There is something terrifying about cults. The fact that one person, using a silver tongue and a lot of guile, can talk people into turning over their possessions, their sanity, their life to a total stranger is positively chilling. Often times, these cults are non-violent, but when they do turn violent, it gets ugly and weird and scary in a very big way. These are five of the scariest cults to have existed in modern times.
Charles Manson and his "Family"
Perhaps the most infamous cult leader of all time, Charles Manson is currently spending his life in prison for killing a half-dozen people in what he called "Helter Skelter" - even though he never laid a hand on any of the victims.
Born in 1934 to a teenage alcoholic, Manson spent more than half of his first 32 years in juvenile detention, state wards, prison, and other institutions for a variety of crimes: car theft, forgery, burglary, armed robbery, promoting prostitution, and probation violations. In 1967, he moved to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, the center of the hippie movement, where he had no problem finding a small group of "followers" (mostly women) to believe in his ideology (mostly borrowed from Scientology). When Manson and his girls relocated to the Los Angeles area, they ended up squatting in the home of Beach Boys' founding member Dennis Wilson. Wilson didn't seem to mind, even as their numbers doubled: he paid for Manson to record his music, and covered the Family's expenses. When Wilson's business manager finally kicked them out, the Family moved to the now-infamous Spahn Ranch, a former movie studio that had since fallen into severe disrepair. This is where Charlie and his "Family" prepared for Helter Skelter.
Based on little more than his own insane interpretation of the Beatles' song of the same name, Manson believed that Helter Skelter was an impending race war that would have apocalyptic results. Manson believed that by setting Helter Skelter in motion and hiding with his Family in an underground city in Death Valley, they would be the last remaining white people and would easily take control of the world, as Manson did not believe that blacks could handle running the world. After follower Bobby Beausoleil was arrested for murdering Manson acquaintance Gary Hinman (presumably at Manson's behest), Manson decided it was time to kick off Helter Skelter. He sent Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to 10050 Cielo Drive, once the home of a music producer Manson knew. It was now being rented by director Roman Polanski - in London for business - and his wife, actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant. Manson told his followers to create a massacre, and they did, delivering hundreds of stab wounds to Tate, her fetus, and four house guests. The next night, the four followers were joined by two more - Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan - and they chose the house of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca at random for another night of murder. At both crime scenes, words like "death to pigs" and "Healter [sic] Skelter" in the victims' own blood.
After a 10 month trial / media circus, sentences were handed down. Van Houten, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Watson were each convicted of first degree murder and conspiracy charges and given the death penalty (which was commuted to life in prison when California briefly declared the death penalty unconstitutional). Despite the fact that Manson never actually set foot in the Tate or LaBianca crime scenes, his involvement in orchestrating the crimes meant that he was still responsible and received the same sentence his followers did. Atkins died in prison; the others, though they come up for parole every few years, are all still in prison.
Have you ever heard the expression, "Don't drink the Kool Aid?" Reverend Jim Jones inadvertently was the cause of that saying when he convinced over 900 people to take part in a mass suicide by drinking cyanide mixed with grape Flavor Aid, a Kool Aid knock-off [Kool Aid just sounds better, though].
On paper, Jones's The Peoples Temple sounded wonderful. Obsessed with religion since childhood, his Temple was founded on a firm belief in integration. In the mid-1950s in Indiana, this was a huge deal and he was ostracized by the community (it didn't help that he was a Communist). Jones and his wife Marceline had a "rainbow family" in which they adopted Korean, Native American, and black children - and encouraged their followers to do the same. The couple only had one biological child. Jones formed his Temple as a response to the difficult time he had finding churches that would accept integrationists. The Peoples Temple operated much like any cult: start with honorable intentions, gradually ask more and more from your followers, until they are utterly indoctrinated and sign over their money, their property, their family. In Jones's case, the idea of racial harmony and a utopian, self-sufficient community based on socialistic ideals was a huge draw, bringing in thousands of followers (some reports claim membership was as high as 20,000, but many believe that number is greatly exaggerated).
Despite his noble intentions, Jones quickly devolved into a controlling leader who gave in to his increasingly alarming paranoia, which included visions of a nuclear attack that would hit the midwest.
Construction on Jonestown, Jones's utopian commune in the Guyana jungle, began in 1974, with followers being sent down there piecemeal to oversee. The final migration came in 1977, as public scrutiny over The Peoples Temple was increasing. Jonestown was a 300-acre settlement in the heart of the Guyanese jungle, utterly isolated and making escape almost impossible. Congressman Leo J. Ryan had been looking into The Peoples Temple for nearly a year, and finally gathered a contingent to go down and check the place out. Officials for Jonestown were resistant at first but eventually let Ryan and his group in. While there, a handful of followers wished to escape with Ryan - 15 in all. As they boarded a couple of small planes, one of the "defectors" opened fire. Five people were killed, including Ryan. At about the same time, Jones was telling his followers what was going on, and that the government would soon be storming their compound. They either die by the government's hands, or die by their own. Most chose the latter. Of approximately 1100 Jonestown residents, 913 died; the rest escaped into the jungle. Of the dead, 200 were children, drugged by their own parents. Those who refused to drink the spiked punch were shot. Jim Jones died in his Jonestown from a gunshot wound. It is not known if he was murdered or killed himself.
Founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used elements of yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and the writings of Nostradamus to outline a doomsday scenario led by the United States. Aum Shinrikyo was granted religious status in 1989, about the same time their activities turned criminal. They held members against their will and forced recruits to give up money, as well as extorting it from others. The cult murdered at least one known defector, as well as an anti-cult attorney and his entire family (though it was many years later that their bodies were found). It was 1993 when events were set in motion that would rocket the cult into infamy.
Aum Shinrikyo began to secretly manufacture sarin and VX nerve gases, automatic rifles (they only managed to make one), LSD, and meth. In addition, the cult had stockpiles of Ebola virus, weaponized anthrax, and even a Russian military helicopter. In 1994, the cult staged their first sarin gas attack, in Matsumoto, Nagano. Eight people died and 200 were injured, but at that time the cult was not linked. Less than a year later, Aum Shinrikyo staged a coordinated sarin attack on five Tokyo subway stations. This time, 13 people died, 54 were seriously injured, and up to 5,000 others faced injuries because of the gas. Allegedly, this attack was prompted when Asahara was tipped off that the police would be raiding his headquarters, and this attack would divert attention. It all started to fall apart after that. Asahara went into hiding; a couple other murders were attributed to cult members, and another gas attack with the potential to kill 20,000 people was thwarted. Asahara was convicted of 23 counts of murder, a dozen other various charges, and received the death penalty. In all, 13 cult members were sentenced to death for their involvement in various cult crimes.
Shortly after his arrest, Asahara resigned from Aum Shinrikyo and refuses to speak to anyone, even family. Aum Shinrikyo continues to operate under the name Aleph, has made significant changes to their doctrine, and has set up various charities and trusts for victims of the sarin gas attacks. Despite these efforts, the Japanese government keeps a close eye on the group's activities, and they are considered a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States.
Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate
Formed in the 1970s, Heaven's Gate began after founder Marshall Applewhite had a near-death experience. The Heaven's Gate doctrines were based on a mixture of New Age and Christian beliefs, with a smattering of sci-fi and UFO ideas. Applewhite espoused an "ascetic" life, encouraging people to live very simple lives, devoid of luxuries, material goods, and personal identities. Many of the male cult members - Applewhite included - had castrations to further this belief.
Applewhite told his followers that the earth would soon be "recycled:" wiped clean and rejuvenated to start anew. The only way to escape this extinction was to commit suicide, which the group considered sacrilege, but Applewhite insisted it was the only way to save themselves. He claimed that when the Hale-Bopp comet roared through the sky, it would be followed by a spacecraft which would take their souls to a "level of existence above human." In a rented mansion in San Diego, Applewhite and 38 of his followers killed themselves with poisoned pudding over the span of three days. The most notable aspect of their suicide was found in their attire. All 39 dead were found in black t-shirts and sweatpants, plastic bags over their heads, and draped in purple cloth. They accessorized with black armbands that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team" and brand new Nike Air Jordans.
David Koresh - The "Wacko in Waco"
Koresh led a sect called the Branch Davidians. He is the only one on this list who did not create the cult that made him infamous. Formed in the mid-1950s, The Branch Davidians were a splinter group of a splinter group of Seventh-Day Adventists. Koresh, it seems, had less of an interest in the religious aspects of the group, and was more concerned about gaining his own following. It is believed that Koresh had a sexual relationship with Branch leader Lois Roden. She allowed him to preach his own message. This created a schism in the group that eventually led to Lois's son, George, forcing Koresh and 25 or so of his "followers" (which was apparently a majority of the membership) out of the church. The group lived a primitive existence in the wild until 1987, when George - now egomaniacal and paranoid like most cult leaders - challenged Koresh to see who could resurrect the dead, thereby proving which of them was the "chosen one." Koresh instead reported George to the police. He and his followers sneaked into what was now called "Rodenville" under the pretenses of finding proof that George was playing with dead bodies. Instead, a shoot-out occurred, leaving George injured and Koresh and his followers on trial for attempted murder. All were found not guilty.
George killed a man a couple years later, and was sentenced to a mental institution. The resulting power vacuum was filled by Koresh. Allegations of sexual and physical abuse against the children of the compound were rampant, but never proven. Koresh did create and dissolved marriages as he saw fit, and took many women in the congregation to his bed. He is said to have fathered at least 12 children by numerous women. The allegations of child abuse were used to bolster the eventual raid on the Waco, Texas compound, but it was the allegation that the cult was stockpiling weapons that drew the ATF and FBI to the compound in a siege that lasted 51 days, starting on February 28, 1993.
The initial raid resulted in the deaths of four agents and six Davidians before officials fell back and surrounded the compound. Negotiations began with Koresh, who claimed he needed time to finish religious doctrines before he would surrender. Despite the fact that Koresh insisted every person inside the compound was there of their own free will, he released 19 children in the early days of the standoff. But after nearly two months, tensions were high and patience was thin. Using the claims of child abuse as well as deteriorating conditions inside the compound as justification, US Attorney General Janet Reno, with the approval of President Clinton, gave the go-ahead for the FBI to begin their assault on the Davidian compound. To this day, what actually happened during the day-long siege are muddled at best. Shots were fired on both sides. Three fires in separate parts of the compound started simultaneously. Officials claim the Davidians started them deliberately, while survivors claim it was a result of tank attacks. Either way, that was the end of the road for the Branch Davidians. Nine members managed to escape during the fire, but the compound burned completely, the fiery footage broadcast around the world. In the end, 75 people - including Koresh - died at Waco.