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Spirit of the Age: Inside the cult of `The Street'

I HAVE to tell you I'm getting worried. It's a combination of things. Sometimes when you ring she sounds preoccupied and doesn't want to talk. Other times she seems unnaturally consumed with the activities of a bunch of characters whose lives, quite frankly, sound like mere parodies of reality. Yet it seems she is in their thrall and unable to break away. On a few occasions she says things like: "This is a funny time to ring; don't you know The Street is on."

I have a feeling that my mum might have been drawn into some cult. She insists it's just a TV soap she's watching. But then, you know what cults are like - they always have some story to cover the reality that they are evil institutions that recruit by deceit and keep people by indoctrination. Those entrapped tell you it's just a personality development course or some way of making the world a better place. It always sounds plausible at first.

I put this to her. Oh yes, she knows all about that. There is a cult on The Street at the moment, she says. I am thrown by this. A cult within a cult? Is this post-modernism gone mad? Or is it just Coronation Street entering the New Age at last? What next? Ken Barlow as guru? Deirdre Rachid as a channeller of alien entities?

I decided to go north, to Granada Television, to find out what is going on. There I was met by one of the cult adepts, Alison Sinclair, who hides behind the cover of being Coronation Street's press officer. "You have to know quite a bit about Zoe's background first," she said. I was prepared for this: long and confusing introductory lectures are a standard cult technique; they baffle you and break down your self-confidence.

Zoe was a typical victim, Alison said: a childhood in and out of care, a teenage delinquent, an unmarried mother at 16 who tried to sell her baby to Judy and Gary (never mind, you don't need to know about them). Then she changed her mind, but the baby (which was called both Katie and Shannon, but I'm editing most of this stuff out for you) got meningitis and died. Now the cult has told her that she can talk to the dead child, but only if she sleeps with the leader, Ben. He is the Mancunian manifestation of the top man, Nirab, which is an anagram of Brian (an in-joke - Brian Park is the man who restored Coronation Street's ratings in recent times).

Confused? You should be. It's one of the standard techniques of cult recruiters, according to Ian Howarth, of the Cult Information Centre. They also demand total allegiance, discourage rational thought, isolate members from the outside world, bewitch the initiated with arcane truths and jargon and surround themselves with an aura of mystery. Sounds just like Coronation Street, I told my mum. Yes dear, she said.

But there is a problem with all this. People who join cults are psychologically weak and intellectually inferior, people easily dominated by tyrannical leaders. Or so we imagine.

The truth is almost exactly the opposite, says Mr Howarth. "The typical recruit is economically advantaged, of above-average intelligence, well educated and idealistic," he said. "Zoe doesn't score highly on any of that." A much more likely recruit would be Ken Barlow, who is representative of those drawn into the "therapy cults", which attract older people by masquerading as personal or career development outfits. It was from one of these that Mr Howarth escaped before starting his cult watch service.

The average recruit is, indeed, white, middle-class and idealistic, according to an American Psychiatric Association report. "They tend to be dependent," it said. "They have a strong need for affection. They feel resentful and are often openly hostile towards society; it has disappointed them and does not value them."

And yet the views of psychiatrists, former members and desperate parents, who fear their children are lost to cults, do not tell the whole story. There is an increasing body of sociologists who question such definitions. "Cults set out to counter the values of the dominant society and so invariably provoke hostility," says David Barrett, who works for Inform, an information network on "new religious movements", as it prefers to call cults. So they go in for promiscuous sex or total celibacy just to provide a contrast with the rest of us. Because most of us eat meat, they plump for vegetarianism. And so on.

But rather than dangerous detours to growing up, some cults can be havens of stability in a society that stresses utilitarian, materialistic and self-gratifying values. According to John Saliba, a Jesuit sociologist, they can be "helpful organisations that provide an alternative therapy to many young adults as they are faced with making momentous decisions at important junctures in their lives".

In support of this he cites the fact that many converts appear to be healthy and content. They give up addictions to alcohol and drugs. They gain "a degree of intellectual security, emotional stability and organised behavioural patterns that contrast sharply with their previously confused and chaotic existences". And, anyway, more than 90 per cent leave within two years.

If that sounds baloney, that may just be because we are prejudiced, according to one US researcher who recently set out an organisational profile and asked three groups of punters to comment. The three groups were advised that they were dealing, respectively, with a Catholic seminary, the US Marines and the internal structure of the Moonies. The results varied enormously, and the Moonies did not come top.

"There you are, you see," said my mum when I told her. "But anyway I'll have to go now. The adverts are over. The Street's on."