It’s in human nature to believe in something. Whether it is a moral code, a faith, a system, or a person, we all seek to identify ourselves with a concept and guide our rationale around it.
Sadly, unscrupulous people take advantage of this aspect of human nature, making way to the establishment of cults. By definition, cults are social groups gathered together by sharing a particularly odd or strange belief. Needless to say, it’s a pejorative term with negative consequences.
And not without reason.
Many cults through history have been dangerous, if not flat-out murderous. Their leaders sometimes have nefarious purposes and take advantage of the emotional vulnerability of their followers to execute sinister plans, with terrible consequences.
Take a look at the worst cults in history—that we know of.
6. The Manson Family.
The Manson Family is the name given to a cult commune centered on the figure of Charles Manson. This abusive and manipulative criminal displayed antisocial behavior, and his failed music career fueled his desire for fame and Hollywood obsession.
Taking advantage of the counterculture and hippie movement that thrived in the 60s, Manson gathered a group of over 100 followers, most of them young women that he manipulated and sexually assaulted. They lived a life of excess, consuming hallucinogenic drugs regularly.
Mason, a racist who hated the Black Panthers movement, believed a racial war was imminent. He named it Helter Skelter and decided to kickstart it by organizing a string of murders in 1969, most notably that of Sharon Tate, actress, and wife of Roman Polanski. She was, at the time of her death, eight months pregnant.
The Manson Family was apprehended, and the murderers were given the death penalty. Manson died in prison in 2017.
They killed 12 people, if not more.
5. Heaven’s Gate.
Talking about cults is talking about Heaven’s Gate, undoubtedly one of the most infamous cults the world has ever seen.
Lead by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, Heaven’s Gate was an American cult based in California and founded in 1974. The roughly 41 members of the cult lived together in a commune and led an ascetic life.
The fundamental belief of Heaven’s Gate was that God was, in fact, an extraterrestrial life form and that humanity was doomed. To escape their demise, humans had to leave their mortal bodies behind as their collective consciousness ascends to a spaceship that would arrive at Earth at a given time.
Apparently, that given time was March 26, 1997. On that date, the members of the cult participated in a ritualistic mass suicide to reach the promised spaceship, meant to arrive with the Comet Hale-Bopp.
39 bodies were found, all of them wearing the same black-and-white Nike Decade sneakers. The shoes were discontinued soon after, as a consequence of the tragedy.
Unlike other entries in this list, NXIVM did not market itself as a religious group. Instead, the group founded in 1999 was labeled as a multi-level marketing company, providing self-help and self-development seminars. However, the lessons were meant to break down their willpower, make them submissive and dependent on the company, therefore easier to scam.
But the real nightmare took place within DOS, a subgroup within NXIVM that operated like a sex trafficking ring under the guise of a secret sisterhood. They gathered compromising material as a guarantee of secrecy, but it turned into blackmailing material that forced the unsuspecting women into sex slavery.
The women were stripped naked, tied up, and branded with Keith Raniere’s initials like cattle. To enhance the humiliation, they were forced to ask the “master” to please brand them, as it’d be an honor—to give the impression of consent. It was all recorded in video, and according to reports, rape followed soon after.
Since 2018, Keith Raniere and other key members of the cult have been brought to justice and charged with sex trafficking charges.
3. Aum Shinrikyo.
Based in Japan, Aum Shinrikyo was founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. Translated to “supreme truth”, the cult is a syncretic mixture of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian beliefs, but it became a doomsday cult. According to their ideas, a nuclear Armageddon was inevitable, and only Aum Shinrikyo members were destined to survive the catastrophe.
By the late 80s, the group was already infamous in Japan, with reports of coercing members to remain within the ranks, donate money, and threatening with violence if they chose to leave.
Soon enough, they started working on biological weapons. In 1994 they succeeded in performing a sarin attack in the city of Matsumoto, killing eight and injured over 500 people. At the time, Japanese authorities failed to identify the cult as the culprit.
Many now believe a seismic event in Australia taking place in 1993 was, actually, a nuclear test performed by the group.
However, things escalated in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo executed a terrorist attack in the subway system in Tokyo by releasing toxic fumes. 13 died, and thousands were injured.
Shoko Asahara and other members were executed for their crimes in 2018. Regardless, Aum Shinrikyo remains active, although under a different name.
2. Los Narcosatánicos.
In the late 80s, in the city of Matamoros in Tamaulipas, Mexico, the narcosatanist merged human sacrifice rituals with drug trafficking under the lead of Adolfo Constanzo, a Cuban-American citizen, and Sara Aldrete, a Mexican woman.
Despite the sensationalist name given by the media, The Narcosatánicos were not satanic. Instead, they followed the syncretic religion of Palo Mayombe, originated in Congo, and developed in the Caribbean.
Constanzo and Aldrete believed that spells and rituals were the keys to success in the drug trafficking world, and they convinced many local drug cartels of such. Soon, he became a local guru, and performed ritualistic human sacrifices and spells for the traffickers, as a business partner. He used body parts, human brains, and dead black cats for his drinks and potions.
When an American pre-med student disappeared in 1989, American and Mexican police forces found Los Narcosatánicos near the border. 12 bodies were found, including the American student, with evident signs of mutilation and torture too horrific to describe.
Cornered and refusing to go to prison, Constanzo asked a follower to shoot him. He died in 1989. However, several of his followers, including Aldrete, are spending the rest of their lives in prison.
1. Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ.
Best known as simply Peoples Temple, the cult was founded by Jim Jones in 1955. He merged elements of Christianity with socialist and communist beliefs, as well as a strong anti-capitalist message.
Through his charisma, he gathered over a thousand members. Eventually, he convinced them to move to South America under the belief that it’d be a safe haven when the inevitable nuclear warfare starts. In reality, it was probably a way to avoid media exposure within the United States.
In Guayana Esequiba, a disputed territory between Venezuela and Guyana, Jones founded the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project—known as Jonestown.
Although Jones promised them a self-sustained paradise, the living conditions in Jonestown were a nightmare. The soil was not suited for agriculture, so the settlement had no food, no means of income, no hygiene, and no freedom. Armed men prevented the members from expressing disagreements.
However, abuse claims from ex-members prompted Congressman Leo Ryan to visit the settlement to investigate. As some defectors found the chance to escape, members shot Ryan, three journalists, and one defector to death.
Cornered, Jones chose death—and brought the rest down with him. Threatening them with guards, Jones forced 918 people to drink a beverage poisoned with cyanide.
It was not mass suicide. It was mass murder.
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