where it's not necessarily
even a specific ideology
you're aware you're following
so much as just following this person.
[narrator] Whatever your hustle,
what's important
is you deliver your truth with conviction.
[Jeff] Cult leaders adopt whatever stance
can be effective for them.
You have to find
some little nugget of truth
and make yourself believe in that.
[narrator] Still, don't expect
to nail down your principles overnight.
You may need to spend time
somewhere that offers solitude,
and room for deep thought.
Manson found his perfect refuge here.
[Jeff] Charlie goes to jail
because he decided to turn to car theft.
[narrator] Charlie made
the most of his time.
[Jeff] He had the perfect place to learn,
and he was like a sponge.
He's listening to pimps in prison,
and they're now his idols.
These guys have got
great things to teach him,
but there's other sources too.
In particular, there's the prison library.
[narrator] While behind bars,
Manson dives
into all brands of soul-searching.
He studies the teachings of Buddha
the gospel of born-again Christians,
Hinduism's karmic wheel,
and a new philosophy that promises
to unlock his human potential,
He adds in teachings
culled from lyrics by his favorite band,
The Beatles,
who become a growing obsession.
And quotes from his favorite book,
Stranger in a Strange Land,
about a psychic alien
who creates his own religion.
It's an eclectic mix, but for Charlie,
it's his own custom roadmap
for enlightenment.
As for the final ingredient,
that comes from an even more
unexpected place.
Remember, if you want
to be liked instantly, do as a puppy does.
Become genuinely interested
in other people and show it.
The most popular class
in prisons around America,
Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends
and Influence People.
It's so popular that,
in every major prison in America,
there's a waiting list of inmates
who want to get in on it.
[narrator] Manson was a big fan.
And it said everything that he thought,
make life a razzle-dazzle, show off.
[Ivor] Tell people how wonderful they are.
[narrator] Carnegie had other handy tips,
like let the other guy
do most of the talking.
Make him feel important.
Say his name a lot,
because everyone likes that.
Even if you disagree,
never tell someone they're wrong.
Just ask questions,
and always make them think
that your idea is really their own.
Sales techniques,
or emotional manipulation,
for an aspiring cult leader,
it's all the same.
That's how to make someone like you.
It worked for Dale Carnegie,
and then it worked for Charlie Manson.
[narrator] With help
from a master salesman,
Manson crafted a dogma all his own.
But to truly capture people's imagination,
you're going to need flare.
Let the playbook show you the way.
[narrator] A great cult leader isn't born,
he's made.
And how you choose to present yourself
to the world can make all the difference.
Cult leaders feed off of their image.
It's important to make an impression.
You need to be able to demonstrate
you can do something nobody else can do.
[narrator] There's nothing wrong
with a little trial and error.
It's very much like advertising.
[Rachel] If one thing doesn't work
to get someone's attention,
try something else.
[audience cheering and clapping]
[narrator] After emerging
from his latest prison stay,
thirty-two-year-old Charles Manson
is ready to put
this playbook lesson into action.
And the timing for an aspiring cult leader
could not have been better.
In the 60s, it was turmoil.
[people screaming]
[Ivor] America was in a state of flux.
There had been many assassinations,
Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King,
and a Vietnam War that was very unpopular.
[indistinct chatting]
There was so much mistrust
toward institutions that were supposed
to provide us with support,
and so folks started to turn
to alternative sources of community
and connection and meaning
to fill those voids.
[narrator] By offering the right package,
you can provide that meaning.
But you'll also need to have
the secret weapon
no cult leader can do without,
Part of what charisma is
is your ability to form intimacy,
an intimate connection between you
and the person you're speaking to.
When we are presented with charisma,
we start smiling, believing,
we start listening and saying, "Yes."
[Maria] Our logic turns off.
It clouds our criteria for what we need.
Charisma is an incredibly dangerous thing.
[narrator] But having
this natural gift isn't enough.
To perfect your persona,
you need to know how to use it.
Most cult leaders, and Manson is included,
have a lot of false starts.
It takes a while
to really get it figured out.
[soft music playing]
[Ivor] Charlie Manson, for a little while,
took a job as a dance instructor.
I mean, that makes absolutely no sense.
[Ivor] But it enabled him
to meet young women again.
He didn't hold the job very long.
[narrator] He also tried another career,
in the service industry.
What Charlie Manson really wanted
was to be the most successful pimp
in America.
[Jeff] He loved that there would be women
who would go out and work for him
and he wouldn't have to do anything.
[narrator] This would become a theme.
But as they say, pimping ain't easy.
Charlie never had more than a couple women
working for him at once.
[Jeff] The women he could recruit,
the best they could do
was basically snare two dollar hookups
in the front seat of a car.
Well, hi.
[Jeff] You can't live long on that.
He was one of the most inept pimps
in the history
of the United States of America.
[camera shuttering]
[narrator] Sometimes, the key to success
is just understanding your moment.
When Manson gets paroled, he heads north,
to a place where he can start fresh,
San Francisco.
There he discovers
the birthplace of 60s counterculture,
in the midst of The Summer of Love.
[Ivor] There's sex, easy drugs,
rock and roll.
Charlie discovered, "This is Nirvana."
[narrator] On every corner,
innocent young hippies are looking
for their guru,
someone who they can revere,
who will inspire them.
Manson realizes
his current look is all wrong,
so he starts
reinventing himself to fit the times
while keeping his trademark edge.
Charlie's mix of flower power
with just a hint of danger
soon pulls in a crowd.
[Ivor] He had this hypnotic look,
and if you were a troubled young teenager,
it was a knockout.
[narrator] But even with Manson's charm
and strategically constructed image,
to become a cult leader,
you still need to identify
potential followers.
Start by using a tactic
straight from Marketing 101.
Would this guy make a good devotee?
What about him?
How about her? She looks a little lost.
Lucky for you,
the playbook holds the keys
to look out for when hunting your targets.
What traits does somebody have
that makes them susceptible?
[Rachel] Usually it's 'cause
they're open-minded, they're idealistic.
This is a free country,
and no one has the right
to take away my constitutional rights.
[Rachel] They get a chance
to feel like they're going to be able
to repair the world in some way.
[narrator] And when you're looking
to capture souls, timing is everything.
[Diane] There's a specific demographic
that we think of when we think
of potential cult members, young people.
During that time period of life
when you're trying to figure out
who you are
separate from what your family,
what your parents told you to be.
[Diane] That's a prime time
to take advantage of someone.
[narrator] Weeks after arriving
in San Francisco,
Charles Manson begins
putting this playbook wisdom into action.
He spots his first mark,
Mary Brunner, a shy librarian at Berkeley.
[Jeff] Mary Brunner wanted love,
but beyond that,
she was an environmentalist.
Charlie Manson convinces her
that saving the environment
is maybe his greatest goal in life,
and within a few days,
Charlie's living with her.
[narrator] Before long,
Charlie picks up another young disciple,
Lynette Fromme.
Lynette Fromme had problems with her dad.
They'd argue a lot,
and she'd run away from home.
[Jeff] Charlie meets her,
and she's sitting on a bench.
He's going to convince Lynette Fromme
he's the one for her.
[narrator] Charlie's next addition?
Patricia Krenwinkel,
who meets him at a party.
Patricia Krenwinkel was a sweet,
absolutely naive young woman.
Charlie seduced the living daylights
out of her on their first meeting,
and Miss Krenwinkel was in heaven.
[narrator] The core of the Manson family
is beginning to form.
It was like the Pied Piper
started playing his flute
and the girls flocked to him.
[narrator] In the coming months,
Charlie continues
drawing in more young disciples.
Let's hear from one, shall we?
[film crew] Take one. Mark.
I was 14 when I met Charlie.
[Dianne] My family had dropped out,
taken LSD,
and I'd taken LSD in my own living room.
My parents
moved into a van and I was lost.
I was totally susceptible
to someone like Charlie
coming into my life.
[Dianne] He was funny.
I thought he was cute.
And he's short,
but I was short too, so I don't know.
He just had a way about him.
[Dianne] But as we found out later,
that was his strength.
He could play
to your weakness or to your need.
His so-called power,
it only lies in his happiness.
That's what attracts people,
is he's completely happy.
[woman 2] Warm. Glowing.
Generally he dances, he sings.
He looks beautiful, he looks happy,
and this draws a lot of people,
just like people
are drawn to little babies.
[narrator] Finding your perfect targets
isn't as simple as spotting lost souls.
Manson had a rule
for the people he approached.
[Jeff] He always said he wanted them
bruised but not broken.
Because if they're broken,
completely helpless,
they're of no use to Charlie,
and let's face it, he's right.
[narrator] And once you have
your future disciples on the hook,
it's time to reel them in.
[Dianne] Charlie had this ability
to make each one of us
feel like we were the special one.
He was a good lover.
That was, you know, a draw for the girls.
[Jeff] These women,
who each assume
she's Charlie's one and only,
suddenly finds herself
part of a harem and accepts it,
that it's part of it.
Whatever else you can say
about Charlie Manson,
he was good at what he did.
[narrator] It's indeed one thing
to entice vulnerable sheep
to follow you down a path,
but how do you make sure they don't stray?
Help! Save me!
[narrator] As a cult leader, you're going
to be asking a lot of your followers.
You need to know who's got your back.
Manson had this down pat.
Charlie liked to test his followers
to show that they had faith in him,
and that he was their leader,
and they would do what he said
no matter how outrageous.
[narrator] He wasn't the only one.
After Heaven's Gate co-founder
Marshall Applewhite had himself castrated
to prepare for the so-called "Next Level,"
several members followed suit
without proper medical supervision.
Roch Thériault,
leader of Canadian cult
"The Ant Hill Kids,"
would force his followers to spend hours
fist-fighting naked
in a makeshift gladiator ring
for his amusement
while he kept score.
While Branch Davidians leader
David Koresh tested his flock's loyalty
by forcing the men to remain celibate
while he got to know their wives.
How selfless.
The action itself
matters a lot less to the cult leader
than just knowing
that if they tell someone to do something,
they're gonna do it.
[narrator] As for Charlie,
his early loyalty tests
were of the chemical variety.
[Jeff] Charlie would gather everybody
and hand out portions of LSD.
He would place the dose
on each of our tongues.
[Dianne] Charlie kind of used it
as almost like a sacrament.
We would take a larger dose,
he took less or none.
[narrator] All members was expected
to take Charlie's form of communion.
He had a crucifixion experience
on LSD one time,
and he re-enacted that for us
on several occasions.
[Dianne] I mean, he would stand up,
and he'd put his hands out,
and he'd talk about
the nails in his hands,
and the blood.
And when you're on acid,
you could imagine
that he really was being crucified.
So that was kind of his hook
in getting us to wonder,
"Was he some kind of a messiah person?"
[narrator] Charlie's mind games
were just getting started.
He said that we didn't need to eat
and that we didn't feel pain.
[Dianne] I remember him
holding my fingers over a candle flame.
It burned, it hurt, and he said,
"It's all in your mind. There's no pain."
[reporter] I noticed that X
on your forehead. How it was there?
- [reporter] Wasn't that pain
- First we cut them, then
They weren't leaving a scar, so she
No, it wasn't painful.
[reporter] With a knife?
At first, then we burned them in
with a screwdriver.
No, it doesn't hurt.
[narrator] Over time,
Manson's loyalty program
escalated to a home makeover project
he called "Creepy Crawling."
The people that were involved
would put on black clothes,
and then they would go and sneak in
other people's houses at night.
Charlie called it
"just messing with their minds,"
like rearranging the furniture,
eating some of the food.
[Ivor] Fortunately, nothing more serious.
When the people got up next morning,
they would be stunned to see
their living room
had been turned upside down.
[narrator] Of course, this wasn't
just about trolling local homeowners.
It was another way to gauge obedience
and commitment to him.
[Dianne] You know, like, "Go do this."
He was just playing
little mind games with us,
just messing with what was right,
what was wrong.
[narrator] This confusion
will come in handy.
I think in hindsight,
really what it was, was practicing.
[tense music accelerates]
[narrator] If you followed
the playbook's opening lessons,
you now have the right point of view.
You've cemented your ideology and image,
and built a core of disciples
who will do anything you demand.
But there's still one obstacle
on your path to cult greatness,
no one knows who you are.
Charles Manson
wouldn't have this problem long.
[Jeff] Cult leaders know very well
how to be the center of attention.
If they couldn't do that,
they wouldn't get followers
in the first place.
If there's someone else
who is given attention
that they think should be going to them,
they will have an extremely hard time.
[narrator] Even before
Charlie's pivot to cult building,
he had a plan to grab the spotlight.
Charlie Manson in jail
learned to play the guitar.
Let me go back and play some music.
And walk around where I just came from.
[Ivor] He wanted to be
a rock and roll star.
You cannot separate the cult aspects
from the musical aspirations.
Charlie had believed that he was gonna be
the biggest musical superstar of them all.
[narrator] Where better to realize
those dreams than sunny Los Angeles?
And that's why Charlie and the family
go from Haight-Ashbury down to L.A.,
because Charlie wants to connect
with the people
who could get him a recording contract.
[narrator] Lucky for Charlie,
he had a secret weapon,
his alluring and motivated groupies.
The object now
is to use some of these young women
to scatter around L.A.
and try to find a rock star.
A couple of them do,
it's Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.
[Dianne] The Beach Boys were like
one of the ultimate bands in the world.
A couple of the girls
were picked up by Dennis hitchhiking
and they were super excited
to introduce Dennis to Charlie.
[narrator] Dennis parties with the girls
at his Hollywood mansion
until he leaves for a recording session.
When he arrives home after midnight,
he gets a big surprise.
Charlie has invited himself over as well.
Dennis is, believe it or not,
intrigued by this development.
Dennis really liked Charlie.
[Dianne] And I think that
Dennis was also impressed
that he had this flock of girls,
you know, to do his bidding.
[narrator] Manson and his family
stay at Dennis's mansion
for the entire summer,
enjoying the fruits of Wilson's celebrity
while Charlie works on his music.
Dennis even arranges
a recording session for Charlie
at his brother Brian Wilson's home studio.
With one stipulation.
He tells Dennis Wilson,
"You can mess with the music how you want,
but do not change any of the lyrics."
[narrator] Manson plays his favorite song,
"Cease to Exist."
Brian Wilson and the other producers
have some notes,
but Charlie is not
in a collaborative mood.
Brian Wilson cancels the session.
[loud music echoing]
Charlie came out and said,
"Girls, we're leaving."
[Dianne] Charlie was angry
that they didn't make him a star
because it was all wrapped up
in him thinking that he was special.
He didn't want anybody
messing with that specialness.
[narrator] But one way or another,
Charlie was going to make his voice heard.
[tense music accelerates]
Manson decided that everybody
in the music business was corrupt.
He said, "I'm gonna get revenge."
[narrator] Things escalate quickly,
so hang on.
- [Jeff] He talks about "Helter Skelter."
- [indistinct screaming]
He said there was gonna be
this Black-white race war,
and that we had to prepare for it
and hide from it.
Charlie told his followers
that while this war is going on,
he's gonna take 'em out into the desert
and they would become
the rulers of the world.
There's a revolution coming very soon.
[narrator] When Helter Skelter
fails to materialize on its own,
Manson decides to give it a nudge.
[reporter] Friday night in Los Angeles,
a movie actress
and four of her friends were murdered.
The circumstances were lurid.
The movie actress was Sharon Tate, 26.
Lino Labianca, a supermarket owner,
and his wife
had both been stabbed to death.
On his body, the word "war"
had been carved in the chest.
Then, with blood, the killer scrawled
on a refrigerator door the words,
"Death to pigs."
[narrator] Manson has turned
his loyal followers into deadly weapons
and hopes the crimes will spur
further chaos and racial violence.
But Charlie's revenge plot falls flat.
[action music playing]
[narrator] Five members
of the Manson family, including Charlie,
are arrested and charged with murder.
The world is getting crazy.
It's all a play, isn't it?
[reporter] They danced through hallways,
telling all who will listen
that the defendants are innocent,
that when the trial is over,
they'll go back to the desert
and live off the land.
The jury hearing the charges
against Charles Manson
and three girl members
of his so-called family
brought in its verdict this afternoon.
All were found guilty
of murder in the first degree.
[narrator] Less than three years
after starting his family,
Manson is sent to prison
for the rest of his life.
Yeah, I'm going back down
in an old hole in the ground.
[narrator] He did become an icon
in some circles.
But Charlie flamed out
before he could truly realize
his cult leader potential.
Surely you can do better.
The next chapter of the playbook
will show how to turn your cult
into a movement
that will follow you anywhere.
Your guide?
A man who grew his flock so successfully,
they built a whole town for him.
Just a warm fellowship
and acceptance of all people.
[narrator] The Reverend Jim Jones.
[closing theme music playing]
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