Syfy's "Deadly Class" and Christian Picciolini Answer Why and How People Join Cults

On these cold February nights, while munching on a warm bowl of Ramen, I've often wondered, what is all the hype about cults?

Not that you'll catch me joining a cult anytime soon, but I've always wanted reasons as to why people join cults. We see cults in shows and movies, in our history, in present day. Researchers once estimated the existence of nearly 3,000 cults around the globe. It seems our society is slightly obsessed but what plays into someone's decision to join a cult? Through an examination of the Syfy show Deadly Class and former head of the Chicago Area Skinheads, Christian Picciolini, we can gain some answers to these pressing questions.

Christian Picciolini's Story

(Photo courtesy of YouTube user Tedx Talks) Christian Picciolini discussing his path out of a violent extremist group.

The answer to my question became most prominent while viewing a Ted Talk presentation by Christian Picciolini, who outlines his path from young teen to neo-Nazi gang leader and head of a white supremacist punk band to co-founder of the nonprofit Life After Hate, a peace advocacy organization dedicated to assisting others in distancing themselves from violent extremism.

But how did it all begin for Christian Picciolini? It starts in his home where Picciolini often found himself alone. His parents worked 14 hours a day and each possessed multiple jobs to attain a living wage, however, their hard work left their son behind.

"Quality time with my parents was pretty much nonexistent. Even though I knew that they loved me very much, growing up I felt abandoned. I was lonely and I started to withdraw. Then I started to resent my parents and become very angry," said Picciolini during the Ted Talk presentation.

Amidst his self-consuming loneliness and anger, someone reached out. One day, while smoking a joint in an alley, 14-year-old Picciolini was approached by a man with a shaved head and tall black boots.

The man was Clark Martell, founder of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH), the first American neo-Nazi organization that Picciolini would eventually join after speaking with Martell.

(Photo courtesy of YouTube user Tedx Talks) Christian Picciolini pictured with fellow members of CASH.

"It was as if this man (Clark Martell) in this alley offered me a lifeline. For 14 years I felt marginalized and bullied. I had low self-esteem and frankly I didn't know who I was, where I belonged, and what my purpose was. I was lost. And overnight, because this man had pulled me in and I had grabbed on to that lifeline with every fiber of my being I had gone from 'Joanie Live Chachi' to full blown Nazi overnight.'"

By sharing his experience, I witnessed an example of violent extremist groups targeting the young and lonely; those who believe there's no place for them in the world; those who lack positive and healthy communities. Once these groups find the proper target, they speak of a paradise awaiting recruits and impress extremist rhetoric; then the target is drawn into their ranks.

Cult Characteristics

These extremist groups are just one of the many forms cults take. Characteristics of cults can be present in fraternities, the military, religious and political groups, making a challenge for social scientists to agree on a definition for cults and to "[distinguish] cults from other groups with similar dynamics."

Executive Director of the American Family Foundation in Bonita Springs, Florida Michael D. Langone has his own definition of cults:

Photo courtesy of Syfy

So experts can't seem to agree on the exact definition of cults, so what would be key characteristics of these social groups? The Encyclopedia of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, describes cults using the following characteristics:

  • Charismatic leaders who demand obedience

  • Strong cohesion

  • Devout commitment to a leader and transcendent worldview

  • Strict authoritarianism

  • Employed methods of social influence

  • Social and moral superiority

  • Overt dependence on the group by its members

The very last characteristic, "overt dependence on the group by its members" is an aspect that creates difficulty for members when trying to leave cults. Many join cults because they're in a period of extreme dependence as a result of temporary disorganization. Temporary disorganization in one's personal life (for example, moving away from home) can become a huge factor in someone joining a cult. Temporary disorganization can appear in both the public and private sector.

The presence of cults in the U.S. is attributed to the cultural changes in the 1960s. In the 1960s there was social, political, and civil unrest regarding the Vietnam War and equal rights for women and black citizens. Religious influence decreased as more people searched for different methods and outlets of understanding. This is prime hunting ground for cults to take shape, for cults to become "groups whose beliefs conflicted with mainstream dogma."

For Picciolini, disorganization was evident in his familial relations. He resented his parents and began to act out to gain their attention. The parental void in his life created a space where the central message of the neo-Nazi extremist group could take root.

"The group’s central message, total love and acceptance, is easy to understand and does not require cognitive elaboration. In fact, deep processing among members is discouraged. Socially disconnected prospective members are showered with love ('love bombing'), given hope that the group can answer all their questions and provide the stability that seems to be missing in larger society," as stated in the Encyclopedia of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.

The stability or "love bombing" that cults promise are the most important and compelling component for its highly dependent members. It took Picciolini 8 years to break free of neo-Nazi environment and the people he grew connected with. It took the birth of his son–a healthier connection–to make him question his choices as leader of a violent extremist group.

However no one's experiences in these groups are exactly the same and I found similarities and differences in experience vivified in Syfy's recently released show Deadly Class.

Deadly Class Application

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia & comixiology.com

A short while after viewing Picciolini's presentation, I watched the first episode of the Syfy show Deadly Class following a special online preview of the pilot on December 20th. I've followed Syfy shows like Haven, Alphas, Being Human, The Magicians and Face Off before so eventually this show was going to pass my radar.

The first episode of Deadly Class premiered on Syfy on January 16th. It's based on the comic book series of the same name that's written by Rick Remender. In Remender's story, we follow main character Marcus Lopez Arguello who begins the series homeless, on the run from the cops, and on the verge of committing suicide with nothing left to lose until he is brought to King's Dominion, an elite academy of assassins, where he finally finds purpose.

What struck me the most about Deadly Class wasn't the fact that minutes into the show a student passes a note in class and their professor immediately bitch-slaps her in the nose with his wooden cane for doing so, no it's the methods of manipulation used by the leader of King's Dominion and the students to draw Marcus into their cult.

Photo courtesy of Syfy

Early in the episode, the audience finds that Marcus lost both his parents in a freak accident and was sent to an abusive boy's home that eventually burned down in flames. We assume Marcus began the fire at the boy's home that murdered dozens since the cops are hunting Marcus for arson and murder. Now he's homeless and on the run from the cops; he's eating fast food out of garbage cans; he's being harassed by Rory, a homeless serial-killer.

Life gets more interesting for Marcus when he hits a joint laced with angel dust, starts getting chased by the cops, then gets kidnapped by students of King's Dominion and brought back to the academy. Since this is Marcus' first encounter with representatives of King's Dominion, we see the first attempt of Master Lin, leader of King's Dominion, to recruit Marcus.

If we examine Master Lin's dialogue, we find key words, phrases, and ideas that are being weaponized to lure Marcus into the academy.

Photo courtesy of Syfy

Master Lin is clearly using rhetoric suited for his audience, employing methods of social influence. Marcus who yearns for simple things like a family and a home is offered this when Master Lin promises "a home for people like you" and mentions "peers." The rhetoric of "chance" is another persuasive choice as Master Lin expresses his offer to Marcus for a chance at life which is more than what Marcus received from anyone after his parents passed. This short period of dialogue from Master Lin is also heavily infused with "you" and "I" or interchangeable versions of these pronouns. Through rhetoric alone, Master Lin is sowing seeds of a future relationship. He's establishing a rhetorical connection with Marcus.

Although Marcus rejects Master Lin's first recruitment effort, Marcus is approached once again while in the middle of a suicide attempt. At this point, Marcus is in an even more precarious psychological state that parallels young Picciolini in that both young men were lost.

Marcus believes the cops will eventually catch him, that he has nowhere to go, no purpose. He sees life through disillusioned and cynical eyes. There's even a short and desperate spell of dialogue where Marcus laments, "Every single thing I own, gone. Nowhere left to go. No future. No way out. I tried, Papa, but there's nothing left to fight for."

So, with nothing else to lose, he's ready to leap to his death. But just as he takes a step towards an earth-shattering fall, he's stopped by Saya, a King's Dominion student.

She draws Marcus from the ledge and gets him to agree to go back to King's Dominion with her using soundbites like, "What have you got to lose" and "You don't have to be alone." She holds his hand and kisses him, a direct display of the seduction and "love bombing" usually dispersed among members as psychological manipulation to create a sense of connection and unity.

Photo courtesy of Syfy

Marcus is further folded into the rhetoric, initiative, and transient worldview of King's Dominion with his second meeting with Master Lin. In this scene, Master Lin explains the general aim of King's Dominion which was founded by his great grandfather who came to the U.S. in search of the American Dream but found "a nightmare of indentured servitude and abuse." Thus rose King's Dominion, a secret organization fighting for the "self-liberation of oppressed people" by "[giving] peasants the required skill" and "[their] rage a voice" to "dethrone their corrupt masters."

This message of giving Marcus a voice, along with the gift of the school uniform–clothes–and a community of peers must seem like paradise, the lottery, for Marcus who up until now, felt he owned nothing, felt like nothing. Replace either Saya or Master Lin with Picciolini's tall man in the black boots and it's a similar scenario only slightly different recruitment techniques.

However we quickly find out that King's Dominion is not the paradise it made itself out to be pre-membership. Saya, the girl who kissed Marcus, wants pretty much nothing to do with him now that she succeeded in bringing Marcus back to King's Dominion per Master Lin's request. A Nazi passes Marcus a threatening note in class and Marcus realizes the students of King's Dominion are divided into gangs of which Marcus has no affiliation–a dangerous position to be in especially when you have a member of the cartel wanting to slice and dice you for breathing in his girlfriend's direction. Poor Marcus can't catch a break.

Photo courtesy of Syfy

The beginning of this show mimicked some of the key aspects of recruitment into these organizations right up to the authoritarian control of Master Lin who delves out physical punishment via a wooden cane. Deadly Class leaves viewers guessing if they're watching through the perspective of heroes or villains or somewhere in between.

Even Marcus wonders if he's joined a cult after donning the King's Dominion uniform (his exact words are: fuck, I think I just joined a cult) which makes this show so fascinating to dissect in conversation with Picciolini's experience, the definition and characteristics of cults, and why people join them. The comic book itself may even contain further alignment with the realistic paths and outcomes of being in these kinds of organizations.

Marcus and Picciolini are just examples and reminders that reinforces one of James Baldwin's many startling quotes, "The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose." I'd even take this philosophy one step further and say a desperate person is society's most dangerous creation; Picciolini was desperate for a connection and relationship, for somewhere that he belonged. Marcus seemed to be desperate for many things: a home, relationships, a purpose in a world constantly beating him down.

This is why healthy communities are a societal necessity. It's essential that people find communities of friends, families, or healthy communities related to their interests, hobbies, and personal growth. We need communities that lack the extreme confluence of characteristics found in cults. We need open, honest, welcoming and supportive communities to reach out to those lost and desperate so that others with less than good intentions do not get to them first.

I would like for the Uncultured Critic blog to become a community where people feel they have another connection. With many forms of art–writing, music, painting, movies–a connection develops between you and the artist. There's a dialogue for you to unwind and ponder as the artist communicates to you through their work. I hope everything that I write can establish these kinds of connections.

Have you seen the first episode of Deadly Class? What did you think of the show? Leave your comments down below!

Sources: Encyclopedia of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, International Cultic Studies Association, CQ Researcher

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