The Manson Family is perhaps the most notorious cult to ever exist in America. The most trusted followers of Charles Manson were also vicious, brutal killers, more than willing to do anything that Manson commanded them. When it was time for Manson to exact vengeance on everyone who’d wronged him, they were all too eager to carry out his will.
How did he manage to get such devoted followers? First, you have to be a charismatic, well-spoken leader. Manson was definitely that, but charisma is not enough. Next, there has to be a religious undertone to everything you do. In the late 60s, Manson set himself up as a sort of Jesus guru, a believer in free love (it was the late 60s after all) but also some Christian tenets like humility and anti-materialism. Finally, to bring it all home, you need to have a sort of insular belief that separates you from the rest of society, something that only the cult knows and only the cult can act upon.
The Manson Family believed in Manson’s concept of “Helter Skelter”, a name borrowed from The Beetles, which described how racial tension would boil over and bring about a societal apocalypse. To help things along, Manson directed his family to commit a string of high-profile murders to cause terror, panic, and in their eyes the downfall of Western society. It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s what they believed.
And they’re not the only crazy cult to have come about in the 20th century. Let’s take a look at five other cults that give even the Manson Family a run for their money.
There are quite a few cults that get their start in Christianity. Heaven’s Gate might be the most well known due to a mass suicide that took place in San Diego in 1997.
Led by a man named Marshall Applewhite, who believed himself to be directly related to Jesus Christ, Heaven’s Gate was a cult that firmly believed in extraterrestrials and that they’d had a hand in most of human history, including Christian history. They believed that when they died, they were transported onto a spaceship and whisked away from Earth to some higher plane of existence. So, when Comet Hale–Bopp came through the solar system everyone thought it was a sign to get on the spaceship while the gettin’ was good via a phenobarbital overdose.
The males also castrated themselves, including Applewhite himself. Yeesh.
Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth)
American’s don’t have a monopoly on crazy. The Japanese had their own special death cult that started in the 80s and still goes on to this day.
Founded by Shoko Asahara, a bearded, guru-looking dude who called himself “the Christ”, Aum Shinrikyo followers believed that the world was doomed to end in a nuclear Armageddon brought about when America instigated World War III. Which would have been fine had they not then started kill members who tried to leave the cult. When the Japanese government started turning a more critical eye to the cult’s activities, Aum Shinrikyo began to secretly manufacture sarin and VX gas - two deadly chemical nerve agents.
They unleashed those nerve agents in a series of terrorist attacks throughout Tokyo, including one attack on the Tokyo Subway in 1995 that killed 12 people and injured thousands. After that, most countries declared the cult a terrorist organization.
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What do you get when you combine communism and Christianity? The Peoples Church, a cult founded in 1955 in good ‘ol Indiana. The cult started out great, preaching racial equality, social justice, and aid to the poor. At its peak, the cult had over 20,000 members and had temples all over the country.
Then things went off the rails. The Church opened a commune in Guyana called Jonestown, where cult members could go to take part in a grand communist society. When word started getting back to the US that things weren’t all right in Jonestown, Congressman Leo Ryan went down to investigate. A number of cultists complained about conditions and asked for the Congressman’s help in returning to the US, but when they returned to the airstrip to fly home Church security intercepted them and gunned the Congressman down.
Realizing what that the murder of a member of Congress would surely doom the settlement, cult leader Jim Jones ordered everyone to ingest cyanide. In all, 909 people died, including 304 children. It was the largest mass death in US history before the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
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Matamoros Cult Of Human Sacrifice
If you remember our previous article on crazy killers, then you might remember Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo. This guy believed himself to be a sorcerer, and that human sacrifice fueled his dark magic. He managed to convince a bunch of people in Mexico of his power when then became his followers and scoured the countryside looking for victims.
He managed to evade police until 1989 when Mexican authorities surrounded his death shack out in the desert. Rather than be taken alive, he ordered one of his followers to shoot him and his girlfriend in the head. Nobody knows how many people were abducted and sacrificed by the cult, but it was easily over a dozen.
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Order of the Solar Temple
This cult was international, with enclaves in France, Switzerland, and Canada. They took much of their inspiration from Christianity and The Knights Templar, believing that the world would end in an environmental disaster. They also believed that one of their member’s infants was the antichrist, so they sacrificed it on a wooden stake. That may have had to do with the fact the baby’s father had turned on the cult.
Once you kill a baby there’s really no going back. The cult then took part in a rash of mass suicides in the mid-90s. These mass suicides were less planned. Some died of asphyxiation, others of gunshot wounds, and others set themselves ablaze. Where the suicides took place always ended up on fire, which chalets in Switzerland and Quebec burning to the ground with bodies inside.