13 of the World's Most Infamous Cults

By: Alia Hoyt & Jane McGrath  | 
Jonestown massacre survivors
Survivors of the Jonestown massacre sit outside the old People's Temple on Geary Blvd. From left to right: Julius Evans, Sandra Evans, Leslie Wilson-Fortier, Richard Clark and Diane Louie. © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Infamous cults such as the People's Temple, Heaven's Gate and the Manson Family gained notoriety for their extreme beliefs and tragic outcomes.
  • These cults often had charismatic leaders who manipulated members into following dangerous doctrines, leading to mass suicides or murders.
  • The destructive nature of these cults has left a lasting impact on society and continues to be a subject of study and caution.

Most people have their own vague idea of what constitutes a cult. But cult is one of those slippery, nebulous terms that are difficult to define. Strict definitions tend to be either too wide or too narrow. To complicate matters, what one considers a cult is often a matter of opinion. But, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about another ill-defined topic (obscenity), people tend to think that they know it when they see it.

Sidestepping the controversy, sociologists don't like to use the pejorative term "cult." Instead, they like to talk about new religious movements (NRMs), which can be more widely defined. NRMs hold beliefs that are far outside of the mainstream. They are often characterized by making strict demands on the lifestyle of their members, such as giving up possessions, professions and contact with family to live in a commune with other members. Many have charismatic, authoritarian leaders whose followers believe have special prophetic powers. These leaders often prophesize about an imminent apocalypse [source: Hippert and Harvey].


All too often, these cult or NRMs implode, whether because of corruption, deviant sexual practices, disaffected members leaving, or a leader moving from megalomania to outright destruction or murder. We'll explore some of the most infamous cults in history that have gained notoriety either because they were so successful or because they met a bloody and horrific end.

13: The NXIVM Cult

NXIVM Executive Success Programs sign
The NXIVM Executive Success Programs sign is displayed outside the office in Albany, New York. Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM, was arrested by the FBI in Mexico in March 2018. Amy Luke/Getty Images

Pronounced "nexium," this upstate New York cult made major headlines at least in part due to the involvement of a B-list Hollywood actor. Helmed by leader Keith Raniere, one of his "deputies" was Allison Mack, who most notably acted in more than 200 episodes of the hit television series "Smallville" [sources: BBC, IMDB].

Although it purported to offer "Executive Success Programs" for self-improvement, NVIVM was dubbed a "sex cult" once the extent of its crimes became known. Raniere used deputies like Mack to recruit women to the alleged self-help group. Once in the fold, women and children were emotionally and sexually abused, trafficked and subjected to forced labor situations, among many other offenses. Women were held against their will and referred to as sex slaves. They were also forced to turn over their financial assets and provide confessions of past misdeeds, which the cult used as collateral to keep them there.


Women and girls as young as 15 were part of Raniere's "master/slave" setup, part of which involved the women being permanently branded with his initials. Multiple victims were forced to get abortions following their sexual abuse [source: Feuerherd].

Reniere was apparently adept at getting help from high-profile women; Clare Bronfman (heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune) also served as a deputy and was sentenced to seven years in prison. For her part in the cult, Mack was sentenced to three years in prison, while Raniere is currently serving a 120-year sentence for sex trafficking and racketeering charges. He was also ordered to pay a $1,750,000 fine [source: U.S. Attorney's Office].

12: The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS)

Female members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints visit Old Faithful.
Female members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints visit Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park. Leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced to prison for having sex with underage "wives." Visions of America/Joe Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The FLDS began not long after polygamy was banned in the late 1800s by the Mormon church, which is also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1998 this "splinter group" relocated from Salt Lake City to Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, which are considered sister cities. In 2003, they relocated again to a ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Polygamy ran rampant, often with child brides as young as 14 years old. In fact, when Warren Jeffs took over his father's position as High Priest Apostle in 2002, he claimed at least 70 of his stepmothers as his own wives. In total, he had at least 87 wives.

Jeffs decided to enforce a lot of new restrictions in 2002. Among those, FLDS members were not allowed to play sports, observe holidays, watch television, read books, keep dogs, go fishing, wear the color red, dance and so on. Women were required to wear long prairie-style dresses and to not cut their hair.


However, Jeffs soon was caught in the crosshairs of FBI intelligence thanks to allegations that he'd arranged marriages with underage girls and older men. When he was busted trying to flee the country, the arresting cops even found audio recordings of Jeffs himself having sex with underage girls. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years for having sex with his 12- and 15-year-old wives. He is currently incarcerated in Texas. Law enforcement removed nearly 500 other children from the compound (the largest child custody case in U.S. history), but most eventually were reunited with their families.

At its peak, the church had 10,000 members, but that number has dropped to below 3,000 since Jeffs was thrown in prison [sources: Mormonism Research Ministry, Porter].

11: Angel's Landing

Another shocking recent cult was Angel's Landing, led by Lou Castro (also known as Daniel Perez) who claimed to be a "centuries-old angel." Castro claimed he could see the future and cure diseases. His powers of persuasion were so intense, apparently, that he convinced a lot of his followers that he had to have sex with young girls (usually their daughters) in order to remain alive. Castro operated his commune north of Wichita, Kansas, although they were known to move around from time to time.

Although the young girls and women were clearly preyed upon, no member was safe, as it became obvious eventually that a number of deaths were suspicious in nature. In fact, six "accidental" deaths, resulting in steep insurance payments (which conveniently funded the commune), occured over a scant period of only seven years. Castro was arrested in 2010 and charged with multiple rape counts, first-degree murder, criminal sodomy, aggravated assault, and sexual exploitation of a child, among other charges. He was eventually convicted on all counts and sentenced to two life terms, with an additional 46 months tacked on [sources: Nolasco, Nuttman].


10: The Unification Church

Rev. Sun Myung Moon performs one of his signature mass marriages for Unification Church members.
Rev. Sun Myung Moon performs one of his signature mass marriages for Unification Church members at Madison Square Garden circa 1982 in New York City. Moon would match up strangers for these ceremonies, often people from different countries. PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

The Unification Church, formally known as Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Born in North Korea, Moon claimed to have received a vision when he was 16 years old that told him he was called to complete Christ's mission on Earth. According to Moon, Christ was crucified before he was able to fulfill his mission of marrying and having perfect children. Moon, then, saw himself as the Messiah.

At odds with the teachings of his Presbyterian church, he was excommunicated and formed his own church in the 1950s. As the Messiah, Moon claimed that salvation was only possible through pledging obedience to him, and, after seven years of service, taking a spouse picked by him. The religion became known for its mass weddings, where he presided over the marriages of thousands of people at one time.


Already a successful businessman, in the 1970s he moved his headquarters to New York, where he attracted new members to his movement as well as widespread suspicion. As a focus of the anti-cult movement gaining momentum at this time, parents of church members began kidnapping and "deprogramming" their children. They also filed lawsuits, and by 1982, Moon was convicted of tax evasion. Now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church is still active, although Moon died in 2012 [source: Britannica].

9: Rajneeshpuram

An untraditional Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh embraced earthly pleasures. He himself owned 93 Rolls Royces, and promoted an indulgence in sex [source: Joshi]. In fact, his ideas were largely rejected in India itself, and he found larger followings in the U.S. and Europe.

Rajneesh began his congregation in India in the 1970s, setting up a headquarters in Pune in 1974. However, after facing increasing hostility there, Rajneesh moved to the United States in 1981 and soon purchased land in Oregon, where followers built their own city called Rajneeshpuram. Ma Anand Sheela, an Indian woman who helped organize Rajneeshpuram became a member of Rajneesh's inner circle. As Rajneesh no longer spoke in public, Sheela took control of daily operations in the city.


By 1985, Rajneeshpuram had more than 2,500 residents, but had become embroiled in local tensions. During the previous year, Sheela instituted the "Share-a-home" program, where the city bused in thousands of homeless people in order to register them as voters there in a failed attempt to influence the Wasco County court elections. Around the same time, Sheela and other leaders of the commune orchestrated the first bioterrorist attack in U.S. history by poisoning restaurant food in the large town of Dalles. In this attempt to reduce the voter population, they sickened 750 people.

In 1985, Sheela and other leaders fled the commune, and Rajneesh was deported for immigration fraud. Despite his death in 1990, Raneesh's movement still lives on [source: State of Oregon]. A 2018 Netflix documentary, "Wild Wild Country," chronicled the group.

8: Children of God

Children of God
Members of the Toronto branch of the Children of God attend a gathering in 1972. The cult fell apart amid allegations of child sex abuse. Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In the 1960s, after hearing of the large hippie population in Huntington Beach, Calif., a Christian minister, David Berg, moved there to recruit the young people. It wasn't hard for him, and the hippies were quickly attracted to his anti-establishment attitude. Many gave up their jobs and donated their savings to the group to live communally in Berg's house. The group moved to Arizona when Berg claimed to receive a revelation that California would be struck by an earthquake. Members began to call Berg "Moses" and their group "the Children of God."

In the early 1970s, the Children of God recruited all over the country and even set up international centers. By 1974, it had more than 4,000 members in 70 countries. Berg wrote a series of letters to all his communities to relate his teachings. In 1978, he reorganized the group, renaming it "The Family." Movie actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were partially raised in the cult [source: Bruney].


However, the U.S. anti-cult movement targeted the Children of God, and many parents of members kidnapped and deprogrammed their children. Most controversial was Berg's progressive attitude towards sex. He encouraged open sexual relationships and experimentation. The group has also been accused of encouraging child sex abuse. In what was called "flirty fishing," he encouraged his members to engage in sexual relationships to attract new members. By the late 1980s, after dealing with the problem of sexually transmitted diseases, the group formally ended this practice [source: Melton].

Now called "The Family International," this group is still active, despite Berg's death in 1994, albeit with a much smaller membership [source: Bruney].

7: Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

Founded by four ex-Roman Catholic priests, two ex-nuns and one ex-prostitute, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) in Uganda emphasized the importance of the Ten Commandments. Through visions of the Virgin Mary, the leaders were convinced that the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned the Commandments.

The leaders also had doomsday prophesies. They predicted the apocalypse would occur on Dec. 31, 1999. In anticipation of this, members sold their possessions. However, when the end of the world didn't come that day, the leaders quickly altered their prediction and they claimed that the Virgin Mary would come on March 17, 2000, to save the faithful and bring them to heaven. Still believing the prophesies, members held a feast on March 16. They killed some cattle for the occasion and even ordered crates of Coca-Cola.


When March 17 arrived, police discovered that an explosion and fire had killed hundreds of the group's members. Although at first this was assumed to be a mass suicide, the evidence and subsequent uncovering of more bodies at other sites soon pointed to murder. Leaders had murdered the members, perhaps because they were unable to repay them for giving away their possessions after the prophecy failed to materialize. It was never determined whether the leaders killed themselves or fled the country [source: Atuhaire].

6: Aum Shinrikyo

Shoko Asahara
Shoko Asahara, leader of the cult group Aum Shinrikyo, visits Moscow in 1994. Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

Formed in 1987 by Master Asahara Shoko, Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese cult. Asahara had originally started a yoga school, but after a trip to India in which he met the Dalai Lama and achieved enlightenment in the Himalayas, he changed the name of his school to Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) and began teaching a combination of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. He gained many followers as he claimed to embody a god, and he secured significant financial donations. The group became increasingly radical, and defectors met violent ends.

By 1995, the group had about 50,000 members, mostly in Russia. By this time, Asahara had begun preparing for war and expected Aum Shinrikyo to take over the government. To deflect police attention away from the group's activities and instigate the violence he prophesied, Asahara orchestrated an attack on the Tokyo subway.


On March 20, 1995, five members of Aum Shinrikyo boarded the subway on different trains. When they arrived at Kasumigaseki, they each placed a package wrapped in newspaper under their seats. They punctured the packages with the tips of their umbrellas and rushed off the train as gas seeped out. They succeeded in killing 12 people and sickening 5,500. Authorities traced the attack to the group and arrested the leadership, largely dismantling the group. Ashara was executed in 2018, along with six other cult members [source: Forensic Examiner].

5: Order of the Solar Temple

Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret founded the Order of the Solar Temple in Geneva in 1984. It was one of many groups that have seen itself as a revival of the Medieval Knights Templar. Jouret claimed to be both Christ and the reincarnation of one member of the 14th century order. The leaders also prophesized that Di Mambro's daughter, Emmanuelle, would take the group's members to a planet that revolved around the star Sirius after their earthly death.

The Order of the Solar Temple was a doomsday cult. Di Mambro and Jouret believed the end of the world would come in the mid-1990s. However, the group lost several members, including Emmanuelle, after what leaders claimed was a "vision" was exposed as a hoax.


Finally, in 1994, Di Mambro and Jouret believed the end was near and it was time for the transit to the new planet. In order to enter a higher spiritual plane, 53 members of the order committed suicide or were murdered in Canada and Switzerland on Oct. 4 and 5, 1994. The buildings were also set on fire after the deaths, and Di Mambro and Jouret's remains were found among the bodies. It was later revealed that Di Mambro had also recently ordered the murder of an infant he believed to be the anti-Christ. Sixteen more members of the order died in France in December 1995, and five more after that in Quebec in March 1997 [source: Hunter].

4: Branch Davidians

Smoking fire consumes the Branch Davidian Compound
Smoking fire consumes the Branch Davidian Compound during the FBI assault to end the 51-day standoff with cult leader David Koresh and his followers. Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty Images

David Koresh, born Vernon Howell in 1959, was the leader of a Christian sect that would meet a violent and controversial end in Waco, Texas. After being expelled from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church as a young man (for telling the pastor he wanted to marry his 12-year-old daughter), Koresh soon joined an offshoot called the Branch Davidians. While there, he shared a special friendship and affair with the leader, Lois Roden, who named him as her successor.

Among Koresh's controversial teachings as leader of the Branch Davidians was his New Light doctrine. This declared that all women were his spiritual wives, even underage girls and those women who were already married. He declared himself a messiah, albeit an imperfect one, and preached that the apocalypse was imminent. Koresh amassed a vast arsenal of firearms and faced suspicion of child abuse at his church center, Mount Carmel. The cult's members overlooked his sexual abuse because it was his call from God [source: Biography].

Based on the accumulation of so many firearms, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) raided Mount Carmel in February 1993. After a shoot-out and stand-off lasting 51 days, the ATF finally came in and battered the walls of the center, sending in tear gas. A fire broke out, killing more than 80 members, including about 20 children and Koresh himself. Detractors claim that the FBI started the fires, but the agency said that the cult members did the igniting [source: Yeaman]. Like other cults on our list, the siege at Waco has been turned into a docuseries on Netflix [source: Netflix].

3: Heaven's Gate

In the 1970s, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles came to believe that they were the two witnesses referenced in chapter 11 of Revelation in the Bible. They began preaching and gaining followers in California and Oregon with apocalyptic prophecies about how salvation would come (for those who were prepared) in the form of a spaceship. There, their bodies would be kept in a cocoon state to transform their bodies for heaven.

The group was known as "Human Individual Metamorphosis," and then later "Total Overcomers Anonymous," before becoming "Heaven's Gate" in the 1990s. Members had to live with the group as well as give up their possessions and family. To perfect themselves for salvation, Applewhite encouraged members to detach themselves from emotion and give up sex entirely. Members dressed androgynously with loose clothing and closely shaved hair.

Never consisting of more than about 60 people, the small group receded from the public during much of its existence, finally coming out to proselytize once again in 1993. Over the next few years, using the emerging popularity of the internet, they set up a website to help spread their message, while doing web design work to pay the bills. In 1997, the Hale-Bopp comet was approaching close to Earth, and a rumor suggested that a UFO was following it. The group took this rumor very seriously and became convinced that their salvation would finally come.

In March 1997, all 39 members were found dead from apparent suicide in preparation for their transition to heaven [source: Melton].

2: Manson Family

Charles Manson
Charles Manson is brought into the Los Angeles city jail under suspicion of having masterminded the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969. Bettmann/Getty Images

Charles Manson was born in 1934 to a 16-year-old single mother. After his mother was imprisoned for armed robbery, he lived with his uncle and aunt in West Virginia and soon turned to a life of petty crime himself. He spent much of his juvenile and young adult life in reformatories or prison. When he was released in 1967, he moved to San Francisco and attracted a small but devout group of young people that became known as "the Family."

Unlike most cults, the Manson Family was not primarily religion-based, however, Charles Manson did dabble in Satanism as well as Scientology and held bizarre, quasi-religious ideas. He also predicted a violent race war in which African Americans would prevail but would need to then turn to surviving whites for proper leadership. He planned to have his Manson Family hide out during the race war and then emerge to take control when it was over.

To help instigate this race war, Manson ordered his followers to carry out murders, intending them to be blamed on blacks. In August 1968, Manson family members killed several people in a Los Angeles house, including actress Sharon Tate (the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski) and coffee heiress Abigail Folger. The next night, Manson Family members murdered two others. In both cases, the killers repeatedly stabbed victims and wrote messages on the walls in their blood. Manson and his cohorts were sentenced to death, but got life in prison after California banned the death penalty [source: History]. Manson died in prison in 2017.

1: The People's Temple

Jonestown massacre survivors
Survivors of the Jonestown massacre sit outside the old People's Temple on Geary Blvd. From left to right: Julius Evans, Sandra Evans, Leslie Wilson-Fortier, Richard Clark and Diane Louie. (Photo by ) © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images

The epitome of the charismatic cult leader, Jim Jones was a preacher from the Pentecostal tradition. Although white, Jones attracted a large African American following because of his preaching style as well as his dedication to integration and racial equality. His teachings were influenced by liberation theology and socialist beliefs.

Jones began the People's Temple in the 1950s in Indianapolis. After reading in Esquire magazine about places to survive a nuclear holocaust, he moved his congregation to Ukiah, Calif., in 1965. In the next five years, the People's Temple membership went from less than a hundred to thousands. With thriving churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Jones also built up a significant amount of political clout.

Meanwhile, Jones began building a commune called "Jonestown" in Guyana, a socialist-led country in South America [source: Eldridge]. In 1977, when Jones heard that New West magazine was to publish an expose on life in the People's Temple as "a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation" he and his congregation quickly fled to the commune.

Convinced by former members and worried relatives of members, U.S. Congressmen Leo Ryan flew down to visit Jonestown to learn more about it. Several current members surreptitiously sent him messages begging to leave. Just before Ryan was about to board his plane (along with cult members who wanted to escape) on Nov. 18, 1978, Jones's men arrived at the airstrip and killed the congressman, as well as several others. Later that day, Jones convinced his congregation to kill themselves, by drinking a fruit drink (not actually Kool-Aid) filled with cyanide and tranquilizers, as they had "practiced" before. More than 900 people died, including 276 children [source: Nagel]. About 87 survived, either by hiding out or having the good fortune to be away from the compound on the day of the killings.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do cults attract and retain members?
Cults often attract members through promises of belonging, purpose and exclusive knowledge. They retain members by isolating them from outside influences, using psychological manipulation and enforcing strict control over their daily lives.
What are common characteristics of cult leaders?
Cult leaders typically exhibit charisma, authoritarianism and a need for control. They often claim special knowledge or divine inspiration, and they manipulate followers through fear, guilt and promises of salvation.

Lots More Information

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