7 Cults in America: A History of Infamy

By: Yara Simón  | 
Cults are not, by any stretch of the imagination, exclusive to the U.S., but the country seems to have a particular fascination with the social phenomenon. Jessica Miller / Getty Images

Cults are not unique to the United States, but there is a long history of cults in America. "Compared to other developed nations, the U.S. does have this consistent relationship with cults," Amanda Montell, author of "Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism," tells LitHub. "Whenever I talk to my friends who are not American and I tell them I’m writing this book about cults, their eyes do not light up the same way that Americans’ eyes do.

"And that’s because, across the world, levels of religiosity tend to be the lowest in countries with the highest standards of living, meaning strong education levels, long life expectancies, that sort of thing. But the U.S. is an exception in that it’s both highly developed and full of believers."


While there is interest in cults in the U.S., we do not have enough information on them — and that's by design. Psychologist Steve Eichel, president of the International Cultic Studies Association, estimates there are as many as 10,000 cults today, but, as he told "48 Hours", they "very deliberately try to stay under the radar. Unless they commit a crime, unless they do something that draws attention to them — negative attention and criticism to them — we generally don't know about them."

Some of the most famous cults have become news fodder and the focus of documentaries, giving us insight into how they operate, their belief systems and how they affect members. Read on to learn more about U.S.-based cults.


What Is A Cult?

A cult is difficult to define, but they typically have charismatic, authoritarian leaders who draw in followers with their belief system or supposed prophetic powers. Cult leaders tend to isolate members from family and other loved ones.

Some consider the term "cult" a pejorative and prefer to use "new religious movements" to define these organizations that fall outside of mainstream religions — though some of these NRMs do not have a religious component.


7. Manson Family

The followers of Charles Manson, known as the Manson Family, were a group of mostly young women who helped recruit new members. The group began in San Francisco before Manson and his followers moved to Los Angeles, so he could pursue a career in music. Some posit that after he failed to break through, he turned to violence.

Manson predicted a race war and to help instigate it, he ordered his followers to carry out murders during a two-night killing spree.


On Aug. 8, 1969, they arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive, where music producer Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen once lived. At the time, Sharon Tate and husband Roman Polanski, who was away filming a movie, rented the home. The Family killed a pregnant Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski. They killed two more people the next night.

Though Manson did not kill anyone during those two nights, he went to prison for life. Originally, it was a death sentence for Manson and his followers, but California banned the death penalty. Manson and other members died in prison.


6. Peoples Temple

Led by Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple attracted followers who sought economic and racial equality. The cult began in Indiana before relocating to California. From there, Jones and his followers moved to Guayana, where the leader became more erratic.

A concerned Leo Ryan, a California congressman, headed to the South American country in November 1978 to learn more. "The allegations were serious: Jonestown sounded more like a slave camp than a religious center," according to the FBI. "There was talk of beatings, forced labor and imprisonments, the use of drugs to control behavior, suspicious deaths, and even rehearsals for a mass suicide."


Ryan attempted to help members escape, but armed men opened fire, killing the congressman and several others. Back at Jonestown, Jones ordered the followers to drink a cyanide-laced drink, killing more than 900. Jones died of a gunshot wound.

5. Love Has Won

Former members call Love Has Won a cult. Founder Amy Carlson began to gain a following through the internet. Carlson, also known as Mother God, claimed she could heal people, which helped her attract those struggling with addiction and other ills.

Carlson spoke out against traditional healthcare, and when she became sick, it worked against her. She eventually asked her followers to take her to the hospital, but they refused. "There's been moments when Mom has asked us to take her to a 3D hospital, and we were like, 'Nope!'" one follower said on video.


Carlson died in April 2021, and her followers took her body from Oregon to Colorado. Police found her body in a sleeping bag at a campground. An autopsy revealed the cause of death as "alcohol abuse, anorexia and chronic colloidal silver ingestion."

4. Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

In 1890, the Mormon church stopped practicing polygamy. However, a group formed the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to continue with the practice. The group has faced accusations of sexual abuse, welfare fraud and other crimes, as well as homophobia and racism.

Leader Warren Jeffs, whose father Rulon Jeffs previously led the group, went on the run in 2005 "after a warrant for his arrest was issued on charges of conspiracy to commit rape and sexual conduct with a minor." By 2011, he was sentenced to life in prison.


The Southern Poverty Law Center designated the church a hate group.

3. Sullivanians

Unlike other cults, The Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis — which officially got its start in 1957 — did not hide.

The Upper West Side cult, named after Harry Stack Sullivan, one of the founders, were against the nuclear family. And founders Jane Pearce and Saul Newton encouraged their followers to shed their ties to their own families. They lived in group apartments and took on multiple sexual partners. The group intrigued painter Jackson Pollock and author Richard Price.


Newton, who led the group, eventually "adopted an increasingly autocratic leadership style," according to Alexander Stille, author of "The Sullivans: Sex, Psychotherapy and the Wild Life of an American Commune." The group effectively came to an end when Newton died in 1991.

2. The Family International

Formerly known as The Children of God, The Family International still exists. David Brandt Berg founded the cult in 1968. Members got rid of their possessions and isolated themselves from the rest of the world.

Former member Michael Young said that while he didn't experience any sexual abuse as a child, he knew it happened. "It definitely wasn't a safe place to grow up especially if you were a girl," he said.


Though Berg died in 1994, the group continues to operate.

1. Heaven's Gate

Heaven's Gate members, led by Marshall Herff Applewhite Jr., believed that leaving their bodies behind on Earth would transfer their consciousness into an extraterrestrial being. The group started in 1975. In 1997, nearly 40 members died by mass suicide.