The line between a “cult” and a “sect” or a “religion” can be thin, but a couple of factors generally define modern use of the word “cult:” Cults revolve around the teachings of one living (or recently living) person, and this person claims to be “chosen” for an important mission on Earth. Cults require unwavering subservience to the ideals of their leader, who is to be obeyed above all other authorities. Cults typically require its followers to eschew all relationships outside of the cult, including friends and family. Some cults are just creepy while others are downright dangerous: for the purpose of this article, each cult will be assigned a rating of one to four nuts: one nut being relatively harmless, four nuts being don’t-drink-the-kool-aid dangerous.
Famous for attracting the devotion of celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology is recognized as a tax-exempt religion only in the US. Scientology began with the teachings of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard back in 1952 and now boasts over 7,000 Scientology groups in existence. Adherents to Scientology go through personal “audits,” where they are asked a long series of questions while attached to a device called an electropsychometer with supposedly measures a person’s mental state. The questions leads to a form of regression therapy meant to relive past traumas –both in this life and from earlier lives. Scientology demands large donations from its members before they can progress “spiritually.” When the thousand-dollar secrets are revealed, practitioners learn that we are immortal spirits inhabited by clusters of extraterrestrials. Attempts to leave the religion have, according to accounts and stories, resulted in harsh bullying from cult members. Scientology’s practice of forcing followers to isolate themselves from friends and family who don’t believe, demanding large sums of money, plus their attacks on anyone who questions their beliefs earns this cult a rating of three nuts — dangerous to your bank account and your sanity.
The Unification Church was founded by in 1954 Korea by Sun Myung Moon. Most of Moon’s beliefs jive just fine with other conservative Christian teachings — misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Atheist as they may be. But even the most conservative religions take offense at Moon’s claim to be the second coming of Christ, meant to finish work left undone by the crucifixion. Moon also had some obsessive-compulsively specific ideas of how things should be done: For example, during sex, a photo of him should be nearby, and the couple should wipe itself with a “holy handkerchief” which may not touch any other laundry. Crazy as the Moonies may be, members seem free to come and go as they please, and accusations of brainwashing have been thoroughly disputed. These days, the Unification Church is controlled by Moon’s children. It was granted a veneer of respectability by ties to the presidency of George W. Bush. Still, they deserve a rating of two nuts because no religion should preach bigotry and intolerance.
The Manson Family
One of the most infamous cults in US history is “the Family,” a group of young people who followed psychopath Charles Manson in the late 1960’s. Manson and his followers murdered several people, writing words to Beatles’ songs with their victim’s blood on the walls. In the American psyche, the Manson Family represents the dark side of the countercultural movement of the era. Manson’s followers were mostly young women he somehow convinced to act as his servants and prostitutes. Manson believed that a race war was brewing where the blacks would slaughter the whites, and that he and the Family would emerge as the leaders of the blacks once the dust settled. He believed the Beatles had knowledge of this racial uprising, and spoke to him directly on the White Album. To get the war started, the Family went on a bloody rampage known as the Tate-LaBianca murders. Manson is currently serving a life sentence in prison for conspiracy, but members of his “Family” remain devoted to him. The Family rates four nuts — they are deadly, deeply, sickly crazy. â€¨
The People’s Temple
On November 18, 1978, self-proclaimed “Reverend” James Warren Jones somehow convinced over 900 followers to commit mass suicide in the middle of a South American jungle. Formed as a backlash against rampant capitalism, the People’s Temple sought to create a socialist paradise. Up against the IRS and negative press in the US, Jones moved his brainwashed followers into a concentration-camp type settlement in isolated Guyana. When family of cult members begged the US government to intervene, California Congressman Leo Ryan was dispatched to Guyana with a television crew to investigate. Deeply alarmed by what he saw, Ryan cut his trip short and tried to return to the US with some Jonestown residents who wished to leave. But as they boarded their plane, Jones’s guards opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others. Afterward, Jones told his followers that Ryan’s murder would make it impossible for their commune to continue functioning. So, the People’s Temple took their own lives. Jones’s followers were given a purple drink mixed with cyanide, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Children were forced to drink. Jones did not drink the mixture, but was shot in the head. Thirty-three members survived by running away and hiding in the jungle. An eerie audio account of the event exists, during which you can hear an hour-long speech by Jones, protests from few of his followers, and death rattles from poisoned children and adults alike. Four nuts to the People’s Temple for being the most dangerously crazy cult in modern history with the highest body count. â€¨ â€¨
The second suicide cult on the list was responsible for the death of 39 members in San Diego in 1997. Heaven’s Gate was led by Marshall Applewhite — who was voluntarily castrated along with 7 other male member of Heaven’s Gate. They believed that Earth was due to be cleansed and recycled, and the only way to avoid the chaos was to leave their bodies and let their spirits be collected by extraterrestrials. Convinced that a spaceship was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet, followers downed cyanide and arsenic or ingested phenobarbital mixed with vodka. Some placed plastic bags over their heads. Police found the dead lying neatly in their own bunk beds, faces and torsos covered by a purple cloth. Each member carried a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. All were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Windrunner athletic shoes, and armband patches reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” It is believed that they killed themselves in three groups over three successive days, remaining participants cleaning up after each prior group’s death. However, there was one survivor, Rio Di Angelo, who was ordered by Applewhite to leave the group so that Heaven’s Gate would live on. Heaven’s Gate suicidal cybernerds earn four giant nuts. â€¨
Students of the Seven Seals
The followers of David Koresh, sometimes called Students of the Seven Seals, started out as a faction of the Branch Davidians, which were a disenfranchised sect of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. However, not all Branch Davidians were associated with Koresh, whose teachings diverted from other Davidians. Koresh claimed to have the gift of prophecy, alternatively stating that he either was the next messiah or was destined to father the next messiah. All marriages were absolved within the sect, and only Koresh and his chosen “brides” could have sex. Koresh’s claims put him at odds with self-proclaimed “prophets” of nearby Davidian sects, namely George Roden who was shot by Koresh, and Wayman Dale Adair, who Koresh later allegedly murdered with an axe. Koresh practiced polygamy and statutory rape within his compound with girls as young as 10 years old. On February 28, 1993, BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) raided Koresh’s ranch just outside of Waco, Texas in search of illegal firearms. Believing the apocalypse was upon them, Karesh’s followers defended themselves. Four agents and six of Koresh’s followers died in the gunfire, and a 51-day siege ensued. The FBI took over the situation: the debate still rages as to whether the government decided to “burn ‘em out” or whether cult members deliberately set the ranch on fire. Either way, over 80 people, including Koresh and 22 children, died, refusing or unable to flee. The Students of the Seven Seals earn four nuts for molesting children and for their impressive body count.
Proving that cults are not just an American phenomena, Japan’s infamous Aum Shinrikyo, meaning “Supreme Truth,” was founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. Aum Shinrikyo began as a seemingly innocuous yoga and meditation class, attracting the patronage of students from several elite universities who paid high prices for Asahara’s seminars. His mixture of Buddhism, Christianity, conspiracy theory and pop-culture assimilation appealed to Japan’s disillusioned intellectuals. Initiation rituals were shrouded in secrecy, but seemed to involve mind control and extreme physical tests. In October of 1989, cult members murdered anti-cult lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, as well as his wife and young son. On June 27, 1994, the cult released the nerve-gas sarin in the city of Matsumoto, Nagano. Eight people were killed, but police failed to trace the attack back to the cult. On March 20, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo released sarin in a coordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 commuters and affecting over a thousand more. The police raid on Asahara’s headquarter’s on Mount Fuji revealed chemical weapons, biological weapons cultures, and enough chemicals to produce sarin to kill four million people. Police found meth labs, millions of dollars in cash and gold, and cells containing prisoners. After Asahara and the leaders of the organization were convicted and sentenced to death, the group was reestablished as Aleph, disavowing violence and promising restitution to victims. A June 2005 report by the National Police Agency showed that Aleph has approximately 1650 members, of which 650 live communally in compounds — under the careful eye of the Japanese government. For being the most dangerous cult in modern history, murderous Aum Shinrikyo earns a rating of four nuts. â€¨
The Church Universal and Triumphant
The Church Universal and Triumphant was originally founded as the Summit Lighthouse by Mark Prophet in 1958. Later, his wife Elizabeth joined him as leader, taking over the group after her husband’s death. They believe their leaders communicate with “Ascended Masters” — spirits of dead saints and mythological figures. The Church attracted the attention of the public — and of the FBI — during the Cold War of the late 80’s when the Prophet’s followers began building fallout shelters and stockpiling weapons. After the death of Elizabeth Prophet, the group splintered. The Temple of The Presence is based in Tucson, Arizona, and The Hearts Center in Livingston, Montana both preach the teachings of the “Ascended Masters.” As far as cults go, this one does not advocate the killing of oneself or anyone else. However, they do maintain rigorous control over their followers’ activities, social life, and even their diets (carrots being the “Food of the Masters.”) For their controlling ways — and for not allowing the use of tinfoil because it attracts aliens — The Church Universal and Triumphant rates three nuts. â€¨
The Fellowship of Friends
Lead by Robert Earl Burton who claims to be an angel, the Fellowship of Friends maintains a central facility in California with a highly-regarded winery and art museum. Members are guided by a strict set of rules which include no swimming, no joking, and no smoking.
What to eat and wear and how much to sleep (6 hours per night) is highly regulated. Members of the Fellowship work for peanuts in the Fellowship’s businesses, or gift large amounts of their income to the Fellowship. Of course, Burton has predicted an Armageddon in which only Fellowship members will survive. He has also been accused by former members of being a sexual predator with a penchant for young men. The brainwashing Fellowship of Friends rates three nuts. â€¨
The Remnant Fellowship
A twisted mixture of weight-loss self-help and Christianity makes up the Remnant Fellowship, begun by dietitian Gwen Shamblin in the 1990s. Shamblin teaches that eating less is in keeping with the self-sacrifice of Christ, while overeating is a grievous sin. In 2003, members of the Fellowship were scrutinized when a child died due to “disciplinary actions” taken by his parents under Shamblin’s advisement. Still, Shamblin is frequently invited to speak on national talk-shows, and her books sell well. But members of the Remnant Fellowship shun outsiders who don’t share their beliefs and advocate beating children with glue sticks. Therefore, this cult earns three fat nuts. â€¨
John Frum is one of the famed “cargo cults” that sprang up among isolated tribal populations in the South Pacific during World War II, when the natives saw foreign aircraft landing full of cargo and sought to possess the goods through magic and ritual. John Frum belongs to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. John Frum is depicted as an American serviceman who appeared during WWII, promising the material wealth of the Western world to the tribespeople. However, the tribe was encouraged to avoid all other attempts at colonialism and Christianity. After the war, when the Americans departed, followers of John Frum built symbolic landing strips to encourage American aircraft to return with cargo. February 15th is observed as “John Frum Day” in Vanatu, when the people dress as American military and proudly display American memorabilia and the letters “USA.” Anthropologically speaking, these people simply filtered their first encounters with technologically-advanced Americans — who descended from the sky carrying unimaginable wealth — through their own belief system: a belief system which allows for gods-among-men and the power of magic. John Frum’s followers rate just one nut. â€¨ â€¨
The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments
Founded by former prostitute Credonia Mwerinde after she claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary, the Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments urged a strict and literal view of the Commandments. Speech was not encouraged, fasting was, sex was not allowed, nor was soap. They believed the apocalypse would occur in 2000, but that they were a “Noah’s Ark” of righteousness. As 2000 approached, members were urged to give up their earthy belongings. But when New Year’s Day 2000 passed without incident, cult members began to rebel. The leaders declared March 17 the new doomsday, and held a party for its members on that day. Five hundred or more people attended, including many children. Then, fire broke out in the boarded up building. In other sites around Uganda, hundreds of sect members were found poisoned or stabbed. Authorities generally believe the incidents were mass murders rather than mass suicides. The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments — the cult that killed all its followers — rates four nuts.
Founded in 1974 by French journalist Claude Vorilhon, aka “RaÃ«l,” this UFO Euro-cult believes life on Earth was created by extraterrestrials called Elohim, from whom RaÃ«l himself receives telegraphic messages. They believe the world should be a “geniocracy,”– run by geniuses — which pretty much rules out any current politician; idiots would not have the right to vote. Though the cult is sexually liberal (whatever is done between consenting adults is fine) it discourages use of mind-altering drugs including tobacco and coffee. The RaÃ«lians gained national attention with claims that their company, Clonaid, had successfully cloned a woman, and that the child was named “Eve.” They tried — with various levels of success — to set up embassies around the world from which to greet the extraterrestrials when they finally arrive. The group received criticism for their use of a swastika as a logo, though they claim they intended the swastika’s original meaning, “peace,” and were not trying to associate themselves with Nazis. They are for genetically modified food, against war, for women being allowed to go topless, and against the Catholic church protecting child molesters. Crazy but nonviolent, the RaÃ«lians rate merely one nut — half a nut is for being against coffee, and the other half for trying to clone people.
Church of Bible Understanding
Also known as the “Carpet Cult,” the Church of Bible Understanding was founded in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1971 by Stewart Traill. Traill preaches a version of evangelical Christianity which involves communal living and breaking off contact with anyone outside the group. Members are forced to work in one of the church’s businesses which include a carpet cleaning and a used van business, or tithe 90% of their income to the church. The cult’s leaders fill their bank accounts while its members live in poverty. Church of Bible Understanding rates three nuts.
The Order of the Solar Temple
The Order of the Solar Temple believed they were continuing the tradition of the Knights Templar who sought the holy grail. This Canadian and European cult made headlines in October 1994 after the murder of a young couple and their baby at the group’s centre in Quebec. The three-month old was stabbed with a wooden stake because the cult’s leader, Joseph Di Mambro, proclaimed the baby was the Anti-Christ. In the days that followed the arrest of the Order’s leaders, a string of murder-suicides resulted in over 70 deaths among the Order’s members around Switzerland and Quebec. Though most of the cult gruesomely dispatched itself, it is likely a few cells of followers remain. This baby-killing cult deserves four big nuts.