Destructive cults are based on authoritative control and fanatical ideology and often have religious and apocalyptic messaging.
People's Temple and the Jonestown Mass Suicide
The People’s Temple started as an independent congregation in the 1950s in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, and believed in the ideals of creating a society that could overcome racism and poverty.
It was a group that mixed social concerns with faith healing and adopted an enthusiastic worship style. The group believed in integration and communal living and attracted a large African-American following.
In 1977, the group’s leader, Jim Jones, led hundreds of his members to Guyana, South America, and the settlement they named Jonestown. The church had been accused of financial fraud and abuse, and a group of former members called Concerned Relatives persuaded Leo J. Ryan, a U.S. congressman, to visit Jonestown in 1978.
Although the visit went well initially, Ryan and his team were attacked by cult members and killed in a shootout on their departure. The members of Jonestown then committed mass suicide by shooting or drinking fruit juice laced with cyanide and tranquilizers.
On the 18th of November 1978, at least 900 men, women, and children died in this way.
Heaven’s Gate was a group formed in California, the USA, in the 1970s. Led by Marshall Applewhite, they believed that a flying saucer was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet and that the UFO would descend to earth and save true believers.
Heaven’s Gate began as part of the new age movement that believed in existential questions and criticized Western culture. Members of the group believed they were special and that to find redemption in the extra-terrestrial Kingdom of Heaven, they needed to leave behind their physical bodies.
On the 26th of March 1997, in San Diego, California, 39 men and women committed mass suicide. The suicides were carefully planned, with members dressed in black uniforms with colorful shoulder patches with the words “Heaven’s Gate away team.”
Heaven’s Gate members used barbiturates and alcohol to induce unconsciousness and then suffocate themselves with a plastic bag.
The Branch Davidians were a splinter group of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They had their roots in the work of Victor Houteff, who founded the General Association of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists that established the Mount Carmel Center in Waco, Texas.
Benjamin Roden, a follower of Houteff, founded the Branch Davidians, and a man named David Koresh joined in 1981 and became a core leader by 1984. He claimed to be the son of God and a prophet who could interpret God’s word. Members believed in the imminent return of Jesus.
On the 28th of February 1993, a raid at the Waco compound by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) led to the deaths of six members and four ATF agents. A 51-day siege followed with the FBI’s eventual assault on the residence on the 19th of April. The tank and gas assault resulted in a fire that killed 53 adults and 23 kids.
Order of the Solar Temple
The Order of the Solar Temple was a small religious movement founded in Geneva in 1984 by Luc Jouret and Joseph De Mambro. It consisted of a leadership council of 33 people with regional lodges for initiations and rites.
The group believed that the earth would face a worldwide catastrophe in the mid-1990s and that members needed to enter a higher spiritual plane to take their knowledge from Earth back to the “Source.” Members believed they were noble travelers on this planet.
On the 4th and 5th of October 1994, 53 members in Canada and Switzerland were murdered or committed suicide, and their buildings were set on fire. Between 1994 and 1997, 74 members died by murder-suicide. Some of the deaths are thought to have been ritual murders, and some bodies showed signs of being shot, drugged, or asphyxiated.
Movement For the Restoration of the 10 Commandments of God
The Movement For the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a fringe Catholic group established during an epidemic of apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in Catholic circles in Africa in 1987.
The leader was Joseph Kibwetere, who had a church in the village of Kanungu, Uganda. Kibwetere believed the world would end on the 31st of December 1999 and that everyone would be exterminated, but members of the group would go to heaven.
When the prophesied apocalypse didn’t happen, Kibwetere changed the date to the 17th of March 2000. Group members convened in their old church building to prepare for the event. The windows were boarded up from the outside, and the doors were locked before an explosion resulted in a fire.
Several hundred members died that day, including 78 children. Authorities are unsure whether it was a homicide or a mass suicide as subsequent mass graves were discovered in surrounding areas and on the properties of group leaders.
The Manson Family may be one of the most well-known destructive cults in the world. Led by Charles Manson, members of the group committed gruesome murders.
Charles Manson was in Los Angeles, USA, in 1968 to pursue a music career when he befriended Dennis Wilson, the drummer for The Beach Boys. Through this connection, he met other celebrities and became fixated on stardom.
He amassed a small following of predominantly young women called the Manson Family. The group settled at Spahn Ranch, and Manson had total domination over the group. He spoke about an impending apocalyptic race war that he called ‘Helter Skelter. He told members that they might have to start the war themselves by committing crimes in upscale neighborhoods and implicating African-American communities.
On the 8th of August 1969, four members of the Manson Family drove to the home of actress Sharon Tate and stabbed her and three friends to death. They killed two more people the next night.
Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese cult led by Asahara Shoko, and it was a mix of Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Christian beliefs.
Members tried to gain political control in the 1989 elections but failed. After this failure, Shoko told members that by 1997 there would be a massive war between the West, led by the U.S., and the “Buddhist World” led by Asia. Nuclear, chemical, and bacteriological weapons would be used, and Japan would be destroyed, with only members of Aum Shinrikyo surviving.
They turned to chemical weapons and tried to spray Clostridium Botulinum in the area of the Japanese Parliament. It is said that members would pay $250 to drink Shoko’s bath water and up to $11,000 to drink a potion made with his blood which funded the attacks.
On the 20th of March 1995, Aum Shinrikyo instigated a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and injured 5500.