The world is filled with obscure cults and religions whose bizarre beliefs and rituals make things like alien worship—and even murder—seem tame. Although many of the cults featured here began as offshoots of an already established religious practice, they soon went down a dark and deadly path; often leading to murder, suicide or genocide. Here are 10 of the most insane cult stories of all time.
1. The Manson Family
You don’t need to know much about true crime to know the name “Charles Manson”. 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, who was obsessed with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter”, started using the term to trigger a race war that he believed would usher in the apocalypse. In August 1969, he sent a group of his followers to a house in Benedict Canyon and told them to kill everyone inside, hoping that the murders would be blamed on black people.
Manson was convinced that if a race war was started, black people would win. With that in mind, he devised a plan. He and his followers would hide out in a secret city below Death Valley, and once the dust settled on the war, they would emerge as leaders of the new world.
2. Peoples Temple
In the 1950’s, Indiana native Jim Jones founded a church that he claimed promoted socialism and equality, with religious elements of Christianity. As the years progressed, he demanded more and more followers and by 1970’s, Jones had moved his group to California and set them up in a commune-like settlement. Jones believed that nuclear war was imminent, so he moved his followers again to the South American country of Guyana.
The group lived there for several years as the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project but former members started speaking out against the church. As more and more people started talking against the church and their beliefs, the temple security guards began to open fire on them. Jones then ordered his remaining followers to drink a cyanide-laced powder mixed beverage (which is where the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” originated). A total of 918 people died in the incident. Until 9/11, it was the largest loss of American civilian life in history.
3. Heaven’s Gate
Founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 1970’s, Heaven’s Gate was an ascetic cult that had a complicated belief set involving aliens, spaceships and an imminent “recycling” of the planet Earth. After Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite decided to take the group to even further extremes. In 1997, he began claiming that a spacecraft was following the Hale-Bopp comet. He made his followers believe that this particular 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 the 38 Heaven’s Gate followers committed suicide by taking phenobarbital mixed with applesauce. The members were all found wearing the same uniform, Nike shoes and exactly $5.75 in all of their pockets. The Heaven’s Gate website still exists today and is maintained by two of the group’s followers.
4. Aetherius Society
Founded in the mid-1950’s by a former British taxi driver, Aetherius is a New Age religion whose belief systems are built around the idea that a series of “Cosmic Masters” (mostly from Venus and Saturn) control the fate of humanity. Additionally, they focus heavily on prayer and “spiritually charging” the Earth to make way for the “Next Master”, a messianic figure who will descend to earth in a flying saucer armed with “magic” more powerful than “the combined materialistic might of all the armies”. It’s hard to say when things got weird with the Aetherius Society since it started with the premise that a creature named The Full Aspect of Adept Nixies Zero Zero Three channeled energy through their founder.
5. Aum Shinrikyo
Aum Shinrikyo was a deadly Japanese cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. The cult first made headlines after their leader Asahara started forcing its members to donate money to the group and held them against their will until they obliged. According to him, an imminent doomsday, caused by a world war started by the United States was soon to happen and 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 more than 50. Following the attack, the Japanese government launched an investigation where they discovered that the group had also been responsible for the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto; a lawyer who was working against their leader. The group were also responsible for the deaths of his wife and child.
6. The Fall Rivers Cult
The Fall Rivers cult originated in Massachusetts during the late 70’s and was led by 25-year-old Carl Drew, a pimp who used Satanism to terrify the prostitutes who worked for him. Carl Drew, as fierce as he was considered himself to be the son of Satan and demanded the members to follow orders without questions asked. The cult which was believed to have around 10 members, all of them associated with the Fall River sex trade, held numerous ceremonies deep in the local woods between 1979 and 1980.
At first the rituals only involved sex and drugs but after a while, Drew demanded that there should be human sacrifices. The first to die was 19-year-old prostitute Donna Levesque whose hands were bound and her head was beaten in with a rock. The second was Barbara Raposa who was found on a pile of stones resembling a crude altar. The cult’s third victim was 22-year-old Karen Marsden. Drew and his death cult were finally arrested and were given life sentences.
7. The Carny Cult
William Anthony Ault, a man who was working for a traveling carnival in the US decided to get involved with a Satanic cult with his coworkers Jimmie Penick, Mark Goodwin and brothers Keith and David Lawrence. The cult denied him entry which Ault didn’t take well. He was angry and decided to blackmail the cult members with the information he knew about the murder of an 18-year-old boy in Fulton County, Georgia. Penick and Keith Lawrence committed the crime but they had no intention of going to jail. The four hatched a plan to keep Ault quiet forever.
On September 25, 1991, the members took Ault for a drive to a secluded area, made him lie on a makeshift altar and performed a ritual where they cut him open. After taking his life, they discarded his body in a field and went out to eat. However, Mark Goodwin’s father became aware of his son’s actions and decided to inform the police about the murder. The four men were soon apprehended and taken to court. Penick was given a 60-year sentence, Keith Lawrence was given 20 years and David Lawrence and Goodwin were both given eight years.
8. The Russian Teen Satanic Cult
During the mid-2000’s, a group of disturbed teenagers from the Russian town of Yaroslavl started sacrificing small animals to Satan. The group, led by Nikolai Ogolobyak consisted of around eight teenagers between the ages of 17 and 19. In June 2008, the cult members told their parents that they were going to a music festival and lured four younger teenagers to a forest on the outskirts of the city. There, they forced the victims to drink alcohol and attacked them when they were intoxicated. According to the police report, the victims were all discovered to have 666 stab wounds throughout their bodies. The group also practiced cannibalism and often left the bodies with satanic markings on it. They were all arrested and sentenced.
9. Ordre du Temple Solaire
The Knights Templar was a rich and powerful military order sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church and tied to the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Founded by Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret in 1984, the highly secretive group turned deadly after ten years. In October 1994, they murdered a three-month-old baby of one of its members because they believed that the infant was born an antichrist. Within the next few months, a wave of murders and suicides hit Western Switzerland and Quebec. Authorities discovered most of the victims with a single shot to the head and a plastic bag covering their faces. The bodies were also arranged in a circle as part of the ritual. A total of 30 people were murdered and around 15 people are believed to have committed suicide as part of the cult’s ritual.
10. The Family
The Family was one of Australia’s most notorious cults. Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a beautiful, charismatic, delusional and dangerous yoga teacher was convinced that she was a living god. From 1968 to 1975, she acquired numerous children through adoption scams, from other cult members and kidnapping. She then raised them as her own and isolated them completely from the world. The children had their hair dyed and wore matching outfits. They were also taught to believe that Anne was their biological mother and the messiah.
The children were punished severely by women who were called “Aunties”, who also looked after them. They were fed psychiatric drugs such as LSD to alter their brains and were traumatized in various forms. The existence of the cult was only discovered by authorities in the mid-80’s after one of the victims who was expelled from the cult went public with the information. Authorities conducted a raid and eventually rescued all the children but they were all left with painful memories which will haunt them forever.