Twisted religious beliefs, UFOs, doomsday, mind manipulation — these 6 cults wreaked havoc on a massive scale.
What exactly is a cult? When we hear the word, most of us instantly think of religious activities gone awry — an extreme belief system that gravely affects its followers and even the world around them. While a significant number of cults throughout history have a religious bent, a cult can rise from any devotion to a single idea or goal shared by a small or large group of people.
Many are fascinated by cults because, from the outside looking in, it’s hard to imagine how someone could get wrapped up in such a dubious, often incredibly irrational and immoral system of beliefs. The truly horrifying thing about cults is that they are frequently marketed to potential followers as a means to make their members better people and the world a better place. Cult leaders are persuasive and charismatic. And once they rope people into their cause, it’s hard to get out.
Followers often don’t even realize they are in a cult, even if everyone on the outside sees it that way. All of us are susceptible to cultish behavior, such as obsessing over a certain celebrity, book or movie. But other than being potentially annoying to our loved ones, those obsessions are mostly harmless.
These six infamous cults, though? Utterly terrifying, depressing and shocking in nature.
1. Children of God
One of the most twisted cults of all time, Children of God was started in 1968 by traveling preacher David Berg. This religious movement sought to capitalize on the booming hippie counterculture in California at the time. Like many cult leaders, Berg looked to bring in young people who had lost their way. Slowly his message started to spread, and by the end of 1969, 200 people had joined up. Soon, though, the movement took a very dark turn.
Berg encouraged members of the movement to live with one another across the country in communes. He began dispensing graphic literature and actively encouraged incest, pedophilia and sexual acts as a means to convert new members.
Despite this abusive environment, in 1977 the cult boasted more than 100 communities across the world. By the mid-’80s Children of God eclipsed 10,000 members. The cult presented itself as a normal religious group to the public, but inside their homes, members were anything but that. The cult even attracted the likes of Fleetwood Mac cofounder Jeremy Spencer, who abruptly left the band in 1971 and remains connected to the cult to this day. Additionally, Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan spent a portion of their childhoods in the cult.
When Berg died in 1994, his wife Karen Zerby took over as the cult’s leader. Under Zerby’s leadership, the cult tried to reshape its image and stop its predatory and appalling sexual practices.
The cult has undoubtedly ruined many lives with its horrifying practices, many of which have been chronicled in exhaustive detail on a website created by former members.
In 2005 former member Ricky Rodriguez murdered Angela Smith, a woman who was involved with his sexual abuse as a child, and then took his own life. Rodriguez was Zerby’s biological son.
Somehow Children of God manages to exist today. It goes by the name The Family International.
2. Heaven’s Gate
One of the most bizarre and sad cults America has seen, Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1974 by Bonnie Nettles and former opera singer Marshall Applewhite. Members of the UFO religious millenarian cult believed many things that most people would consider patently insane. All members were forced to completely remove themselves from society, abandon friends, family, their jobs and any sense of personhood. According to the cult’s teachings, evil aliens dubbed Luciferians had infiltrated Earth and disrupted any and all progress humans could make as a species.
Their biggest belief, and the one that wound up ending the cult in 1997, was that Earth was destined to go through a recycling which would purge all life. According to Applewhite, the only way for its members to live on was to exit the world as quickly as possible. They believed that in death they would gain entry on a UFO that was trailing Comet Hale-Bopp and enter the “Next Level.”
In March 1997 Applewhite along with 37 followers died by suicide in a mansion near San Diego. All of them were found by police wearing identical uniforms and black-and-white Nike Decade shoes.
3. The Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians have a long and complicated history dating back to 1930, but this radical offshoot of Seventh Day Adventists is best known for the standoff with federal agents that unfolded in Waco, Texas. Led at the time by self-described Messiah David Koresh, the Branch Davidians believed in a doomsday apocalypse. Agents from the ATF tried to raid the compound after receiving tips that the group was violating federal gun laws. During the initial raid, four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians lost their lives in a firefight. The FBI took over from there, and after a 51-day standoff, FBI agents tried to flush Koresh and his followers out using tear gas on April 19, 1993. Later that afternoon, the compound caught fire, which killed Koresh and 75 of his followers.
While the fire was ruled to have been started intentionally by the cult members, Timothy McVeigh would later cite the government’s role in the Waco siege as a major influence for his own role in the Oklahoma City Bombing that took place exactly two years later. McVeigh had even traveled to Waco during the standoff to observe the events.
4. The Sullivan Institute
In 1957 Saul B. Newton and his wife, Dr. Jane Pearce, founded The Sullivan Institute. Their goal was to eradicate the concept of a nuclear family, which they believed to be a major societal flaw. The institute was located across three buildings in Manhattan. The structures were used as both a psychotherapy center and commune for members. Although acting as the lead therapist, Newton had no professional experience or training in the field. In order to get his followers to disengage from the confines of a nuclear family, Newton strictly forbade monogamous relationships, forcing all members to be polyamorous. When children were born inside the commune, they would send them to boarding school or to be cared for by people outside the cult. The commune attracted about 500 members by the 1970s. Newton then merged the cult with a progressive theater collective called the Fourth Wall in 1979 and moved the cult to Orlando. Membership declined in the ’80s, and following the death of founder Saul B. Newton in 1991, The Sullivan Institute shut its doors.
5. The Order of the Solar Temple
In 1984, Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret founded The Order of the Solar Temple, a secret French society that claimed to share the same ideals as the Knights Templar. Their major goals were to restore power in the world to its rightful owners, to unify Christianity and Islam and — the real head scratcher — to get ready for the return of a “solar god-king” version of Christ.
The society spread throughout the world in the ’80s and early ’90s and are most known for a string of mass suicides and murders from 1994 to 1997. It started with the murder of a Canadian couple and their infant son, which was allegedly spurred by Di Mambro’s belief that the baby was the Antichrist who intended to thwart his spiritual goals. Following the murders, 53 cult members throughout Switzerland died by suicide the very next day. Then the buildings they took their own lives in were set ablaze. In 1995 another mass suicide claimed 16 lives in France. Two years later, five more members died by suicide in Canada.
The Order of the Solar Temple is still believed to be active today, although membership numbers are unknown.
6. The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ
Founded in 1955 by Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple blended a radical interpretation of Christianity with aspects of socialism and communism. Jones preached for racial equality and abstinence and encouraged members to adopt children instead of bearing their own. He imagined a world in which a socialist utopia would prosper. In reality, though, as the Peoples Temple expanded and spread across the country and membership went into the thousands, Jones and other leaders employed mind control techniques to gradually steer followers into seeing everyone outside of the cult as the enemy.
In 1974 Jones rented a communal land in Guyana that would come to be known as Jonestown. Jones saw it as his chance to start his utopian paradise far away from the media attention the cult had started to receive. He managed to convince over 900 members to join him in Guyana.
The Peoples Temple is infamously known for what happened at Jonestown in 1978. Following up on an investigation into abuse allegations within the cult, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana on November 17, 1978. He convinced several members of the cult to leave with him, but during their exit they were ambushed by cult members. Ryan, along with three journalists and a cult member who decided to go with him, died from the gunfire. The following night, Jones forced his congregation to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. The mass suicide took the lives of over 900 people, roughly one-third of whom were unwitting minors. Although he didn’t drink the poison himself, Jones died from a gunshot wound to the head.