From the 1970s through the late 1990s, America was rife with cults. Displaced mystics and charismatic gurus in bellbottoms and rock star glasses lurked on every corner, looking to prey on the young, alienated, and confused. These guys had it all: girls, guns, and a direct line to God. Charles Manson and Jim Jones are household names, bogeymen created in the age of lava lamps, when the innocent spirit of Woodstock bled into the cruel reality of Altamont. But what about the other zealots and fringe groups? Who are they, and what are their beliefs? From a subway in Tokyo to a volcano in Clermont-Ferrand, France, from UFO cults to doomsday sects, you never know where you’re going to find the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. Here are 12 bizarre cults you don't want to join.
12 Advanced Training Institute
The Advanced Training Institute is an offshoot of Bill Gothard’s Biblically based “Institute in Basic Life Principles.” The fundamentalist cult is notorious for its association with the evangelical Duggar family, whose 19 children spawned the popular TLC show 19 Kids and Counting. According to Gawker, ATI is “a biblically based homeschooling program that lets Christian families integrate their kids’ daily, hours-long moral learning with just a dash of secularism.” It also teaches a rigid hierarchy where God comes first, men come second, and every aspect of a woman's appearance, from her hair to her ankle-length skirt, is controlled by the AFI.
11 The Creativity Movement
Led by Matthew Hale (pictured), the Creativity Movement is a white supremacist hate group masquerading as a religious sect. According to the teachings of the Creativity Movement, “what is good for the white race is the highest virtue and what is bad for the white race is the ultimate sin.” The cult was formerly known as the World Church of the Creator. When U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow ruled that the group’s name be changed because of trademark infringement, Hale called the ruling part of a Jewish conspiracy and attempted to get one of his followers to kill Lefkow.
10 Oregon Tantric Sex Cult
Bhagawan Shree Rajneesh, a displaced Indian mystic with an open attitude towards sex, founded a 60,000-acre commune in Oregon in 1981. The community attracted thousands of bead-wearing souls looking for enlightenment and peaceful living through sex and drugs. However, the party ended when the commune became embroiled in bitter legal battles with local residents over land use. Rajneesh vied for seats on the Wasco County boards, but the response was largely negative. In 1984, Rajneesh and several followers allegedly poisoned hundreds of people in Dalles, Oregon with Salmonella in an attempt to rig local elections. It’s considered the first bioterrorist attack in the U.S.
9 Life Space Movement
Five thousand dollar enlightenment seminars, a mummified corpse in a Tokyo hotel room, and a 15-year murder sentence –these are just few of the highlights of the Life Space Movement. In 1983, Koji Takahashi claimed that he was an enlightened guru who had learned supernatural healing techniques through 6,000 years of reincarnations. Takahashi attracted 200 core members and began charging $5,000 for enlightenment seminars; the courses garnered widespread public attention, and at its peak the Life Space Movement had roughly 10,000 followers.
In 1999, Takahashi attempted to heal Shinichi Kobayashi, a 66-year old cult member, after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. For four months the guru and his dedicated followers recorded the healing process… the problem was, Kobayashi was already dead. When the police finally arrived at the hotel, they discovered a mummified corpse.
Founded by Paul Twichell in 1965, Eckankar (Co-worker with God) teaches the idea that one can separate their soul from their body and travel in other planes of reality. ECKists call this experiencing the “Light and Sound” of God. In 2006, the cult came under fire when it was revealed that over 400 paragraphs of Mitchell’s 1966 book The Far Country were plagiarized. Like many gurus before him, Mitchell was a con man who traded in stolen truths. Today, Eckankar’s spiritual leader, Harold Kemp, is also the CEO of the company that sells the cult’s books and materials. In other words, Kemp is a "co-worker with God," and Eckankar is a corporate cult.
7 Heaven’s Gate
In March 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate were found dead in a rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Each member was dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, wore purple armbands that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” and had plastic bags tied around their heads. Why? So their souls could hitch a ride on a spaceship, of course… and not just any spaceship; this particular Millennium Falcon was trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet. The teachings of Heaven’s Gate mixed New Age religion and doomsday ufology. The group believed that the earth was about to be “recycled,” and that they needed to leave. Their earthly bodies were only vessels that helped them on their journey, and a phenobarbital and vodka cocktail was the quickest way to get wherever they were going.
6 The Universe People
Founded in the 1990s by Ivo A. Benda, the Universe People (or Cosmic People of Light Powers) is a Czech and Slovak UFO religion. Benda and his followers believe that a group of extraterrestrials, led by Ashtar Sheran, watch over the earth and help the good. Eventually, these alien life forms will transport their followers to another dimension. The cult distrusts technology and mass media, and considers them tools of oppression. The teachings of the Universe People borrow from a variety of diverse and esoteric sources: ufology, Christianity, conspiracy theory, and books such as Angels in Starships and Bringers of the Dawn.
5 Pana-Wave Laboratory
Japan, a place known for its diverse spiritual beliefs and avant-garde mysticism, is home to a variety of cults. In 1977, Yuko Chino formed the Pana-Wave Laboratory. Members of the cult, which range from several hundred to 1,200, believe that electromagnetic waves cause environmental destruction and climate change. In order to protect themselves from electromagnetic attacks, members dress in white garments and surgical masks. According to Pana-Wave laboratory, the discovery of a tenth planet will change the earth’s magnetic poles and trigger doomsday.
In March 2003, in what can only be described as an ill-fated example of eco-cultism, the group tried to capture an Arctic seal that had become stranded in Japan’s Tama River. It was led astray, of course, by electromagnetic waves, and the cult believed that doomsday could be avoided if the seal was returned to its natural habitat.
4 The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors
Formed in the 1970s and led by Dwight York, Nuwaubianism incorporates elements of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Egyptian mysticism, and is largely an African-American cult. Later, York introduced ufology into the doctrine, claiming he was an extraterrestrial and that the Nuwaubians were waiting for a spaceship to usher them to a better world. In the 1990s, the cult built “Nuwaubian pyramids” on its Tama-Re compound in Eatonton, Georgia. After York was arrested and jailed on child molestation charges in 2004, the government sold the land and the pyramids were razed. The cult’s followers continue to operate in the Atlanta area.
3 Eastern Lightning
In March 2014, a group of Eastern Lightning cult members on a recruiting mission approached diners at a McDonald’s asking for their cell phone numbers. When one woman refused, cult members beat her with a steel mop handle, yelling, “Go to hell, demon!” Five people were charged with murder (trial pictured). Over the years the cult has also been charged with kidnapping and extortion. Since 1995, Eastern Lightning has been listed as one of China’s 14 banned religious groups. The doomsday sect believes that Christ has returned, and that only those who accept his “end-time’ work will be saved from the “great red dragon,” the cult’s name for China’s Communist Party.
2 The Church Universal and Triumphant
Founded by Mark and Elizabeth Prophet (no joke) in 1958, members of the Church Universal and Triumphant believe their leaders speak with Ascended Masters –Buddha, Sanat Kumara, Paul the Venetian, etc. -through the Holy Spirit. The church maintains rigorous control over all its followers’ activities, including their diets and sex partners. Members of the Church Universal and Triumphant built fallout shelters and stockpiled weapons and other end of the world supplies, running afoul of the FBI. (The church claimed its arms cache was a precaution against the Cold War.) In the early 1990s, the church made headlines again when several of its members were kidnapped and subjected to deprogramming attempts.
The Raelians believe that humans were originally created from the DNA of aliens 25,000 years ago. The cult is led by Rael (the “messenger”), who claims he saw a UFO near a volcano in Clermont-Ferrand, France in 1973, and that a radiant being told him the true origin of mankind. Supports refer to him as “the prophet of the Third Millennium,” and the cult believes that cloning will one day be the dominant form of human reproduction.
In 2003, the Raelian movement made international headlines when it said it created the first human clone –baby Eve. Michael Guillen, however, a physicist who worked at the cult’s Bahamas-based cloning company, Clonaid, claimed it was a hoax to bring publicity to the Raelian movement. No word on what Dolly the sheep had to say about baby Eve.