The world is a crazy place, and sometimes it seems that wherever there is vulnerable people searching for some sort of meaning, there are opportunists waiting to pounce. It’s hard to measure strangeness and quantify wickedness, but if we could, we reckon these five cults would be up there with the worst of them.
Started in 1984 in a one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo by yoga teacher Shoko Asahara, Aum Shinrikyo would become the most dangerous cult in Japanese history. Claiming that he was Christ, Asahara prophesied and preached of an impending doomsday and world war to his followers. At the height of their power Aum Shinrikyo was around 9000 members strong, though once you were in, it was pretty hard to leave.
The group took to murdering defectors and journalists who attempted to report on the cult with homemade poisons, and was also responsible for two devastating attacks with sarin gas – which basically erodes your insides when you breath it in – killing 21 people and harming over a thousand more over two separate attacks in Matsumoto (1994) and Tokyo (1995).
Image via Getty Images
Possibly the most well-known cult in the world, the People’s Temple, led by Reverend Jim Jones became infamous in 1978 when a total of 918 people were murdered or forced to commit suicide at their South American base in Guyana. It was built as a commune for members and kept them out of reach of their family and friends and, importantly, the government.
Jones, who began teaching philosophies based in Christianity, eventually evolved his message to be that of the importance of socialism. Followers of Jones were forced to give up their money and possessions, and over the 25 active years of the group, Jones became addicted to amphetamines and began abusing his power in a delusional state. As US authorities began to close in on the cult, Jones ordered the murders and suicides which would become know as the Jonestown Massacre. Audio of his final broadcast before the suicides is still available online and is as psychopathic and eery as you could imagine.
Image by Nancy Wong
Started by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 70’s, this cult was part religion/part sci-fi with ‘The Two’ claiming to be prophets from the Kingdom of Heaven who sent to shepherd their followers back to heaven via spaceship. Applewhite and Nettles imposed strict rules on members, detaching them completely from their family and friends, and also forbidding all sexual acts which stemmed from Applewhite’s own struggles with his sexual identity.
Tech-savvy members began building websites in the early 90’s earning a decent income for the group as they waited to be picked up by the alien spacecraft and taken away to ‘The Level Above.’ Though, they grew impatient for their departure and the group’s 39 members took matters into their own hands in 1997, consuming a lethal mix of barbiturates and apple pudding, chased with vodka. With passports in their pockets, members wore identical nikes and shirts with patches saying ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’ on them. It was the biggest mass suicide since Jonestown. Oh, their website is still up and running by the way and it’s very weird.
Formed in the late 1980’s in Uganda by Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere, a man and woman who claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, this cult’s teachings were based around a strict following of the 10 commandments. They also claimed the apocalypse would happen occur when we hit the year 2000 and when it didn’t arrive, Mwerinde and co turned to murdering disenfranchised followers.
Luring cult members into a church, the leaders then boarded up the windows and doors and set it on fire, murdering around 500 hundred of their followers. Police raids in the days after also uncovered around 300 bodies in three separate mass graves on the group’s properties, making it one of the deadliest movements in history. It was initially suggested that most of the group’s leaders died in the fire, though now Ugandan police claim they may still be alive and on the run…
This group began as an offshoot from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and had been around for decades before things turned very ugly. In the early 80’s, after a Shakespearean battle for power within the group, newcomer David Koresh emerged as the ruler of ‘The Branch’ after an affair with the former leader’s widow. In 1989, having claimed to be a prophet, Koresh abused his power as leader of the group to take several wives as young as twelve in a bid to breed a new lineage of world leaders.
In 1993, federal forces began to close in on the group over sexual abuse allegations and illegal weapons charges. The raid resulted in a 51 day long siege at the compound, and was concluded after a series of fires which police claimed were lit by Davidians, though is still disputed. In total, 86 of Koresh’s followers died over the course of the siege and four agents were killed. Koresh was allegedly killed by his right hand man during the final moments.
Image via Susan Weems/AP
If you’re interested in this kinda creepy stuff – I know I am – check out the podcast about cults around the world, Let’s Talk About Sects.
Cover photo via The Associated Press