17 of the Most Terrifying Cults in History

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Official dictionaries define “cult” as a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious, such as satanic cults. Another definition is a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing. In many of the more extreme cults, a charismatic leader charms, some say brainwashes, members to follow an unconventional religion and set of rules.

Some of these groups are more extreme than others, but they all have at least three characteristics in common: they are exclusive, secretive, and authoritarian. Cult members believe everyone else is wrong; they don’t advertise their activities; and they usually have a leader whom they worship.

Some might consider hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Neo Nazis as cults. We excluded such groups from our list because unlike the typical cult, hate groups target particular or several groups of people with an intention of doing harm. They commit biased crimes based on their prejudices. The terrifying cults on the following list are not, for the most part, violent against non-members. They live according to their own beliefs, which often involve the imminent end of the world.

Cult leaders are usually charismatic, controlling, and pathologically narcissistic. They use the fact that people admire them to convince them they are more special and better than the rest of the population and they are misunderstood. They demand unconditional loyalty and prey on vulnerable individuals.

Not all cults are inherently bad. The problem occurs when members become too involved and are blindly willing to devote their lives to the group and its leader. Non-members are then perceived as the enemy and relatives are cut off.

Many of the cults on our list used and abused women and children in the name of some disturbing religions. Others were simply con artists, defrauding sick and other people out of millions of dollars. Others yet met a horrific end, with the deaths of tens if not hundreds of cult members.

Click here to read about the most terrifying cults in history.