Continuing this week is the documentary series that delves inside the minds of killers. In each programme, Dr Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at New York City’s Columbia University, considers killers and places them on his ‘Most Evil’ scale. This edition probes the murky world of cults and their followers. Dr Stone studies the cases of Mormon murderer Jeffrey Lundgren; cult leader Charles Manson; and instigator of the Jonestown massacre Jim Jones.

What makes a cult follower? How do they lose the ability to think for themselves? Dr Michael Stone is determined to use his Most Evil scale to answer these questions. He aims to show how the group mentality of a cult can lead to the “denial of personal reflection” and the “justification of evil”.

The first example of a cult turned to evil is the tiny Mormon splinter group led by self-proclaimed prophet Jeffrey Lundgren in Kirtland, Ohio. Lundgren’s followers devoted their lives to pious study. They signed over the worldly assets to Lundgren and even encouraged their children to call him ‘father’. Lundgren’s control was such that, in 1989, he was able to lead his male acolytes in the cold-blooded murder of five members of the same family. The Avery family were to be punished for their disloyalty to the sect. They were led oneby- one into a barn and shot dead.

Lundgren’s right-hand man in the murders was Ron Luff. Dr Stone travels to Ohio to interview Luff in the prison where he is likely to spend the rest of his days. Stone speculates that Luff’s rapid rise to prominence in the group intoxicated him and made him susceptible to the notion of murder. “It put a blindfold over Luff’s sense of moral judgment,” he says.

Although Luff denies the extent of his power in the group, he admits that Lundgren’s rhetoric had him believing that he was carrying out the will of God. “It wasn’t for me to determine what their fate was,” he says of the victims. Luff describes Lundgren’s brainwashing as akin to a confining box, curtailing all rational thought. “When you can’t think outside that box – that’s captivity,” he says.

For Dr Stone, the “quintessential cult leader” was California’s infamous Charles Manson. In the late 1960s, Manson manipulated members of his ‘family’ cult to murder seven people. Manson did not kill in person; instead, he used his disciple Ted Watson to oversee the slayings. “Like Ron Luff, Watson is the victim of circumstance, blinded and bullied into participating in murder by a controlling leader,” Stone says.

Dr Stone’s last case is “the ultimate example of how far the cult mind can be manipulated”. In 1978, the world was stunned by news of a mass suicide at the community of Jonestown, in the jungles of Guyana. This attempt at a utopian society was founded by Jim Jones, a radical socialist and church minister. The increasingly paranoid Jones, believing the town was about to be overthrown, ordered his followers and their children to commit mass suicide with poison. In the chaos that followed, 913 people died. To this day, it is not known how many of the victims died of their own accord. Dr Stone meets one survivor who insists that the events at Jonestown were nothing short of mass murder.

Also in this programme, Dr Stone considers scientific explanations for human susceptibility to cults. Is it possible that mini-seizures in the part of the brain used for decision-making render people vulnerable to malign influences? Another theory holds that the euphoria of group-belonging can be exploited by charismatic leaders to achieve their evil ends.

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