Sometime during the mid-20th century, the modern idea of highly-enclosed religious and secular groups known as “cults” arose. Since then, interest in the recruitment tactics and psychology of cults has become a topic of increasing interest for the general public.
From the horrific stories of the Jonestown mass suicide to the popular Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country about the Rajneeshpuram cult that made themselves at home in Wasco County, Oregon, everyone has heard of the terrifying lengths to which cults will go to retain control over their followers. However, while cult stories are all over the world of popular media today, it doesn’t seem to make them any easier to understand.
Cults typically operate by recruiting those who are seeking the answers to major questions in their lives and people who may feel hopeless or vulnerable. At first, many of these cults will offer them an answer to their questions and make them feel as if they are a part of something greater than themselves. To ensure that their followers stay within the community, however, many of these cults will employ much more sinister methods, such as creating paranoia about the outside world or even publicly shaming their followers. In these ways, many cults are exploitative and extremely dangerous by nature.
Among the most well-known cults in history are the Rajneeshpuram, the Manson Family, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, and the Children of God. But, if you think the history of cults stops there, you are very much mistaken. There have been countless other cults throughout the last few decades that have committed unthinkable atrocities that are truly hard to believe.
Here are some of the most terrifying cults you’ve probably never heard of:
In the early ‘70s, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles renamed themselves Bo and Peep, got in a car, and started making a road trip across the United States. The two of them shared the idea that the Earth was going to be “wiped clean” and that the only chance of survival they had was to leave the Earth before that happened. As they traveled across the country, the duo began collecting a group of followers who subscribed to their ludicrous ideology.
For around 20 years, Bo and Peep and their followers moved from camp to camp in Southern California, picking up more members along the way. In 1985, Bonnie Nettles died of liver cancer, but Marshall Applewhite continued to lead the Heaven’s Gate cult on his own.
About five years later, the members of the cult completely cut off all points of contact with their friends and family. Then, in 1995, Applewhite convinced 38 members of the cult to commit suicide in a California mansion, telling them that they would not be dying but rather leaving their earthly bodies and going to a new realm.
The 38 members who died had all eaten applesauce laced with phenobarbital and then washed it down with vodka. For good measure, they also placed plastic bags over their heads. When the authorities arrived, they found the bodies lying in bunk beds covered in identical purple clothes. Every member was wearing identical black shirts and pants, black-and-white Nike sneakers, and armbands bearing the words “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” Applewhite was among the dead bodies found.
This Japanese doomsday cult was founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara. He preached a mixed religion that drew elements from Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Christian apocalyptic traditions, and he prophesied a nearing apocalypse that would be spurred on by a third world war that would be caused by the United States. The cult became attractive to young and wealthy university students in Japan who believed that they were the ones who would rightfully survive this apocalypse.
Things within the cult turned violent quickly, as they began to implement extremely dangerous initiation rituals and even murdered members who tried to leave the cult. However, the cult really didn’t gain national recognition until March 20th, 1995.
On that day, the members of Aum Shinrikyo carried out the largest domestic terrorist attack ever on Japanese soil. They placed five open bags filled with a liquid nerve agent known as sarin, a chemical weapon developed by the Nazis, onto passenger trains throughout Tokyo. The attacks killed thirteen people and left at least 5,800 others injured, some of them permanently blinded or paralyzed.
In the aftermath of the attack, thirteen members of the cult, including Shoko Asahara, were captured and sentenced to death. Asahara was hanged in July 2018.
Love Has Won
On April 28th, 2021, authorities discovered the mummified remains of Amy Carlson in a house in Moffat, Colorado. Carlson died at the age of 45 and was the leader of the Love Has Won cult during her lifetime. Known to her followers as “Mother God,” Carlson was thought to be a reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Marilyn Monroe and to have the power to cure cancer and talk to angels.
According to reports from the Saguache County Sheriff’s Department, members of the cult transported Carlson’s body from California to the home in Moffat, Colorado, after her death. When the corpse was discovered, it was wrapped in a sleeping bag and Christmas lights, and there was glittery makeup all around Carlson’s eyes. The body was then propped up, and a shrine was created around it. There was a 13-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy in the house at the time.
Seven members of the Love Has Won cult have been arrested in relation to the incident, and each has been charged with abuse of a corpse and two counts of child abuse.
Daniel Perez, who also went by Lou Castro and many other names, traveled around the United States convincing people, mostly women, that he was a 1,000-year-old angel with magical powers. However, in order for this angel to stay alive, he had to have sex with young children. Perez’s sex offender registry indicates that his horrific string of abuses began in 2001 and ended in 2015.
Perez eventually moved his followers to a 20-acre commune north of Wichita, Kansas, where he continued to preach his falsehoods and sexually exploit the underaged. Perez also collected millions of dollars over the years from life insurance policies on his followers who had died. He was finally arrested for the murder of 26-year-old Patricia Hughes, who Perez collected a life insurance policy on after she drowned to death.
In 2015, Perez was convicted of first-degree murder, rape, aggravated assault, sexual exploitation of a child, and a slew of other charges. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
This cult broke off from the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda in the 1980s. The leaders preached that the apocalypse was nearing and that anyone who wanted to avoid damnation had to strictly follow the Ten Commandments spelled out in the Bible.
The group believed that the apocalypse would come on December 31st, 1999. They also discouraged people from talking so that they would not be tempted to break the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The group also fasted weekly, outlawed the use of soap completely, and forbade sexual intercourse.
After the apocalypse failed to come at the turn of the millennium, the influence of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God began to wane. In response, the leaders of the movement invited over 500 of their members to a party at a church and then locked the exits to the church and burned every single one of them alive.
After the fire, Ugandan police began to investigate other compounds around the country and discovered hundreds more bodies of cult members who had been poisoned or gunned down by leaders of the cult. All in all, over 900 people died.
If you or someone you know is involved in a cult and looking for a way out, check out daretodoubt.org/cults for help.