How Cult Leaders Use Music For Mind Control

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All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with "Cult Fridays."
Music is a powerful tool that can inspire intense, usually pleasurable feelings. It does something chemically to our brains when we hear and perform it. Think about the ways humans use music: we make playlists to seduce and set a rhythm during both sex and exercise; stores pipe it in to make customers spend more; restaurants select it to enhance the palette. The manipulative power of music has has a negative side, too: We make playlists to soundtrack our sadness; movies use it to scare us by tapping into a primal fear that minor chords cause in the brain; the CIA has weaponized it to torture detainees.
And cult leaders have exploited the negative potential of music to influence their followers. Colleen Russell, licensed marriage and family therapist and expert in cult recovery and education, is the survivor of what she calls a “high demand group” whose name she does not reveal. The group leader, Russell explains, used chanting to relax the mind and focus the group’s energy. “But it was misused, as I now realize because the focus during chanting was on the image of the cult leader...We were instructed to chant if we felt upset, for instance. The same if we were having a hard time.” This led to an inability to critically think through problems, a core life skill, as well as an inability to process and sift through emotions. It also created a sense of euphoria when thinking of their leader, positioning him as the answer to all of their problems.
Cult leaders, who are known for isolating their followers and seeking inappropriate loyalty, can take the emotions and feelings of togetherness that group singing and dancing provide and use it as a form of mind control. It is common in cults to use music in religious ceremonies, in order to direct emotional and psychological attention to a specific ideology or person. That’s dangerous, because it re-wires how your brain works, further isolating you from the world outside of the cult.
“Music does activate our biological rewards system, along with food, sex, drugs, and money,” explains music psychologist and professional pianist Marina Korsakova-Kreyn. There are clear biological motivations for the importance of food, sex, and drugs that science can explain — but explaining why a non-necessity like music gives us a chemical shot of pleasure is “difficult to rationalize.”
Lisa Kohn, author of the memoir To the Moon and Back: A Childhood Under the Influence, remembers her time in the Unification Church, which her mother brought her into at the age of 10, as one full of music. For Moonies, as they are colloquially known, singing religious music, both American and Korean, was a part of regular services that fostered a sense of community. The rock music introduced to her by her hippie parents, from the Hairspray soundtrack to the Beatles, was banned, but the Moonies did sing some folk songs — with a twist. “ [We would sing] folk music that was reworded, like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ became ‘the answers my friend were in the hearts of men.’ They also took a Jimmy Buffet song and changed the words. They would do this with pop music to make it more spiritual, godlike, or more messianic,” Kohn says.
The Moonies became best known for the cult’s arranged mass marriages, and for Rev. Moon’s reported sexual control over the women in the cult. Rev. Moon was considered the return of the Messiah and, as such, requested tithes from his followers that would amount to their life savings. Moon saw the value of music for the secular world as well; he would found the Universal Ballet Foundation, with one of his daughter installed as the prima ballerina, in the ‘90s and Moon was a major sponsor of the New York Symphony.
According to Korsakova-Kreyn, music immerses us in a virtual reality of emotion. “Music gives us the chills, a skin orgasm. It causes changes in our hormonal makeup. Music affects our vital signs: blood pressure, heart rate, breathing. Music can make us cry. And we can get lost in time and space while listening to music.” Of the many things we don’t yet understand about how our brain processes music is why it makes us feel emotional.
For Kohn, it was paradoxically music – secular rock music – that helped her escape the Moonies. “He doesn’t know it, but Bruce Springsteen got me out of the Unification Church,” says Kohn. n her years-long process of leaving, she developed an eating disorder, became addicted to drugs, found herself in an abusive relationship, and nearly ended her own life, But she’s dead serious when she explains that music helped her reshape her mind during that highly confusing time from approximately age 17 to her early 20s.
It was one summer at a music camp that started Kohn’s exodus. She played clarinet and piano, and says she believes her father sent her to music camp the year between her junior and senior years in high school to get her away from the church. “I became friends with people who were gay and bisexual, which is sinful in the church. I wrote to my mom to ask what to do. She was angry and told me to get away from them or convert them.” The reaction, both from her mother and the church, Kohn says, “started to break my brain a little bit.”
Russell explains this is a common phenomenon, “Often when people get out of cults they start to explore what they like.” For Russell, it was jazz and classical music that opened the door back to music.
Kohn ultimately made the choice to put herself into the outside world, attending Stuyvesant High School in New York City for her senior year and Cornell University for college. Rediscovering pop music and live concerts were, she says, “part of my reawakening.” The pull of a different kind of leader — a rock star whose poetry was undeniable to her — helped get her out. “I never stopped to think about how much the music in the church brought me in, but I have thought about how it got me out,” Kohn says, “The lyrics in ‘Thunder Road;’ the line ‘roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair,’ to me, was my walking away and finding a new world.”
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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