A “cult” typically refers to a social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding population considers to be outside the mainstream. Cults usually expect a large amount of time and money to be devoted as well. And sometimes a cult will ask the ultimate price, your life. Here are 10 cults that have changed the way the world looks at cults.
Scientology may not be considered a true “doomsday” cult as most others on this list are, but it still has a stronghold all over the world, and its fair share of detractors who tell stories of mind control, financial devastation, and criminal activity leading to the deaths of those trying to escape the religion. Created by L. Ron Hubbard in 1947 in his first office on La Brea and Sunset in Los Angeles, Scientology is a religion based on the idea of clearing the “thetans” of outer space entities from the human psyche, with intense therapy sessions that rely on the use of a crude lie detector test, known as an E-Meter. Followers: Beck, Tom Cruise, Priscilla Presley. Scientology runs centers all over the world, but its best known is the Celebrity Center in Los Angeles, where many of its most renowned members come to “get clear”.
9. Hare Krishna
Founded in 1966, the Hare Krishna cult was a fixture in the seventies, with yellow-robed disciples panhandling at every major airport and intersection. The epitome of hippie idealism, Krishna followers believed utterly in the God “Krishna” who was actually a character created for a novel, Mahabaratha. The distinctive, relentless chanting practiced by followers of this cult actually meant “the energy of the Lord”. Krishna followers lived a hardscrabble, Spartan existence, with the barest level of sustenance, and very little sleep: they suffered for their religion, believing that they would be rewarded by ascension to a spiritual paradise after many reincarnations. However, not every member of the Krishna organization suffered: the higher echelons were well fed, housed in luxury, and surrounded by women catering to their every need. Although the Hare Krishna’s may also escape “doomsday cult” status, there are dark tales of disciples willing to do anything for their religion, including robbery and murder. Famous Followers: The Beatles, for a time.
8. The Unification Church
Better known by the mocking nickname, “Moonies”, the disciples of Sun Myung Moon believe that Moon himself is the divine being, or Messiah. His status as the second coming of Christ allows him to live in royal fashion, supported by his many followers all over the world. Moon was unwelcome in Germany, being banned from the country, along with his wife, as a potentially dangerous influence on German youth: they were not allowed to enter Germany until 2006. It is believed that the cult lures in young people and separates them from their loved ones by making them feel a part of a new and more loving family. Moon expects to be treated as God, because he believes he is God, or so he has led his many followers to believe. Other belief systems of the Moonie cult are that an actual kingdom of heaven exists on Earth, not solely in the afterlife, as Christians believe. Korea is the chosen realm of this kingdom, according to Moon, who has earned millions and millions of dollars from Koreans, his chosen people, while preaching that Christian churches are the devil’s instruments.
7. Children of God
A seriously twisted cult that delivered an evil message that sex with children was natural and right, The Children of God cult was also known as the Family and was founded by David Berg. Known for turning female cult followers into prostitutes who used sex to entice men into the cult, they were the purveyors of “The System”, a doctrine that included belief in the Apocalypse. Actress Rose McGowan of Charmed was raised in the cult, and so was River Phoenix, who later died after an overdose in front of Johnny Depp’s Viper Room. The cult’s system of sexual abuse and “flirty fishing” (the use of sex to lure new members) makes it a particularly nasty addition to our list.
6. The Ku Klux Klan (or KKK)
Spawned from the intensely racist Christian Identity Movement, The KKK practiced cold-blooded acts of murder during their reign of terror, at its most potent during the time after the Civil War. But their activities, born out of a desire for white supremacy, did not stop there. Famous for the meetings they attended, fully hidden by white robes and hoods, and the burning crosses they would erect to frighten those they despised, the KKK membership swelled to almost four million at its peak in 1928. The KKK had many enemies, looking down not only on the entire black race, but also on Catholics, Jews, and other non-white races
5. The Manson Family
One of the most notorious cults of the modern age, the Manson Family was small, but deadly. Led by charismatic leader Charles Manson, a juvenile delinquent who sodomized other boys while in detention, Family followers believed in Helter Skelter, a massive retaliation by the black race against, in their own words, “whitey”. They also shared Manson’s belief that the Beatles’ White Album was sending them messages about how to participate in Helter Skelter. Songs like Piggies”, from that album, inspired drug-addled murderers like Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel to go into the Hollywood Hills and commit the gruesome murders of successful, rich members of the upper classes. When Roman Polanksi’s pregnant fiancée, the stunning actress Sharon Tate, begged for the life of her unborn baby, she was told, “I have no mercy for you”.
4. Heaven’s Gate
A true doomsday cult, Heaven’s Gate followers believed in UFOs and that the Earth (and everyone on it) was about to be “wiped clean” and “recycled”. The only chance of escape, preached leaders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, was to get off the planet – immediately. Such teachings were the harbingers of mass suicides, and the followers were prepared with instructional videos and teachings, to leave their “flesh bodies” behind, and ascend to a new level of being. When the Hale-Bopp comet appeared in 1997, Applewhite had the sign he needed. Convinced that a spaceship was waiting just beyond the comet, to rescue his followers, he ordered the suicides of 38 followers, who believed it all. The 38 followers, and Applewhite, were all found dead in a beautiful house in San Diego in 1997.
3. The Order of the Solar Temple
Another cult with a charismatic leader, Luc Joret, the Order of the Solar Temple also preached the message of Apocalypse, claiming that it would come through natural disasters. Only Solar Temple converts would escape the fate of mankind: since they were the faithful, they would be spared. The Solar Temple devotees believed that suicide was actually salvation, and that they would be really be going on a journey to a star called Sirius. These beliefs were so strong that, in 1994, 53 members of the cult were found dead of suicide in a compound near Geneva, Switzerland. Joret, having earned more than 93 million dollars instilling this doctrine in his followers, was one of the dead in Switzerland, apparently also on a “death voyage” to a distant star. Joret started out as Gestapo officer during World War II.
*Editor’s note: Joret was not a member of the Gestapo, but was recruited to a French-based group called the Reformed Order of the Temple whose leader, Julien Origas, was a former Gestapo officer.
2. Branch Davidians
David Koresh was a charismatic leader who taught his followers that the United States Government was the enemy of God. Also preaching the now-familiar refrain of apocalyptic terror and destruction, Koresh installed all of his followers at a compound in Waco, Texas, with some serious weapons, and instructions to fear and fight the authorities that “threatened” their life at the cult. Koresh enjoyed the bodies of his young female followers, while painting himself as the Messiah. In February of 1994, the ATF went out to the compound, to investigate allegations of the sexual abuse of children as young as twelve, and the illegal hoarding of weapons. A famous standoff ended in tragedy as canisters of tear gas were tossed into the compound by the ATF, resulting (maybe?) in fires that caused the death of 76 members. There is much contention about whose fault the tragic fire was: the controversy continues to this day.
1. The People’s Temple
Jim Jones, the leader of The People’s Temple, was an odd child who was intrigued, at a very young age, by religious zeal and a strong interest in “death”. From these abnormal beginnings, Jones rose to become a macabre symbol of mind control and brainwashing. Jones cloaked his darker interest in death beneath a veneer of Socialism, believing that true religious consciousness would lead to a socialist viewpoint. He felt that the Bible was ridiculous; a sort of joke or fairy tale, and his followers grew in numbers as he refined his own doctrine. Eventually, Jones and his disciples had to flee the United States, as they were pressured by the government regarding charges of violence, abuse of followers, and illegal cult activity. They escaped to a settlement in Guyana, which Jones named (naturally) Jonestown. This is where the largest mass suicide in cult history was played out, the result of Jones convincing his followers that they were being pursued by foreign governments who would torture them and hurt their children. Gripped with terror, 909 followers (including many children) drank the infamous Kool-Aid and gave their lives over to the cult, forever.
*Editor’s note: Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, was the drink used to poison cult members.