8 Terrifying Real Life Cults

By: Wes Walcott

In the general sense, a cult is a group of people who come together with a set of unified beliefs and practices. Most of the time, the common values are fanatical views of religion and culture that tend to isolate one particular ideal or standard and then place it above all else. But what separates cults from religions is the notion of complete reclusiveness and the apparent inability of members to leave under their own volition. These groups typically have dominating, charismatic leaders who use their personalities to attract new recruits, get members to do their bidding, and maintain a system of control. Many of the most infamous cults in history arose in the 1970s and ’80s during a time referred to as the “Satanic Panic,” when there was widespread fear that a battle between good and evil was raging just below the surface of American culture. Of those that the media were able to uncover and expose, here are eight of the most terrifying.


8. Children of God

The Children of God was a cult founded by David Berg in California. Berg claimed it to be an offshoot of Christianity and would often preach against Judaism, capitalism, and evolution. But the truly horrifying aspect of the cult’s practice was Berg’s opposition to laws prohibiting pedophilia. According to former members, Berg advocated that having sex with children was not only permissible, but a divine right. Although there were never any official reports of sexual abuse from former members, it was known that the cult used young female members as bait to lure in new members. After Berg’s death, the cult went through a number of transformations and today it’s known as the Family International. While it no longer supports sex with minors, many still classify the group as a cult and speak out against it, including celebrities Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan.

7. Paradise

Paradise was a cult in South Korea headed by Park Soon-ja, a women referred to as the Benevolent Mother. Park told her followers that she spoke for God and the cult operated out of a factory that she owned. In 1987, Park was put under investigation for allegedly stealing money from her followers. Later, 31 people were discovered dead in her factory, including the bodies of her three children. Authorities believed the followers had taken drugs and then choked each other to death.

6. Heaven’s Gate

Though technically an apocalypse cult, Heaven’s Gate was always more concerned with aliens and spaceships then it ever was with Christian scripture. Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were co-leaders who claimed they were actually the two witnesses from the Book of Revelations and that Jesus had been reborn as a Texan. Heaven’s Gate followers held the belief that the Earth was going to be “recycled” and the only way to survive was to reach a spaceship that would reportedly follow in the wake of the Hale-Bopp Comet. Sadly, Applewhite informed all members that the only way to reach the spaceship was to die, and, in 1997 his body and those of 38 other members were found dead inside a Santa Fe mansion—the evident result of a mass suicide.

5. Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese apocalyptic cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. On March 20, 1995, the group orchestrated a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways that killed 13 people and injured hundreds more. It was later revealed that the attack was intended to be a diversion to prevent the raid of Asahara’s compound by police who had been informed of the cult’s activities. But the diversion failed and police raided the compound anyway, discovering millions of dollars in cash, truth serum, Ebola cultures, a Russian helicopter, and enough chemical weapons to kill four million people.


4. The Chicago Rippers

The Chicago Rippers were a satanic cult led by Robin Gecht—a former employee of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. For two years the cult terrorized the Illinois area and police reports indicate they were responsible for the disappearance of at least 18 women. The cult was especially known for its brutal ritualistic practices that involved mutilating the bodies of their victims. In 1981, a 28-year-old woman named Lisa Sutton was walking home when she was grabbed off the street and thrown in a van. Ten days later, her body was found mutilated with the left breast completely cut off. Police reports would later reveal that cult members would often remove and eat the breasts of their victims as a satanic sacrament.

3. The People’s Temple

In the 1950s, this group started out as much more of an official organization, with founder Jim Jones preaching progressive views on equal rights that appealed to many African-Americans. But later, in the ’70s, Jones and his followers became advocates of communism, and their compound in Guyana focused around these ideals. Fearing the intervention of the CIA, Jones led his cult in special simulations called “White Nights” in which cult members would have to choose between hiding in the jungle, fleeing to the Soviet Union, fighting, or committing “revolutionary suicide.” In 1978, a congressman went to investigate the cult and was shot. Worried about the backlash from the event, Jones set his “White Night” plan in motion and instructed over 900 cult members to drink a juice mixed with poison. It’s still unclear whether members drank the poison willingly or were forced to do so against their will.

2. Order of the Solar Temple

This cult drew its inspiration and ideals from the 12th century Christian military order known as the Knights Templar. It was started in 1984 by Joseph Di Mambro, who believed Christ would come back to the world as a solar God. Over the years, the group’s beliefs shifted from religious spiritualism to doomsday paranoia. Members believed that, in order to survive the coming environmental apocalypse, they would need to ascend to a higher spiritual plane and be reborn on a planet orbiting the star Sirius. In September 1994, the group killed one of its members who spoke out against them and then murdered his wife and child. Just weeks after that incident, Di Mambro ordered the death of a three-month-old baby by wooden stake who he believed to be the antichrist. Following that, other cult members around the world began killing themselves in a variety of ways including poisoning, gunshots, and suffocation.

1. The Branch Davidians

Founded in 1959 by David Koresh, the Branch Davidians were originally a part of the Seventh Day Adventists but broke away after Koresh had the revelation that he was a messiah and that all women were designated to be his spiritual wives. Consequently, he would often sleep with and marry women who joined the cult, including underage girls and the wives of other members. But it wasn’t until 1993 that the Branch Davidians gained real notoriety when it became the center of a 51-day police standoff in Waco, Texas. After the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided their compound to search for illegally amassed weapons, six cult members and four agents were killed. It was only after tear gas and tanks were brought in that the situation finally came to a dreadful conclusion with the compound catching fire. In the end, 70 cult members had been killed, including 22 children.