So is there really such thing as a stereotypical lovecraftian cult (ie hooded figures in dark dungeons who preform human sacrifices)? And how would you respectfully portray these, while still retaining creativity?
Though it might be more accurate to say, “sorta, kinda, not really.”
Cults exist. These are usually small, radical offshoots of mainstream religions. In the US, most cults you’d encounter would use Christianity as their baseline, and then deviate significantly. Often times, these are the product of an individual or small cadre of individuals, who have hijacked a religion and re-purposed it for their own goals. (To be fair, agnostic cults do exist, these aren’t strictly a religious exercise.)
Because cults deviate from the normal, “baseline,” of their surroundings, most will attempt to conceal their behavior and beliefs from the outside world. Usually, this is by withdrawing and refusing to interact with outsiders. Lovecraft plays off the idea of cults that have a large enough stake in their local community that they attempt to pass themselves off as normal, keeping their true nature under wraps. Again, this is somewhat true to life, with real world examples.
Additionally, cults can be dangerous, both to their own members and to outsiders, depending on how the cult is structured, and how far it is willing to go in order to protect its interests. Crimes tracing back to cults are somewhat unusual, but it’s not unheard of. I’d almost be inclined to say it’s, “expected,” even they appear to have stayed inside the law.
Most of the time, when there are crimes being committed, they’re more in the range of abuse. Years of emotional and psychological abuse can take a serious toll on former members who attempt to break away.
Beyond that, I can think of a few cults that ended with NFA violations (illegal weapons), and even a few that ran afoul of the IRS over tax evasion.
Human sacrifices, not so much. Ritualistic murders do occur, rarely. However, these are the result of individuals, not entire cults. They’re also not the crowd of hooded figures chanting, that you’d get from Lovecraft.
So, the two pieces do exist independently. They just don’t intersect. Extensive research starting in the 1980s has showed no pattern of ritual killings associated with cults or other secret societies in the United States.
The cult killings I am aware of tend to be more in the range of accidents. (I mean, actual accidents here, as in, “we needed to beat the evil out of him, and accidentally went too far,” not, “oh, he was going to expose us, so we murdered him and made it look like an accident.”) There are also mass suicides of cult members, like Heaven’s Gate in 1997, and of course Jonestown in 1978.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are (rare) groups like Aum Shinrikyo. The Japanese doomsday cult responsible for a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Using Sarin gas, they killed 12, and injured over 4,000.
Now, having said all of this, it is important to remember that Lovecraft was racist as fuck. Lovecraft’s work plays upon early 20th century American xenophobia. His cults are centered on foreign, “primitive,” religions from distant parts of the world, transplanted to rural New England. The beings they worship are just punctuation on something that’s already, legitimately, pretty offensive. This stuff can be pretty easy to accidentally transplant when you’re picking through Lovecraft’s material looking for ideas.
There’s an irony here: Cosmic horror is probably one of the most philosophically interesting strands of the genre, but its iconography and structure is often saturated in hurtful, xenophobic stereotypes, or ghosts of the same.
Simply flipping the script isn’t really an option because of actual history. I mentioned extensive research into cults beginning in the 1980s. That was spurred by sensationalist reports of satanic cults engaging in ritualized child abuse, and blood sacrifices. Those reports led to extensive investigations, and in the end, the result was basically nothing to show for it. No mass network of ritualized killings. No massive, covert, organization. Even the initial reports were eventually debunked, but the result was, effectively, a modern witchhunt.
If you’re wanting to work within the genre, and using a modern setting, I would recommend reading up on real world cults, and working from that model. There’s no real way to be respectful, given the subject matter, but it will give you a much more concrete idea of what these kinds of groups are like.