In a recent interview, the actress Michelle Pfeiffer, 55, told The Telegraph that in her earliest days in Hollywood, she unknowingly came under the influence of a couple involved in the Breatharian cult — a group who believe people can survive on air and sunlight alone, with food and water being completely unnecessary.

“They worked with weights and put people on diets. Their thing was vegetarianism. They were very controlling,” Pfeiffer told The Telegraph, describing the couple as similar to personal trainers. She had left home and moved to Los Angeles when she was 20 years old.

“I wasn’t living with them but I was there a lot and they were always telling me I needed to come more,” Pfeiffer told The Telegraph. “I had to pay for all the time I was there, so it was financially very draining.”

She credits the actor Peter Horton, who became her husband, as the person who saved her from the Breatharians. Cast in a film about followers of Reverend Sun-myung Moon’s Unification Church — commonly referred to as ‘the Moonies’ — Horton was conducting research on his new acting part with Pfeiffer’s help.

“We were talking with an ex-Moonie and he was describing the psychological manipulation and I just clicked,” she told The Telegraph. Thinking about his words, she realized she, too, was in a cult. This experience, as she describes it, is not uncommon; an estimated five to seven million Americans have been involved in cults, or cult-like groups, according to Cult Hotline and Clinic. This New York-based non-profit organization suggests that cults have become more sophisticated and no longer focus entirely on young, searching people. In fact, now they frequently target adults and senior citizens, who have more money.

Cults ‘R Us

Although obtaining precise numbers may be difficult, the counseling and education organization believes the total number of cults ranges from 3,000 to 5,000, and these cults recruit approximately 180,000 new followers every year. ‘Cult’ is a term that some people throw around pretty loosely, though whenever used it is meant to be a derogatory term. While some would refer to the major religions as cults, others would not hesitate to describe obsessional workouts like CrossFit as cultish behavior. The Cult Information Centre, founded in 1987, operates as a registered charity (in England) and provides advice and information. This organization identifies a cult as any group having all five of the following characteristics:

  • It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate, and retain members.
  • It forms an elitist totalitarian society.
  • Its founder-leader is self-appointed, charismatic, dogmatic, messianic, and unaccountable.
  • It believes 'the end justifies the means' in order to solicit funds and recruit members.
  • Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.

Deception, then, is key to cults. “When recruiting, cults do not make a full disclosure about what they are and how they operate,” Family Survival Trust, another registered English charity, notes on its website. The Trust counts as members volunteers from various backgrounds, though some are clearly parents of children who have been recruited into cults. Family Survival Trust offers help very simply; it is willing “to talk to families and individuals affected by the loss of loved ones who have been recruited into abusive cults and totalitarian groups.” From there, it provides information but only upon request, stressing a non-coercive nature.

Drug Addiction Analogy

In The Trust's view, cult membership is akin to drug addiction. Among its many astute observations, it finds that those surrounding cult members often “give poor advice and support, because they are also victims of the same experience.” And, similar to a drug addict, a cult member will “put all resources, including time, money and energy, into the source of the addiction. This means they are poorer and more prone to being tired or lethargic.”

For a professional take on cults, why not turn to author and former FBI Counterintelligence Agent Joe Navarro. In an article published last year in Psychology Today, he succinctly describes cult leaders as ‘pathologically narcissistic.’ Having studied the likes of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Karesh (the Branch Davidians), and Shoko Asahara (leader of the cult responsible for the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway train), he found certain commonalities among them. These include a strong need for reverence as well as a powerful belief in their own specialness and their singular ability to answer problems. These dangerous leaders aimed to isolate, financially exploit, and take sexual advantage of their followers. “They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged,” he stated in his article.

Reading these words on a screen, it is easy to believe such charming behavior would never fly with me. It may be helpful to remember, though, that cults are deceptive by definition. Like a virus, they are most virulent to people in a state of weakness. And everyone, even Cat Woman, has moments of susceptibility.