For the most part, movements defined as cults are often labelled as such to discredit them and create associations with manipulation and danger. Most have a charismatic figurehead, however, some cults outlive their leaders and develop into religions of their own right, according to some, though others label them as a cult regardless.
This idea has emerged in the modern world, prevalent in academia and popular culture alike, as extreme cases (for instance, Scientology) have shaped understanding. This coincides with the idea of New Religious Movements (NRMs) as perspective forms definition.
And despite growing secularism in the West, cults appeal to religious and non-religious people alike if in certain situations. For instance, vulnerability, purposelessness and loneliness are desirable characteristics for potential recruits of a cult as these can be exploited to immerse them into a new life.
Many know how Scientology was built upon self-help courses, and how anti-cult organisations have developed to de-radicalise members of terrorist cults. Much of this followed the events in Jonestown, South America, of a cult that committed mass suicide with cyanide-laced Kool Aid, whereby extreme events shaped media discourse.
Somewhat similarly, the Heaven’s Gate doomsday cult committed mass suicide (1997). They, alike to many doomsday cults, followed the Book of Revelations, though others, for instance, the Seventh Day Adventists, became legally recognised as religions as time progressed. Hence, time appears a key area of distinction between legal religions and cults, with popular culture or the state responsible for its label on a contextual basis.
However, it is important to note that cults are not always dangerous and manipulative. For instance, the Hare Krishnas are heavily involved with environmentalism and community support, for instance, by feeding vegetarian food to the homeless within ten miles of each temple (850 globally). And as much of the media are prone to sensationalisation, it is important to seek credible sources when researching religions and cults.