Cult or Religious Sect?
Cultist groups have permeated society ever since people could chat and share ideas en masse, although modern cult experts today often clash about what, exactly, makes a group of people a cult. What's a loony or eccentric organization to one expert is often seen by others as a religion or sect, which are terms loaded with less cultural stigma. Whatever the best working definition might be, here we present some of popular culture's craziest cults of our time.
Reverend Jim Jones started the Peoples Temple to help homeless, jobless and sick people of all races, but former members claimed widespread abuse within the group. To remove his group from further scrutiny, Jones started a colony in the jungles of Guyana, where he hoped to build a tropical utopia. When a congressman visited the commune with three journalists to investigate the abuse claims, they were shot and killed when trying to leave. After the shootings, 913 commune members – including hundreds of children – perished after drinking poisoned Flavor Aid.
(Editor's Note: This description was updated to delete "mass suicide," as there is debate over whether it was a murder or suicide.)
Founded some time in the mid-1980s, Aum Shinrikyo is famous for attacking Tokyo's subway system with Sarin gas in 1995, killing 12 and injuring more than 5,000. The cult's beliefs are often described as a hodge-podge of destructive aspects of various religions, and while many followers thought they would develop supernatural powers, others relished the chance to fight Japanese materialism.
Followers of the Heaven's Gate cult, led primarily by Marshall Applewhite, thought Earth and everything on it were about to be "recycled" to a clean slate, and believed hitching a ride on comet Hale-Bopp in March 1997 could allow them to survive. Thirty-nine members (including Applewhite) poisoned themselves in shifts in a California mansion wearing Nike's sneakers and armbands that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team."
Charles Manson, who learned to play guitar in prison, formed his infamous "Family" of criminals in 1968. Manson thought an apocalyptic race war between whites and blacks would occur in 1969, after which the commune would rule the new world. When it didn't happen, he sent his followers on a string of murders to "show blacks how to do it," but the victims Manson selected were those who had not helped him with his music career.
Considered to be a major split from Seventh-day Adventist Church, Branch Davidians are famous for a 1993 FBI raid on their Waco, Texas, compound that left 76 dead. The event more or less resulted in the disappearance of what many consider to be a cult, which believed in an imminent apocalypse.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's Communities
Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh founded several cultist towns in Oregon through the 1980s – strangely, communities chock full of Rolls Royce cars. Shree allegedly poisoned hundreds in Dalles, Oregon, with Salmonella bacteria in 1984 to rig local elections in his cult's favor. It's considered the first bioterrorist attack in the United States.
Order of the Solar Temple
Luc Jouret, a Belgian religious leader and neo-Nazi, reportedly started the group in 1984 under Christian guises, namely the second coming of Christ and the Knights Templar. Jouret and other leaders in a Swiss village allegedly sacrificed a child they thought to be the antichrist in 1994, days later committing suicide with dozens of followers. The French consider the organization to be criminal today.
Also known as "Colonia Dignidad" (Dignidad Colony in English), Villa Baviera is a commune of German immigrants that was founded in 1961 by Paul Schäfer Schneider — a former Nazi party member. Human rights groups argue Chile's secret police used the compound to torture and interrogate subjects, and former members have since issued apologies for molesting children as well.
If you're an island native isolated from modern society, encountering an AM/FM radio – or a boat full of symbol-clad soldiers - can be quite a shock. Many societies form a cult-like obsession with the technologically advanced "cargo." Some South Pacific islanders reportedly tote wooden guns and paint "USA" on their chests in rituals to attract more of the mysterious objects.
If you believe UFOs spawned most religions, mind transfer is possible and cloning can lead to reincarnation, then you might be a candidate for the Raëlian Church, started in France in the 1970s. A Raëlian follower made headlines in 2003 when she claimed to have conceived the first cloned human, but the event was later called a hoax.