Fight Club’s Cult: Manipulation and Thought Reform

Category: Belief, Fight Club, Violence
Last Updated: 23 Mar 2023
Pages: 9 Views: 889

Singer asks the question, “How many more Jonestowns and Wacos will have to occur before we realize how vulnerable all humans are to influence? ” With this, Singer a clinical therapist who specialized in brainwashing and coercive persuasion, considered a giant in the field of cult behavior brings the normally taboo topic of cults in our society to the forefront of discussion.

People must be informed and understand what a cult is, and how cults use thought-reform as a means to manipulate and control the masses. If people are left uneducated, senseless acts of self and social destruction will continue to be carried out by followers of proclaimed prophets. Shoko Asahara’s cult “Aum Shinrikyo,” which translates to “teaching of the supreme truth” (Wessinger 121), an organized and violent group, has correlating similarities to Tyler Durden’s following.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is a book about a man that creates a following in the form of a modern day cult, in which he uses its members to carry out acts of social terrorism, violence, and self-destruction by means of manipulation and thought reform. In order to understand cult behavior in Fight Club, one needs to understand the characteristics of a cult and how they are defined. “Cults are not a unique species of human group; they are the endpoints on a continuum” (Andres 1-7). A common misconception of cults is all cults are religious. Although many are, religious beliefs alone do not dictate the qualification of what a cult is.

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Singer describes that “cultic relationships” better define the parameters of what qualifies a cult, and that a cult can usually be identified by three factors despite its belief system. Of those factors, “Origin of the group and roles of the leader,” insists that most of the time there is one person in charge and in control of the decision making process for the cult and its members (Singer 8). Although cults range from a wide variety of categories and beliefs, cult leaders usually have uniform characteristics: “Cult leaders are self-appointed, persuasive persons who claim to have a special mission in life or to have special knowledge.

Cult leaders tend to be determined and domineering and are often described as charismatic. Cult leaders center veneration on themselves” (Singer 8). Tyler was a party of one who had the charisma and ideology that appealed to the impressionable minds of people looking for something more. The followers of Fight Club looked at Tyler and saw everything they wanted but could not be themselves. “I love everything about Tyler Durden, his courage and his smarts. His nerve. Tyler is funny and charming and forceful and independent, and men look up to him and expect him to change their world.

Tyler is capable and free, and I am not” . Tyler Durden is a leader, he has the ability to shape the minds of his followers through his power of persuasion. Whether it be the Fight Club, Project Mayhem, or one of Project Mayhem’s subdivisions, Tyler’s members abided by core beliefs and rules given by himself, and were eager to progress in Tyler’s self destructive behavior. Tyler believed that in order to gain enlightenment, to know who we really are, “First you must hit bottom”. Tyler’s followers want to be him, to think, and act as he acts.

There was no questioning Tyler’s logic, his follower’s followed. “The structure or relationship between leader and followers,” states that; “Cults are authoritarian in structure. Cults appear to be innovative and exclusive. Cults tend to have a double set of ethics” (Singer 9). Even though a leader may appoint people to act in higher positions of authority to guide other members, the leader’s authority supersedes all. The cult leader offers its members something unique, something that can only be found through membership, and that in becoming one of the following makes that person “special” (Singer 9).

It is normal that there are a strict set of rules, or a code of conduct between members that is not held to non-members. Whereas deceiving an outsider is completely acceptable, doing the same to a fellow member would not (Singer 9). The defining relationship of Tyler Durden in Fight Club is, without a doubt,leader to his followers. Tyler doesn’t refer to himself as a prophet or god; however, he does interpret with accuracy how his followers perceive him. “Tonight, I go to the Armory Bar and the crowds part zipper style when I walk in.

To everybody there, I am Tyler Durden the Great and Powerful. God and father” (199). In order to further the development of Fight Clubs and Project Mayhem, Tyler appointed chapter leaders to instill the rules and beliefs he created. The chapter leaders obediently did as they were taught to do because in Fight Club, “You don’t ask questions,” and “you have to trust Tyler” (122,125). Interfere with Tyler’s goals, and Tyler will kill or castrate the opposition. “The coordinated program of persuasion,” is the “crucial factor in the definition of cults” (Singer 10). Cults tend to be totalistic, or all-encompassing, in controlling their members’ behavior and also ideologically totalistic, exhibiting zealotry and extremism in the worldview. Cults tend to require members to undergo a major disruption or change in life-style” (Singer 10). Cults may start similar to what could be compared to a part time job, in which a member or in our example, an employee takes part in an activity or event for some sort of end result, whether it be self satisfaction or in the case of an employee, money.

At some point the goal of the cult is to have its members completely invested, or a full time employee. This includes a life that can be compared to military lifestyle, in which members are often dehumanized, told when to eat, drink, sleep, and what to wear. This often results in abandoning their non-cult life completely in order to further “become immersed in the group’s major purpose” (Singer 10). Fight Club’s members transition from part time to full time, consisted of belonging to Project Mayhem or one of its several subdivisions.

Tyler’s mission was to free the people from whom he thought were slaves to society. Tyler wanted to change the world, destroy the old and create a new world of a more basic need. “It's Project Mayhem that's going to save the world. A cultural ice age. A prematurely induced dark age. Project Mayhem will force humanity to go dormant or into remission long enough for the Earth to recover. ” “This was the goal of Project Mayhem,” Tyler said, “the complete and right away destruction of civilization” .

Project Mayhem’s group dubbed “space monkeys”was stripped of all possessions except that which was required by Tyler. Dehumanized and stripped of their previous life identities the space monkey’s goal was to serve Tyler and membership required giving total control to the cause. “Only in death will we have our own names since only in death are we no longer part of the effort. In death we become heroes” . Fight Club’s members were manipulated to the point of partaking in acts of violence for recognition, and finding death for the cause to be heroic. Tyler’s control of his members is absolute and unquestioned.

To begin understanding the complete and total control cults tend to have over its members, one must understand the thought-reform process. Brainwashing is the technique used by cults to strip its members of their freewill and carry out the cult leader’s ideals that define his or her cult. This includes, but are not limited to, organized acts of violence including; social terrorism, murder, and self destruction (Singer 82). The word “brainwashing,” or thought reform, was birthed in the 1950s during the Korean War when captive United States troops returned home appearing to be “converted Communists” (Taylor 3).

Even when free from captivity and having no contact with any Communist interaction, theses soldiers denounced loyalty to their own country, and praised of the Communist way of life. Edward Hunter, CIA operative who investigated the reasoning behind the apparent odd behaviors for returning troops, was the first to “publicly christened” the term brainwashing said, “The intent is to change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet a human robot without the atrocity being visible from the outside.

The aim is to create a mechanism in flesh and blood, with new beliefs and new thought processes inserted into a captive body. What that amounts to is the search for a slave race that, unlike the slaves of olden times, can be trusted never to revolt, always be amenable to orders, like an insect to its instinct” (Taylor 3). While technological advances and modernization of growing societies have changed the way thought reform is implemented, the core foundation and overall goal still has the same purpose of control.

Harmful effects on cult members thought processes tend to come from the techniques of control implemented from within the cult. Utilization of these techniques is used to socialize members into the cultural environment of the cult can produce “feelings of guilt, dependency, low self-esteem, worthlessness, anxiety and hopelessness in vulnerable individuals” (Walsh). Robert Lifton was one of the early psychologists to study brainwashing and mind control. He called the method used thought reform. He identified eight processes used to alter the minds of subjects.

While all of the processes have some direct content relating to Fight Club, there are three that fit best. Lifton describes “ milieu control,” as “ control of human communication”(Walsh). This is how the individual communicates with the outside world and how the outside world communicates to the individual, meaning like Tyler’s space monkey’s, who practices and recited Tyler’s rhetoric, these individual’s are cut off from worldly means of communication, entertainment, and normal social interaction because they are seen as corrupt. These individuals receive and transmit information through a filter of cult ideology.

Lifton suggests, “Mystical manipulation is the use of an extensive personal manipulation to provoke specific patterns of behavior in a seemingly spontaneous way,” and that, “they suggest that there is an induction of dependency by manipulative and exploitive techniques of persuasion and control” (Walsh). This is best depicted in Fight Club by the way Tyler uses his charismatic personalities to influence his members that Fight Club is what they need in order be awakened from their boring lives of slavery in the corrupt consumerist world.

Lifton’s Doctrine over person states, “A situation in which the doctrine of the group shapes the reality of which the member must exist” (Walsh). This makes their pre-cult lifestyle unappealing, and progresses their “new identity based on the new ideology” (Walsh). Tyler uses this idea in Fight Club to convince members that life outside of Fight Club is nothing more than a role being played to mask their true identity, eventually resulting in full recruitment in to one of Fight Clubs subdivision’s, and abandonment of their previous lifestyle completely.

These methods of thought reform are commonly found in cult’s who practice radical religious beliefs and/or acts of violence in the name of its cause. Aum Shinrikyo, or “The Aum” was a cult which began operations in Japan, tried to bring world change through “techniques of guerrilla warfare” (Walsh 119-128). The Aum became a “legally registered religion in 1989” starting with approximately 4,000 members (Wessinger 130). By the mid-90s its membership had more than doubled at an estimated 10,000 members in Japan, and having expanded its reach including about 30,000 members in Russia (Wessinger 131).

Aum Shinrikyo is an aggressive, highly organized, educated, extremely violent, and has the wealth to make serious impacts on society. Like Tyler’s Fight Club, “Aum Shinrikyo offered an alternative to lifetime employment in unfulfilling work” (Wessinger 131). Many of Aum Shinrikyo’s members hold positions of power, are highly educated, and have specialized skills. They include; scientists, military personnel, police officers, and political officials that contribute to the organization (Wessinger 135).

Tyler’s Fight Club is similar in construction to Aum Shinrikyo, in that its members are well distributed throughout the societies in which it is established, giving the organization the power to infiltrate and execute acts of social terrorism. Shoko Asahara said, “Aum is a mighty obstacle to the evil that rules this world” (Wessinger 120). Similar to Tyler Durden, Shoko Asahara conducted the business of his following with violent measured attacks on society and anyone who was a threat to his organization or its ideals.

Aum Shinrikyo’s violence began internally, beatings of members in order to become closer to “clairvoyance” expanded to attacks on enemies and society (Wessinger 123). Although different in beliefs, Aum’s pattern of progression follows a very similar structure to that of Fight Club. Similar to Fight Club’s subdivisions such as Project Mayhem, Aum Shinrikyo uses specialized member’s devoted to carrying out acts of violence towards enemies.

Threats to hinder or expose any criminal aspects, or cult activities of both organizations were counteracted with acts of violence and brutality. Aum Shinrikyo assassinated defecting members, journalist, prosecutors, judges, and anyone else who opposed their endeavors (Wessinger 133). Extreme acts of violence in able to progress forward in cult behavior and goals is what directly link Aum Shirikyo and Fight Club together. In understanding the inner workings of cult behavior, it is evident to what Tyler’s following is, what it does, and how it gains control of members.

One can see how Fight Club’s cult behavior show uniform similarities to the characteristics that define a cult. In addition, understanding how a cult controls its members by means of manipulation and thought reform, in order to implement core beliefs, participate in acts of violence, and recruit members; one can grasp how powerful the control cults can have over their members. In looking at Aum Shinrikyo, a violent and socially destructive organization, we are able to see the consistency between Shoko Asahara’s and Tyler Durden’s following.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club depicts the story of a man who build’s himself a clearly definable cult, in which he uses its members to carry out acts of social terrorism, violence, and self-destruction by means of manipulation and thought-reform.

Works Cited

  1. Andres, Rachel, and James R. Lane. Cults & Consequences: The Definitive Handbook. Los Angeles: Jewish Federation Council, 1988. Print Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.
  2. Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. Print
  3. Taylor, Kathleen. Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control. Oxford: Oxford University, Print. Walsh, Yvonne. “Deconstructing ‘Brainwashing’ Within Cults as an Aid to Counselling Psychologists” Counselling Psychology QuarterlyJune 2001: 119-128. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 March 2010 Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York: Steven Bridges, 2000. Print.

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Fight Club’s Cult: Manipulation and Thought Reform. (2018, Feb 09). Retrieved from

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