4 terrifying Cults that actually existed


1. Heaven's Gate

Followers of this space-crazed cult- whose teachings fused some of the spicier (read: apocalyptic) Christian teachings with popular sci-fi theory- believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed in a great "recycling", and that the only way to survive was to leave the planet by "evolving to the next level". According to leader Marshall Applewhite, the way to achieve this evolution was to kill oneself at a precise moment; then, instead of dying, the devoted would be taken up to an alien spacecraft hidden by the tail of Comet Hale-Bopp, which was passing near Earth at the time. The cult's plans had apparently come to fruition in March 1997, when the bodies of Applewhite and 38 of his followers were found lying in the beds of the cult's HQ. Autopsies confirmed that the Heaven's Gate members had ingested lethal doses of phenobarbital, cyanide and arsenic, and had covered plastic bags over their heads to ensure their one-way trip was completed. And - cynicism aside - maybe they made it to the spaceship, y'know? Maybe the secret to space teleportation is poisoning and asphyxiation, and Applewhite's out there now, enjoying the trip of his life? ... OR, maybe he and the rest of Heaven's Gate were 100% raving nutbars? We'll leave it up to you to decide.

2. Peoples Temple

Wikimedia Commons
Jim Jones' inspiring sermons and seemingly progressive views garnered the adoration of thousands of Americans in the 1950s-70s, but these masked Jones' darker and more dangerous tendencies. It was these dark tendencies which eventually led to the cult's murder of the US congressman Leo Ryan and his accompanying party on the airstrip of Peoples Temple's self-proclaimed utopia Jonestown, and the subsequent mass suicide of over 900 Peoples Temple members, who fatally drank from vats of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. Jones himself was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head, though it is unclear whether this was by his own hand or his nurse's (who had been found close by with a fatal bullet wound of her own).

3. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

Flickr / Hjalmar Gislason
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a breakaway Catholic cult in Uganda, founded in the 1980s and led by High Priestess Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere. In addition to their core belief that the Ten Commandments should be obeyed on a scarily literal level, the cult also believed that apocalypse would come on January 1, 2000. But when this prediction did not come to pass, the shamefaced leaders rounded up their followers in a church in the town of Kanungu (in addition to other sites across southern Uganda), and committed mass murder by poison and strangulation, before setting the church ablaze. It is unclear whether the cult leaders realised that by doing this they may have slightly, a little bit, disobeyed at least one of the Ten Commandments.

4. Aum Shinrikyo

Time Magazine
It began in 1984 as a peaceful yoga and meditation class in Shoko Asahara's one-bedroom apartment, but Aum Shinrikyo gradually escalated into a militant religious cult of international scale. With over 5,000 followers across Japan and Russia, Asahara- a self-proclaimed 'Christ' who had already published a number of religious books- created a climate of fear by ordering the murders of numerous defectors and a notable anti-cult lawyer, as well as potentially ordering the (failed) murder of Japan's National Police chief Takaji Kunimatsu. In 1995 Asahara began calling his followers to arms in a bid to overthrow the Japanese government. When the government eventually caught wind of this planned coup, Aum Shinrikyo members detonated explosives on the Tokyo subway, an attack which killed thirteen and injured thousands. Asahara was arrested a short while later after being found hiding between the walls of a known cult building, and was eventually sentenced to death. So if you are ever invited by your yoga teacher to join in his 'specialist evening classes', just smile politely, take another sip of your lapsang souchong, and get the hell out of there.