If the never-ending bleak news cycle of 2020 hasn't pushed you over the edge by now, first I'd like to say, congratulations! Your fortitude is inspirational to the rest of us who are just barely holding it together during this sh*t-show of a year. Second of all, it's never fun to feel left out, so go ahead and sink your teeth into this depravity with a capital D (and no, I don't mean The Donald). I'm talking about cults—wicked, evil, and oftentimes heartbreaking cults.
When I was a kid, I couldn't understand how a person could brainwash a whole group of people to such an extreme that they'd abandon everything they've ever known and lose their grasp on the difference between good and evil. Learning about the sexual, physical, and psychological abuse that took place in various infamous cults sent shivers down my spine. But I'll admit...there's also something fascinating about the group-think phenomenon, and how good, innocent people can get sucked into the dangerous mindset.
And since at this point in the pandemic, you've probably already watched every scary movie that's available to stream, why not dive into some ~reading material~ and brush up on the scariest cult stories of all time.
If you thought cults were a thing of the past, think again. Keith Raniere started NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in 1998, positioning the group as a self-help organization with workshops and classes on empowerment. NXIVM amassed over 18,000 followers across North America until 2017, when NXIVM members came forward exposing the abusive practices of a secret society within the group. Women were recruited under the false pretense that they were joining a sisterhood of sorts—but it ended up being a sex cult. A pyramid scheme existed within the group with Raniere, who members called "Vanguard," at the top, "masters" recruited other women to the secretive group, and at the bottom were the newest recruits, who were referred to as "slaves."
A former member recounted to The New York Times that in order to be admitted to the secret club, she had to give her "master" naked photos and other compromising documents that would be used as blackmail if she ever told anyone about the group's existence. She also was told that another part of the initiation process was getting a small tattoo. But instead of a tattoo, the new members were told to undress and the "master" branded them with a design that included Raniere's initials right above their pelvic area. Each woman was instructed to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”
In 2020, Raniere was tried in court where over a dozen women came forward with statements regarding his psychological and sexual abuse. He was convicted of many crimes, including sex trafficking, racketeering, and child pornography. Victims were as young as 15 years old. Raniere was sentenced to life in prison, but in a court filing this September, his lawyers wrote that “He is not sorry for his conduct or his choices." In October, the docu-series Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult premiered on STARZ, documenting the stories and experiences of former members and exposing Raniere's abusive and manipulative practices.
2. Angel's Landing
Angel's Landing is the name of the 20-acre compound outside of Wichita, Kansas, where Lou Castro and a small group of people lived an inexplicably extravagant life in the early 2000s. Castro's followers were convinced that he was an angel and a "seer" who could look into the future and know when you were going to die.
Already suspicious of Castro's luxury vehicles and money that no one could explain (there was no paper trail on Castro), local law enforcement took an active interest when Patricia Hughes, a member of the Angel's Landing community, tragically turned up dead on the compound in 2003. Then, when Patricia's husband died in a freak accident in 2006, local detective Ron Goodwyn dove into every bit of personal and financial information he could find on the people living at Angel’s Landing. What he found was disturbing: expensive life insurance policies were taken out on people in Castro's circle and cashed in by members when someone in the makeshift family "accidentally" died. This pattern occurred around every two and a half years. But the detective couldn't find any records for the mysterious leader Lou Castro.
In 2010, Castro moved from Kansas to Tennessee and adopted a new identity, but he was soon arrested by the FBI for aggravated identity theft and fraudulent use of a Social Security card number. During his two-year stint in federal prison, Goodwyn and the FBI discovered, according to The Wichita Eagle, that "Lou Castro" was really Daniel Perez, a man from Texas with many police reports, including a case involving sex crimes against two girls, 11 and 14, until he fled Texas.
Through interviews with members of the commune, they uncovered Perez's sexual abuse of women and girls at Angel's Landing, including Sara McGrath who alleged that Perez regularly raped her for years. Sadly, she was just one of his many victims. More witnesses came forward, accusing Perez of abuse and fingering him for the murder of Patricia Hughes. Perez was charged with 28 felonies and in February 2015, he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
3. Children of God
Initially called Teens for Christ, Children of God was founded in 1968 by rogue preacher David Berg in Huntington Beach, California. Attracting young runaways and hippies, Berg preached a kind of worship that combined the ways of Jesus Christ with the free love movement of the ’60s. Group living, zealous proselytizing and isolated communes were all pillars of the Children of God church. Members, which amounted to 15,000 people across the world at its peak, didn’t work and children didn’t go to school. The COG didn’t believe in the nuclear family, so children were grouped together and lived separately from their parents.
In the late 1970s, COG became notorious for the sexual practices that one of Berg’s own daughters later described as “religious prostitution.” Berg coined the term “flirty fishing,” a sexual practice in which women would allegedly have sex with men to bring them into the cult. Berg promoted and encouraged the sexualization of children within the COG community. As Berg manipulated the COG family with his sadistic practices, members started leaving the community, including the families of actor Joaquin Phoenix and actress Rose McGowan, who both grew up in Children of God communes.
Former COG members began coming forward in the early '90s, describing an environment that permitted and encouraged the physical and sexual abuse of young children. Ricky Dupuy appeared on a talkshow in 1993 and revealed that he'd been ordered by the group to rape a 10-year-old. Dupuy later committed suicide, like many other members of the group, including Berg’s son Ricky Rodriguez who was sexually abused throughout his life by his father and the group.
Although David Berg died in 1994 (while under FBI investigation), the Children of God cult continued to exist and now goes by the name Family International, although the group claims that the horrific practices are a thing of the past.
4. Church of the Lamb of God
Dubbed by media as the 'Mormon Manson', Ervil LeBaron started the Church of the Lamb of God in Chihuahua, Mexico, after he clashed and left his brother Joel's sect. Ervil convinced his followers that he received direct instructions from God, which included using an abandoned Mormon doctrine, "blood atonement," that allows the killing of sinners to cleanse them of evil. LeBaron had 51 children with 13 different wives, and over two decades amassed hundreds of followers who allegedly murdered more than 20 people behalf of LeBaron and his orders. Mexico authorities arrested LeBaron in 1979 and handed him over to the FBI, where he was charged for the murder of another polygamous sect leader and jailed for life in Utah. Although LeBaron died in prison in 1981, his reign of terror continued until the '90s, as he left behind a "hit list" of people he believed were traitors.
5. The Manson Family
You don’t need to know much about true crime to know the name “Charles Manson,” which almost 50 years after his most heinous acts is still synonymous with “cult leader.” Manson started his group in San Francisco in 1967 and later that year moved to Los Angeles, where he tried and failed to establish himself as a musician.
Manson became obsessed with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” and started using the term to describe a race war he believed would usher in the apocalypse, and in August 1969, he sent a group of his followers to a house in Benedict Canyon and told them to kill everyone inside. The victims included actress Sharon Tate, then married to Roman Polanski, and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring. The next night, Manson’s followers murdered Rosemary and Leno LaBianca at their home in Los Feliz. Some people believe Manson ordered the murders because he thought it would kick-start his “helter skelter” concept, while others think he believed the Tate house still belonged to a music producer who’d refused to give him a record deal. Still others claim that the murders were the Manson Family’s attempt at “copycat murders” designed to get their friend out of jail. No matter the motive, though, commentators at the time saw the murders as the official end of the 1960s culture of free love.
6. Peoples Temple
In the 1950s, Indiana native Jim Jones founded a church that he claimed promoted socialism and equality, with religious elements of Christianity. Initially, he was little more than a charismatic hustler (who faked faith healings by having audience plants pull chicken livers out of congregants’ mouths), but as the years progressed, he demanded more and more of followers. In the early 1970s, Jones moved his group to California and set them up in a commune-like settlement in Redwood Valley.
Jones eventually came to believe that nuclear war was imminent and moved his followers again to the South American country of Guyana, which he thought would be outside the potential danger zone. The group lived there for several years as the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project but after former members started speaking out against the church, San Francisco Congressman Leo Ryan decided to travel to Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse. Temple security guards opened fire on Ryan’s group and back at the settlement, Jones ordered his followers to drink a cyanide-laced beverage. (This is where the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” originates.) A total of 918 people died in the incident and until 9/11, it was the largest loss of American civilian life in history.
7. Heaven’s Gate
Founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 1970s, Heaven’s Gate was an ascetic cult that had a complicated belief system involving aliens, spaceships, and an imminent “recycling” of the planet Earth. After Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite took the group to even further extremes and in 1997, he began claiming that a spacecraft was following the Hale-Bopp comet; this spacecraft would carry the Heaven’s Gate members to the next level of existence.
While living in a rented home in San Diego, Applewhite and 38 followers died by suicide by taking phenobarbital mixed with applesauce. They all wore the same uniform and Nike shoes, and had $5.75 in their pockets. As of today, the Heaven’s Gate website still exists and is maintained by two of the group’s followers.
8. Order of the Solar Temple
Founded in Switzerland in 1984, the Order of the Solar Temple traced its roots to the medieval Knights Templar but also thought the world would end in the 1990s. Things took a turn in 1994 when OST leader Joseph di Mambro reportedly ordered the murder of an infant in Quebec; later that year, more than 50 members of the group were murdered or died by suicide, and the group’s buildings were destroyed by fire. Additional members died by suicide in 1995 and 1997.
9. Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians broke off from the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists in 1955 but didn’t make headlines until the infamous Waco siege of 1993. In 1981, David Koresh (born Vernon Howell) took over the group, which was headquartered at a commune called Mount Carmel. After allegations of child abuse within the commune, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives attempted to raid Mount Carmel, but a gun battle erupted, and 10 people were killed. The FBI then launched a siege that lasted for 51 days and ended with the compound being destroyed by fire. Koresh was killed along with 76 others; a governmental investigation later concluded that the Branch Davidians had started the fire themselves.
10. Aum Shinrikyo
Founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984, Aum Shinrikyo first made headlines in the late ’80s amid accusations that Asahara was forcing members to donate money to the group and holding them against their will. Like many cult leaders, Asahara believed in an imminent doomsday, this time caused by a world war started by the United States. According to him, only his followers would survive. In 1995, the group executed a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, which caused the deaths of 12 people and injured 50 more. After that attack, Japanese authorities learned that the group had also been responsible for the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who was working on a class-action lawsuit against Aum Shinriyko at the time of his death (the group also murdered his wife and child).
11. True Russian Orthodox Church
The True Russian Orthodox Church was an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, founded by Pyotr Kuznetsov. In 2007, around 30 members of the group holed themselves up in a Russian cave, where Kuznetsov had told them to wait until the world ended in 2008 (he didn’t go into the cave with them). They believed things like credit cards and barcodes were satanic, and threatened to kill themselves if any authorities tried to remove them from the cave. After two members died in the cave (one from cancer, the other from starvation), some members eventually decided to leave because they were worried about toxic fumes from the corpses; others left when the cave’s roof started to collapse in 2008.
12. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
This sect formed in the Kanungu district of Uganda in the 1980s and taught its members that they had to follow the Ten Commandments in order to survive the apocalypse, which the leaders believed was coming in 2000. When January 1, 2000, passed without incident, members began to question why their leaders had failed to get their apocalypse date right and leaders then predicted that the real end would come on March 17. It did, but not because of anything supernatural—the leaders set fire to the Movement church, killing more than 500 people inside. Authorities later discovered the bodies of more victims at the group’s other properties in Uganda and concluded that the leaders had orchestrated the killing in response to turmoil caused by their repeated failure to predict the apocalypse.
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