Cults come in many types and sizes. This list includes cults ranging from South Pacific islanders who perform rituals with the goal of getting planes to drop off goods, to doomsday cults that planned to take over the world after the apocalypse — and managed to gain a frightening amount of power.
1. Heaven’s Gate was a cult whose members committed mass suicide in 1997 when Comet Hale-Bopp passed near the sun. They believed their souls would reach an alien spacecraft that was following the comet.
The alien craft was supposed to then take their souls to another “level of existence above human.” The group was founded in back 1974 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles who met each other in a psychiatric hospital.
To commit suicide, 39 members took phenobarbital mixed with applesauce. They washed it down with vodka, and then put plastic bags over their heads so they would suffocate. All of them were dressed in matching black shirts with armband patches that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” as well as matching sweatpants and brand new Nike shoes. The cult’s website is still up and running.(source)
2. The John Frum cult is one of the most widely reported examples of a “cargo cult.” Cargo cults are typically groups that formed during or after WWII among islanders who benefited from the presence of soldiers who shared goods with them. They believe that by performing rituals that mimic the behavior of soldiers they saw on the island, they’ll receive more cargo.
The John Frum cult is made up of islanders on the South Pacific island of Tanna. Before soldiers arrived on the island, locals were unfamiliar with modern goods such as manufactured clothing, medicine, and canned food. The islanders had watched the soldiers receive cargo from planes from parachuted air drops. So, after soldiers left the island, the cults would perform rituals that mimicked the practices of soldiers in the belief that it would bring new cargo. Some of the practices include marching, waving landing signals, and creating mock airstrips, radios, and control towers.
The John Frum cult worships a figure named John Frum, often depicted an American WWII serviceman. The name John Frum may be a corruption of “John from” as in “John from America”. This cargo cult is still active and has become a tourist attraction.(1,2,3)
3. The Family International is a cult that was founded in 1968 by a former pastor who said he was God’s prophet. He formed a group with some very outlandish views about sexuality. For instance, it is known advocating incest with children, and members are told to imagine themselves having sex with Jesus.
The cult teaches a belief they call “Loving Jesus.” They believe their group is like Christ’s bride, and members should love him as a wife loves a husband. They are encouraged to imagine Jesus is joining them when they have sex or masturbate. Male members are cautioned to imagine themselves as women so that they avoid a homosexual relationship with Jesus.
The cult was originally named “Teens for Christ,” but it was later renamed “The Children of God” and is currently called “The Family International.” It has had some noteworthy members. For instance, Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were born into the cult. According to their website, they have members in more than 80 countries.(1,2,3)
4. The Narcosatanists is the name the media gave to a cult of drug smugglers in Mexico. They performed human sacrifices with the belief it would protect them from police and even make them bulletproof.
This cult was led by a Cuban-American man named Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo. When Constanzo was a teenager living in Puerto Rico, he began practicing a religion called Palo Mayombe which involves animal sacrifice. He moved to Mexico City as an adult, gathered some followers, and started a successful business where they performed animal sacrifices to bring clients good luck. Many of his clients were drug dealers and hitmen.
In 1988, the Narcosatanists moved onto an isolated ranch in the desert where they managed a cocaine and marijuana smuggling operation. The group then started performing human sacrifices to cast spells they believed would protect them from police. Their victims included strangers and rival drug dealers.
Their crimes came to light after they abducted and murdered an American student who was in Mexico on Spring Break. When police raided the Narcosatanists’ ranch, they found the mutilated corpses of 15 people and a cauldron that contained a dead cat and a human brain.(1,2)
5. The Manson Family was Charles Manson’s group of hippie followers who carried out a grisly murder spree with the goal of inciting a race war. Manson believed the Beatles’ White Album was filled with coded messages that predicted a coming race war and told his followers that the album was actually directed at their group.
To incite a race war, the group brutally murdered White people with the hope the murders would be blamed on Black people. The Manson Family also planned to release an album of their own with hidden messages to help trigger the race war. Manson predicted there would be a split between racist and non-racist Whites which would allow Blacks to triumph. The Manson Family planned to go into hiding until the war was over and then would emerge to rule the Blacks.(1,2)
6. The Hernandez Brothers cult formed in 1963 when a pair of petty criminals claimed they were prophets of Inca gods and fooled some villagers in the small, Mexican town of Yerba Buena. Then they hired a prostitute to pose as an Inca goddess, but the plan backfired when she took over the cult, became delusional, and demanded human sacrifices.
The criminals were brothers Santos and Cayetano Hernandez. After convincing the villagers they were prophets and promising to lead them to a treasure hidden in nearby caves, they held drug-fueled orgies and treated the villagers like sex slaves. When the villagers grew impatient from not getting the promised treasure, the brothers hired a prostitute named Magdalena Solis to take part in the scam. They introduced Solis to the villagers as the reincarnation of an Inca goddess.
Solis soon became delusional and took over the cult. When two villagers tried to leave the group, Solis had them put to death. She then began demanding human sacrifices and claimed she needed to drink blood to stay young. The group sacrificed four people over the next six weeks. But then a fourteen-year-old local stumbled across one of their rituals. He ran 15 miles to the nearest police station and reported seeing “vampires.” An investigator accompanied the boy back to the area the next day, and they were murdered by the cult. Due to their disappearance, more police went to the village. Many of the cult members got shot and Solis was arrested.(source)
7. The People’s Temple, led by Jim Jones, started a community called Jonestown in Guyana in 1974. When a congressman and a group of journalists visited Jonestown to investigate reports of abuse, they ended up being shot and killed by Jonestown security guards. Later that day, Jim Jones ordered his followers to commit suicide. Over nine hundred people died. It was the greatest single loss of American civilian life due to a deliberate act, until 9/11.
The People’s Temple was a cult that formed in Indiana in 1955. Jim Jones preached a message that borrowed from Christianity, communism, and socialism. In 1974, Jones moved to Guyana with almost 1,000 followers and started Jonestown. The community started getting some negative attention in the press when some former members described the cruel practices they endured there. For example, they said members were regularly required to participate in a “catharsis” process, where one person was singled out and then criticized and beaten.
Based on this negative attention, a San Francisco congressman visited Jonestown to investigate the claims of abuse. A number of members asked to leave with the congressmen and accompanied him to a nearby airstrip. But security guards from Jonestown intercepted the group and shot at them killing the congressman, three journalists, and one defector. That evening, Jones ordered his followers to commit suicide by drinking grape-flavored Flavor Aid laced with cyanide.(source)
8. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a doomsday cult that formed in Uganda in the late 1980s. The cult’s leaders preached that the world would end on December 31st, 1999. After nothing happened on the predicted date, the group started to unravel, so the cult leaders murdered their followers.
After the new millennium arrived without incident, the leaders claimed the end would come on March 17, 2000. On that date, they held a huge party and gathered in their church to pray and sing. There were an explosion and fire at the church, and all 530 people in attendance died. A police investigation concluded it was a mass murder that had been orchestrated by the cult’s leadership. Hundreds of other members were also found dead by poisoning at the group’s various properties across southern Uganda. Forensics showed those cult members had been murdered weeks earlier.(source)
9. The Family was a cult started by an Australian yoga teacher who claimed she was the reincarnation of Jesus. She had followers help her gather fourteen children, with the goal of shaping them into “a perfect race.” The children were isolated and abused.
Yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Bryne and her followers gathered fourteen infants and young children from 1968 to 1975. Some of them were the biological children of the cult’s members, some were adopted, and others were abducted. The children were told that Hamilton-Bryne was their mother. They lived apart from adult cult members in an isolated compound and were looked after by a group of extremely cruel women called the “Aunties.”
Most of the children had their hair bleached and were made to look the same. The kids were regularly beaten and starved. If a child wet the bed, they were forced to take a cold shower. One boy who had asthma was wheezing, so he was put outside in the cold at night. The kids were also often dosed with psychiatric drugs. Once they reached adolescence, they had to undergo an initiation that involved taking LSD and being left alone in a dark room.
10. Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese doomsday cult that was founded in 1984. Its leader preached that the group would come to power after the apocalypse. The group got involved in organized crime and terrorism. It carried out sarin gas attacks on the public. When police raided their compounds, they discovered explosives, chemical weapons, and a Russian military helicopter.
Its founder, Shoko Asahara, prophesized that the world would end in 1997. He said the US would start a World War III that would end in a nuclear “Armageddon.” He supposedly gave his followers “superhuman powers” in exchange for their material wealth. He claimed there were conspiracies orchestrated by Freemasons, Jews, the British Royal Family, and rival Japanese religions, and that Aum Shinrikyo could uncover them. For public relations purposes, the cult produced its own comics and cartoons that depicted the cult as an elite group that uses powerful weapons to fight world conspiracies
In 1994, the group used a converted refrigerator truck to release a cloud of sarin gas in the neighborhood of judges that were overseeing a real-estate lawsuit against the cult. At the time, police had no idea who was behind the attack and focused their investigation on an innocent local man.
When police made plans to raid the cult’s facilities, Asahara was tipped off. So, he organized another sarin attack to divert police attention. The group carried out a coordinated attack on five subway trains killing 13 people and sending more than 5,000 to the hospital. The plan failed, and police raided the cult’s compounds across the country. They discovered explosives, chemical weapons, and a Russian military helicopter. They also found labs where the cult made drugs including a crude truth serum as well as LSD and methamphetamine that it sold to gangs. The cult is still around today. As of 2011, the group was reported as having over 1,000 members and is currently under surveillance by Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency.(1,2)