Cults and killers

I recently found myself spending my weekend finishing Mindhunter and working my way through the Jonestown episodes of Last Podcast on the Left, then commuting to work that Monday while listening to the drama unfold on the Heaven's Gate podcast. Umm... I might be a little too into cults and killers?

And when I say I'm "into" these things, I should emphasize that I don't look up to them or idolize them. This isn't the start of a spooky confession where I tell you I've emptied my bank account and I'm headed out to the desert to be with my new "family." I've fallen down this extra-curricular path because I'm fascinated by the psychology of it all. What makes a person become a sociopath? And in the case of cults, what makes other people fall under the spell of a powerful-but-unhinged leader?

I guess that's why I got really into Mindhunter, since it follows detectives exploring very similar questions: what makes someone go down a manipulative and/or murderous path, and is it ever possible to predict that kind of behavior before it happens? (Sadly, these are also the questions people ask after every mass shooting in this country, but that's a different post for a different day.)

As you may recall, I went through a bit of a Charles Manson phase last year. One fact that really stuck with me was that Manson was highly influenced by the theories of Dale Carnegie. During one of his many pre-Family prison sentences, he read How to Win Friends and Influence People and immediately took the lessons to heart, especially the concept of "Let the other fellow feel that the idea is his." This was key to getting new followers and getting them to do whatever he wanted. (There's a bit about that in this interesting LA Times article, but I also highly recommend Jeff Guinn's book.) 

Most cult leaders and serial killers I've read about seem to have that common power of friendly persuasion. To me, the even creepier thought is that this same type of sociopathic magnetism is what makes good world leaders and CEOs (who were surely Dale Carnegie's original target audience). So are all good leaders sociopaths? Apparently some people think so. But for my own sanity, I don't want to believe that.

All this armchair philosophy is to say: humans are fascinating and terrifying, and I'm amazed at how the same source material can lead different people down extremely different paths (also see: the Bible). 

I probably need to switch to some lighter entertainment for awhile, but share all your cult/serial killer book/movie/podcast recommendations with me anyway. I promise not to run away to the desert.