Psychology of Cult Leaders and Mass Murderers

Is mental health really to blame?


For decades, every major news station in the world has covered a mass killing or a story about a cult leader who has committed heinous crimes, the most famous being that of Jim Jones, or Charles Manson, two cult leaders who were responsible for many deaths during their time. The officers and other people involved such as the families of the people who converted to the People’s Temple always come up with the same explanation as to why they did what they did. Mental illness. But is that really the case? Or is there something more sinister?

Jonestown Mass Suicide

In 1956, Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple as a racially integrated church after his own church disagreed with his ideas. He did not believe in segregation. The People’s Temple became a cult because everyone followed one person, Jim Jones, and they had a unique lifestyle, living in a compound as cults often do. Jones had to move his cult out of his hometown of Indianapolis after negative comments were received.

People described a young Jim Jones as somewhat twisted due to finding (or killing, as some speculated) dead animals and imitating church funeral services. Later, several years after the People’s Temple moved to California, he began to dabble with drugs, and he became increasingly more paranoid. He started to believe that he was God, and made everyone call him Father.

He moved his followers to Redwood Valley, California, believing it to be a safe haven. However, as the cult grew, Jones decided to move everyone to a compound in Guyana called Jonestown. All was peaceful until 1978.

News broke that The People’s Temple church participants were living in horrible conditions. In an effort to investigate, Congressman Leo Ryan decided to visit Jonestown. When Jones got word of this, he ordered an attack on the Ryan.

He also convinced his 900+ followers to commit suicide via cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid. His last words were recorded, and in an effort to console his people, he said, “Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

When he was found, he had a gunshot wound to the head. It is unclear if the wound was self-inflicted or not, according to a recent article by Jennifer Rosenberg on The anniversary of the massacre was Nov 18. So was Jim Jones mentally ill? Or just a drug addict?

Charles Manson

One of the most well-known cult leaders in American history is Charles Manson. Manson was the leader of a cult known as the Manson Family who was responsible for the murder of nine people including famous Hollywood actress Sharon Tate.

Manson started out as a singer-songwriter, but also an ex-convict before the Manson Family came to be. In the late 60s, when the cult was established, Manson had an obsession with The Beatles. He believed that there was an impending apocalypse, which he called “Helter Skelter” after the Beatles song.

He and some of his followers were sentenced to life in prison. Manson died on Nov. 19, 2017, at the age of 83. Was he mentally ill? Probably not. Just paranoid, like most articles state.

Columbine, Virgina Tech, and Sandy Hook

It seems that school shootings are a growing epidemic in the U.S. One of the most famous school shootings was Columbine High School in 1999. Two high school seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would shoot and kill 12 students and one teacher, and wound 21 others before killing themselves. The two boys allegedly despised their school, due to constant bullying from their peers, leading to the shooting, according to an article by Jennifer Rosenberg published on in April.

The second deadliest school shooting in U.S history is that of Virginia Tech. On April 16, 2007, 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho opened fire on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and State University campus. Cho was reportedly suicidal, and after being told to seek help, purchased the guns he would use to kill 32 people and injure 17. Cho sent a package containing pictures and written papers to NBC News right before the shooting. He turned the gun on himself and died when police entered the building, according to an article on

One of the saddest school mass shootings, and most recent, occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn. twenty-year-old Adam Lanza shot his mother before heading to a school with a semiautomatic rifle and pistols. He shot and killed 20 students and 6 adults before shooting himself. He had no apparent motive for the shooting, but the idea that he was mentally ill was brought up. It was never confirmed though, according to a New York Times  article by James Barron published just days after the shooting.

So, is mental illness the real reason for these massacres? Some of them like Adam Lanza and Jim Jones maybe, but not all of them. Pure hatred was the cause of Columbine, according to Jennifer Rosenberg.

One of the most recent shootings happened just months ago on Oct.1. sixty-four-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on concert-goers on the ground below, who were enjoying a country music festival, and listening to Jason Aldean. Fifty-eight people were killed and 500 others were injured. Paddock also killed himself. Police believe that he was mentally unstable, and there was proof to back that up. It became the deadliest mass shooting in U.S history.

Mental illness is an easy explanation for mass killings, but it is it always the right one? No. Hundreds of people suffer from some form of mental illness and they don’t go around killing people. You have to be some kind of messed up to intentionally end the life of someone. Mental illness shouldn’t always be to blame. Find another explanation.


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