The difference between a “cult” and “religion” is often a blurred line marked by either membership size or length of existence. Tragically, people in search of spiritual guidance or solace during difficult times can become easily victimized by those who prey on the vulnerable.
More often than not, a charismatic leader with a messiah complex and an insatiable thirst for power head up these organizations. The trend, however insidious, shows no indication of slowing anytime soon. Whether promising self-improvement, material riches or heavenly rewards in the afterlife, here’s a look at some of the most scandalous cults of all time.
10. The Source Family
Competition in the City of Angels — regardless of the arena — has always been stiff. Although The Source Family would be overshadowed by the headline-grabbing groupies of Charles Manson, they briefly flourished as another SoCal-based cult, featuring psychedelic rock, free love, drugs, and a top dog with a magnetic personality.
In terms of pure physicality, James Baker at least held a substantial advantage over the diminutive 5-foot-2 Manson. The muscular former Marine and WWII vet even pulled off a convincing Moses-like appearance, replete with flowing robes and a long beard while re-inventing himself as “Father Yod.” Only in LA, baby.
Furthermore, Baker’s backstory includes pursuing a career as a stuntman, killing two men (he claimed self-defense in both cases), allegedly robbing a bank, and operating The Source, a popular vegetarian eatery on the Sunset Strip. A-Listers Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty were both regulars.
After completing his transition to full-time guru, Yod took up communal residence in a 24-room mansion with his 14 wives.’ He then turned his attention to fronting an experimental proto-Krautrock band, Ya Ho Wha 13. The prolific group released several DIY albums that would later achieve cult status (sorry, cheap pun) among hardcore vinyl collectors.
Eventually, pressure from law enforcement and Child Protective Services caused Yod to skedaddle to Hawaii with a gaggle of his most devoted followers. There, he died after crash-landing his hang-glider in a parking lot on August 25, 1975. The Source Family, now broke and leaderless, disbanded a few years later.
In the spirit of Louis XIV, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh knew how to live large. To wit: the Indian mystic built a city (which he named after himself), owned a fleet of 93 Rolls Royce luxury cars, indulged in frequent orgies, and raked in tons of cash as the founder of a new religious movement. As the saying goes, “Nice work if you can get it.”
Rajneesh began his career as a spiritual guide in his native India, where he promoted the notion that earthly pleasures led to “superconsciousness.” He also rejected traditional religions, which he viewed as antiquated and oppressive, and instead embraced a more modern approach based on science, technology, and capitalism. And more sex. Prosperity soon followed — but not without controversy.
In 1981, after running afoul with local authorities (and dodging an assassination attempt), the “sex guru” packed up and fled to greener pastures awaiting in America. He bought a 24,000-acre ranch in rural, central Oregon and established a religious community called Rajneeshpuram. At its peak, 2500 disciples called the facility home while also drawing the ire of the locals, who asserted the outsiders violated Oregon’s land-use laws and engaged in voter fraud.
Tensions would continue to escalate, reaching a boiling point in 1984. Commune members orchestrated the first bio-terrorist attack in US history by poisoning food supplies in the nearby town of Dalles that sickened 750 people. By the following year, the jig was up. Police arrested Rajneesh on charges of immigration fraud. The lascivious leader copped a plea bargain and was deported back to India, where he died in 1990. Despite his death, the movement remains alive and well — fueled in part by the notoriety from the 2018 Netflix documentary, “Wild Wild Country.”
8. Order of the Solar Temple
In a better world, the mellifluous names of Di Mambro and Jouret might have been the purveyors of fine wines or a folk-rock duo singing songs about peace and love. But not these guys. Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret would peddle a far more sinister product, eventually resulting in 71 deaths.
Di Mambo first became attracted to occultism in the mid-1950s as a member of the Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis (AMORC) in his native France. A jeweler and clockmaker by trade, he later ditched his business career to become a full-time lecturer in the burgeoning New Age Movement. Along the way, he teamed up with Jouret, a charismatic former Belgian Army paratrooper-turned-homeopathic physician with similar interests in metaphysical studies.
In 1984, the men founded The Order of the Solar Temple (OTS) in Switzerland, loosely based on the ideals of medieval Knights Templar. OTS gradually adopted a hodgepodge of other beliefs and practices that involved New Age philosophy, UFO religion, and Freemason rituals — all predicated on the imminent annihilation of Earth and the Second Coming of Christ as a solar god-king. Followers believed their discovery of the truth made them noble travelers on a special mission to the source of consciousness.
As their prophesied doomsday grew near, OTS began experiencing a high number of member defections and loss of revenue from wealthy donors. Di Mambro and Jouret then decided it was time to implement an exit strategy for transit to a higher spiritual plane. In early October 1994, 53 members, including Di Mambro and Jouret, committed suicide or were murdered in Canada and Switzerland. The victims had been shot, stabbed or poisoned, and then burned in deliberately set fires.
Investigators also later discovered that Di Mambro had recently ordered the murder of a three-month-old boy he believed to be the anti-Christ. Sixteen more members of the order died in France in December 1995, and five more after that in Quebec in March 1997.
Keith Raniere combined the tenets of multi-level-marketing with his charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to form a sinister cult called NXIVM (Nex-ee-um). For nearly two decades, he attracted an impressive array of well-heeled and celebrity members — especially attractive women. But unlike other control freaks obsessed with sex and sovereignty, Raniere didn’t offer much in the way of spiritual guidance but instead duped his followers into worshipping an equally seductive higher power: greed.
After dabbling in Scientology, neuro linguistic programming (aka NLP or “mind control”), and pyramid schemes such as Amway, Rainere partnered with Nancy Salzman, an NLP practitioner and founded NXIVM as a self-improvement company. They initially operated as a typical MLM and offered courses known as “Executive Success Programs” that borrowed heavily from the works of Ayn Rand. Naturally, it came w/ a hefty price tag — financially as well as both physically and emotionally.
Those who joined the organization referred to Raniere as “Vanguard,” and included actress Allison Mack, and Sara and Clare Bronfman, heiresses to the Seagram liquor fortune. Under the NXIVM umbrella, Raniere and his merry band of female ‘recruiters’ also ran a secret sex cult called DOS. Participants were subsequently branded with a cauterizing pen in their pelvic area.
Several victims would eventually go public with allegations of horrific abuse, resulting in Raniere’s arrest. In 2019, Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking, conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. He currently awaits sentencing and faces a minimum of 15 years to life in prison.
6. Aum Shinrikyo
On March 20, 1995, five passengers carrying concealed plastic bags filled with deadly sarin-gas boarded different subway trains in Tokyo. They would soon arrive at their designated stop, coinciding with the peak of morning rush hour. After puncturing the packages with the tips of their umbrellas, the men quickly exited the train as the toxic nerve agent seeped out. Hordes of affected passengers immediately began to choke and vomit, resulting in 12 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries.
Authorities later traced the attack to members of Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”), a Japanese doomsday cult led by Shoko Asahara, a partially blind former pharmacist intent on overthrowing the government. Asahara prophesized a nuclear Armageddon instigated by the United States, which he referred to as “The Beast” from the Book of Revelation.
Founded in the 1980s, Aum Shinrikyo initially started with a far more peaceful message aimed at achieving enlightenment by marrying elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. However, the temptation of playing God soon proved too much for Asahara. At its peak, the group had as many as 50,000 followers (mostly in Russia) and accumulated substantial financial donations while becoming increasingly radical.
Asahara orchestrated the Tokyo subway plot to distract police investigations from other activities perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo — crimes that included assassination attempts on judges and a similar chemical weapons attack in central japan in 1994 that killed eight people. Following a lengthy trial that took seven years to complete, the chubby chieftain was sentenced to death along with 12 other cult members. Asahara died by hanging on July 6, 2018.
5. Children of God
In the late 1960s, a vagabond preacher named David Berg rode the wave of “Free Love” while founding The Children of God (COG) in Huntington Beach, California. The grizzled evangelical blathered of a forthcoming apocalypse, and a New World Order hellbent on unleashing the Antichrist. But his followers should have been warned about him.
Berg, who gave himself the title of “David Moses,” introduced an unconventional method of proselytizing that he called “flirty fishing” (or FFing). The practice encouraged female members to use sex as a means to recruit potential converts. As the flock grew to over 15,000 members, communes were established worldwide to spread Berg’s skewed interpretation of Jesus’ love and salvation. Both Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix were born into COG.
The group dissolved in 1978, following allegations of rampant sexual abuse of women and minors. Berg died six years later while under investigation from Interpol and the FBI. The organization was later re-branded, changing its name to the Family of Love. It currently operates as an “online community” called The Family International (TFI).
4. Heaven’s Gate
Thanks to a small but highly visible doomsday cult, a popular marketing campaign would take on a new macabre new meaning in March 1997. Members of Heaven’s Gate, a UFO-obsessed group (flyer saucers — not the band) committed mass suicide while wearing matching tracksuits and Nike shoes, unintentionally heeding to the shoe company’s motto, “Just Do It.”
The origins of Heaven’s Gate began two decades earlier in Texas. There, two star-crossed ‘soulmates’ named Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles teamed up to propagate their shared interest in mysticism and Biblical prophecy. Convinced that fate had brought them together, the platonic partners believed they were the two witnesses referenced in chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation.
Applewhite, the son of Presbyterian minister, fused his belief in extraterrestrials with Christian theology. He eagerly told anyone who would listen, that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, that God was an alien, and End Times were near. Unfortunately, word count restrictions prevent further elaboration on Applewhite’s wonderfully eccentric life. But in short, he was openly gay, operated a delicatessen in New Mexico, taught music at the University of Alabama, performed with the Houston Grand Opera, and had himself castrated to avoid distractions from sins of the flesh.
Although Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite (now known as “Do”) continued to grow his flock and establish a home base in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. The group would also earn the distinction of being the first well-known American cult of the Internet era, exploiting the new technology to reach a wider audience. The new tool also allowed them to generate a large portion of their income from designing web pages.
By the early spring 1997, “Do” managed to persuade 38 of his most devout followers that their unfulfilling existence on this planet would soon come to an end. He claimed that Hale-Bopp, an unusually bright comet, provided a clear sign to shed their earthly bodies (or “vehicles”) and join a tailing spacecraft traveling that would transport them to a higher plane of existence. The cult members committed suicide over a few days in late March 1997. One by one, they died in shifts, consuming a lethal cocktail of phenobarbital and vodka.
Police found an eerily calm and orderly crime scene when entering the plush, seven-room mansion on March 26, 1997. All 39 victims were found lying face up and covered with a purple shroud over the identical outfits and infamous black and white footwear. Other details emerged, revealing the cult’s cheeky sense of humor: they each packed an overnight bag, put five dollars and change in their pockets, and wore an arm patch stating “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”
3. Branch Davidians
As the head honcho of an apocalyptic Bible-based sect, David Koresh convinced his congregation that he was the flesh and blood embodiment of God. The Federal government, however, held a different view. Following an investigation linking the self-proclaimed ‘messiah’ to child abuse, statutory rape, and illegally stockpiling weapons, the two sides would clash in a deadly showdown on the outskirts of Waco, Texas.
Situated in the central plains of the Lone Star state near Baylor University and the Dr. Pepper Museum, the Mount Carmel compound served as the headquarters for the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of a splinter group of the Seven-Day Adventists. There, in this extremely religious and rural setting, Wayne Vernon Howell first arrived in 1981. The handsome, 22-year old with wavy, long hair had aspired to a rock star before turning his attention to the gospel. He quickly established himself as a fast-talking, guitar-strumming preacher, who relentlessly sermonized about an impending doom and the need to prepare for a fiery confrontation with evil forces.
Howell would eventually change his name to David Koresh, inspired by two powerful Biblical kings. He also seduced the group’s then-leader, Lois Roden, who was 67 at the time. Koresh later took over the Davidians and became increasingly domineering while turning the facility into an armed fortress. Additionally, his followers were commanded to stay celibate while Koresh freely bedded a harem of “spiritual wives” (including girls as young as twelve years old) with whom he fathered several children. Church members overlooked the sexual abuse because they believed God ordained it.
On February 28, 1993, agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) raided the compound, resulting in a gun battle that left four agents and six Branch Davidians dead. An ensuing standoff would last 51 days before government forces launched a tear gas assault to flush out the defiant, well-armed defenders. Instead, a massive fire soon erupted, possibly set by the Davidians as an affirmation of a prophesied inferno.
It’s worth noting that Koresh had been writing a manuscript detailing how he decoded the secrets held in the Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation, and that upon completion, he promised to surrender — a ploy the Feds saw as another stall tactic.
In the end, more than 70 sect members, including at least 20 children, were killed. Authorities also discovered the charred remains of Koresh, who had a gunshot wound to his head. He was 33 years old — the same age as Jesus Christ when he died.
2. Manson Family
Sharon Tate, a rising Hollywood star and the wife of acclaimed director Roman Polanski, was over eight months pregnant as she relaxed with friends at her home in Benedict Canyon, California, on the night of August 8, 1969. The next morning, local authorities discovered her mutilated dead body and four other victims in one of the most gruesome crime scenes in American history. Two more horrific killings would soon follow — crimes collectively known as the Tate-LaBianca Murders — and all carried out by the followers of Charles Manson.
After spending most of his juvenile and adult life in reformatories or prison, Manson moved to San Francisco during the “Summer of Love” in 1967. He managed to attract a small but devout group consisting primarily of young, displaced women that became known as “The Family.” They eventually settled at Spahn Ranch, a vacant former movie studio near Los Angeles, where psychedelic drugs and orgies were aplenty, and Manson pontificated his perverse prophecy of a violent race war.
The scheme included his misinterpretation of The Beatles song, “Helter Skelter,” along with a desire to frame the Black Panthers for a series of crimes to appear racially motivated. Manson also instructed his girls to make it look “witchy.” Afterward, the pint-sized prophet envisaged himself emerging as a messianic figurehead and the savior of White people.
Tragically, Tate would suffer the most during the frenzied killing spree. As the mother-to-be pleaded for the life of her unborn child, she was mercilessly stabbed in the stomach by Susan Atkins, who told her, “Look, bitch, I have no mercy for you. You’re going to die, and you’d better get used to it.” The drugged up former topless dancer then used Tate’s blood to write the word ‘PIG’ on the front door of the house.
Manson was later convicted of first-degree murder in 1971 but avoided the death penalty when California abolished the punishment. He served out his prison sentence until he died on November 19, 2017. Throughout his life, he would be flooded with fan mail — a reflection of the perverse attention given to diabolical criminals instead of the victims.
1. The People’s Temple
Tyrant. Rebel. Underdog. Messiah. Psychopath. Jim Jones wore many hats as the founder of The People’s Temple, drawing on a wide range of influences that included both Gandhi and Hitler. In the end, the infamous cult leader would forever cement his legacy on November 18, 1978, following the mass/murder-suicide of more than 900 of his followers in Guyana’s jungles.
Jones began his ministry in his home state of Indiana during the mid-1950s. He attracted a diverse following and delivered a message in support of racial equality, social justice, and integration — controversial topics in a deeply divided America. The young reverend struggled but remained steadfast in his commitment to growing the church by any means necessary. To raise money, he even imported monkeys and sold them door to door as pets.
The congregation gradually began to swell — both financially and in size. Jones then headed West to California, where he used his charm to establish several other chapters while also gathering political clout. Adding to his empire, the bi-sexual boss purchased a large swath of land in Guyana, where he set out to create an autonomous utopian settlement in the remote South American country. Naturally, he named it Jonestown.
By 1977, several disturbing reports began surfing about the quasi-religious group with allegations of sexual abuse and violence by Jones. The man known as “Father” had also become addicted to heavy pharmaceutical drugs such as barbiturates and amphetamines, making his actions alarmingly volatile. After permanently relocating to Guyana, Jones ran his private compound more like a communist prison camp, forcing the group to endure Spartan conditions in an environment rife with malaria and other tropical diseases.
A delegation headed by United States Congressman Leo Ryan finally decided to visit Jonestown and investigate. Jones initially attempted to block them from entering the commune before finally relenting. Unable to hoodwink the politician with a thinly veiled charade, Jones ordered his henchmen to ambush the group as they boarded their planes to leave, killing Ryan and five others.
Shortly afterward, Jones ordered all of his followers — including 246 children — to engage in “revolutionary suicide.” Guards armed with guns and crossbows ensured that nobody got out alive. Although most of the victims died from drinking a grape-flavored beverage laced with poison, Jones would be found later among the dead with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot to the right temple.
Until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Jonestown resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act. Investigators would find ample supplies of drugs that included chloral hydrate, cyanide, Valium and Phenergan. They also determined the fatal concoction had been mixed with packets of Flavor Aid — not Kool Aid. Nonetheless, the metaphor “Drinking the Kool-Aid” would become synonymous with falling under someone’s spell.