A “cult” typically refers to a group devoted to beliefs, practices or prophecy that the surrounding population considers to be outside the mainstream. A typical member is usually expected to give a large amount of time, money and above all devotion. Yet, sometimes a cult will demand even more, the ultimate sacrifice, your life.
Faith and belief are powerful emotions for humans to embody, here are seven examples of deadly religious cults that ended in extreme manipulation, murder and mass suicide.
1. Branch Davidians
The Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church from the 1980s, a fundamentalist organization that believed in the literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They were led by David Koresh, a theological scholar and the group’s “prophet.” The key focus of the cult was the book of revelations, believing doomsday was near and must be prepared for. It wasn’t until the early 90s that trouble started brewing for the Davidians.
A local newspaper began posting articles that the group was participating in illegal behavior, specifically weapons stockpiling and child abuse. Koresh himself was accused in these articles of having sexual relations with girls as young as twelve. In 1993 an arrest warrant was issued by the ATF. This led to a standoff with law enforcement and an ensuing firefight. The FBI came in to assist, and after 51 days they were given orders to end the siege. When the FBI began their attack, a fire was started in the building. This fire ultimately killed everyone inside, including women and children. The official explanation is that the Davidians executed a suicide pact, although conspiracy theorists allege that law enforcement were the ones who caused the fire.
2. The Order of the Solar Temple
Founded in the early 1980s by Luc Jouret and Joseph De Mambro, The Order of the Solar Temple was a fringe religious organization based out of Switzerland. Ancient ceremonies and rituals were a large part of the highly secretive group. Like many cults, the order believed that the end of days was near, and that people must leave this physical world. In the mid-90s, the bodies started showing up. The first were found in Cheiry, Switzerland. After a series of fires, 23 bodies were discovered. Another 25 were found soon after that, all bodies being drugged and shot. Many of the victims were found in a secret underground chapels, that were lined with mirrors and other items of Templar symbolism. The bodies were dressed in ceremonial robes and were laid in a circle, feet together, heads facing outward.
Two days later, two members of the cult were found dead in Quebec, Canada with their three-month-old son. The cause of death was ruled a murder-suicide. This trend continued for another few years, as cult members were drugged, shot and burned in apparent murder-suicides. It’s unclear whether the cult is still practicing, although occult experts speculate that they are.
3. Heaven’s Gate
This cult originated in the 1970s and was founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. The group believed that humans were no longer improving in their current state, and must advance to another astral plane in order to flourish. They also believed that an alien spacecraft was following the Hale-Bopp comet, and were committed to joining them on a higher plain of existence. In March of 1997, the cult ascended to the next plane by ingesting a toxic drug. About 40 members, including Applewhite, were found dead in a California mansion. Each member was dressed in the same outfit including the same Nike shoes with a purple cloth drapped over their faces.
4. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments
A group of excommunicated Catholic priests started this cult in Uganda, Africa in the early 1990s. They were a Christian organization who followed the Ten Commandments and the word of Jesus. Community outreach was one of the primary goals of the church, and it did some good for the local area including establishing schools. The cult was, like many are, obsessed with the end of the world, which they forecast would happen by 1999. When this failed to pass, they extended it to March of 2000, which as we all know from not dying in March of 2000, was also incorrect.
At the heels of the latest estimate, the cult gathered around 500 members in one of their churches. The doors and windows were boarded, and the fire began. It’s unclear who started the fire, as some reports state that members were intentionally dousing themselves in gasoline, while others suggest that the church was burned from the outside. After the rubble was cleared, authorities found other bodies buried around the church. It appears as though the murders began before the fire was set. About 900 bodies were found in all, making this one of the worst cult-related killings in history.
5. The Children of Thunder
Although the smallest cult on this list, totaling only three people, their destruction was still tragic. The Children of Thunder was formed by brothers Glenn Taylor and Justin Helzer, who were born into a Mormon family. When as they grew older, Glenn was expelled from the church for doing drugs and having sex. Just before his expulsion, the two met Dawn Godman, who began to date Justin. Glenn began to claim that god was speaking to him, often silencing people around him so he could listen to The Lord’s voice.
Believing that this was enough for a religion, Glenn began to try to gather money. When dealing drugs and prostitution failed, he turned to Justin (a stockbroker at the time) for some tips on a robbery victim. They ended up deciding on Ivan and Annette Stineman, an elderly couple who were clients of Justin. The three forced them to drink Rohypnol and write them checks which totaled $100,000. Afterward, they murdered the couple and Justin chopped up their bodies with a saw. Glenn’s new girlfriend was their next victim, and to cover his tracks, Glenn then murdered her mother. The girlfriend and the Stineman couple were dismembered and thrown in a river. The bodies were found and the three were promptly arrested, with Justin being given a life sentence and Glenn the death penalty. Glenn committed suicide in his cell at the age of 41.
6. The Fall Rivers Cult
The Fall Rivers Cult was founded in Massachusetts during the late 70s and early 80s. The organization was lead by Carl Drew, a 25-year-old pimp who used Satanism to indoctrinate and intimidate his prostitutes. Drew claimed to be the spawn of Satan, and led ceremonies where he would speak in different voices and unknown languages. Eventually, Drew demanded human sacrifices for his rituals. The first to die was a young prostitute by the name of Donna Levesque. She was tied up and beaten in the head until she died. Her body was dumped on the grounds of a local high school. More human sacrifices continued, including Karen Marsden who had contacted police about the Levesque murder. She was also bound, beaten and eventually decapitated.
Soon after the Marsden murder, the police had enough evidence to charge the group. Carl Drew was given a life sentence, which he has claimed is unjust and has appealed many times. Robin Murphy received a more lenient sentence, as she informed on many other contributors. She later recanted her statements, claiming that she made everything up. The police didn’t buy it, in-fact they think she was one of the main organizers of this cult.
The People’s Temple was founded in the 1950s by Jim Jones. It was founded on Christian and economic principals at the start. After facing accusations of abuse, Jones moved his church to Guyana, where his community became known as Jonestown. Leo Ryan, a US congressman became curious of the cult’s behavior, and went to Jonestown to try to find some answers. He was met with hostility and was eventually shot and killed before he could depart.
In 1978, Jones asked his followers to make the ultimate sacrifice. He asked them to drink his homemade brew, consisting of cyanide, sedatives and juice. They accepted, and over 900 bodies were eventually found, almost a third of which were children. Jones himself was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. 400 of the over 900 bodies were unclaimed, and were eventually placed in a mass-burial in Oakland, CA.
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