8 Infamous Cults in History

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8 Infamous Cults in History


Whether they are real or not, cults have sparked a fascination in many of us, possibly because of the fine line between a seemingly utopian community and a dangerous group stripping you of free will. Their gory, manipulative details pull us in—evident in the pervasiveness of cults in pop culture.

From TV series to movies and even to allegations against celebrities, cults seem to be taking their moment and leaving a mark on culture. This fascination had to begin somewhere, and these eight infamous cults can explain just that.


Charles Manson on trial / Photo by: Associated Press via Insider


1. The Manson Family

A man named Charles Manson grouped a number of displaced young people and brought them to settle in the Spahn Ranch near Los Angeles in the 1960s. Reports had it that Manson ordered his followers to go on a killing spree and on August 8, 1969, a few of them murdered five people in a Beverly Hills homes including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, whose blood was used by the cult members to write "PIG" on the door.

The murders went on for another night and two more people became victims. Manson was convicted of first-degree murder two years after the first killing and served his prison sentence until his death in November 2017.



Marshall Applewhite / Photo by: Getty Images via Cosmopolitan Magazine


2. Heaven's Gate

The cult was founded in the 1970s on a belief that involved aliens, spaceships, and an imminent "recycling" of Earth. Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles gathered a group of people they dubbed as "the crew," who were convinced to give away all their money and cease contact with their families.

In order to get rid of sexual thoughts, cult members were put on a master cleanse diet of lemonade, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup. Some even volunteered to undergo surgical castration.

But the most extreme act of the group was their mass suicide—one of the largest in US history—by drinking vodka, eating applesauce and pudding with barbiturate, and putting plastic bags over their heads.



Shoko Asahara / Photo by: Getty Images via Cosmopolitan Magazine


3. Aum Shinrikyo

Founded by Shoko Asahara in the 1980s, the Aum Shinrikyo cult garnered tens of thousands of followers around the world. Asahara, who claimed to be Christ, taught followers lessons that were initially spiritual before they became increasingly violent.

The act that led to the group's demise was when members left five bags filled with a toxic nerve agent on the Tokyo train lines during rush hour. Passengers started to choke and throw up, and soon 13 people were dead and 5,800 injured.

Members also tried attacking other subway stations with deadly cyanide in the months that followed before they—including Asahara—were finally caught and sentenced to death.



Jim Jones / Photo by: Associated Press via Insider


4. The Peoples Temple

The Peoples Temple began in 1955 as a seemingly progressive organization as it advocated for civil rights and operated homes for the elderly and people with mental health issues. However, founder Jim Jones grew wary of media scrutiny in the US and decided to move his family and the Peoples Temple in Guyana, South America.

Some of the 900 people in "Jonestown" became disillusioned by Jones' vision, exposing to American media the armed compound and rehearsals of mass suicide. A congressman, along with three journalists and a defector, traveled to Jonestown but members of the Peoples Temple shot and killed them.

After the killing, 909 Peoples Temple members also lost their lives by obeying Jones' order of drinking a cyanide-laced drink.



Members of The Family International / Photo by: Associated Press and Ferd Kaufman via Insider


5. Children of God/Family International

Founder David “Moses” Berg had a very sex-centric perspective on spreading the views of Jesus, which opposes his concern with moral decay and evolution, entertainment magazine Rolling Stones said. It added that Berg used young women to attract new members by having sex with them—a strategy called "flirty fishing"—and opposed anti-pedophilia laws.

In fact, some former members said Berg believed that not only is having sex with children permitted, but it is also a divine right. The group changed its name several times and is now called Family International, which still exists today and operates in 80 countries.



The Sullivanians building / Photo by: Marianne Barcellona, The LIFE Images Collection, and Getty via Rolling Stone


6. Sullivanians

The Sullivanian Institute was founded to create a viable alternative to the common nuclear family, which founder Saul B. Newton perceived as the cause of all social anxiety. It operated as both a therapy center and a polyamorous commune even though Newton did not have any formal training as a therapist.

There were no boundaries for the Sullivanians and didn't follow a strict code of ethics as members were known to regularly sleep with each other. Not only were they forbidden to engage in exclusive relationships, but members were also encouraged to cut ties with former friends and family.

The Sullivanian Institute ended after membership declined in the 1980s and Newton died in 1991.



A Knights Templar flag / Photo by: Gerardo Fraile via Wikimedia Commons


7. Order of the Solar Temple

The origin of the OST can be traced back to the medieval Knights Templar and the belief that the world was going to end in the 1990s. Things changed when leader Joseph di Mambro ordered his followers to kill an infant in Quebec in 1994.

Later that year, more than 50 OST members were murdered or killed themselves along with a fire that burned down the group's building. More members committed suicide in 1995 and 1997.



A Russian Orthodox church / Photo by: Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons


8. True Russian Orthodox Church

Pyotr Kuznetsov founded the True Russian Orthodox Church as an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, about 30 members of the group locked themselves in a cave following Kuznetsov's order to wait there until the world ended in 2008.

True Russian Orthodox Church members believed that credit cards and barcodes were satanic and even threatened to kill themselves if they were to be removed from the cave. They only disobeyed their leader's order over concerns about the toxic fumes from the corpses of their two members—one of which died due to cancer while the other due to starvation—and worries on the collapsing cave roof.



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