Cult is a word that comes from worship, it means to a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object, but it has taken on a sinister meaning in more recent times as it has come to often refer to small groups obsessively following a charismatic leader who exerts an inordinate amount of control over them in strange and terrifying ways.
Many would argue, the only difference between a cult and a religion is the size of its membership, but where some organizations let you come and go as freely as you please, it is the modern day definition of a cult, that sees a troubling amount of power exerted by just one person.
Here we take a look at some of the more infamous of these organizations that made headlines with their beliefs that often led to tragedy or disaster for their followers and other innocent bystanders.
1. The Manson Family
The Manson Family came to represent the dark antithesis of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s as Charles Manson amassed a collection of around 100 followers, mostly young women, together in a commune in Chatsworth near Los Angeles. Rather than wanting to promote free love and unified peace, Manson was under the impression a race war was coming and that he could utilize the resultant chaos and collapse of society to emerge as a global leader and so he set about trying to hasten this race war.
In 1969 he ordered eight of his most loyal followers to commit a series of high-profile murders by going to an address he knew and killing everyone in it. The "family" members did as they were told and murdered the actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant with director Roman Polanski's baby, and four other people: Wojciech Frykowski, Folger's Coffee heiress Abigail Folger, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent, the family gardener.
The group tried to get the blame for their grisly crimes assigned to African-Americans, specifically the Black Panthers, by leaving chilling messages and symbols written in their victims' blood.
Initially, the family weren't suspects in the murders but after members were arrested for a series of car thefts a subsequent investigated led them being indicted for murder in 1969 and sentenced to death. In 1972, the death penalty was abolished in California, and so their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Manson remained jailed until he was 83 when he died of natural causes at 8:13 pm on the 19th November 2017.
2. The Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians (also known as "The Branch") are a religious group that originated in 1955 from a schism in the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists("Davidians"), a reform movement that began as an offshoot from the Seventh-day Adventist Church ("Adventists") around 1930. Some of those who accepted the reform message had been removed from membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church because of their teachings were seen as heretical by Adventists. However, in 1981 David Koresh arrived at a Davidian compound in Waco, Texas and set about gaining followers within the group and by 1987 had become the 'spiritual leader' of the group.
In 1989 Koresh used this power as the spiritual leader to take several "spiritual" wives as young as 12, and this contributed to allegations of child abuse and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives started to build a case against him and his sect.
On February 28, 1993, at 9:45 am the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF) and Explosives attempted to execute a search warrant relating to alleged sexual abuse charges and illegal weapons violations. They were met with armed resistance and were fired upon thus ensued a siege of 51 days. Eventually, the ATF moved to flush out the Davidians using tear gas, and they moved for a final siege of the compound using large weaponry such as .50 caliber (12.7 mm) rifles and armored Combat Engineering Vehicles(CEV) to combat the heavily armed Branch Davidians. Several fires broke out in the compound which was thought to have been started by the Davidians. In all, 4 ATF agents were killed, 16 were wounded, 6 Branch Davidians were killed in the initial raid on February 28, and 76 more were killed in the final siege on April 19.
The authorities later confirmed that David Koresh was shot in the head before the fire engulfed the Waco complex. The FBI believes that Steve Schneider, Koresh's right-hand man, "probably realized he was dealing with a fraud" and shot and killed Koresh before committing suicide with the same gun.
3. Heaven's Gate
Founded in the 1970s, Heaven's Gate was an idea of Marshall Applewhite and nurse Bonnie Nettles whom he met while he was at a psychiatric hospital. An interest in biblical philosophy and extraterrestrial life grew into the Heaven's Gate cult which saw them amass followers and advocate sexual abstinence and with Applewhite undergo castration. In 1975, Applewhite convinced his followers to sell their earthly belongings and disappear into a San Diego mansion in the mountains.
The group believed that there was a "level of existence above human" and that they would leave their physical bodies, enter an alien spacecraft and pass through Heaven's Gate into this higher existence. The spacecraft was supposedly following the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by Earth, and in late March 1997, Applewhite and 38 followers drank a lethal cocktail of Phenobarbital and vodka and lay down to die in a mass suicide. Their bodies were found all in the same black shrouds and box-fresh Nike trainers. Despite this, their website with many of their teachings remains online and can be found here.
4. Children of God
A devout Christian sect founded in 1968 by David Berg, it took a hardline stance against evolution, moral decay, and Western society in a very fundamentalist manner. However, Berg also preached that since "God is love" (1 John 4:8), and His Son, Jesus, is the physical manifestation and embodiment of God's love for humanity, then we as Christian recipients of that love are in turn responsible to be living examples to others of God's great all-encompassing love.
Taking the apostle Paul's writings literally, that said Christians are "dead to the law [of Moses]" (Romans 7:4), through faith in Jesus, David arrived at the rather shocking conclusion that Christians were, therefore, free through God's grace to go to great lengths to show the love of God to others.
This meant that he literally leveraged the sexuality of (usually the young and female) followers to attract more to his cause and he also felt it was a "divine right" to share this love, in all its manifestation with others, including children. In 1987, this practice (known as Flirty Fishing) was discontinued, and Berg died in 1994. The Children of God continue to this day under the name, The Family International and has had members such as Joaquin Phoenix and his family from 1972 to 1978, and actor Rose McGowan who was raised under them until she was 9 years old.
5. Los Narcosatincos
A Satanic cult operating in Mexico near the US border in the 1980s, the group advocated drug use and regularly smuggled narcotics across the border to sell. However, part of the group's beliefs was that sacrificing people to Satan would offer them protection from being caught by law enforcement and these would often come in the form of rival drug dealers.
In 1989, a US student called Mark Kilroy was captured by the group and killed. Kilroy’s brain was boiled, and his limbs were cut off. His butchered body was then buried. Authorities discovered this and hunted down the group's leader Adolfo Constanzo who fled to Mexico City but was tracked down by police thanks to tip-offs. Police approached his apartment, and the cult leader noticed the commotion on the street and opened fire on the officers with a machine gun. But Constanzo could not keep the police at bay once he ran out of ammunition, so he ordered one of his followers to kill him and another associate.
6. Aum Shinrikyo
A Japanese doomsday cult led by Asahara, the beliefs of its followers are rooted in Asahara's idiosyncratic interpretations of elements of early Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism along with Hinduism, taking Shiva as the main image of worship and incorporating millennialist ideas from the Christian Book of Revelation, Yoga and the writings of Nostradamus. Believing that the cult is the only way to survive and transcend the end of days in a coming World War III, nearly 2,000 followers around the world thought that humanity would end in a "nuclear Armageddon" in 1997.
The cult started attracting controversy in the late 1980s with accusations of deception of recruits, and of holding cult members against their will and forcing members to donate money; it murdered a cult member who tried to leave in February 1989.
Growing increasingly dangerous, it was thought that the group had undertaken several chemical attacks on people it thought were a threat to them and so police made plans to raid cult facilities across Japan in March 1995 simultaneously. Allegedly tipped off about this, Ashara ordered the infamous Tokyo subway attack to divert police. On the morning of 20 March 1995, Aum members released sarin in a coordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 commuters, seriously injuring 54 and affecting 980 more. Some estimates claim the sarin injured as many as 6,000 people. It took eight long years to try Asahara for the subway attack, but in February 2004, he was found guilty on 13 charges and sentenced to death by hanging.
He remains on death row to this day.
7. People's Temple
People's Temple was a religious movement founded in 1955 with an initial view to spreading liberal messages of social change and racial equality, and soon it began to gain support from politicians but by the 1960s, the group had turned to focus on religious communalism in which members would donate their material possessions to the Temple in exchange for the Temple meeting all those members' needs.
The group moved to a property in Guyana, where they developed a community called Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, also known as "Jonestown." Jim Jones considered it both a "sanctuary" and "socialist paradise," and by late 1978, it boasted over 900 residents. However, as members left the community, stories started to come out of forced work and bombardment of propaganda.
Jones subjected followers to behavior modification and mind control techniques borrowed from North Korea and made them surrender their children into communal custody and call him "Dad." In 1978, the San Francisco senator Leo Ryan investigated the claims and visited Jonestown, and when leaving, he was shot dead. That evening, Jones instructed his followers to drink a batch of Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, instructing the children to drink first so that parents and elders would have no reason to live on. A total of 918 people, including 276 children, died at Jonestown in an event now referred to as "The Jonestown Massacre".
8. Order of The Solar Temple
Painting itself as a revival of the Medieval Knights Templar, Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret founded the Order of the Solar Temple in Geneva, Switzerland in 1984 claiming that the world would end in the mid-1990s and that Di Mambro's daughter, Emmanuelle, would take the group's members to a planet that revolved around the star Sirius after their earthly death.
In October 1994, Tony Dutoit's infant son (Emmanuel Dutoit), aged three months, was killed at the group's center in Morin-Heights, Quebec. The baby had repeatedly been stabbed with a wooden stake. It is believed that Di Mambro ordered the murder because he identified the baby as the Antichrist described in the Bible. He believed that the Antichrist was born into the order to prevent Di Mambro from succeeding in his spiritual aim.
A few days later, ritual suicides and murders of group members were undertaken to ascend to a higher plain. The buildings were also set on fire after the deaths, and Di Mambro and Jouret's remains were found among the bodies.
9. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
Founded by four ex-Roman Catholic priests, two ex-nuns, and one ex-prostitute, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) in Uganda emphasized the importance of the Ten Commandments and followed doomsday prophecies that said the world would end at the turn of the millennium. As such, the leaders convinced their followers to sell all of their worldly possessions and donate it to the church to guarantee entrance into heaven.
Needless to say, when the world did not end, the prediction was quickly revised to say that the Virgin Mary would come on March 17, 2000, to save the faithful and bring them to heaven. A feast was held on the 16th of March to celebrate wherein explosions killed the amassed worshipers. Initially thought to be a mass suicide, evidence soon suggested murder as the leaders could not possibly repay their followers for their possessions. It was never determined as to whether these leaders died in the resulting fires, killing themselves, or if they had fled the country altogether.
Moonies is a term that refers to members of The Unification Church. The Unification Church, formally known as Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Born in North Korea, Moon claims to have received a vision when he was 16 years old that told him he was called to complete Christ's mission on earth. That vision was that he was the messiah re-born and was to marry and have perfect children.
Known for its mass weddings, presided over by Moon, the Church has been accused of brainwashing its members, which led to some being subject to deprogramming. Other controversial events include Moon's 1982 conviction in the United States of filing false federal income tax returns and criminal conspiracy. The church has also been accused of anti-semitism.