Even though some people think that cults refer to a religious organization, religion doesn’t always have to be involved. A cult refers to a social organization or movement that is bound together by a shared commitment either to a cause or to a leader.
Although cults proclaim that they’re no different than mainstream religions, there are several key differences between cults and religions. Cults are more likely to “barrage” potential followers, are interested more in controlling rather than guiding, and will sometimes create a system where only the leader is to be trusted. However, it should be noted there are substantial differences between cults and social organizations that aren’t accepted by the mainstream, and often the designation of “cult” leads society to reject the victims and survivors of abusive situations.
Cults don’t necessarily have to be violent, although all too often such rigid and hierarchical organizations are created to facilitate abuse. As a result, several cults in history became incredibly dangerous to members and non-members alike. These are some of the most dangerous cults in recent history.
LET’S START WITH ALEPH
Initially a yoga training school and publishing house run by Shoko Asahara, by the 1980s, Aum Shinrikyo’s ideology began forming around “an eminent war between good and evil, and killing those who stand in the way of the supreme truth is justified,” according to History of Aum Shinrikyo, with Shoko Asahara as their leader and first “enlightened one.”
“A Case Study on the Aum Shinrikyo” writes that Aum Shinrikyo was granted “official religious corporation status” in 1989, and for six years this allowed the cult to fly under the radar as they created chemical and biochemical agents. They were relatively unknown outside of Japan until March 20th, 1995, when three subway lines in Tokyo were targeted in a sarin attack that killed 13 people and left over 6,000 injured. This also wasn’t their first sarin attack. In June 1994, Aum Shinrikyo was responsible for a sarin attack in Matsumoto, Japan that targeted several judges.
In total, the trials for the sarin gas attacks lasted almost 20 years and almost everyone who was involved in the attacks was convicted. According to The Japan Times, although the Japanese Supreme Court ordered Aum Shinrikyo to break as a religious organization, its followers split off into two groups; Hikari no Wa and Aleph. Both groups remain under surveillance in Japan, as does Yamadara no Shudan, a splinter group of mostly women that emerged in 2015.
WHEN CULTS MEET ELECTIONS
Before the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” laid bare the many abuses of the Rajneeshpuram community, they were known primarily for committing the largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history. The Rajneesh movement, also known as Sannyasin, was founded by Osho in the 1960s. Before moving his community to the United States, Osho preached “dynamic meditation” in his ashram in Pune, India until the local government forced him to relocate.
After struggles with the local government in Wasco County in Oregon also arose, the Rajneeshpuram community decided that the only way to replace the sitting commissioners in the next elections would involve suppressing the turnout. According to The Atlantic, this involved going to various local restaurants in the autumn of 1984 and pouring “Salmonella-tainted liquid on items in the salad bar or salsa station.” Although fortunately no one died as a result of the bioterror attack, over 750 people were affected over the course of the two outbreaks.
Slate writes that although local residents knew that the Rajneeshpuram community was responsible, the government didn’t investigate the commune until one year later. When they did, they found “a fully fledged bioterrorism lab containing salmonella cultures and literature on the manufacture and usage of explosives and military biowarfare. Also discovered was one of the largest illegal wire-tapping operations ever found, and an assassination plot on the life of Charles Turner, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon.”
THE MOST NOTORIOUS FAMILY
Led by Charles Manson, the Manson Family became notorious after the Tate-LaBianca murders, but it’s suspected that they had as many as 35 victims. However, according to Smithsonian Magazine, in the late 1960s as the cult was forming, the Manson Family mostly just took LSD and listened to Manson “preach about the past, present, and future of humanity.”
Manson was also trying to make it in the music business, and after being “increasingly fixated on stardom,” some believe that his rejection by what he considered to be the establishment is what ultimately led to the Tate-LaBianca murders. However, Bobby Beausoleil, one of the Manson family members sentenced to death for the murder of Gary Hinman, claims that the killings were done in an attempt to convince the police that there was a copycat killer still on the loose after he was arrested, writes Time Magazine.
Although Manson didn’t participate in the murders, he was still convicted due to his manipulation of the Manson Family and his direction of the Family to the Tate house. Most of the Manson Family members were arrested and convicted in late 1969 and early 1970. But Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme wasn’t arrested until September 5th, 1975, when she aimed an unloaded gun at President Gerald R. Ford, and was sentenced to life in prison.
A MASS MURDER DISGUISED AS SUICIDE
Although the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project started off as a group advocating communitarian living, it ended up becoming what writer Shiva Naipaul described as a “fundamentalist religious project.” Although they claimed to blend social justice, New Age spirituality, and evangelical Christianity, the end result was an authoritarian apocalyptic cult that demanded blackmail out of its members.
Created by Reverend Jim Jones in the 1960s, the commune was headquartered in California before moving to Guyana in 1977. Naming the land they leased “Jonestown,” within a year almost 1,000 people were part of the commune. Around this time, they also began practicing drills known as “white nights,” where the inhabitants of Jonestown would pledge their willingness to die or even pretend to drink poison.
On November 18th, 1978, the drill became a reality when the followers of Peoples Temple Agricultural Project were forced to ingest cyanide. According to Time Magazine, over 300 children were forced to drink the cyanide-laced fruit punch, and those who didn’t willingly follow Jones’ instructions “were injected with poison; others tried to run for the surrounding jungle only to be shot by one of Jones’ armed guards.” In total, 918 people lost their lives. At the time, this was considered the largest incident of intentional civilian death in American history.
A CULT OF RACISM
In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a white supremacist cult that has violently terrorized Black Americans, as well as Jewish and Catholic people, ever since its inception as a “secret society” in 1865. According to A History of Racial Injustice, the KKK has always been “devoted to white supremacy.” However, they were never much of a secret and from the beginning used “armed guerilla warfare” to target Black and white Americans who supported racial justice. Associated Press reports that the KKK’s rule book, known as the Kloran, outlines the ideology of the KKK, including their obsession with white supremacy, as well as their rituals and wardrobes.
Smithsonian Magazine reports that between 1865 and 1950, it’s estimated that 6,500 lynchings occurred. There were also numerous bombings campaigns that claimed an unknown number of lives. Southern Poverty Law Center writes that between January 1956 and June 1963, “some 138 bombings were reported, and the Klan was believed to be responsible for many of them.”
The most horrific bombing occurred at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15th, 1963. According to Black Past, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, all young Black girls, were killed in the bombing. Twenty-two other people were injured, “many of them children that had been in the same group as the girls.”
REACHING FOR A HIGHER PLANE
Heaven’s Gate was started by Marshall Herff Applewhite in the 1970s with Bonnie Lu Nettles. Initially, they blended together Christianity, astrology, and science fiction and convinced around 20 Oregonians to go to Colorado and wait for an alien spaceship to come pick them up, according to How Stuff Works. However, when the spaceship never came, Applewhite’s followers started dwindling. People cycled in and out of the group for decades, and members had to wear certain clothes and maintain certain haircuts. Some members of Heaven’s Gate, including Applewhite, “even agreed to be castrated, to help them loosen ties to their earthly lives.”
Applewhite believed that the aliens that were coming to pick up Heaven’s Gate were behind the Hale-Bopp comet that was coming by Earth, and in late March 1997, Applewhite convinced 38 other people to complete suicide “in a ritualistic ‘exit’ of their human shells” according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. Rolling Stone writes that the Heaven’s gate members ate applesauce laced with barbiturates, washed it down with vodka, and then tied plastic bags around their heads. When police found their bodies on March 26th, they were all wearing black track suits and black Nike sneakers, and most were covered in purple blankets.
The deaths also weren’t simultaneous. It’s believed that the deaths happened over the course of three days, and may have required assistance.
TARGETING THE MOST VULNERABLE
When the Children of God was founded by David Berg in Huntington Beach, California in 1968, it was originally known as Teens for Christ. But in an attempt to appeal to “a wider group of vulnerable, disaffected youth,” Berg changed the name and by 1969, had almost 50 converts.
The Children of God merged teachings of communal living with Christianity in addition to underlining the importance of sexual interactions. And Timeline writes that the Children of God encouraged sexual relations not only in an attempt to convert followers, but also amongst members and young children. Children as young as 10-years-old, if not younger, were sexually abused by members of the group, and Berg had sex with his own daughter when she was 12-years-old. According to the BBC, children were also subject to physical abuse “for the smallest of transgressions.”
Although the Children of God was disbanded in 1978, it retained most of its foundational ideas and merely changed its name to The Family. It’s not clear exactly how many children suffered abuse in the Children of God or The Family, but in 1983, the group claimed to have more than 10,000 members. Several celebrities such as Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix were even born into the cult.
The Order of the Solar Temple was founded in 1983 by Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro. The cult claimed to follow the teachings of the Knights Templar, and Di Mambro even convinced his followers that in his past life he was part of the Christian Order of the Knights Templar in the 14th century.
According to the Toronto Sun, the Order of the Solar Temple became notorious in 1994 when the bodies of their members were found in burnt farmhouses in Switzerland. Swiss Info writes that the founders were among the dead, and “several had been shot in the head or asphyxiated, [while] many had been drugged.” Between 1994 and 1997, a total of 74 cult members would lose their lives.
Several days before the first of the mass murder-suicides, the Order of the Solar Temple was also responsible for the murder of the Dutoit family, who’d named their newborn son the same name as Di Mambro’s child. Film Daily writes that “one of the main beliefs of the Order of the Solar Temple is that a sign of the end of the world would be the birth of a god-child” and Di Mambro had already claimed his child as the god-child. Claiming that the Dutoit’s child was the antichrist, the entire family was murdered.
LIVING IN SILENCE
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was founded by Joseph Kibweteere and Credonia Mwerinde in the late 1980s. According to the BBC, after they claimed that they’d had visions of the Virgin Mary, by 1991 they had almost 200 people in their cult, which members believed to be devoted to preaching the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Guardian writes that followers “wore black uniforms, were forbidden to speak, and communicated only in sign language.”
Tragedy struck on March 17th, 2000, when between 700 and 1,000 followers were massacred inside a burning church. Doused in petrol and set on fire, the door and windows were also boarded up from the outside to keep people from escaping. Neither Kibweteere nor Mwerinde were found, and it’s unknown if they’re even alive. But as of 2020, no one has been prosecuted for the massacre.
According to “The Uganda Cult Tragedy,” this may not have been the only massacre the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was responsible for. Several mass graves were also found at the homes of some of the other leaders of the Movement.
COOPERATING WITH DICTATORS
Located in central Chile, Colonia Dignidad was an isolated cult of German and Chilean people founded by Paul Schäfer, a former Nazi-era army medic, in 1961. According to ZZF, Schäfer fled Germany after allegations of child sex abuse began to emerge against him, and over 180 adults and 50 children followed him to Chile. As a preacher, Schäfer had amassed a following in Germany, but in Colonia Dignidad the followers became prisoners in a “fortress-like German settlement.”
The BBC reports that children were forced to live apart from their parents and many ended up suffering sexual abuse. Armed guards with dogs made sure that escape wasn’t possible. And in addition to their own abuses, Colonia Dignidad cooperated with the Pinochet regime and was a place where dissidents were tortured and interrogated. “About 300 opponents of the regime were interrogated and tortured in its underground tunnels both by members of the Chilean secret police and Schäfer’s associates.” It’s believed that at least 100 people were murdered at Colonia Dignidad.
In 1996, Schäfer was indicted on child sex abuse charges and proceeded to go on the run for almost a decade until finally being captured in 2005. He and 26 other cult members were convicted in absentia in 2004, but some of them fled to Germany before they could be jailed. In 2019, Germany was ordered to pay up to $4.2 million to the survivors of the commune.
TORTURE IN THE WILDERNESS
The Ant Hill Kids was a cult that started when Roch Thériault, a Seventh-day Adventist, convinced a group of people to quit their jobs and follow his teachings on a commune in 1977. According to CVLT Nation, the group was named for their “ant-like hard work” and were forbidden from contacting their families outside the cult. As time went on, the rules got stricter, to the point where “members were restricted from speaking to each other without Thériault present.”
Going by the name “Moses,” Thériault subjected the cult members and children to severe physical abuse, including the 26 children born of him. In 1987, up to 14 children were removed from the cult and put into the foster care system. Thériault also acted as a surgeon at times, and “most followers lost limbs, teeth, fingers, and toes to this practice.” According to Toronto.com, the group was active in Quebec until the early 80s, when Thériault was convicted of criminal negligence and in response the group moved to Ontario, though they remained in the wilderness.
It wasn’t until 1989, when Thériault amputated the arm of follower Gabrielle Lavallee, that the cult was finally investigated and Thériault was arrested. In addition to the assault of Lavallee, Thériault was also sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife Solange Boilard, on whom he performed a horrifically crude surgery when she was suffering from what’s thought to have been appendicitis.
WHEN CULTS STAND-OFF
The Branch Davidian were also an offshoot from the Seventh-day Adventists. Originally called the Davidians, the group was founded by Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant, in 1930. According to Vox, Houteff was the one to headquarter the Davidians in Waco, Texas, and after his death, the group was taken over by Benjamin Roden and became known as the Branch Davidians. David Koresh joined the Branch Davidians in 1981, and after “claiming the gift of prophecy,” he set himself up as a messiah for the cult.
The Conversation writes that on February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) tried to execute a “dynamic entry” search and arrest warrant since they believed that Koresh had illegal weapons. Although no one knows exactly what happened, the raid turned into a gun fight that led to five deaths on each side. Numerous ATF agents were also injured. The standoff lasted for 51 days, until on April 19th, FBI agents raided the compound using tanks and tear gas. As a result, the compound burst into flames and the fire led to the deaths of “76 of the 85 Branch Davidians, including Koresh and a number of children.”
Many, like religion scholar Catherine Wessinger, believe that the designation of “cult” made it easier for law enforcement agents and the public to shrug off the “excessive, militarized actions” that led to dozens of unnecessary deaths.