Certain people have such charisma and finesse that they can brainwash entire groups to the point that they discard everything they’ve ever known and believed in, even losing sight of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. Learning about the physical, psychological, and horrific sexual abuse in various infamous cults will send you shivers.
Still, something is intriguing about the group-think characteristics of cults and how decent, innocent people can be sucked into such a destructive mindset.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the 25 Most Terrifying Cults in History!
New Light of God
In 2020, a group of lay preachers entered the Panamanian coastal region to evangelize the indigenous Ngabe people. However, their style was more Spanish Inquisition than televangelist; to get the natives to “repent their sins,” members of the New Light of God cult clubbed, torched,, and hacked villagers to death with machetes.
Police stormed the area, freeing 14 Ngabe villagers who had been severely beaten, including several women and children. Weapons and caches of money were discovered near an improvised Church, the bodies of six children aged one to seventeen and an adult, and the sacrificed corpse of a goat. Ten people were arrested in connection with the crimes. In the same way as the Sten Tari cult, it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly this type of behavior is condoned in the Bible…
Stephen Tari trained to be a Lutheran pastor before abandoning his studies. He traveled deep into New Guinea’s mountains, where he founded his own religion, naming himself “Black Jesus.”
Despite the controversial use of “Flower Girls” – specially chosen teenage girls who served as concubines for Tari and other cult leaders – the cult grew to around 6,000 members. Tari once claimed to have over 400 flower girls just for himself. Tari and members of his cult raped and murdered 13-year-old Rita Herman, whose mother had given her up to Tari, in October 2006.
Angry villagers handed him over to the police. Tari was later found guilty of four counts of rape but never charged with murder, and he escaped prison in 2013. Before long, he murdered a five-year-old girl and attempted to murder a teenager the next day. This time the villagers decided to take care of Tari themselves. Tari was castrated and beaten to death before villagers buried him.
In 1957, war veteran Saul B. Newton established the Sullivan Research Institute. He radically rejected Western family values, believing they were the cause of mental illness. Members of the group were forced to stop communicating with their extended families, including their parents, siblings, and even children. Many of the members were instructed to form groups to live together.
As monogamy was considered outdated and archaic, followers were encouraged to simultaneously date multiple people within the cult’s structure. Newton and his wife also had a say in what professions children could pursue, their pastimes, and how they were raised. Sexual abuse of women and children was common.
The Manson Family
Charles Manson utilized his Helter Skelter ideology to control his largely youthful hippy followers. In his sermons, he predicted that there would be a race war, and he promised to protect the “Manson Family” by taking them into the desert to wait out the apocalypse. He also came to the conclusion that they were the ones who had the responsibility to initiate the conflict.
This is one possible explanation for the homicides of actress Sharon Tate, director Roman Polanski’s wife, and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in their home. The plan was to convince people that the murders were carried out by African-Americans. Manson and his followers were charged with nine homicides. Charles Manson died while behind bars in 2017.
Synanon may be one of America’s most dangerous cults, but believe it or not, it began as a drug rehabilitation program. Synanon, founded in 1958 by Charles Dederich, morphed and evolved into an alternative community centered on group truth-telling sessions (dubbed “the Game”) in the early 1960s.
Dederich grew increasingly hungry for power over time, charging his followers unrealistic high fees and forcing them to perform physical labor. In addition, Dederich created a “hit list” of those who attempted to shut down his community, including the lawyer Paul Morantz. Synanon was eventually closed down in 1991 due to evidence destruction, tax evasion, and terrorism.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the controversial Indian guru, rose to prominence in the 1960s when he protested against mainstream religion and socialism. His views on more accepting attitudes toward sexuality earned him the moniker “the sex guru.” By 1981, Rajneesh had shifted his focus to the United States, and he established Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon, resulting in conflicts with locals.
A series of legal battles over the ashram’s construction ensued, culminating in a mass food poisoning attack (the first known bioterrorism attack in American history) and an assassination attempt. Rajneesh was deported as a result of the incident. He returned to India and recovered and managed the Pune ashram until he died in 1990.
The Russian Teen Satanic Cult
In the early 2000s, a group of troubled teens began sacrificing small animals to Satan in the Russian town of Yaroslavl. By June 2008, the cult, led by Nikolai Ogolobyak, had grown to about eight young people aged 17 to 19. One evening, the teenagers told their parents they were heading to a rock concert. However, the group was finally acting out one of their long-time fantasies.
They lured four younger youths to the woods on the city’s outskirts. When they arrived, they forced them to consume alcohol before viciously assaulting them. According to early reports, each victim suffered 666 stab wounds. Moreover, the cult cannibalized body parts before throwing them into a pit marked with Satanic symbols. Only six of the cult members were charged with murder after the bodies were located about two months later.
Hogen Fukunaga founded Honohana Sampogyo in Japan, claiming that the world was headed for disaster and that he would be our ultimate savior. He was charging sick and vulnerable members of society, including patients with cancer, for instruction in his cult, with the promise of curing them.
He also claimed that he could interpret and predict their futures by looking at people’s feet. The cult, which eventually became known as the “Foot Reading Cult,” had nearly 30,000 members followers at its peak, and around $1 billion was stolen from its following. The leader would ultimately receive a 12-year prison sentence for fraud.
The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo was responsible for the fatal chemical weapon attack on the Tokyo metro in the 1990s. Shoko Asahara, its leader, was executed.
Members believed that the world was ending and that everyone who wasn’t a member was going to Hell unless they were killed by the cult. Asahara planned the sarin gas attack in an attempt to save the doomed. The group still exists under the name Aleph.
In the early 2000s, Lou Castro and his followers led an inexplicably lavish lifestyle at the Angel’s Landing compound in Wichita, Kansas. His followers believed he was a “seer” and an angel who could predict the future. Unfortunately, the “angel” was, in fact, Daniel Perez, a conman who was convicted of rape, child exploitation, fraud, and first-degree murder in February 2015.
Expensive life insurance policies were taken out on people in Castro’s circle and cashed in by followers when a member of the improvised family “accidentally” died. Perez was ultimately convicted of 28 felonies and sentenced to 80 years in prison in February 2015.
Church of the Lamb of God
Ervil LeBaron, dubbed the “Mormon Manson” by the media, founded the Church of the Lamb of God in Chihuahua, Mexico. Among other things, LeBaron claimed to have received direct instructions from God, including the use of an abandoned Mormon doctrine known as “blood atonement,” in which sinners could be killed to atone for their sins and evils.
LeBaron believed himself to be God’s messenger and made up the rules as he went along regarding women and monogamy. LeBaron amassed hundreds of followers over his two-decade reign and had 51 children with 13 wives. His followers allegedly murdered more than 20 people on LeBaron’s orders. Although he died in prison, his reign of terror lasted for several more years as he left a hit list behind for his loyal subjects.
Church of Euthanasia
Chris Korda, a concerned citizen of the world and “antihumanist”, founded the Church of Euthanasia in Boston in 1992. The anti-people philosophy of the cult is based on one absolute instruction: “Thou Shalt Not Procreate.”
Korda and her followers believed overpopulation was to blame for the world’s problems, such as climate change, water scarcity, and species extinction. They also thought population reduction was the only way to solve the world’s problems. The cult was at its busiest in the early 1990s. “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself,” is their most famous slogan.
The sex-slave cult became famous for its charismatic leader, self-help aficionado Keith Raniere, who tricked women through clever marketing into the self-help organization Nxivm. He is believed to have branded a symbol representing his initials onto all the pelvises of the women in the group.
Women were required to follow near-starvation diets and hand over “collateral” – humiliating and potentially embarrassing documentation, such as nude photos – that would be made public if they revealed the existence of D.O.S. Allison Mack, well-known for her role in the TV show “Smallville,” became a co-conspirator who recruited women into the organization and even resorted to blackmail.
Mack was sentenced to three years in prison after a plea bargain and cooperating with police in their investigation of Raniere. Raniere was convicted of trafficking and conspiracy to use forced labor and ultimately sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Russian Underground Islamic Cult
As if one Russian cult living in a cave wasn’t enough, Fayzrakhman Sattarov was the ruler of a Russian cult of about 70 people who lived in a catacomb, more than a third of whom were children. Some of whom had never seen the light of day.
His followers believed he was the earthly messenger of Allah and vowed to throw themself in front of excavators and other heavy machinery if police attempted to demolish their settlement. The cult was discovered by accident by security forces during a random inspection of Muslim communities in the village of Torfyanoy near Kazan.
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
Members of the Uganda-based Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments Commandments of God were instructed to strictly obey the Ten Commandments and try to emulate the word of God. They were told that the Virgin Mary and Jesus were constantly watching them and that they would be cursed if they didn’t follow their biblical instructions to the letter.
Members believed this was the only way to avoid the apocalypse. They wouldn’t even speak for fear of breaking the commandment of lying. Over 1000 members of the cult would mysteriously die in a fire, the cause of which is unclear. Some witnesses claim they committed suicide because they expected the Virgin Mary to appear that day.
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Warren Jeffs, the cult leader, is serving a life sentence in prison for sexually abusing at least two underage girls he regarded as his wives. Many others fled the cult, often losing the only family they knew. Warren told the group’s female members that if they rejected him and his sexual advances, God would reject them.
A loving man, he was said to have 80 wives and 50 children by the time he got arrested. According to recent cult member interviews, Jeffs had control over the lives of nearly all 15,000 members. The children in the group did not attend school or socialize with anybody from the “outside world.” When the cult’s ranch was raided in 2008, over 400 children were discovered.
The True Russian Orthodox Church
Members of this Russian doomsday cult hid in a cave for six months, eagerly awaiting the end of the world in the spring of 2008. Pyotr Kuznetsov, the cult’s leader, was a self-proclaimed messenger of god who founded the True Russian Orthodox Church. He was not in the cave with his followers when they were uncovered. Followers threatened to commit suicide should they be forced out of the cave.
However, some eventually left the cave as melting snow had caused a partial collapse of the cave’s roof. Followers believed that they would get to decide who went to heaven or hell after death. Eventually, other followers were forced to leave because of the stench from the bodies of followers that passed away during the winter.
Matamoros Human Sacrifice Cult
The Matamoros Human Sacrifice Cult was founded by Adolfo Constanzo, a serial killer in Mexico City. As a teenager, Constanzo worked with a priest who taught him to “profit from evil.” He later made a vow with Kadiempembe or the devil.
He claimed to have magical abilities that rendered people not only bulletproof but also invisible. With these supposed magical capabilities, he had no problems recruiting followers to perform. He enlisted the help of others to carry out the ritual murders. Several rites, including mutilations, are believed to have been organized by him to protect their drug-smuggling business.
The Children of God
The cult, formerly known as Family International, was founded in 1968 by David Berg, who believed that Christians should live as simply as possible and follow the teachings of the First Century Church because all others are counterfeit.
It was expected of all female members to seduce and recruit non-member men. The organization’s most contentious practice was the sexual abuse of children. Members believed in “free love,” which Berg defined as sex that could not be confined within relationships or specific ages.
The Order of the Solar Temple
The Order of the Solar Temple, or the International Order of Chivalry Solar Tradition as it is also known, based its doctrine on the ideologies of the Knights Templar, a religious, military order that existed during the Crusades. Followers believed that the world would experience the apocalypse in the mid-1990s and that they had to be prepared by going on a spiritual plane.
Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, the cult’s founders, were accused of forcing their followers to provide them with cash and convincing them that they had to die burning if they wanted to secure their place in Heaven. The obscure cult hit the headlines when its members were discovered burned to death in France, Switzerland, and Canada. Despite the bad publicity, the cult exists to this day.
The Waco religious cult is best known for its final deadly end, the Waco Siege. Cult followers came to believe that Christ would soon come back to the world and establish his kingdom, and they spent almost every day participating in Bible studies. David Koresh, the group’s leader, told members that they were at the compound to learn and serve, not to simply have fun.
The end came when the FBI procured a search warrant for the compound because the agency suspected the cult was selling weapons. As a result, a nearly two-month standoff ensued, ending in the compound being stormed by federal agents. The events’ accounts are somewhat disputed, but about 80 people were killed, including Koresh and 25 children, due to gunshots or fires.
The Family, one of Australia’s most notorious cults, was founded by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher who thought she was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. For several years, Hamilton-Byrne adopted 28 children that she received as gifts from her followers, intending to create a “master race” that would survive the impending apocalypse.
Other adults in the group were referred to as “aunties” or “uncles,” but Hamilton-Byrne contended to be the birth mother of all 28 children. She also pretended to be Jesus Christ; if the kids didn’t live up to her stringent standards, they were assaulted, deprived of food, or given LSD.
The cult went undetected for years because the children were required to hide anytime visitors arrived, but in 1987, the group’s headquarters was raided, and all the children were removed.
Superior Universal Alignment
Valentina De Andrade, a Brazilian cult leader, founded Superior Universal Alignment. After reportedly receiving extraterrestrial messages from divine cosmic beings, she began preaching her gospel in 1981. One of her widely held beliefs was that babies born after 1981 were evil and had to be slaughtered.
To achieve this goal, she rounded up several boys between the ages of six and fourteen and intended to “eradicate” them. The boys would then be tortured, raped, and stabbed to death. The horrors wouldn’t end with death. After dying, their bodies would be brutalized, genitals and vital organs removed. Members of the group were suspected of murdering 19 boys, but after an initial arrest, De Andrade escaped by fleeing the country.
This UFO cult is one of history’s most infamous religious cults. The world was shocked in March 1997 when 39 people wearing identical black sweatshirts and sneakers were discovered dead in a house in a San Diego suburb.
The intent behind the suicides was to locate an alien spacecraft trailing the oncoming Hale-Bopp comet. The cult thought that their human bodies were holding them back by keeping them on Earth and that by rejecting their Earthly containers, they would be able to progress to the “Next Level.
The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project/Jonestown
Jim Jones, a self-proclaimed messiah, led the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. He and other cult members physically and emotionally abused believers and pressured many to hand their possessions to the Church. In 1977, he relocated almost a thousand of his devotees to Jonestown, Guyana, where the living standards were atrocious.
Jones ordered his followers to drink poison the night after cult members murdered US Congressman Leo Ryan, who had come to investigate conditions at the camp. Many were forced to do so at gunpoint. On November 18, 1978, over 900 people died from the poisonings, one-third of whom were young children under 17.