On November 19, 2017, one of America’s greatest monsters finally left our nightmares for good when Charles Manson died in the prison cell where he spent most of his life. Decades earlier in the late 1960s, Manson came to prominence as one of the most vicious and maniacal cult leaders in history, conspiring with his Manson Family to commit several murders they believed would ultimately inspire a race war.
The scary thing about Manson was never the mere fact he had crazy beliefs or violent tendencies, but that he could imbue the same feelings onto others with his wild charisma and threats of intimidation. The same is true of just about every cult leader to reach a national level, with their actual religious motives coming second to their deceptive, manipulative tactics in getting others to do their bidding. Of course, it doesn’t help that nine times out of ten said bidding is for their followers to kill others or themselves in the name of god.
Because he targeted actress Sharon Tate, Manson’s crimes released a higher profile than most cult leaders of note, but he was hardly the only insane person to captivate hundreds or even thousands of people with mad rantings. Cults had existed for hundreds of years before Manson was even born, his wasn’t the only one of note in the '60s, and scariest of all, some of them persist to this day. Manson’s reign of terror may be over, but it’s impossible to know when the next monster will follow in the footsteps of other violently crazy individuals and start building their own unhinged “family.” To learn some warning signs, keep reading to find out about 15 insane cult leaders just as freaky as Charles Manson.
15 Raël — Out-Of-This-World Beliefs
In all fairness to the many Raëlians out there in the world today, it needs to be stated that Raël and his followers are by no means bad people. Raëlians are far more peaceful and loving than the average cult, but that doesn’t change the fact their belief structure is probably absolutely insane to the average human being. Cutting to the chase, Raëlians contend that aliens, whom they refer to as Elohim, both created Earth and life on it, and continue to have a high degree of interest in their experiment to this day. Mainstream religious figures like Jesus, Moses, and Buddha are described as being sent by Elohim to help spread their message of peace. Raël himself claims to have learned this in 1973, when an Elohim popped out of a volcano in France and told him. Again, Raëlism distinguishes itself from other cults in that they genuinely believe in peace and love, which is probably how it’s become so popular and enduring. Benign though the whole thing is, it’s still shocking that tens of thousands of people would put all their faith into a story so bizarre.
14 David Berg — A Family Nightmare
Most people remember the late 1960s as a time of peace and free love, but it was during this time and using these laurels that Charles Manson was able to come to power. He wasn’t the only one benefitting from the hippie attitude, as another man named David Berg, who later began referring to himself as Moses, may have had an even wider and more destructive reach. The difference is that Berg’s group, originally called Teens For Christ, later warping into the Children of God, and now called The Family International, still exists to this day. Describing the specifics of their modern operation might get into legally dicey territory, so we’ll try and focus on why Berg specifically was more a freak than a religious figure. To put it bluntly, just about child in his own family claimed he abused them, and rumors have long alleged this was basically his official Children of God policy. Ex-members, including celebrities Rose McGowan and River Phoenix, claim children were forced into relationships with adults from extremely young ages, and though officials claim these allegations are false, they’re simply too widespread to ignore.
13 Warren Jeffs — Fundamentally Hypocritical
To the more cynical amongst us, Mormonism in general might feel a little weirder than the average religion. That said, there are far too many Mormons for the group to get labeled a cult, and their general practices don’t hurt anybody. Unfortunately, some smaller sub-sects completely failed to get the message, like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a chapter lead by Warren Jeffs. The main difference between the normal LDS and Jeffs’ FLDS was the man in charge claiming to be a genuine prophet of god, meaning his word was church doctrine. Jeffs went on to use said “divine power” to force countless women into marriage, usually while still in their teens or younger. Anyone who refused his advances was deemed heretical and banned from the community. He would also demand girls as young as 12 to marry his much older friends. Females weren’t the only victims, as several young men later came forward claiming Jeffs abused them from very early ages onward, as well. Former members started coming forward circa 2006, leading to Jeffs appearance on the FBI Most Wanted List until his eventual capture and current life imprisonment.
12 Carl Drew And Robin Murphy — Satanic Roommates
Nowadays, people look for roommates on Craigslist and wander into long term leases with virtual strangers, never once thinking their new housemate could possibly be in a Satanic cult. It sounds too absurd to be real, and back in the late 1970s, before Craigslist was even a thing, the idea of a simple newspaper personal ad ending in this sort of scenario was completely unheard of. It isn’t clear how exactly Robin Murphy ended up living with Karen Marsden, or how Satanic cult leader Carl Drew came into their lives, but that’s basically how their story began. Well, that’s what Murphy says anyway, as investigators long believed she had just as important if not greater role in the murders of Marsden and two other acquaintances than Drew. Most sources do, however, believe Murphy’s claim that the acts she and Drew committed were indeed part of a Satanic ritual, which also may have included a prostitution ring before the killing began.
11 Credonia Mwerinde — Ruined Her Followers
Spend enough time in bars drinking to oblivion, and you just might experience a divine vision or two. Although Credonia Mwerinde never admitted to being drunk when the Virgin Mary allegedly told her to found the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in a vision, she was a bartender and professional beer brewer, so there may well have been a connection. In any event, said vision allegedly occurred in 1989, and lead Mwerinde, her accomplices, and followers to believe the world was going to end 11 years later in 2000. Eventually, as many as 3,000 Ugandans believed she was telling the truth, leading to widespread shock when the alleged apocalypse came about and everyone was just fine. Well, except for hundreds of their own children, who Mwerinde told them to poison before hell on Earth reigned. The adults were all naked and lying in shallow graves on a barn floor, assuming death would come at the designated hour. In a way, for them it did, as Mwerinde locked all the doors surrounding her followers and burned the building to the group, killing them all for reasons that are still unknown. Mwerinde is assumed to have survived, but is officially missing to this day.
10 Yahweh Ben Yahweh — Way To Heaven
For years, Biblical and racial scholars have debated historical details like the skin color of Jesus, questioning depictions of him as a white man when his homeland would suggest much darker skin. Regardless of whether Jesus was black or white, though, one thing any rational follower of his can surely understand is that he didn’t want the opposite race murdered in his name. This is how we know Yahweh ben Yahweh, leader of the Nation of Yahweh, wasn’t quite as divine as he proclaimed. Coming to power in the late 1970s, Yahweh preached that whites and Jews were literally the devil, a fact he knew personally because he was the true son of God. Only a little over 10 years after his organization formed, Yahweh was arrested on a racketeering charge for conspiring to murder dozens of white people as his church’s initiation rite. Included amongst his followers was former NFL player Robert Rozier, who personally murdered seven white people on Yahweh’s behalf. Yahweh himself never murdered anyone, so his prison sentence was relatively light, though his preaching was blatantly the source of racial violence and hatred.
9 Valentina De Andrade — Wanted Humanity To End
Plenty of older folks these days think youth are destroying the world in one way or another. No matter how godless or destructive these kids may be, though, they don’t deserve to be killed simply for being young. Unfortunately, Valentine de Andrade felt the exact opposite, as did a shocking number of people following her Brazilian Superior Universal Alignment cult. The organization has been described as both Satanic and as being based in alien intervention, but unlike the Raëlians, Andrade’s extraterrestrials were apparently vicious murderers. According to her, the alien’s divine message foretold all children born after the year 1981 were evil and thus needed to be abandoned or outright destroyed. Following this word, her followers killed at least 19 boys from 1989 to 1993. Amazingly, Andrade herself escaped jail time, but the followers who believed her scripture and committed murder received lengthy prison sentences for acting on what she said. She’s still alive today, with a web site that continues to espouse these basic beliefs in a carefully worded way that keep her safe from prosecution if anyone kills again.
8 Jeffrey Lundgren — His Church Kicked Him Out
Stopping to consider just how many sub-sects have existed throughout the history of religion, it’s almost easy to understand how cults start. In the case of Jeffrey Lundgren, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints defrocking him may well have inspired other members of that group to leave and follow his new, personal offshoot. Apparently, they mustn’t have known part of the reason he lost priesthood related to having stolen over $25,000 by his former employers. Then again, it also didn’t ring any bells that he used their donation money to build a militia, his plan becoming a military takeover of the very Temple that rejected him. Those who followed Lundgren were happy to help with this goal, believing him a prophet, and a violent attack on their old religion his divine will. Not everyone was drinking the Kool-Aid, though, with a small family of former believers named the Averys in particular starting to have doubts. Initially claiming he wanted to change their minds, Lundgren lured he Averys to the woods and killed them all for daring threaten his power. Of course, this caught police attention, sending him to jail and thwarting his loftier, more violent goals.
7 Luc Jouret And Joseph Di Mambro — Insane Doctors
The jury is still out on most New Age styles of medicine, from homeopathic healing to the power of meditation. Truly great doctors will stop at nothing to heal a patient, though, which is why so many attempt these strange methods when trying to save a life that looks unsavable. Given how often they face life and death, doctors may even call it a minor miracle when this sort of thing works. Dr. Luc Jouret must have had these sort of thoughts in 1984, when he and Joseph di Mambro combined New Age beliefs, homeopathic medicine, and good old fashioned religious craziness to create the Order of the Solar Temple. Contradictorily preaching spiritual progress through archaic occult rituals, the group’s numbers reached 200 to 300 in the late 1980s, but as time went on, they had more trouble finding members, causing some who joined them already to give up and leave. Paranoid their plans of a New Age truly dawning had failed, Jouret instructed di Mambro and the others to commit mass suicide weeks before his 47th birthday in 1994.
6 Shoko Asahara — Tried Bringing Doomsday To Japan
Sometimes, the scariest thing about cults is how easy it all looks on paper. In 1987, Chizuo Matsumoto changed his name to Shoko Asahara and asked the Japanese government to recognize his group, Aum Shinrikyo, as a religious organization. For unclear reasons, Japan granted his request, though they would later realize “domestic terrorists” was a more fitting term. Five years after getting legal permission to preach, Asahara released a book called Declaring Myself The Christ, wherein he did exactly that, and apparently that was all it took for him to start earning followers. Moreover, he also outlined his strong belief that Japan and indeed the entire world was on the fast-track for a nuclear Armageddon brought on by World War III, all of which he believed was necessary. If anyone investigated Asahara’s claims or the potential he was dangerous, he would have his followers kill them. When individual murder wasn’t spreading their message, Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo planned the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attacks, which killed 12 people and injured thousands more. Asahara was eventually caught and sentenced to be executed for his crimes, though he remains on Japanese death row to this day.
5 Magdalena Solís and The Hernandez Brothers — Attention Is A Scary Thing
Even today, there are some extremely small, remote villages in third-world countries that don’t have Internet access, where people don’t even know what the word “cult” means. Back in the ‘60s, these locations were even more in the dark, which is how the Hernandez brothers convinced the village of Yerba Buena, Tamaulipas, Mexico they were prophets of an Inca god. Of course, even backwards villagers need a little bit of convincing, so when the Hernandez brothers story was falling apart, they brought in self-proclaimed “High Priestess of Blood” Magdalena Solís, a prostitute/actress, to play the role of their alleged goddess. Before long, Solís got way, way too into the gig. In love with the attention and praise people gave her, Solís initially used her newfound power to make the village serve as her slaves and give her whatever she wanted, but eventually, that wasn’t enough. Buying into her own backstory as an ancient god, Solís soon demanded public human sacrifices, claiming at least four lives before outsiders learned of her cult. After police were informed and investigated, she was sent to prison for 50 years.
4 Marshall Applewhite And Bonnie Nettles — Taking A Rocket To Heaven’s Gate
Warning signs related to the Heaven’s Gate cult should have begun flying the second followers heard the group’s backstory. Co-founders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles literally met in a psychiatric hospital where Applewhite was sent after getting fired from his teaching job for having physical relations with a student. Nettles told her mental patient that aliens predicted their meeting, easily convincing the clearly insane man of her story. The shocking part is that at least 39 others also believed the story, though it took them over 20 years to find that many people. Though the group was highly based on UFO imagery, they also believed in Jesus, whom Applewhite believed he was directly related to, hence his high position in their organization. Nettles, meanwhile, claimed to be a living embodiment of god. Amazingly, followers kept believing this for 12 years after she passed on, until they followed her in death with a mass suicide in 1997. Applewhite had convinced them they would follow Nettles and other aliens into heaven with the passing of the Hale-Bopp Comet, the only way to get there being to kill themselves as it flew overhead.
3 Jim Jones — Literally Drinking The Kool-Aid
Back in the 1960s, the scariest thing about Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ was how closely the operation mirrored communism. In today’s terms, this makes them a relatively tame cult, at least up until the extremely dramatic it ended. There was a bit of religious fanaticism as well, of course, but the main tenet of Jones’s belief structure was more versed in Karl Marx than any desire for power or destruction. On paper, Jones preached racial and economic equality for all, ideals that were upheld in the compound that later became known as Jonestown. The problem is that Jones was also shockingly paranoid for reasons that remain unclear, trying to convince his followers they were constantly under attack. To prove it, he’d have his own followers killed in what were essentially false flag scenarios. When the US government actually started looking into what he was doing, Jones instructed his 900+ followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, the largest mass suicide in history. The irony is that investigating Congressman Leo Ryan, who Jones also ordered to be killed, planned to report the group wasn’t particularly dangerous or worthy of governmental interference.
2 David Koresh — This Guy Was A Real Waco
And Vernon spoke. Long before he was a self-professed messiah, David Koresh was known as the local neighborhood creep. Abused and bullied as a child and suffering from learning disabilities, Koresh somehow went from a social pariah to a charismatic religious leader. After being victimized himself, Koresh also preyed on young women, once telling a pastor that it was god’s will he marry the man’s teenaged daughter. This got him kicked out of that church, leading him into the arms of another that soon became known as the Branch Davidians. It was at this time Koresh went from being mocked to strangely respected, claiming he was a prophet who received god’s divine orders personally. Part of this divine plan allegedly included building a religious compound in Waco, Texas, where Koresh allegedly instructed underage girls to marry adult men amongst other acts of child abuse. He also amassed a gigantic number of guns and weaponry, bringing the attention of the US government. The ATF sieged his Waco compound, leading to a controversial shootout when Koresh refused to surrender his weapons. Ultimately, the constant gunfire caused the compound to catch fire, killing everyone inside.
1 Hong Xiuquan — Started The Taiping Rebellion
Forget about Charles Manson. The actual most destructive cult leader in history was a Chinese man named Hong Xiuquan, who used his own warped views on religion to cause a full-on Civil War known as the Taiping Rebellion. It all began when Xiuquan was depressed he failed a civil service exam, leading to what has been described as a “depressive vision” of a “bearded man in the sky.” This sounds like Christian imagery, but Xiuquan never actually read a Bible until a few years later, and this retroactively made him believe his vision was of the Christian god. Somehow, this made him the brother of Jesus, an assertion literally millions of Chinese peasants felt made total sense. That said, it’s possible most of them simply hated the ruling Xing Dynasty, because their ultimate goal had nothing to do with religion. More than simply spreading the good word, Hong’s army’s intention was to recreate China in his image, dreaming of a Heavenly Kingdom where he was the supreme ruler. Either out of genuine belief of his divinity or simply to overthrow the people in charge, Hong’s followers went to actual war with the establishment, ultimately leading to 10 million deaths over 15 years.