Crazy Cults: Don't End Up Hanging With the Wrong Crowd
Cults have been around since humanity began posing the big questions. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam—they all started as fringe groups of followers who were highly persecuted until everyone decided they were onto something. Hell, modern Mormons are simply carrying on in the footsteps of folks who thought a guy named Joseph Smith had all the answers. Here are a few famous cults whose glory days are behind them. Take notes so you don’t wind up with the wrong crowd—or, if you’re interested in starting your own cult, learn from your predecessors to ensure your sect has staying power.
The Manson Family
After a shitty childhood; an adolescence of crime, arrest, incarceration and escape; and a dozen years of in-and-out-of-prison time for crimes such as check fraud and pimping, Charles Manson rejoined the world during the heady days of the Summer of Love at the ripe age of 33.
In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, Manson discovered psychedelic drugs, free love and Aquarian Age occultism. His sinister charisma attracted a “family” of drifters and dropouts who lived with him on a ranch outside of Los Angeles. Manson developed a bizarre apocalyptic theory, partly inspired by the Beatles’ White Album, part of which he interpreted as a prophecy about an impending race war, which he believed only he and his followers would survive.
To instigate the war, Manson ordered his followers to kill well-known white people in a way that would implicate black revolutionaries. On the night of Aug. 9, 1969, five of Manson’s family members broke into the home of film director Roman Polanski and savagely butchered his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, along with four other people. The following night, Manson himself led another similar slaughtering of another couple. He was eventually arrested when one of his female followers boasted of the murders to a cellmate while in jail on an unrelated charge.
Manson transformed these so-called flower children into pawns committing random acts of violence at his command; salvation was never part of the bargain, just the solace of crazy words from a crazy man. “Look down on me, you will see a fool,” Manson once said. “Look up at me, you will see your lord. Look straight at me, you will see yourself.”
Jim Jones was born in rural Indiana in 1931. His father was associated with the Ku Klux Klan, and his mother believed she’d given birth to a messiah. Jones’ childhood acquaintances recalled him being “really weird” and “obsessed with religion and death.” He joined the Communist Party USA and became frustrated with the ostracism of open communists in the United States. He decided the best way to demonstrate his dedication to Marxism was to infiltrate the church, which Marx called the “opiate of the masses.”
In 1952, Jones became a student pastor in the Methodist church, but soon left because its leaders barred him from integrating blacks into his congregation. Around this time he witnessed a faith-healing service, and the way it attracted people and their money, and an idea was born. Jones began his own church, which eventually settled on the name Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel.
Jones sought a just society free of racism and poverty. Although Jones was white, he attracted mostly blacks to the group with his vision of an integrated congregation. In 1960, the Peoples Temple became affiliated with the Christian Church and four years later Jones was ordained.
Jones mixed social concerns with faith healing and an enthusiastic worship style drawn from the black church. He also invited members to live communally in an effort to realize his utopian ideal. Meanwhile, the church was accused in the press of financial fraud, physical mistreatment of members, and abuse of children in its care.
In 1977, Jones led hundreds of his followers to Guyana, where they constructed a compound dubbed Jonestown, designed as a socialist paradise free from media scrutiny. Members were not allowed to leave. A group of former members called Concerned Relatives persuaded a California congressman to visit Jonestown and investigate allegations of human rights abuses. While visiting, the congressman was attacked by a Temple member with a knife, though the attack was thwarted and the congressman was able to secure 15 of the group’s members who had expressed a desire to leave. However, as the congressman’s delegation was boarding two planes at the compound’s airstrip, Jones’ armed guards arrived and began shooting. The congressman and four others were killed. Later that same day, most of the residents of Jonestown joined together in a mass rite of murder-suicide in which they were either shot or drank a cyanide-laced Kool-Aid cocktail: 909 inhabitants of Jonestown died, 303 of them children.
Children of God
David Berg, known by his followers as Moses David, was born in Oakland in 1919 to Christian evangelists. He spent his early years traveling with his parents, and by the 1930s he was acting as his mother’s chauffeur, song leader and general assistant.
Berg founded the Children of God in 1968, calling on his followers to devote their time to spreading the message of Jesus’ love and salvation. He lived in seclusion, communicating with his followers and the public via nearly 3,000 letters of instruction and counsel on a wide variety of subjects. In 1969, Berg received a “revelation” from God that a disastrous earthquake was going to hit California and cause part of the state to slide into the ocean. He then left Huntington Beach with his followers and wandered the Southwest for eight months. He also became a polygamist and received other revelations identifying himself as the end-time prophet who would play a major role in the second coming of Jesus.
New members of the cult were encouraged to sever all contact with their families, donate their possessions to the group and become full-time evangelists. The group condemned the “system,” which included governments and society at large. The group also embraced all forms of sexual enjoyment, and family members were urged to masturbate while fantasizing about engaging in sexual activities with Jesus. Berg encouraged female members of the group to engage in “flirty fishing,” which involved going into bars, befriending men, seducing them and converting them to the faith.
The Children of God ended as an organization in 1978. Berg reorganized the movement amid reports of misconduct and financial mismanagement. A third of the total membership left the movement, and those who remained became part of the reorganized group, dubbed the Family of Love. Berg died in 1994, but his teachings and legacy live on. The Family of Love turned into The Family and is now known as Family International.
Order of the Solar Temple
Based upon the modern myth of the continuing existence of the Knights Templar, this secret group was started by Joseph DiMambro and Luc Jouret in 1984 in Geneva, Switzerland. The aims of the Solar Temple included establishing correct notions of authority and power in the world; an affirmation of the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal; assisting humanity through a great transition; preparing for the second coming; and furthering a unification of all Christian churches and Islam. The Solar Temple’s activities were a mix of early Protestant Christianity and New-Age philosophy, using adapted Freemason rituals.
There were different so-called lodges that had altars, rituals and costumes, and members were initiated through stages of advancement in ceremonies that included expensive purchases, jewelry, costumes, regalia and the payment of initiation fees.
Then, in 1994, a 3-month-old boy was killed at one of the group’s lodges in Quebec. The baby had been stabbed repeatedly with a wooden stake because members believed it was the Antichrist. A few days later, apparent mass suicides and murders were conducted at two villages in western Switzerland, claiming the lives of 53 people. Fifteen inner-circle members committed suicide with poison, 30 were killed by bullets or smothering, and eight others were killed by other causes. Their bodies were dressed in the order’s ceremonial robes and were arranged in a circle, feet together, most with plastic bags tied over their heads, and most had been shot in the head.
On Dec. 23, 1995, 16 bodies were discovered in a star formation in France. On the morning of March 23, 1997, five members took their own lives in Quebec by blowing up the house they were in. This secret society did not do such a great job at staying a secret, but some speculate it still lives on in a different form.
The modern word thug comes from this historic cult, which was made famous when it was portrayed as the baddies in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The Thuggee religion was a cult with both Hindu and
Muslim members who practiced large-scale robbery and the murder of travelers by strangulation. The cult had a long reign, beginning in the early 1300s and lasting until the 1800s, when British influence in South Asia curbed its activities.
The Thugs, as they were commonly known, were a well-organized confederacy of professional assassins who traveled throughout India in groups of 10 to 200, often disguised as regular citizens. They would join a caravan and become accepted as travelers, waiting patiently to gain the trust of those around them. When the opportunity arose, members would strangle their victims with a yellow scarf, a quick and quiet method that earned them the nicknames “noose-operators,” or simply “stranglers,” by British troops.
There were also rites performed in honor of Kali, an incarnation of the mother goddess who represents the destruction of evil and the right to vengeance. The Indian word “kala” is a euphemism for death. Skulls, cemeteries and blood are associated with her worship, and the Thugs believed each murder they performed prevented Kali’s arrival for 1,000 years. They not only believed they were helping Kali maintain a worldly balance of good and evil, but also that they and their victims would live a good afterlife.
Thugees were very organized and, oftentimes, esteemed members of their communities, operating a double life. They forced their sons and the sons of those they murdered to join the cult, which wasn’t suppressed until the 1830s when the British brought their methodology of tackling crimes and finally gave the Thugs a force to be reckoned with.