Almost every cult has the same thing in common: a charismatic leader at the helm. These leaders have cultivated the art of manipulation in such ways that they have driven people to give up all their worldly possessions, devote themselves to the organizations entirely, and in some cases, harm themselves or others. Some of the largest tragedies recorded in history have been at the hands of these charming cult leaders. Many of these groups consist of members who blindly give themselves to belief systems that often create environments of isolation and abuse.
America is infected with a history of these depraved organizations existing right in its backyard. Although all the cults and religious groups are equally creepy, they tend to differ on various beliefs. One leader believed that she should informally adopt and train the member's children, while another believed that the children should be separated from the parents and sent to boarding school. Some of the cults were based on the leader's beliefs about the origin of mankind, while others were simply based on lifestyle choices. No matter their belief system or tenets, they all were plagued by sensational controversy.
A few of the cults had explosive, tragic endings, while some live on today. Those that have survived have altered some of their beliefs to fit into today’s modern world. So just which cults are the creepiest in America?
15 Branch Davidians
It all started back in 1929. Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant living in Southern California, wrote a book titled The Shepherd's Rod: The 144,000—A Call for Reformation. In this book, he felt as he had a worthy message for the church he belonged to, the Seventh-day Adventist. However, they believed it went against their basic teachings and rejected Houteff. As a result, he picked up his operation and moved to Waco, Texas. The group believed that the return of Jesus was imminent and opted for a simple life in preparation. The group was relatively unknown until David Koresh came to power. He gained notoriety for the suspicion that he has many young “spiritual” wives and was stockpiling illegal weapons. In February of 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms conducted a raid in which four agents and five Davidians died. Then, the FBI took control of the raid which ended up lasting 51 days. In total, 76 Branch Davidians died, leaving only nine survivors.
14 The Manson Family
Charles Manson was in and out of prison and reform school from a young age. While in prison, he began to study music and Scientology. By the time he ended up in San Francisco in 1967, he believed that he would be a famous musician. That is when he gained his first follower, Mary Brunner. He quickly gained the attraction of many vulnerable souls through his prophetic and hypnotic songs. He relocated the group down to Southern California in the hopes of achieving a successful music career. It was at this time they moved to Spahn Ranch and became known as the “Family.” In 1969, the cult moved from an organization just believing in Manson’s prophecies to carrying out vengeful murders for their leader. Among the victims was pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Charles Manson and several of his followers are now serving life sentences in prison. It’s said that over the decades, Manson has received more mail than any other prisoner in the US.
13 Heaven's Gate
After a mental breakdown prompted by a homos*xual relationship with a student led to the loss of his teaching job, Marshall Applewhite began to see himself as a prophet. He and Bonnie Nettles, whom he met during his stay in a psychiatric institution, went on a road trip across the US. By 1974, they and “the crew” they assembled settled in Southern California. They believed that a UFO was coming to take their souls to an “evolutionary level above human.” This belief led to the mass suic*de of 39 of the group’s members in 1997. While their leader and majority of their members passed, their legacy still lives on via the internet. This group is one of the first cults of the digital age, memorializing their beliefs in outdated graphics and videos. It is rumored that two members of the original cult that did not commit suic*de continue to run the page.
12 Children Of God – Family International
In 1968, David "Moses" Berg founded the Children Of God. He gained a large following from his writings derived from seclusion. The group supports Christianity, even though many of its beliefs would be considered heretical. The group opposed Judaism and capitalism. The most controversial belief was that Berg believed in open s*xuality and opposed anti-pedoph*lia laws. While members of the cult who have left have never confirmed they were s*xually abused, they lived in intense isolation and young female members were used to help attract new members. After his death in 1994, the group would be renamed several times, finally landing on Family International 2004. The newly named organization underwent many other changes following his passing. Famous actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were once apart of the cult. They have now left and spoken out against the organization.
11 Peoples Temple
Jim Jones founded The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, or simply Peoples Temple, in 1955 in Indianapolis. Reverend Jim Jones had always been called to a higher standard. From a young age, he looked down upon the actions of his peers and cared deeply for the impoverished. As he aged, he began to be deeply concerned with racial equality. He and his wife became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child. What started out as an inspirational story of the blending of religion and politics went very wrong. Stories of members not being allowed to leave and being cut off from family members began to emerge. Then in 1977, Jones moved the group from San Fransisco to a remote agricultural project in Guyana called Jonestown. After the move, allegations of cruelty prompted Congressman Leo Ryan and a group of journalists to travel down to Jonestown. They were all killed by a group of followers. Then on November 18, 1987, over 900 members of the People’s Temple committed mass suic*de by consuming Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.
10 Unification Church
The Unification Church was originally founded in 1935 in Korea when Mun Yong-Myong believed that Jesus appeared to him and asked him to complete his work. He renamed himself Sun Myung Moon and sent missionaries to the US in 1959. They found success in the San Francisco and Berkeley areas. Moon also believed that only he could choose marriage partners and would throw infamous massive weddings. In the 1970s, the group was accused of “brainwashing” members. However, in 1977 the Unification Church won a case in the U.S. against these accusations. Moon was later convicted of filing false federal income taxes and criminal conspiracy. He served 13 months in a Federal Correctional Institution. Despite troubles and Moon’s passing in 2010, The Unification Church still exists today.
9 Twelve Tribes
In 1971, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, often known as “Yoneq,” founded the Twelve Tribes in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The group’s beliefs resemble that of other religious groups like those of Christian fundamentalism and Messianic Judaism. They believe that in order for the Messiah to return, the restoration of the 1st-century Church and the creation of a New Israel consisting of twelve tribes in twelve regions would need to occur. The group has been accused of many controversial behaviors over the years. Child abuse, belief in the importance of slavery, and psychological torment are all among the claims. In Vermont in 1984, the authorities conducted a raid of a Twelve Tribes compound and liberated over 100 children who had appeared abused. However, the raid was deemed unconstitutional and the children were returned. Today, there are said to be 3,000 to 4,000 members around the globe in isolated communities. They operate companies like Blue Blinds or The Yellow Deli restaurants.
8 Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh brought his congregation to Oregon in 1981. Prior to coming to the US, he was a Hindu mystic and guru who had a large international following. He gathered over 2,000 followers at this remote eastern Oregon ranch. The people dressed in red, worked without pay, and worshiped their leader spiritually and financially. At the peak of his power, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had 93 Rolls Royce vehicles. Tensions between the members of the group and the locals began to become heated. In 1985, it was discovered that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's cult has contaminated the people of Dalles with salmonella. This was later alleged to be done in an effort to rig a local election. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was arrested while trying to flee the country on charges of immigration violations. He was eventually deported and returned to India after 21 other countries refused to allow him entry.
7 Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints
The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints is a radical offshoot of the Mormon Church. The group broke away when the Church excommunicated the practice of polygamy. After his father died in 2002, Warren Jeff became the leader. He is said to have up to 70 wives. He exclaimed in a sermon that a female’s job is to obey her husband and bear children. Many who have left the group claim that they were forced to marry when they were young and sometimes to distant cousins. Jeff is currently serving a life sentence for separate counts of assaulting two girls. One was an underage girl he claimed to be his wife. It is said that he still leads the group from prison. The north end of their community in Utah is a manmade cave which contains a network of tunnels that are allegedly there to protect against the threat of government raid.
Paul Twitchell founded Eckankar in 1965 when he declared himself the “Living ECK Master” or “living manifestation of God.” He combined the teachings of Scientology, Ruhani Sarut Shabd yoga, and several other groups. Twitchell claimed he would only serve as the leader for five years, but when those five years were up, he claimed there was a child in training that would not be ready for another 15 years. The group believes that God speaks to them through soul travel, dreams, and past lives. They believe that during soul travel, the soul can leave the body and explore other worlds. Members are encouraged to work with their dreams and learn how to leave their body while sleeping but return upon waking up. By the late 1990s, there were 164 centers in the United States and over 50,000 members globally. The organization is still around today and is based out of their Eckankar Spiritual Campus in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
On December 13, 1973, Claude Vorilhon claimed to have his first interaction with an extraterrestrial being. The being, called an Eloha, arrived in a UFO and landed on an inactive volcano in France. During their third meeting, the Eloha revealed insignia that would later become the emblem of the movement. The Eloha also informed that early humanity had been purposely misinformed about the origin of life. The truth is that they made all life on Earth. Those who follow Raelism belief that the founder was informed of this truth so that humans can become peaceful enough to welcome the Elohim to Earth. The group gained notoriety in the United States in 2002. Vorilhon founded a company in 1997 called Valiant Venture Ltd Corporation (later renamed to Clonaid). It claimed that it completed a standard cloning procedure on an American woman, which produced her daughter. The group continues to be advocates of human cloning, genetically modified organisms, meditation, and many other beliefs.
Science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology in 1952. The organization is based on Dianetics, or Hubbard’s modern system of mental health. The actual tenets of Scientology are hidden even from members. They only learn of them when they reach a certain level. Members move up through the manipulation of the theoretic life force that represents the true identity of a person, called “theta.” Through the process of “auditing” by higher-ranking members, a person can be “clear.” These audits use an electropsychometer, or E-meter, to measure a small electrical current that runs through the body while the person answers questions. Many celebrities, some of the most notable being Tom Cruise and John Travolta, have considered themselves Scientologists.The highest ranking members of the organization are members of the Sea Organization (Sea Org). These members work for low pay (they were rumored to have worked on Tom Cruise’s cars for $0.40/hour), sign a billion year contract, and are the most adherent members. The organization says it has 11,000 Churches in 184 countries today.
In 1957, Saul B. Newton founded the Sullivan Institute with his wife Dr. Jane Pearce. The Sullivanians believed the nuclear family was the point of most societal anxiety and wanted to find an alternative. In the Upper West Side of Manhattan, they opened a therapy center and polygamous commune. Members of the community would sleep with each other regularly and were forbidden from having exclusive relationships. Children were only allowed to see their parents for very limited time periods (maybe 1-2 hours at a time) and most were sent away to boarding to school. The group practiced isolation techniques, encouraging all members to cut ties with outside friends and families. In the 1970s, the group merged with the progressive theater group, the Fourth Wall. They relocated the group to Orlando, Florida in 1979, but after seeing a decline in membership, the institute eventually ended in 1991, following the death of Newton.
In 1971, Jimmy T. Roberts founded the Brethren by drawing together followers of the Jesus Movement across the United States. Other names for the organization include Brothers and Sisters and Body of Christ. The group believed that humanity was at the end of times and that everyone must purify themselves. They believed that the Church was too worldly and bogged down with material belongings. New members are directed to sell all their worldly possessions and to cut ties with friends and families in preparation for the end of the world. The group has no direct rules against bathing, but many members do not do it often. New members have restricted contact with the opposite s*x and women and men eat separately. Due to raids and arrests in the 1970s, the locations of the Brethren are kept secret and any outside contact is completely discouraged. However, many family members have tried reestablishing contact.
1 The Kashi Ashram
The Kashi Ashram was founded in Florida in 1976 by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, who believed she received visions from Jesus and several Hindu deities. The group believed in a community-driven lifestyle and promoted acts of compassion. Many believe that Ma Jaya is God and that they should submit themselves and their children to her. She believed the children should be given to her through informal adoption so that they could be trained. Members who have now left claim such abuses as extortion, psychological torment, child abuse, and other egregious actions. Even though Ma Jaya died in 2003, the movement still continues today. Now the Kashi Ashram works on an 80-acre community in Florida. They now host programs, such as yoga and healing arts. They even work with veterans who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. The land also has a permaculture demonstration site they use to promote environmental stewardship.