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. (These are the states with the most hate groups .)
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.
1. The Manson Family
Charles Manson controlled his followers of mostly young hippies with his Helter Skelter philosophy. He was preaching that a racial war, started by the black community, was coming, and that he would protect the “Manson Family” by taking them to live in the desert to wait out Armageddon. He believed it was his and his family’s responsibility to start the conflict. This is one theory for the motive behind the murders of actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, in their home, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The idea was to make people believe the murders were committed by African-Americans. Manson and his followers were together charged with nine murders. He died in prison in 2017.
2. Heaven’s Gate
The UFO religious cult is one of the most notorious religious organizations in history. In March 1997, the world was shocked when 39 people wearing the same black sweatshirts and sneakers were found dead in a house in a suburb of San Diego. The motive was to reach an alien spacecraft that trailed the approaching Hale-Bopp comet. The cult believed the human body was holding them back by keeping them on Earth and that by abandoning their Earthly containers they move on to the “Next Level.”
Jim Jones, a self proclaimed messiah, was the leader of The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. He and cult members physically and emotionally abused followers, and he had coerced many to transfer their possessions to the church. In 1977, he moved nearly a thousand of his followers to Jonestown, Guyana, where conditions were extremely poor. The night after cult members killed U.S. congressman Leo Ryan who came to investigate conditions at the camp, Jones commanded his followers to drink poison, many forced at gunpoint. In all, over 900 people, one-third of them children under age 17, died on Nov. 18, 1978.
4. The Children of God
The cult, formerly known as Family International, was founded in 1968 by David Berg, who believed Christians should live as simple as possible and according to the teachings of the First Century Church because all others are fake. Female members were expected to seduce non-member men and recruit them. The organization’s most controversial practice was sexual abuse of children. Members believed in “free love,” which, as Berg explained to them, love was sex and it should not be limited by age or relationship status.
The cult is known for its charismatic leader, self-help guru Keith Raniere, who was luring women by marketing self-help organization Nxivm. Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for trafficking and forced labor conspiracy. He is said to have branded the women in the group with a symbol resembling his initials. Allison Mack, an actress known for her role in the TV series “Smallville,” was a co-conspirator and had recruited women. She also used damaging photos for blackmail. Mack was sentenced to three years after pleading guilty and cooperating with with the police against Raniere.
6. Branch Davidians
The religious cult based in Waco, Texas, is mostly known for its end — the Waco Siege. Cult members believed Christ was about to return to the world and establish a kingdom, and they were attending Bible studies almost all day, every day. The group’s leader, David Koresh, told members they were there to learn, not have fun. The FBI had obtained a warrant to search the cult’s headquarters because the agency believed the cult was selling weapons. What resulted was a standoff that lasted almost two months. Accounts of the events are somewhat disputed. In all, close to 80 members, including Koresh and 25 children, died of either gunshots or as a result of the fires that broke out.
7. The Order of the Solar Temple
The international religious organization’s full name is International Order of Chivalry Solar Tradition. Its philosophy is based on ideological views of the Knights Templar, a religious military order during the crusades. Members believed the world would be facing an apocalypse in the mid-1990s for which they had to prepare by going on a spiritual plane. The founders of the cult, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro were allegedly forcing members to give them money and convincing them they should die burning in order to go to heaven. The obscure cult made headlines when its members were found burned to death in Canada, Switzerland, and France.
8. Aum Shinrikyo
The Japanese cult was behind the fatal nerve agent sarin attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995. Its leader, Shoko Asahara, was executed. Members believed the world was coming to an end and everyone who wasn’t a member was going to hell, unless he or she was killed by the cult. Asahara orchestrated the attack in an attempt to help the doomed. The group still exists, going by the name of Aleph.
9. Honohana Sampogyo
The cult was founded in Japan by Hogen Fukunaga, who claimed the world was doomed and he was its final savior. He was charging sick and otherwise vulnerable people, including cancer patients, for training in his cult, promising to cure them that way. He also claimed he could read people’s past and future by looking at their feet. The organization, which had about 30,000 members at its peak, reportedly collected a total of about $1 billion. Fukunaga was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud.
10. The Sullivanians
Saul B. Newton, a war veteran, founded the Sullivan Research Institute in 1957. He rejected traditional Western family values because, he believed, they were the basic cause of mental illness. This is why the group’s members were told to stop all communication with relatives, including parents, siblings, and children. Many of the members were grouped by Newton and his wife to live together. Members were encouraged to date other members at the same time because monogamy was considered outdated. Newton and his wife also controlled what professions members pursued, what hobbies they had, and how their children should be raised.
11. Matamoros Human Sacrifice Cult
The religious cult in Mexico City was founded by Adolfo Constanzo, a serial killer. As a teenager, Constanzo worked with a priest who was helping him learn how to “profit from evil.” He later vowed himself to Kadiempembe, or the devil. He claimed to have magic powers that would make people invisible and bulletproof. He recruited people to perform the ritual murders. He is believed to have orchestrated them, including mutilations, in the belief that the rites would protect their drug-smuggling ring.
12. The True Russian Orthodox Church
Members of this doomsday cult in Russia were hiding in a cave for six months, waiting for the world to end in the spring of 2008. The cult’s leader, Pyotr Kuznetsov, was a self-declared prophet, who established the True Russian Orthodox Church. He was not among his followers in the cave. They threatened to kill themselves if police authorities tried to force them out. Some eventually left because the snow was melting, which led to the partial collapse of the cave. Members believed that after they died they would be the ones judging who goes to heaven or hell. The cave did not entirely collapse but members left due to the stench from the bodies of two people who had died there over the winter.
13. Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
The church’s leader, Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting at least two underage girls, whom he considered his wives. Warren told female members of the group that if they rejected him they would be rejected by God. He was believed to have about 80 wives and 50 children. According to recent interviews with cult members, Jeffs had controlled the lives of almost all 15,000 members. The children in the group did not go to school or interact with anyone from the outside world. More than 400 children were found when the cult’s ranch was raided in 2008. Jeffs was arrested during a routine traffic stop.
14. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
Members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, based in Uganda, were taught to strictly obey the Ten Commandments and follow the word of Christ. They were told the Virgin Mary and Jesus were always watching them and would curse them if they did not. Members believed this was the only way to avoid the apocalypse. They even did not speak because they were afraid they could break the commandment that prohibits lying. Close to 1,000 members of the сult were killed in a fire. What happened exactly is not clear. Some witnesses say they killed themselves because they believed Virgin Mary would appear on that day.
15. Fayzrakhman Sattarov
Fayzrakhman Sattarov was the leader of a Russian cult of about 70 people, more than a third of whom were kids, who lived in a catacomb. Some are believed to never have seen daylight. Followers believed he was the messenger of Allah on earth and threatened to throw themselves in front of bulldozers if police tried to tear down their settlement. The cult was accidentally discovered during a routine check on Muslim communities in village of Torfyanoy near Kazan by security forces.
16. Church of Euthanasia
The Church of Euthanasia was founded in Boston in 1992 by Chris Korda, who was very concerned about the planet and global warming. The organization’s anti-people philosophy consists of one absolute order: “Thou Shalt not Procreate.” Korda and his followers believed that the world’s problems, including climate change, water supply shortage, and the extinction of species, were the result of overpopulation. They also believed the only way to solve the problems is to reduce the population. They were active in the early ’90s. Their most famous slogan is “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself.”
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, more commonly known as Osho, was a popular Indian spiritual leader. He was teaching his followers, whom you’d recognize by their orange robes, a mixture of mysticism, philosophy, and free love, promising them paradise. The group was forced to leave India due to a dispute with the government, and it relocated in Oregon, creating Rajneeshpuram. The ruthless second in command, Ma Anand Sheela, is said to have used extreme methods such as poison and arson to fight those who threatened their way of life. The commune is the subject of a Netflix series called “Wild Wild Country.”
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