The 5 most infamous religious cults in popular history

2017-11-09 06:00

We all know a story of a strange religious grouping that was involved with something shady, or led to some strange activity among their members, which could be described as “cult-like”.

A “cult” or, as it is more formally known, a new religious movement (NRM), is usually described as a group that holds beliefs that are far outside the mainstream, that makes strict demands on the lifestyle of the members of the group, and usually encourages them to give up their possessions, professions and their contact with their loved ones to live with the grouping. They often have charismatic leaders who prophesise about the end of the world.

Here are five of the most notorious cults in recent history and what made them so infamous:

1. The People’s Temple

The People’s Temple was begun by charismatic leader Jim Jones in the 1950s in Indianapolis, USA. Jones’ teachings were similar to liberation theology and socialist beliefs. He moved his congregation to California in 1965 after he read an article about the best places to survive a nuclear holocaust in Esquire magazine. While in California, his church members went from less than a hundred to thousands.

While building up his congregation and influence, Jones also began building a commune called “Jonestown” in Guyana, South America. In 1977, when Jones heard that New West magazine were going to publish an expose about life in the People’s Temple, he fled with his congregation to Jonestown.

In 1978, US Congressman Leo Ryan was convinced by former members to visit Jonestown to investigate rumours of abuse. Members in Jonestown told Ryan that they wanted to leave with him, and when they went to the airstrip, some of Jones’ men arrived and shot Ryan, three journalists and one of the Temple deflectors. At the same time, Jones convinced members of his congregation to kill themselves by drinking a concoction of cyanide-laced, grape-flavoured Flavor Aid. More than 900 people died that day, including 276 children.

2. Manson Family

Charles Manson is notoriously one of the most well-known serial killers, but it was his following that gave him the power to carry through his heinous crimes.

Manson spent most of his life in and out of prison before moving to San Francisco in 1967, and began positioning himself as a sort of guru in the region, manipulating and charming others in order to gain things in return. He attracted a small group of followers, mostly female, who became known as “the Family”.

Manson didn’t have a set religious doctrine - he borrowed philosophy from Satanism, from Scientology, the Process Church and many other religions. He also believed that the Beatles’ White Album predicted a race war, whereby African Americans would win but would look to a small group of white people to lead. He decided that the Manson Family would hide out at their commune during the race war and emerge at the end to rule.

The reason the Manson Family started murdering is varied. One theory is that they wanted one of their members released from prison by pretending the real murderer was still on the loose. Another is that they wanted to instigate the race war by performing murders and blaming it on the Black Panthers.

In August 1969, the group broke into the home that was leased by Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. They murdered several people in the house including Tate and Abigail Folger, the coffee heiress. The following evening, they murdered a couple in the same neighbourhood and wrote messages on the wall in blood attempting to frame the Black Panthers for the murder. The group were eventually arrested and sentenced to death. After the death penalty was abolished in California, they received life in prison.

3. Heaven’s Gate

Heaven’s Gate was founded in the 1970s by two Americans – Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, who believed that they were the two witnesses referenced in Revelations 11. They gained followers by preaching their apocalyptic prophecies in California and Oregon, telling listeners that a spaceship would come for the worthy and their bodies would be kept in a cocoon state to be transformed for Heaven.

The group was expected to live together and to give up their possessions and family, to prepare themselves for salvation. They also had to give up sex and emotion, and to dress androgynously in loose-fitting clothing, and to have short, closely-shaven hair.

The group mostly kept a low profile before coming out into the public again in 1993 to prophesise their message, using the power of the internet to spread their word and gain more followers. In 1997, the group believed their salvation was coming when rumours suggested that a UFO was following the Hale-Bopp Comet as it was approaching earth. In March, the 39 members of the group were found dead from what was believed to be a suicide to prepare them for their transition to heaven.

4. Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo was a group formed by Master Asahara Shoko in Japan. Influenced by a trip to India during which he met the Dalai Lama, Asahara came back to Japan and taught a doctrine which was a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. He secured many followers and financial donations and the group increased exponentially.

By 1995, the group had grown to approximately 50 000 members, many in Russia. The group then started preparing for war and for Aum Shinrikyo to overthrow the government. In order to begin the violence, Ashara prepared an attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995, whereby five members boarded five different trains. When the trains arrived at Kasumigaseki, the five members each placed a package that was wrapped in newspaper under their seats. When the package was punctured, a gas seeped out and succeeded in killing twelve people, and sickening 5 500 people.

The group were eventually discovered by the police and the leadership were arrested, which dismantled the group. 

5. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

Founded in Uganda in the 1990s by four ex-Catholic priests, two ex-nuns and an ex-prostitute, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God believed that they had received visions from the Virgin Mary and that the Roman Catholic Church had neglected the Ten Commandments.

The leaders of the group also had a prophesy that the world would end on 31 December 1999. Members of the group sold off their possessions in anticipation of the apocalypse but when this did not happen, the leaders altered the prophesy to say that the Virgin Mary said the world will end on 17 March 2000.

On 17 March, police arrived at the scene of an explosion and fire to find hundreds of group members dead. It appeared to be a mass suicide but more bodies found at different sites made it appear more as murder. The leaders were never found, so authorities are unsure whether the leaders committed suicide or if they fled the country. They are also unsure why exactly the leaders murdered the members, although many believe that the members demanded that the leaders pay them back for the possessions that they sold when the prophesy failed to come true.

The world of religious cults is extremely interesting, and the series The Path delves into the social and mental manipulations of the movements in a new and refreshing way. The Path stars Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) as Eddie Lane, a member of a religious movement called Meyerism, who struggles with a crisis of faith … and the consequences of leaving the cult.

Looking for some cult fiction? Crazy cults have inspired numerous fictional series and movies, including The Path, which launches on  27 November on streaming service Showmax.

The Path

In this gripping series, a man who belongs to a strange doomsday cult, along with his wife and kids, has a crisis of faith and starts to question whether or not he and his family should leave … if the movement would ever allow it. The Path’s amazing cast includes Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (Jesse in Breaking Bad), Golden Globe nominee Michelle Monaghan (True Detective), and Critics Choice nominee Hugh Dancy (Hannibal). The Path has an 82% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Following

Joining a long list of Hollywood A-listers to take lead roles in a series, Kevin Bacon stars as Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent on the heels of a serial killer who’s escaped from prison. As Hardy gets closer to capturing Joe Carroll, he comes to realise that his quarry has a cult following that will stop at nothing to keep their leader safe. The network extends further than Hardy could ever have imagined, and Carroll’s followers, who were just ordinary people before they fell into his clutches, have no problem killing innocent people to please and placate Carroll. Watch now »

True Detective

The grisly murder scenes and disturbing plotlines of True Detective are absolutely not for the faint-hearted. The twists and turns are expertly navigated, and you will be held in taut suspense until the very last episode. In Season 1, it’s 2012, and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) are former detectives being separately investigated about their most famous case, when the gruesome murder of a prostitute led them to uncover an occult network of chilling proportions in 1995. Their flashbacks to the grim details of the case will pull you in, and before you know it, you'll be hooked. Watch now »

Sign up for Showmax today and you get a 14-day FREE trial. And if you’re a DStv Premium subscriber, get Showmax at no extra cost. Find out how here.

Sources: HowStuffWorks, PopSugar,  iO9, Wikipedia

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