In The Walking Dead Season 7, we met Saviors, a big cruel armed community. It’s not such a surprise really that one of the few communities in the post-apocalyptic world would be a cult. Most people are completely unequipped to handle a breakdown of society. They would totally flock to a tough leader who promised them safety and survival.
In the world of The Walking Dead a lot of people who always wanted to be in charge but weren’t now get chance to lead. And be the center of attention, which is what Negan wants. Negan is more of a cult leader than a leader. And has a lot of the characteristics that cult leaders have, like charisma, intelligence, and brutality.
If you look at how a cult operates and how cults are structured it’s pretty obvious that the Saviors are a cult, led by Negan. In “Sing Me A Song” Negan gives a speech to his followers. They are all kneeling in his presence. He says that the Saviors are going to restore civilization to the world. He talks about the importance of The Rules.
The Rules that he created. The Rules that make sure he stays in charge. He acts like he has no choice but to obey The Rules just like his followers.
His speech implies that the Saviors have a holy mission to restore civilization. And that The Rules are a tool to help accomplish that mission. But The Rules are just another tool he’s created to maintain control.
Characteristics of a Cult
There is a set of 10 characteristics that experts use to determine if a group is a cult. Negan exhibits all 10 of the behaviors that are commonly used by cult leaders. Sanctuary is not just a community, it’s a cult.
The most basic characteristic of a cult is submission. Total submission to the leader of the group is something that every cult enforces. In “The Cell” everyone kneeled when Negan walked by. In “Sing Me A Song” everyone gathers on the factory floor to listen to his speeches. And everyone kneels until he tells them to get up.
Dwight and the Saviors. The Walking Dead Season. AMC.
Unquestioning obedience and total submission is the bedrock of a cult. Negan demands both from the people that live inside Sanctuary. Public punishments, like being burned with a hot iron, are used to scare people into staying submissive.
People that question his rule pay a stiff price. But, anyone who questions his authority but later repents is given additional perks. Like when Dwight and Sherri left Sanctuary, but later returned and asked for forgiveness.
They paid a high price, Nigan got Sherri away from Dwight. But now Dwight is one of Negan’s most trusted soldiers. Because he came back and submitted totally to Negan. Rewarding Dwight for his submission shows the others in the group that they will be rewarded for submission but punished for questioning or disobeying.
Exclusivity and Persecution
Two of the other characteristics that cults always use to maintain control are creating a sense of exclusivity and creating a persecution complex.
In his speeches Negan reminds the Saviors that they are special. He praises their bravery. He reminds them that they are rebuilding civilization, which implies they have been chosen for a special task. He cultivates the belief that the Saviors are better than any of the other communities.
At the same time he reminds them that the other communities want to kill them. Negan has the Saviors put on some pretty big shows to demonstrate their power to the other groups. He does that to intimidate the other communities. But he also does it to inspire a feeling of,” us against them” in the Saviors.
Control and Isolation
Keeping total control of followers is another cult practice. Negan maintains absolute control over his followers. He controls what they eat, or if they eat. He controls what jobs they do. He controls who they can marry or have relationships with. He controls every aspect of their lives.
That is not happening in any of the other communities. Each of the other communities has a leader that takes charge of the overall safety and welfare of the group. But none of the other leaders have total control over the members of the group. Negan won’t give up control over any of his followers.
Isolation is something that can’t be avoided in The Walking Dead world. Sanctuary is hidden for safety but also to keep the Saviors in isolation. Only the foot soldiers go to pick up the tribute offerings from other communities. Negan doesn’t want to take the chance that anyone living at Sanctuary might leave to join a less restrictive community.
Anyone who does attempt to leave is rounded up and brought back. When Sherri, Tina and Dwight ran away Negan sent men to hunt them down and bring them back.
Dwight. Season 7 Comic Con Trailer. The Walking Dead. AMC
Gordon tried to escape and Dwight was sent out to get him and bring him back. Dwight threatened Gordon’s life. Even after Gordon was dead Dwight let him turn and brought him back to Sanctuary. That reinforced the doctrine that no one is allowed to leave.
Love Bombing, Special Knowledge and Indoctrination
Love bombing is something that Negan does well. He bestows random and lavish rewards on people that please him. That keeps people in line and creates a desire to please him in order to get rewards. Even when he is cruel people overlook it because it’s often followed by kindness. Random rewards and praise keep followers loyal to him.
In most cults the leader claims to have special knowledge that is given by a higher power. The cult leader uses that knowledge to indoctrinate his followers. Negan doesn’t claim to have any special knowledge from a higher power. But the way he talks about rebuilding society implies that only he knows how to bring back the world that used to exist.
His followers want that world back. They want a civil society without the threat of walkers, disease, starvation and death. By claiming that he knows how to rebuild that world Negan is claiming that he has special knowledge. And he’s using that knowledge, in the form of The Rules, to indoctrinate the Saviors.
Salvation and Group Think
The last two characteristics that define a cult are having a belief in salvation and cultivating group think. Negan accomplishes both of these by keeping people focused on the idea of rebuilding the society that existed before the apocalypse. Creating that society is salvation, and if the Saviors all believe in The Rules and act accordingly they can be saved.
Group think is also seen in all the soldiers proclaiming that they are Negan. It’s a powerful statement that makes each soldier feel powerful and feel like they are part of a special group. The group think that the Saviors engage in keeps them united. And they are a very powerful force. There are a lot of them, and they are well armed and trained.
That group think won’t be enough to save them though. The biggest problem with group think is that It makes people arrogant. They don’t think they can be defeated, so they won’t see their defeat coming.
Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) in Episode 7
Rick and the original survivor group in The Walking Dead have faced tough villains. But they haven’t a cult like the Saviors. Taking a cult leader like Negan down is going to be harder than they think. Hopefully Rick and the group are up for the challenge.