In Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (1961), Robert Jay Lifton identifies techniques related to thought reform, once called “brainwashing,” that applies to how destructive cults inculcate their members and keep them indoctrinated:
- Milieu Control: the control of communication, of everything a person sees, hears, or reads. This includes control over personal associations as well.
- Mystical Manipulation: group leaders manipulate news, information, meditation, or religious writings in an effort to influence the thinking and feelings of group members.
- The Demand for Purity: members must conform absolutely to behaviors derived from group ideologies. This results in forcing adherents toward feeling like they must pick between “good” or “evil” as defined by their leaders.
- The Cult of Confession: the right to privacy doesn’t exist, and members undergo what Lifton calls a “symbolic self-surrender” to the leader’s authority. Confessions can occur in highly ritualized ways.
- The Sacred Science: cults operate under or toward the “ultimate vision for the ordering of all human existence,” the rights and wrongs as defined by the leadership. The rules are quite narrow, and there’s no tolerance for ambiguity.
- Loading the Language: The leadership creates cliches and definitive phrases that becomes insider jargon repeated heavily within the group. The language, says Lifton, is “totalist,” “all-encompassing,” “highly categorical,” and “relentlessly judging” – “the language of nonthought.”
- Doctrine Over Person: individual human experience becomes replaced by doctrine. Everyone and everything must be subjected to, and fitted in, this doctrinal framework, including those who use it.
- The Dispensing of Existence: those not sharing the group’s ideology are inferior and not worthy of respect. This generates elitism and social isolation. Lifton explains, “the totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized and those who possess no such right.” Family, old friends are now outsiders and “others.”
This rubric applies not only to actual cults – whether they’re religiously, politically, economically, or otherwise based — but to those depicted in comics as well. Evil cults and cult leaders abound throughout the history of comics, but I’ve chosen ten that came to mind while reading Lifton’s criteria. You could make multiple alternative choices – Batman’s the Court of Owls and all those blood cults that annoyed Conan the Barbarian, for example. These are mine, presented with no significant order.
The preeminent example must be Hydra, especially during the days when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were expounding on the relentless battle between this terrorist organization and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. Hydra members constantly reiterate loaded language: “”Hail, Hydra! Immortal Hydra! We shall never be destroyed! Cut off a limb and two more shall take its place!” This oath also encompasses the sacred science and doctrine over person aspects of thought reform. Milieu control is shown through the green uniforms each member wears, and nothing matters but the ideologies set forth by Baron von Strucker, the ruthless leader with a Nazi background, who’s obsessed with world domination and who preaches the dispensing of existence for all outsiders who won’t bow before Hydra’s might.
Church of the Damned
The Church of the Damned first appeared in Tomb of Dracula #45 (1976), led by Anton Lupeski, the horned-mask wearing high priest. This church was a modest Satanic sect operating in Boston, Massachusetts until Dracula himself stumbled into a ceremony, a wedding Lupeski was performing between a member, Domini, and Satan. Dracula convinces the cult that he’s Satan and takes command, marrying Domini himself. Over time, Dracula bends all to his will, recruits wealthy members to fund operations, and as with any cult leader, he controls the milieu and sacred science. He’s the Dark Lord himself, after all. Eventually, Dracula and Domini bear a son who’s killed when Lupeski attempts to assassinate Dracula. Dracula then turns and crushes Lupeski’s skull with his bare hands. Domini later resurrects Janus, their son, who becomes an angelic figure and his father’s enemy, and like with many cults, we don’t witness a good ending for anyone.
Cult of the Unwritten Book
During his time writing Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison injected much weirdness into the world. His Cult of the Unwritten Book, under the leadership of the Archons of Nurnheim, sought to release the Decreator, a cosmic being who would turn all into nothingness. Real-world cult leaders often claim to possess divine powers, even to be special emissaries of God(s), but often they’re only narcissistic grifters gaining material wealth through exploitation and fraud. Many make-believe cults from comics have truth behind their claims, but that makes them no less manipulative and destructive than, say, the People’s Temple or Scientology, even if the sacred science is real. You can see the Cult of the Written Book for yourself in Doom Patrol (Vol. 2) #31 – #33
Church of Blood
The first Brother Blood rose during the thirteenth century after gaining superhuman powers from Christ’s prayer shawl. Through time, Brothers Blood have led the Church of Blood, the eighth ascending after murdering his paternal predecessor, patricide being the method for getting the job. This Brother, Sebastian Blood VIII, first appeared in The New Teen Titans #21 (1982), returning again and again to plague the Titans.
The Church of Blood functioned primarily in the fictional nation of Zandia, but the eighth Brother Blood wanted to expand his enterprise worldwide. He established an American branch, and the Titans became involved when Cyborg’s ex-girlfriend reached out while trying to escape the cult. Blood successfully thought-reformed Nightwing, attempted stealing Raven’s powers, but eventually failed.
Years later, another Sebastian Blood murdered Brother Blood VII and took over the Church of Blood, and finally fans learn that members worship Raven’s father, the demon Trigon. How’s that for sacred science? Finally, matters ended poorly for Brother Blood IX as well.
The Cult of Kobra
Jeffrey and Jason Burr were conjoined twins, but after surgical separation Jeffrey was kidnapped by the Cult of the Kobra God, a sect dedicated to bring the Kali Yuga, the Age of Chaos while worshipping the Indian snake god of the same name. The cult raised Jeffrey into a dangerous warrior and scientist who devised technologies for taking over the world. Followers referred to him as “Naga-Naga,” but overall he was known as Kobra.
Because of their birth circumstance, Kobra maintained a psychic link with Jason, who’d been recruited by an agency dedicated to beating Kobra. Kobra eventually manages to shutdown the psychic link and murders Jason. Jason remained in spirit form, however, or maybe he was just an imaginary delusion?
This all began in Kobra #1 (1976). DC canceled that title after seven issue. The projected eighth issue appearied in DC Special Special Series: 5 Star Super-Hero Spectacular (Vol. 1) #1 as the Batman story, “The Dead on Arrival Conspiracy.” Kobra and the Cult of Kobra would return repeatedly until Black Adam and his team finally killed Kobra. Black Adam himself has been a charismatic leader with worshippers attending his every breath. I admit to wondering how Dwayne Johnson will do playing him in the sequel to Shazam.
The Kobra Cult wouldn’t die so easily, however, after various iterations, cultists unearthed Jason Burr’s body and dipped him into a Lazarus Pit, resurrecting him to lead them, hopefully toward the Kali Yuga. More on Lazarus Pits as we move into the next cult.
The League of Assassins
Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams introduced the League of Assassins in Strange Adventures #215 (1968) as part of the Deadman story entitled, “A New Lease on Death.” At that point, this organization was the Society of Assassins, a section of the overall network, led by the Sensei. Then in Detective Comics #406, who meet Ebenezer Darrk who enjoys a leadership role. But the most infamous League leader, the big boss himself and arguably the most charismatic leader of any comic cult, is Ra’s al Ghul.
Ra’s al Ghul (the Demon’s Head) was born over 600 years ago to Bedouin parents somewhere in the Arabian desert. His actual name has been lost over his long life sustained through successively bathing in Lazarus Pits, natural pools of liquid possessing rejuvenating and resurrecting abilities. Over centuries, Ra’s has traveled the world amassing an empire based on fortune, terror, and followers who act upon his every whim.
As with any cult, there have been divisions and upheavals, but Ra’s always bounces back. Members are highly trained assassins who live only for Ra’s and his goals. Loaded language reinforces this practice, since the phrase, “the fang that protects the head,” defines the ultimate purpose under Ra’s. Add to this equation doctrine over person, sacred science, and milieu control. Yes, the League of Assassins is a cult.
Often people have a cognitive bias toward assuming that a person’s actions depend on inherent qualities rather than social or environmental influences. Psychologist Lee Ross calls this the fundamental attribution error, an example of which involves how many will blame crime victims for being stupid or gullible instead of blaming criminals themselves. Those working to free cult members remind us that not all who fall into these organizations are naïve and “born every minute.”
Could anyone imagine Batman joining a cult? Or falling sway to the thought-reform techniques Lifton has outlined? This indeed happened in Batman: The Cult (1988), a four-issue mini-series by Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson. Several small-time crooks have been murdered, and while investigating, Batman is shot and stabbed, waking to find himself chained within the sewers beneath Gotham, imprisoned by a religious cult led by Deacon Joseph Blackfire, whose primary aim is to rid Gotham of crime.
Blackfire drugs Batman, limits his food, and employs mental manipulation until the Dark Knight’s thoroughly indoctrinated and joining the raids that Blackfire and his acolytes undertake throughout the city. Years later, Bane would break the Bat physically, but before that Deacon Blackfire broke the Bat mentally.
Four billion years ago, the Sickly Ones worshipped an elder god called the Beast. Over millennia, they evolved into the Hand, now a ninja cult with various sects operating mostly out of Japan. Daredevil, Elektra, Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, Wolverine, and many heroes from the Marvel Universe have encountered Hand assassins, Elektra having been a member of a one branch, the Chaste.
Like with the League of Assassins, Hand martial-arts training is intense, both physically and mentally, a program containing, you guessed it, sacred science, loaded language, milieu control, mystical manipulation, the demand for purity, the cult of confession, the dispensing of existence, and, most importantly, doctrine over person.
Interestingly, the Hand has connections with Hydra. In the 1950s, Elspeth von Strucker, Baron von Strucker’s wife, incorporated her belief in the Sickly Ones into Hydra dogma. Then for a period, Gorgon, a Hydra agent, died, underwent ritual resurrection, and led the Hand. Now apparently the Beast itself runs things.
The Marvel Universe has its own Necronomicon. Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog first mentioned The Darkhold in Marvel Spotlight #4 (1972) when developing background for Jack Russell, the Werewolf by Night. Since then, other writers and artists have crafted a back story for this tome and the cult surrounding it, the Darkholders. Chthon, an elder god and brother to Gaea the Earth Mother, scribed The Darkhold billions of years ago, placing within it the key for returning from the plane to which he fled once newer gods took over Earth. 18,000 years ago, Atlantean wizards used spells from Chthon’s scrolls to create the first vampire, Varnae, and in the Arthurian era Morgan Le Fay bound the whole into a book. This evil little publication even has been featured on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
Anyone touching The Darkhold risks corrupting themselves, but those after the book only want it for power, but all transactions come with costs. At different junctures, Dracula faced off against Doctor Strange when the vampire sought ways to eliminate vampires’ weaknesses. Then later, Doctor Strange would use “The Montesi Formula” to eliminate vampires altogether. My favorite Darkhold moment? Mark Gruenwald, David Michelinie, Steven Grant, and John Byrne’s “Nights of Wundagore,” Avengers (Vol. 1) # #181-187 (1979), where Chthon possesses the Scarlet Witch hoping to regain a permanent foothold on this plane, and we discover portions of the history I summarize above. The Marvel Universe isn’t finished with The Darkhold, however, not even close.
Cult of Black Magic
I want to end with a classic. Once upon a Golden Age, Captain America and Bucky found themselves gassed, wrapped like mummies, and nearly sacrificed to the Witch Queen of Egypt, who led the Cult of Black Magic. The action happens in Captain America #20 (1942), art by Al Avison. The Witch Queen’s son, the Spawn of the Witch Queen (obviously), had been resurrected earlier and now sought to bring his mother back to reignite the cult through spells from The Book of Thoth. We have murders, evil magic, acolytes adorned with animal-headed costumes, all the beloved pulp elements fans eat up like chocolate sundaes.
The story ends with a follower shooting the Spawn, The Book of Thoth burned, and the temple collapsed. Another cult meets a grim ending, and a son has failed his mother woefully. Onward for Cap and Bucky, and onward for we who love these aspects of comics history.