Woody Allen, philosopher par excellence, once said that “if Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” Crudely put, but the sentiment might ring true for many of us. Our society is one in which religion, Jesus-led or otherwise, is both hugely influential and equally controversial. Religion is often blamed as the catalyst for war and the basis of persecutions. But whatever we feel about organised religion, we can’t deny that it has survived centuries of criticism and the vast majority of us would still affiliate ourselves in some way with one version of ‘faith’.
But few of us would consider ourselves members of a ‘cult’. We reserve that label for underground movements of hippies or satanists. Possibly Scientologists too. The Oxford English Dictionary begs to differ, defining a ‘cult’ as any organisation deferential to one god, object, or person. In reality then, this list of the most notorious cults in modern history should really include Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam…the list goes on. But in the interests of side-stepping controversy, we’ll stick to the popularly understood definition of a cult – those groups that were just a little too wacky to be believed, or given much attention. Before, that is, it was too late. Belief is a powerful thing. But in the wrong hands…Well, these ten groups are terrifying examples of quite how wrong things can go. Given the graphic nature of the descriptions below, reader discretion is advised.
10. The Chicago Rippers (4 members)
This is one of the smaller cults on the list, being comprised of only four known members. The group existed in Chicago, Illinois in the early 1980s, and was led by Robin Gecht – who had previously been an employee of John Wayne Gacy, a prolific serial killer. The group was a Satanist organisation, so it was in fact connected to a much larger network of cultists. As part of their ritual practice, the four men abducted, raped, and murdered 18 women in one year. In order to fulfil the Satanist obligations of the ritual, the men amputated one breast of each other murdered women, before engaging in sexual activity with the open wound, and finally cannibalising the amputated flesh. One member of the group was executed in 1999 and two others will never leave prison. Worryingly, however, the fourth member of the group is due for release in 2017.
9. Palo Mayombe (30 members)
Palo Mayombe is a branch of Santeria, a ‘dark magic’ cult to Santeria’s ‘forces of light’. The religion exists in scattered form today, but was thrust into the spotlight with the manhunt for Adolfo Constanzo in 1989, further to his suspected involvement in a series of ritualistic murders.
Adolfo was, more than anything else, interested in money. For him, Palo Mayombe was a route to financial success. He began as a tarot-card reader whose clients in Mexico City ranged from high ranking government officials to police officers. Initially, Constanzo was satisfied with the sacrifice of animals, but following the non-compliance of an influential Mexican family, he graduated to human sacrifice. Constanzo removed spines, brains and limbs in an effort to appease his gods and is infamously believed to have insisted that his victims must “die screaming”, in order to be valid sacrifices. After Constanzo sacrificed a US student in 1989, authorities who had previously turned a blind eye were forced to come down on Constanzo. He fled and committed suicide in May that year.
8. Heaven’s Gate (50 members)
This cult was founded by Marshall Applewhite and his nurse, Bonnie Nettles in the 1970s after Applewhite had a near death experience following a heart attack. In this experience, the belief system of the cult was ‘revealed’ to him. He understood that the planet earth was on an extra-terrestrial recycling list and that humans must evacuate soon in order to survive.
Meanwhile, a life of absolute frugality was encouraged. Applewhite himself underwent castration in order to help him avoid succumbing to human sexual need. The cult attracted a number of high profile members, and a good deal of media attention. In 1997, the evacuation could be delayed no longer, and Applewhite instigated the suicide mission which claimed 39 lives. The victims died with a five dollar bill and 3 quarters in their pockets, what they termed “interplanetary toll”.
7. Los Hermanos Hernandez (50 members)
The brothers Hernandez, who established this cult in 1962, began a story that is a genuine tragedy of poverty and struggle. The brothers set up camp in a small village in Mexico, and preyed on the vulnerability of the villagers, convincing them that if they offered sexual favours and whatever money they had, God would reveal great treasures in the mountains. The pair even recruited a local working girl and presented her as a deity on earth, in a staged ceremony.
Over their year in the village, the pair butchered local residents in ritual sacrifice, drinking their blood in ceremonies for God. Eventually, a 14 year old boy who observed some of the murders ran to the nearest town (15 miles away), and returned with a lone police officer. When the officer failed to return home, a task force was sent after him only to discover his body, minus a heart, alongside the chopped up body of the ‘informant’. Both the brothers died in the altercation that followed, and the ‘goddess’ was arrested along with her brother and imprisoned on multiple counts of conspiracy to murder.
6. Branch Davidians (90 members)
This cult was a fundamentalist arm of The Seventh Day Adventists and fundamentally believed in an imminent apocalypse, alongside more mainstream Christian beliefs. The group was founded in 1930 by Benjamin Roden, but didn’t gain notoriety until the 1990s with the 1993 Waco Siege.
The group, at this point led by David Koresh, had set up camp in Elk, Texas and were suspected of harbouring a supply of illegally held firearms. The FBI launched an attack on the camp and, in the ensuing shoot out, a number of military personnel were killed. Failing to draw out the cult members, the FBI laid siege to the camp. Yep, actual siege. Which lasted 51 days and ended with the outbreak of a controversial fire and claimed the lives of 76 of the cult’s members. Perhaps even more notoriously, the event is thought to have been the motivation behind the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing.
5. The Manson Family (100 members)
This one needs little explanation, except perhaps to explain the surprisingly small number of cult members. The fact is that in the 1960s, this was a small enterprise. It is only, worryingly, in the years after the string of brutal murders for which this group were responsible, that the number of Manson followers increased. His fan page on facebook has over 2,o00 likes.
What you probably already know about the Manson family is that they embarked on a murderous spree in the Summer of 1969, the most infamous of which was the slaughter of pregnant celebrity Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski, along with a number of her friends. The group smeared ‘PIGS’ in blood on the walls. Charles Manson was a failed rockstar who believed the world was fated to end through WW3, a war he could stop by committing a number of murders. What you might not know about the Manson Family, though, is that officially Charles Manson was a Scientologist and it was this faith that he shared with his followers.
4. Order of the Solar Temple (442 members)
This organisation has its roots in medieval France, with the Knights Templar, and its most recent home has been Quebec. The group’s beliefs are hazy at best but if Umberto Eco is to be believed, this cult is on the hunt for ‘the’ secret that will give them the power to manipulate the world’s climate and thus the world itself. Hm.
At any rate, what we actually do know about the Order of the Solar Temple is that they have a murderous streak. Most infamously, in 1994 a three month old boy was murdered because he was the suspected Anti-Christ. What followed was a series of mass murder-suicides over a number of days, whose 51 victims included numerous children, as well as notable public figures. The deceased all left letters behind claiming they wished to escape the world. In 1995 and 1997 further ‘ceremonies’ claimed the lives of 21 more members. This group has been defined as a criminal organisation.
3. The People’s Temple (5,000 members)
This cult was established in 1954 by Jim Jones. In a move of almost commendable cynicism, he really wasn’t interested in religion. Jones was a Marxist and was searching for a way to promote Communist theory. He saw religion as a way of doing that. Thus, the People’s Temple.
The group took off in a startling fashion, thanks in part to a thorough campaign that saw Jones’ recruits travelling up and down the country to proselytise, and an administrative department that kept incredible records of anyone who had even turned up to a talk given by the group. The group later came under scrutiny following allegations of child abuse. In response, Jones packed up and took nearly 1000 followers with him on a decamp to Guyana. In 1978 he was visited by San Francisco congressman Lee Ryan who aimed to investigate the criminal allegations. A number of members asked to leave with him, but as they prepared to escape all were gunned down, including Ryan who died, becoming the only US Congressman in history to die ‘in the line of duty’.
The cult’s notoriety is really the result of what followed – the single greatest loss of American life in a deliberate act outside of the 9 / 11 attacks. Jones commanded all his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide and grape juice: 918 people died, including 276 children.
2. The Children of God / The Family International (10,000 members)
This group was established in 1968, by David Berg, a former Baptist Minister. The group’s beliefs are shrouded in the usual mystery associated with any cult, but are broadly founded on belief in the impending apocalypse. The now deceased Berg renamed himself ‘Moses’, and his wife ‘Mother Eve’, and established ‘colonies’ all over the world.
The group’s prolificacy is thanks largely to the early practice of ‘flirty fishing’. Berg came up with this little marketing scheme, which involved members of the cult literally seducing new recruits through prolific sexual activity. In the event that the sexual partners weren’t immediate converts, the resultant pregnancies helped up the numbers, ensuring that the cult is now in its third generation. Flirty Fishing was phased out after a spate of STD problems, and accusations of child abuse. The cult remains in the public eye, standing accused of multiple counts of child abduction thanks to the latest practice of shipping off the children of expelled or lapsed members to foreign countries where they cannot be traced.
1. Aum Shinrikyo / Aleph (49,000 members)
This Japanese group is officially listed as a terrorist organisation in many parts of the world, as a result of their 1995 Sarin Gas attack on the Tokyo Subway. The attacks – a response to planned raids of the cult’s headquarters – killed 13 commuters, injuring up to 6,000 others. The group’s leader, Shoko Asahara, has claimed he is Christ and has outlined the cult’s beliefs as fundamentally Christian, combined with Yoga and a discipleship of Nostradamus. Asahara labelled the USA, the British Royal Family, and the Dutch (amongst others) as enemies of Christ and instigators of the coming End of Days. Problem is, that was due to take place in 1997. Still waiting.