PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - The coronavirus pandemic may be wreaking havoc on public health and the world economy, but cult leaders are viewing it as a major recruiting tool, according experts who study fringe religions.
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"Cult leaders always know that when there's a major disruption, if there's an economic problem, if there's a terrorist attack, if there's an earthquake or tsunami, they're going to capitalize on that because they use fear as a primary manipulation tool to make people feel like it's not safe out there," said Steven Hassan, a cult expert.
Hassan is a former member of the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. He has helped others leave destructive cults and has written several books, including Combating Cult Mind Control.
Since the beginning of the Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell saga, many people who knew them said they always seemed nice and "normal." However, they now claim to be preparing for the end of the world and are referred to as a "Doomsday couple." A professor at ASU says it can be easy for people to get sucked into these extreme groups.
He says the coronavirus pandemic is providing cult leaders with a big opening.
"People want to feel a sense of control and understanding of how to survive and how to, you know, protect themselves. So anyone who speaks with a confidence and says, 'I'm getting revelations. I'm speaking with the angels. they're telling me what needs to happen. Follow me. I will cover you with my spiritual power,'" said Hassan.
Hassan has written about how fringe religious groups around the world are already doing this.
One of those groups may be the people who follow and support Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow. Daybell is an author of doomsday books and a prominent name in the so-called "prepper" community, people who stockpile goods in preparation for natural disasters, government instability or the end of the world.
Vallow's children disappeared in September. She initially lied to police about their whereabouts. Then she stopped answering questions about them altogether.
A member of the religious group that follows Chad Daybell is speaking out to CBS 5 Investigates about the group's views, practices and its controversial leader.
When Vallow and Daybell first met, they were married to other people. But in July, Vallow's brother shot and killed her husband. In October, Daybell's wife died in her sleep. Vallow and Daybell were married two weeks later. Both deaths remain under investigation.
According to documents filed in court cases involving Vallow, Daybell and their extended family members, their religious views involve zombies, demons and spiritual possession. Daybell claims he can speak to spirits.
"They are a dime a dozen," said Flora Jessop. She escaped from Warren Jeffs' polygamous cult when she was 16 years old, then helped others escape.
Jessop says she's not sure if Vallow and Daybell really believe what they preach, but she says they are following a well-established pattern.
"If they can convince one person that what they're saying is truth, that's all it takes. 'Because now I've got a follower.' That follower would bring me another follower,' and so forth and so on. That's how it grows exponentially," said Jessop.
She believes the Daybells will gain even more followers during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the missing children, dead spouses and unanswered questions.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they had more followers at the end of all this because people are hungry to believe in something. And people are scared right now. People are worried," said Jessop.
But what happens when the coronavirus epidemic plays out, and the world and society are still here? Hassan says a book written more than 50 years ago answered that question.
The author studied a UFO cult. The leader predicted that a UFO would land on a certain mountain. Followers sold their homes and belongings in anticipation.
"When the spaceship didn't come, would they lose their faith? What happened was they believed even more. Because the leader spun it that because they had faith, the world was saved," said Hassan.