Not all cults are inherently dangerous; in fact, most new religious movements from the mid-1800s forward have been called ‘cults’ at some point. The trouble lies in the limited worldview that cults can inculcate, which in turn makes it difficult for members to see their actions as anything but normal – even when they include mass suicides, attacks, and abductions. In a sociological sense, such groups are small to international networks of people who share deviant beliefs. In practice, though, they are usually centered on charismatic personalities with an appetite for violence and disruption.
The following six men number among the most delusional – and most dangerous – such cult leaders.
Jim Jones – The People’s Temple
Born in 1931 in Indiana, Jim Jones was an orderly and Methodist pastor before he became a self-proclaimed messiah. He relied upon fiery preaching, social criticism, and racial integration in founding the People’s Temple in the 1950s. By the mid-1960s, Jones had amassed a following of around 100 people and moved to North Carolina. Members were given strict rules of no romance or familial ties, even as their leader had several affairs as the “father of all”. In the 1970s, he started a branch in San Francisco before founding a “socialist utopia” in Jonestown, Guyana.
By 1977, Jonestown faced growing scrutiny for scarce supplies, armed guards, preaching-by-loudspeaker, and regular suicide drills. The following year, former members even asked the US government for help in ending the cult and regaining their families in Jonestown. The following year, a California Congressman visited the cult and offered safe passage for any defectors, but he and 4 others were gunned down at their airstrip. On November 18th, on Jones’ orders, over 900 remaining members committed the largest mass suicide in history, drinking cyanide and Valium-laced Kool Aid at the Jonestown Massacre. Jones, meanwhile, shot himself among his closest followers – following them to death.
Charles Manson – The Family
Manson was born in 1934 and started life as a petty criminal in and out of prison between 1958 and 67. During that time, he married and divorced twice and began amassing a ‘family’ of around 100 that followed him to San Francisco and later a deserted ranch in the San Fernando Valley. “The Family” believed that Manson was a new messiah who would lead them to safety in caves beneath the desert, such that they could survive the coming nuclear, race war to mentor the new, black society.
Together, they terrorized Hollywood with a murderous campaign that started with director Roman Polanski’s house. There, his core followers – Charles “Tex” Watxon, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian – stabbed and killed Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate, using her blood to write “pig” on the front door. They also shot, stabbed, and killed would-be witness Steven Parent and Tate’s friends – stylist Jay Sebring, writer Wojciech Frykowski, and heiress Abigail Folger. Kasabian, though, was too horrified to participate and later served as a star witness. The Family’s reign of terror continued with supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, whose deaths were to fuel the coming race war. However, they were caught after vandalizing Death Valley National Park. Manson himself was never found guilty of committing murder, but he remains in Corcoran State Prison in California, where every application for parole has been denied.
David Koresh – Branch Davidians
David Howell was born in 1959 and was raised by his grandparents in the Seventh Day Adventists Church in Houston, Texas. After attempting a music career in Los Angeles, he returned to Texas and joined the Branch Davidians on Mount Carmel. In the 1980s, Howell wedded a teenaged member and began an affair with an older prophetess named Lois Roden. After Roden’s death, her son George and Howell wrestled for control, leading to his departure and return to shoot Roden in 1987. After being acquitted of attempted murder, Howell changed his name to Koresh, after a Persian king, in 1990.
By the 1990s, Koresh claimed to be the voice of God and to have cracked the Book of Revelations’ Seven Seals. He moved his followers to their Waco compound and preached the need for an “Army of God” with a cache of weapons to face the coming apocalypse. Koresh also instructed his followers in the practice of spiritual weddings, by which God chose brides of all ages for him. After investigations into sexual abuse, the FBI and Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms raided the compound on February 28, 1993, leading to a 4-hour gunfight and 51-day standoff ending with 76 dead and Koresh having shot himself.
Shoko Asahara – Aum Shinrikyo
Shoko Asahara was the 7th child in a tatami-weaving family in Yashuhiro, Japan, and suffered partial blindness from infantile glaucoma. After being denied entry to university, Asahara studied traditional Chinese medicine but was convicted of practicing pharmacy without a license in 1981. After release from prison, he set off on a spiritual journey that led to the founding of Aum Shrinrikyo or “The Supreme Truth” in the 1980s. This sect blends Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and the teachings of Nostradamus in yoga and meditation.
By the 1990s, Asahara had recruited 10,000 followers who believed that he was a savior and future emperor. They used political organizations to influence the government after failing to get their members into elected office but eventually released sarin gas in the Tokyo Subway System in 1995. With 13 dead and thousands injured, the crime led to dozens of members’ arrests, including Asahara and his wife. Police soon discovered live captives, drugs, explosives, weapons, and chemical weapons including anthrax and large stores of sarin gas. Asahara’s trial lasted from 1996 to 2004 due to a scandal involving a defense attorney, but he was finally convicted. The cult’s remaining members distanced themselves from him and denounced terrorism – becoming Aleph in 2002.
Joseph Di Mambro – Order of the Solar Temple
Di Mambro was a Frenchman who immersed himself in mystical knowledge through the Rosicrucian Order. Eventually, in 1978, he established the Golden Way in Switzerland based upon the Knights Templar. Although he attracted affluent members, Di Mambro joined with Belgian homeopathic doctor and fellow cult leader, Luc Jouret, to form The Order of the Solar Temple in 1984. The new sect fused astrology and legendary with a belief in the second coming of Christ as a solar god-king. While Jouret used his charisma to recruit new members, Di Mambro managed the group’s finances, rituals, and meditations.
In the 1980s, the OST moved from Switzerland to Quebec, where membership peaked around 400. However, Di Mambro’s heavy hand in naming children and choosing who could even have children led to declining membership. Even after the sect returned to Switzerland in 1991, his claims that his children were divinely conceived led to tension. In September of 1994, two members killed themselves in a Quebec chalet after murdering former members, the Dutoit’s, and their infant son, whom Di Mambro saw as the antichrist. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Di Mambro and Jouret’s inner circle staged a last supper before setting fire to their buildings in Cheiry and Granges-Sur-Salvan. Around 100 died in the flames, with most perishing by tranquilizers, gunshots, and asphyxiation. Jouret and Di Mambo believed the flames would send them to a new planet, but it only revealed their underground, mirror-lined chapel, filled with the bodies of the OST’s doomed inner circle.
Marshall Applewhite & Bonnie Lu Nettles – Heaven’s Gate
Bonnie Lu Nettles and Marshall Applewhite met in Dallas in 1972 and bonded over a mutual interest in spiritualism. Together, they founded a failed bookstore and traveled to spread their beliefs, with Nettles leaving her family of four and Applewhite forgetting his failed acting career. They believed they were an alien version of “The Two” from Revelations and denied human concerns like paying bills. Soon enough, Applewhite was jailed for not returning a rental car, but the duo used that time to solidify their manifesto. Upon his release, Applewhite and Nettles again spread their beliefs – now in the need to escape the “great recycling” by using suicide to enter the alien realm of heaven.
As members of “A Level Above Human”, the duo made national news and narrowed their group to the most dedicated. When Nettles died of cancer in 1983, Heaven’s Gate lived on through unusual diets, castration, and gender-neutral clothing. They soon moved to a mansion, “The Monastery”, in San Diego, California, and established a successful computer business to support their ads and Beyond Human: The Last Call videos. In March 1997, 38 followers took their lives using phenobarbital and asphyxiation to reach the spaceship hidden in the Hale-Bopp comet’s tail. To this day, representatives maintain their website.
Read more on Religion & Belief
You may also enjoy these stories: