Charismatic individuals throughout history have exploited people seeking solutions to their problems by twisting religious or spiritual teachings to fit their own agenda. Some of these leaders have been about to amass a large, devoted following of people. By using manipulation and coercion, a few of these cults have taken their ideology to the extreme.
Although most groups are comprised of law-abiding people who live in peace with others, a few cults progressed from peaceful into deviant, dangerous, and deadly activities. Let’s look at 14 of the most shocking cults in the world.
Initially founded as a substance abuse treatment program in 1958, Synanan’s founder, Charles Dederich, soon began to manipulate the vulnerable people coming through his program. He started by adopting a communal living format which he claimed helped addicts recover faster. And then he introduced “The Game.”
Dederich’s “Game” was a highly controversial method of group sharing sessions that involved strict, rigid rules and extreme punishments that left followers severely injured. Dederich was violent, abusive, and controlling. He forced his followers to do backbreaking work for long hours. He even had a “hit list” with names of people who threatened the Synanon. In 1980, he faced charges of conspiracy to commit murder, as well as illegal financial dealings.
Australia’s The Family
The Family began in the mid-1960s when yoga instructor Anne Hamilton-Byrne decided to form a “Great White Brotherhood.” She convinced people to “gift” her their children, tricked others into signing over custody to her, and forged birth and adoption documents. In all, Byrne acquired 28 children. She claimed to be the biological mother of all of the children, which she planned to use to create a master race.
Byrne also told the children and others that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The children were malnourished, beaten, and psychologically abused. She drugged them with LSD to keep them obedient. In 1987, Byrne’s group, now simply called The Family, was raided by authorities and the children were rescued. The only charge Byrne faced was falsifying birth certificates.
Daniel Perez, the leader of the Angel’s Landing cult, gained followers by being charismatic, encouraging, and kind. He convinced followers to live at his commune in Kansas, which he established in 2015, and helped to finance the group by collecting insurance money on his followers who died under mysterious circumstances … although Perez claimed they would soon rise again and return to the group.
Perez explained to his followers that he was really an angel who had lived on Earth for centuries. He claimed he needed to have sex with young girls to stay alive. He was charged with murder, sexual exploitation, insurance fraud, and a host of other charges.
The Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God
Ervil LaBaron and his brother, Joel, both followers of the Mormon faith, took their religious teachings in a different direction and preached extremist views. But when the brothers clashed, Ervil established the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God in Mexico. His group was founded in the late 1960s and resurrected the old Mormon “blood atonement” doctrine.
According to the “blood atonement” doctrine, Ervil could kill sinners to cleanse them of their evil. He started with his brother, Joel, who he ordered to be killed in 1972. He went on to order about 20 other people killed. And he married 13 women with whom he fathered 51 children. He was arrested in 1979 and charged with murder and polygamy.
The Rajneesh Movement
Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh earned a following in the 1960s by speaking out against mainstream religions and espousing a free sex attitude. In 1981, he set up shop in Wasco County, Oregon. He and his followers butted heads with the local residents. In 1984, he coordinated a bioterrorism attack on his new neighbors.
Rajneesh and his followers infected the salad bars at ten restaurants in the county with salmonella, hoping to sicken people so they could not vote in an upcoming election. More than 750 people fell ill, with 45 requiring hospitalizations. He also attempted to assassinate attorney Charles H. Turner.
NXIVM, founded in the late 1990s by Keith Raniere, was part personal growth development program, part pyramid scheme, and part spiritual movement that morphed into a cult. On the surface, the group presented itself as a self-help, personal empowerment program, but behind the scenes, there were allegations of coercion, fraud, sex trafficking, and forced labor. Many of the members were forcefully branded to mark their membership.
NXIVM members were strongly encouraged to cut ties with their families. When actress Catherine Oxenberg’s daughter India was pulled into the cult, the public began to take notice. Raniere was arrested in 2018, as were several of his top aides, including actress Allison Mack. Their charges range from racketeering, fraud, and sex trafficking to identity theft, possession of child pornography, and child sexual abuse.
Children of God, or The Family International
David Brandt Berg established the Children of God, also called The Family International, in 1968. Over the years, the group has had thousands of members in the United States and Canada, including Rose McGowan, River and Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Spencer.
Former members of the group claim that The Family International advocates for the systematic sexual abuse of children. They report that Berg preached that sex should not be limited by one’s age or relationship and that members should have sex with children to indoctrinate them into the teachings because the group’s mantra was that “God is love and love is sex.”
Charles Manson’s Family
During the free-love, open drug use of the late 1960s, charismatic Charles Manson preached about peace and love … a message that resonated with disillusioned teens and young adults. Manson and his followers adopted an unconventional commune lifestyle centered on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.
Manson believed that a race war was looming. When it didn’t start, he decided to give it a kick-start. He ordered a small group of his followers to break into the home of actress Sharon Tate on August 8, 1969. The group, mostly young girls, brutally murdered Tate, her unborn child, and four others. The next night, other members of the Manson’s family viciously killed a husband and wife, the LaBiancas, in their home. When Manson and his followers stood trial, the world was astonished by the hold Manson still had over his brainwashed followers.
Order of the Solar Temple
The Order of the Solar Temple was a New Age Christian sect founded in France by Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro. The pair claimed that the group was based on the teachings of the Knights Templar. As membership grew, the Order of the Temple spread to Canada.
Three times in the cult’s history – in 1994, 1995, and 1997 – mass casualty murder-suicide events took place. In all 77 people were dead, although the leaders of the Order of the Solar Temple proclaimed that they were not dead, but merely transitioning to a new life on a different planet.
Established by Shoko Asahara in Japan in 1984, Aum Shimrikoy could best be described as a blend of Hindu and Buddhist teachings mixed with doomsday and apocalyptic beliefs. Although the group attracted members who were seeking spiritual enlightenment, the dark themes of their teachings swayed followers to do the unthinkable.
On March 20, 1995, the cult released deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system. Thousands of people were injured in the attack and 14 people died. An investigation into the Aum Shinrikyo cult discovered that the members had also murdered former members and plotted political assassinations. Asahara was executed for his crimes in 2018.
The Movement for the Restoration of the Holy Ten Commandments
Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere founded the Movement for the Restoration of the Holy Ten Commandments in Uganda in the 1980s after claiming that the Virgin Mary appeared to them. The group believed that the world would end on December 31, 1999. When that didn’t happen and their followers began to question the leaders, the cult took matters into their own hands.
On March 17, 2000, 530 followers attending church services were killed when the cult’s leaders nailed the doors and windows shut and set the building on fire. In the following days, more followers were found dead at their homes or farms. They had been poisoned. In all, more than a thousand people were killed … but not Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere. Their whereabouts are unknown.
The members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, founded by Marshall Applewhite, believed that humans were on the verge of “leveling up” and that an evolutionary uptick was happening. Applewhite’s doctrine has been described as UFO religion, although he incorporated Christian elements here and there.
The arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, to Applewhite, was a sign that he and his followers should leave their bodies – “containers,” as they called them – and ascend to the UFO hiding in the tail of the comet. On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed a mass suicide in San Diego.
David Koresh founded the Branch Davidians as a branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, however he also espoused doomsday prophecies and cultivated an “us-against-them” culture at the group’s compound in Waco, Texas. There, the group collected guns and other weapons, a move that caught the attention of the FBI and ATF.
On February 28, 1993, ATF agents attempted to serve a search warrant. Four ATF agents were shot and killed. This kicked off a siege that lasted for 51 days. On April 19, 1993, in an attempt to end the siege, the FBI used armored vehicles to tear down the compound. Fire broke out and quickly swept through the compound. Seventy-six Branch Davidians, many of them children, died. Only nine cult members escaped the inferno.
The People’s Temple
Jim Jones established the People’s Temple to be a model of tolerance and racial equality. In the 1970s, he gained a following by promoting the idea of creating his own Utopian society in the jungle of Guyana with a focus on back-to-basics, communal living. He called his new settlement Jonestown.
Jim Jones, however, had become more demanding and authoritarian. There were reports of abuse, sexual violence, forced labor, and the hoarding of weapons. As Jones was being investigated, he created an “us against them” scenario to convince his followers to do the unthinkable. On November 18, 1978, Jones orchestrated a massive murder-suicide event that left more than 900 of his members dead.