Inside the 30 Most Famous Cults in History
From the infamous Manson Family to the bizarre Rajneeshees, there’s no denying that cults are scary. Being manipulated and brainwashed by a charismatic leader who uses their charm to control followers is, at least from the outside, a very terrifying concept. But what makes cults even scarier is the fact that people involved in them are typically normal and reasonable people. The more you learn about cult followers, the more it makes you realize that anyone can become the victim of a cult, including you.
While it can be difficult to find accurate information on some of these groups (they’re known for having deep, dark secrets, after all), we researched the most famous cults in history, ranked by the number of people involved. Our motive? Hopefully, by learning the backstories of these cults and their cult leaders, you can keep yourself from falling into the same trap as these unlucky followers.
Note: Many of these cults engaged in violence of all kinds toward people of all ages. Proceed with caution.
30. Angel’s Landing
No. of people involved: Unknown
Leader: Daniel Perez as “Lou Castro”
Location: Wichita, Kansas
Years active: Around 2003-09
Bottom Line: Angel’s Landing
Daniel Perez, who called himself Lou Castro, convinced young women that he was a centuries-old angel who needed to have sex with young women in order to continue to live on this Earth. He convinced women of all ages, even many with young children, to live in a “magical” commune with him. The most famous one was in Wichita.
He regularly physically and sexually assaulted the women who lived with him, especially the young girls. A handful of his followers died under suspicious circumstances, allowing him to collect their life insurance policies. Eventually, the FBI was tipped off about some of the happenings on the commune after one woman’s so-called drowning. Following an investigation and some brave survivors coming forward with the truth, they were able to arrest him. Perez was found guilty of multiple charges, including murder, and is serving over two life sentences in jail.
29. School of Prophets
No. of people involved: At least 3, but likely more
Leader: Ron Lafferty
Location: Salt Lake City, UT
Years active: 1984-2019
Bottom Line: School of Prophets
What makes Ron Laffterty and his School of Prophets so notorious is really the gruesomeness of his crime and the fervor in which he believed in his own righteousness. He was a self-professed prophet who violently lashed out at anyone who didn’t believe him. He and his brother Dan were excommunicated from the Mormon church. Those two and their other brothers began the School of Prophets, where they would secretly preach radicalism from pulpits in community centers and homes.
They most famously embraced the idea of polygamy, even though they were already married. One of the brother’s wives, Brenda, talked to the other wives about how they had options, along with actively rejecting Ron’s status as a so-called prophet. Unfortunately, his fervor and fury combined with her rejection came to a head. He and his brother Dan killed Brenda and her 15-month-old daughter Erica, with Ron claiming that God told him to do it. They were tried for murder, and Ron, along with his radical cult, died in prison in 2019.
28. Los Narcosatánicos
No. of people involved: At least 11, but could be in the hundreds
Leader: Alfonso Constanzo
Location: Mexico City, Mexico
Years active: 1986-89
Bottom Line: Los Narcosatánicos
Sometimes called the Matamoros Gang or the Narcosatanists, this dark Mexican cult likely had significantly more people involved than the numbers show. But because so many of them were both influential and into some shady business, it can be difficult to get people to admit their involvement. During its heyday in the mid-1980s, though, this cult engaged in dark magic spells that involved gruesome ritual sacrifice of living creatures, both large and small. These sacrifices may have started with animals but eventually transformed into killing humans.
People began going missing, their mutilated bodies turning up in Mexico City later. The cult’s leader, Alfonso Constanzo, became influential with the drug cartels and wealthy businessmen in the area, insisting they partner with him, or their families would end up dead and mutilated. He and his followers eventually murdered an American student, Mark Kilroy, whose uncle was with the DEA.
That was the beginning of their downfall, as political pressure and investigations eventually called out many of the most powerful members of the cult, including Constanzo himself. Rather than be taken in, Constanzo told his followers to shoot him and his second in command, Martín Quintana.
27. Love Has Won
No. of people involved: 12-20
Leader: Amy Carlson
Location: Crestone, Colorado (Headquarters)
Years active: 2006 to present
Bottom Line: Love Has Won
This modern-day cult has piqued America’s curiosity, largely thanks to the strange nature of their hierarchy and their leader, Amy Carlson. Carlson, who called herself “Mother God,” claimed that she was the reincarnation of Jesus. After committing to this cult lifestyle, she left her third husband, her job and her children behind completely, cutting off all contact. She subsequently emerged as the leader of Love Has Won and began aggressively preaching a mix of New Age philosophy and conspiracy theories. They used Facebook and YouTube to get their message out and to recruit new followers. A small handful of devoted followers continued to do whatever Carlson said, while others became disenfranchised and left the group.
Those who left said they were subject to sleep deprivation, verbal and physical abuse, and that Carlson drank heavily, though she insisted her followers remain sober. She consistently denied any wrongdoing, and eventually, her health began to fail. By September 2020, she became paralyzed from the waist down, emaciated and her skin had a purplish hue, likely from colloidal silver supplements the group claimed as a cure for COVID-19. Eventually, sometime in April 2021, she was confirmed dead thanks to the discovery of her mummified body.
The group still exists, though it has splintered off into smaller groups. There are numerous documentaries and docu-series in the works that delve even deeper into the behind-the-scenes craziness of this cult.
26. Kirtland Cult
No. of people involved: About 20
Leader: Jeffrey Lundgren
Location: Kirtland, Ohio
Years active: 1987-90
Bottom Line: Kirtland Cult
The Kirtland Cult, named for the town where these gruesome happenings went down, was a group that followed the orders of Jeffrey Lundgren. Lundgren was raised in the Reorganized Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), a former preacher at the Kirtland Temple. He was accused of embezzling funds from the community and was eventually fired in 1987. But his influence had already grown, and his own cult was formed.
He forced followers to give him both money and devotion, along with calling him “Dad.” He was officially excommunicated from the RLDS church as his messages became more paranoid and violent. One family of five devoted followers, the Avery family, kept a small amount of money for themselves, which Lundgren considered sinful. Despite the fact that they were otherwise completely devoted to him, including following him into the woods, he told the rest of his followers that they would need to be the “blood sacrifice” to ensure everyone else had success.
So, Lundgren and a group of his followers murdered the whole family one violent night. Finally, one of the followers left the group and told the cops about the Avery family, which led to the disbanding of the cult and justice for the murdered family. Lundgren was eventually given the death sentence and was killed in 2006 by lethal injection.
25. True Russian Orthodox Church
No. of people involved: 29-35
Leader: Pyotr Kuznetsov
Location: Near the Penza Region in Russia
Years active: 2007-08
Bottom Line: True Russian Orthodox Church
This small cult was led by Pyotr Kuznetsov, who believed that the Russian Orthodox Church wasn’t Orthodox enough, so he formed this doomsday cult in order to teach people how to live more purely. The group of about 30ish followers most famously holed up in a small cave in 2007 in Russia to wait for the end times that their leader had predicted. They threatened local authorities with mass suicide if anyone intervened.
Eventually, a group of women came out in order to be treated by emergency workers for their health issues. Others came out later because the fumes of the dead bodies of their cohorts had become toxic. A couple of the members resumed life in a nearby village, still convinced the end times are upon us.
24. The Ant Hill Kids
No. of people involved: 12 adults, 26 children
Leader: Roch Thériault (aka Moïse)
Location: Canada (Quebec and Ontario)
Years active: 1977-89
Bottom Line: The Ant Hill Kids
The Ant Hill Kids was a clear example of a cult that centered around one main charismatic (and dangerous) cult leader, Roch Thériault. After being removed from the Seventh-Day Aventist Church for preaching radical views that it couldn’t support, Thériault used his charm to form his own group under the name Moïse. He made his followers live on a commune with him, insisting that all female members must be impregnated as a religious rule (often by him).
He had multiple wives and concubines, and his word was the only rule of law in the commune. He even insisted on knowing how to heal his followers. He was eventually arrested in 1989 for assault and was subsequently charged with murder of multiple followers, a woman, an infant and two people he administered homeopathic healing to who subsequently died. He died from a prison stabbing in 2011.
23. The Faizrakhmanist Movement
No. of people involved: At least 65, likely more
Leader: Faizrakhman Sattarov
Location: Tatarstan, Russia
Years active: 1996-2012
Bottom Line: The Faizrakhmanist Movement
This cult was named after its radical leader Faizrakhman Sattarov, who said he was a prophet of Islam. Most mainstream Islam rejected his claim, but a small group of about 70 members did not. They followed him into a three-story building that he then declared to be a separate state and self-sustaining community. His followers preached their own beliefs, which were Sattarov’s own variations on Islam.
In 2012, the Russian police discovered underground chambers beneath the home where 38 adults and 27 children lived. Many of the children had never been outside since members were forbidden from leaving the compound. With this horrifying discovery and the bad health of their leader, the cult was dissolved.
22. Branch Davidians or ‘Koreshians’
No. of people involved: About 100
Leaders: Benjamin Roden, David Koresh
Location: Waco, Texas
Years active: 1955 to present
Bottom Line: Branch Davidians
One of the most violent examples of cults and governments clashing happened in 1993 in Waco with this cult. Though it technically was a group that was founded through Branch Davidian beliefs, which have their own questionable elements, this group was very much brainwashed through the charismatic leader David Koresh and was subsequently dubbed the “Koreshians.”
David Koresh formed his own sect of Branch Davidians in the late 1980s after a power struggle with the other leader in the group. He even changed his name to David Koresh to reflect his new status as the leader. Thanks to a number of accusations of child abuse, sexual abuse and illegal weapons violations, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) came to his commune on Feb. 28, 1993, with a search warrant. Rather than entering peacefully, they were met with gunfire. Multiple ATF officers and Branch Davidians were killed, which prompted the FBI to get involved.
After 51 days of escalating violence, the government was eventually able to siege the compound. The final death toll was 86, with multiple other casualties.
21. Jim Roberts’ The Brethren
No. of people involved: About 100
Leader: Jim Roberts
Location: Areas of California and Colorado
Years active: 1971 to present
Bottom Line: The Brethren
This group is particularly difficult to find information on since they are incredibly secretive. What is known, however, is that they were formed under the leadership of Jim Roberts, who believed the followers should shun all material things, including shelter and family. The followers, who still exist today even after his death in 2015, eat handouts and rummage through the garbage for sustenance.
They believe that the end of the world is upon us, so they have to break all familial ties and distribute all their finances amongst each other. They use specific Biblical passages to support their extreme lifestyle. They have many other names and nicknames including The Body of Christ, The Brothers and Sisters, or The Cult of the Garbage Eaters.
20. The Manson Family
No. of people involved: About 100
Leader: Charles Manson
Location: Los Angeles, California
Years active: 1967-69
Bottom Line: The Manson Family
Easily one of the most famous cults to ever exist, Charles Manson convinced his fervent followers to murder multiple people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Thanks to both the violent and horrifying nature of his crimes and the high-profile people they involved combined with the unrelenting and extreme views Manson and his followers held, he is easily one of the most chilling cult leaders that has ever lived.
Manson claimed to be a manifestation of Jesus Christ and convinced his followers to live on a ranch outside Los Angeles with him, preaching an apocalyptic war between races that would end the world. He ordered his followers to murder people on the claim that it would help progress the world’s end, but they were often shown to be people who had personally wronged him in some way.
Manson died in Corcoran Prison of natural causes in 2017, while former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten was recently released from prison in July 2023 after serving a 53-year life sentence. Two other key members of the family involved in the murders — Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel — remain in prison.
19. The Kashi Ashram
No. of people involved: About 100
Leader: Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati (Joyce Green)
Location: Sebastian, Florida
Years active: 1976 to present
Bottom Line: The Kashi Ashram
The Kashi Ashram continues to claim to be nothing but a peaceful retreat center where soul-seeking volunteers can come to unwind, give back and get more spiritual self awareness. Its active website and community preach retreats, peaceful teachings and a relaxed yoga-oriented lifestyle. But the compound, founded by Joyce Green known simply as Ma Jaya, has had a number of complaints filed against it.
People have come forward claiming that the belief system is a cult, centered largely on the idea that Ma Jaya is a self-proclaimed prophet who uses her followers fervent beliefs to engage in a number of physical, emotional, verbal and substance abuses against them. She encouraged them to buy her a number of precious jewelry and gemstones, and even asked them to help break into spiritual teacher Ram Dass’ New York City apartment. On the commune, she arranged marriages between devotees who didn’t know each other, even marrying off her own daughters to devoted church members. She died in 2012, but the community and compound continue to this day.
18. Heaven’s Gate
No. of people involved: Around 200
Leader: Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles
Location: Manzano, New Mexico, and Rancho Santa Fe, California
Years active: 1974-97
Bottom Line: Heaven’s Gate
This cult is another particularly famous one, largely thanks to the strange nature of its members and their unnervingly calm documented interviews before their mass suicide. While the membership and the beliefs changed over the years, the final iteration of the cult had members who believed that they would “graduate” or “ascend” from their bodies onto the Comet Hale-Bopp.
And in order to do so, all 39 of them ingested poison over three days together at the large home where they all lived together in Rancho Santa Fe, California. At the time of their death, they all wore the same black clothes, patches, new Nike shoes, and sported shaved heads, no matter what their gender. Videos they had prepared and meticulously sent out to various groups beforehand found after the fact showed that they had adopted new names for themselves and were uneasily casual about their pending exit from the Earth.
17. Order of the Solar Temple
No. of people involved: Between 140-500
Leader: Luc Joret and Joseph Di Mambro
Location: Zürich, Switzerland (Headquarters)
Years active: 1984 to present
Bottom Line: Order of the Solar Temple
Supposedly founded on the beliefs of Knights, this cult found itself in the midst of a number of controversies in 1995, including mass suicides and murders. While there is still much secrecy surrounding the church’s structure and hierarchy, the beliefs themselves are rooted in Christian doctrine. But under the leadership specifically of Joseph Di Mambro, things became gruesome quickly.
In 1994, one of the member’s infant sons was repeatedly stabbed at an altar, claiming the child was the antichrist. Di Mambro also encouraged mass suicides and murders in his circle, including bullets, smothering and ingesting poison. For some of the mass murders, groups were found with their bodies positioned in specific ritualistic shapes and formations like stars or circles. Di Mambro would eventually die in a mass suicide along with his followers.
16. The Sullivanians
No. of people involved: 500
Leader: Saul B. Newton
Location: New York, New York
Years active: 1957-91
Bottom Line: The Sullivanians
Originally formed as an alternative to what leader Saul B. Newton deemed as inept psychotherapy, this cult provided a new and radical lifestyle alternative to people seeking a fresh start. Group members were encouraged to have sexual relationships with everyone in the group and to cut off all actual family or friend ties outside their intimate inner circle. Even new parents were told to give their children away to other caretakers or send them to boarding school so they weren’t a burden.
As the years grew and after Newton’s first wife, Dr. Jane Pearce, left him, he slowly became more radical and more paranoid in his preaching and views. He and his second wife, Joan Harvey, discouraged members from having any outside contact, despite the fact that they lived in New York City. Members began to become ostracized for speaking out at all or questioning Newton’s teachings.
Eventually, these preachings turned violent, and Newton became both more paranoid and more controlling, especially towards people who wanted to leave the group. When Newton finally died in 1991, the group dissolved.
15. Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God
No. of people involved: Up to 1,000
Leader: Ervil LeBaron
Location: San Diego, California
Years active: 1972-89
Bottom Line: Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God
The son of a charismatic preacher in the Mormon community, Ervil LeBaron wasn’t happy when his father didn’t clearly cede his entire legacy and following to his son. With four other brothers all staking claim to their father’s following, Ervil LeBaron decided to do his own thing and create his own cult where he ruled with an iron fist. There were religious preachings mixed up in the cult, specifically surrounding the practice of polygamy. He had multiple wives and even married off two of his daughters to the same man on the same day.
But most of the everyday happenings centered around shady dealings and violent murders. If you crossed Ervil or wanted to leave the group, he would send one of his many children or loyal followers to either threaten or kill you. Or, sometimes, he’d have one of his wives do so. He seemed to always promise that the murder would secure their place in heaven. He died in jail in 1981 but wrote a manifesto that his sons carried out after his death.
No. of people involved: 1,300
Leader: Charles Dederich Sr.
Location: Santa Monica, California
Years active: 1958-91
Bottom Line: Synanon
Originally founded as a drug rehabilitation program in Santa Monica, this community became an unhealthy cult for its members that would eventually be involved in attempted murder, IRS fraud and even terrorism. The founder, Charles Dederich Sr., was a reformed alcoholic who believed that normal AA meetings weren’t enough for people with addiction issues. Synanon was formed as both a community and, eventually, a lucrative business to create promotional items that allowed them to buy a large armory on the beach in Santa Monica.
As their power and influence grew, so did their scare tactics. Anyone who published anything against Synanon began facing a slew of threats, beatings or even an instance of a poisonous rattlesnake being put in the mailbox of a lawyer who brought a lawsuit against the group. In 1978, Dederich and associates were arrested and charged with multiple counts, including assault and attempted murder. Without strong leadership, the group struggled and eventually petered out, though a branch of Synanon still exists in Germany.
13. Church of Euthanasia
No. of people involved: Over 2,000
Leader: Chris Korda and Robert Kimberk
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Years active: 1992 to present
Bottom Line: Church of Euthanasia
This absurdist group is part cult, part radical movement and all-around dangerous. It holds that the Earth can’t sustain the human population and that the best thing you can do for the world is to commit suicide. Its active website and online community often clash with pro-life protestors, and they aren’t afraid of creating controversy. "Save the planet, kill yourself" is just one of the group's slogans.
While there is some argument to be made that those involved are doing so for the sake of absurdist “art” to make a point, a woman used instructions from their website to kill herself in 2003.
12. Twelve Tribes
No. of people involved: Between 2,500 and 3,000
Leader: Elbert Spriggs (aka Yoneq)
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Years active: 1972 to present
Bottom Line: Twelve Tribes
If you’ve ever wondered what “Midsommar” might look and feel like if it were to take place in the middle of Tennessee, Twelve Tribes is your answer. On the outside, they seem like a peaceful, hippie-style commune that split off from Christianity. But they have formed their own belief system that melds messianic Jewish beliefs with various Christian doctrines.
The women of the commune submit to both their husbands and to the beliefs of all males in the commune. And they’ve been accused of both tax evasion and exploiting children for slave labor. It's still around today, and has several thousand members.
11. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
No. of people involved: Around 5,000
Leader: Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere
Location: Southwest Uganda
Years active: 1989-2000
Bottom Line: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
This cult has one of the highest death counts of any in history. Originally founded as a so-called Christian movement to make people follow the Ten Commandments with more reverence, it slowly morphed into a doomsday cult with a very doomed ending. Many of the group's members were former nuns and priests who had become disillusioned with the corruption in the Ugandan government and in the Catholic church in general. They wanted a way to practice and worship that was purer and were drawn to both these teachings and the charismatic church leadership.
For a while, the group lived communally on a farm, each member helping others both physically and financially in order to thrive. They even had a school for their youth. Before its ugly demise, it was accused of child labor, possible kidnapping and unsanitary conditions.
But in March 2000, the leadership determined that the world was ending. And they made sure to do so by violently and surprisingly killing 530 members in a large explosion at what was supposed to be a party. After this horrific act, more murdered bodies were found all around, making their final death toll nearly 1,000 people.
No. of people involved: Around 5,000
Leader: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Location: Antelope, Oregon
Years active: 1981-90
Bottom Line: Rajneeshees
Thanks to the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country,” this cult has quickly become one of the more well-known cults in history. It is also an excellent example of how people with seemingly positive intentions can be manipulated by a charismatic leader into doing less-than-wholesome acts. Sometimes referred to as Osho, this cult had followers who believed in the precious teachings of their leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. It practiced communal living and, notoriously, free sexual expression.
After moving into a tiny town in Oregon, they began clashing with the local government, going so far as to even put salmonella into local restaurants in order to poison local townspeople. From being mired down in legal issues and controversies, Rajneesh eventually died and most of the movement’s momentum died with him.
9. The Peoples Temple
No. of people involved: Over 5,000
Leader: Jim Jones
Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, and Jonestown, Guayana
Years active: 1954-78
Bottom Line: The Peoples Temple
Also known simply as Jonestown, this is one of the most notorious and famous cults thanks to the horrifying mass murder-suicide that occurred in November 1978, along with the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan. Under the leadership of Jim Jones, the group originally formed with communist and egalitarian ideals, believing that all people deserve access to worship no matter what their income or race. As it became more popular, it eventually became much more fiery and much more intense in its messaging.
Eventually, Jones moved from Indiana to California and then to his own town in Guyana known as Jonestown. Jones claimed to have created a “socialist paradise,” but it was run through propaganda and paranoia, and people were generally starving and often abused. After Congressman Leo Ryan came for a visit, Jones ordered his people to tail him and eventually kill him before returning to California. Shortly thereafter, he ordered all his followers to drink (and force their children to drink) a cyanide-laced drink that ended up killing over 900 community members in a very short period of time.
8. Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
No. of people involved: Between 6,000-10,000
Leader: Warren Jeffs (Current)
Location: Hildale, Utah (Headquarters)
Years active: 1929 to present
Bottom Line: Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
A fundamentalist Mormon denomination, this group preaches a number of questionable and strict practices. Its current leader, Warren Jeffs, has publicly stated so many hateful opinions about women, gays and blacks that they have been officially labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have been under fire for tax evasion, child abuse, sexual assault, blood sacrifice, forced marriages and child labor exploitation accusations for decades. More recently, members of the fundamentalist group made national news after being arrested on the premises of the Yearning For Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, on April 14, 2008.
Because of the deeply secret nature of the organization and the threatening, totalitarian style of leadership, few people come forward with their tales of survival to talk about what is really happening behind the scenes.
No. of people involved: At least 16,000 enrolled in classes
Leader: Keith Raniere
Location: Albany, New York (Headquarters)
Years active: 1998-2018
Bottom Line: NXIVM
This is another cult that's gained international attention after the release of HBO's "The Vow" documentary series. At first, NXIVM was established as an educational and personal empowerment company, but there always seemed to be another agenda for leader Keith Raniere. Part of what was preached within NXIVM circles was the attainment of various “levels” of personal development, all of which required total devotion of both time, energy and money towards the program itself.
As people would become more inculcated into the world of NXIVM, they’d slowly also be invited (or often forced by peer pressure or threats) into a secret sex cult. When it was finally uncovered, there were over 150 women in this sex trafficking ring, including many people of influence like actress Allison Mack. In the end, this cult was little more than a pyramid scheme designed to stroke the fragile ego of a disturbed sex predator. Raniere was convicted of several crimes and was sentenced to 120 years in prison, with co-conspirators facing shorter sentences.
6. Ho-no-hana Sanpogyo
No. of people involved: Around 30,000
Leader: Hogen Fukunaga
Years active: 1989-2002
Bottom Line: Ho-no-hana Sampogyo
Maybe one of the most bizarre cults on this list (and that’s saying a lot!), this group was all about charging exorbitant fees for fundraising and, well, foot readings. The leader, Hogen Fukunaga, would tell people that they had to join his community or would have to pay huge fees in order to get a reading, otherwise they or their loved ones would die.
Those threats would continue if they didn’t keep paying him or supporting his causes. Some people claimed their loved ones even died of mysterious circumstances while at the trainings. Eventually, Fukunaga was accused of fraud and forced to pay out millions of dollars.
5. Aum Shinrikyo
No. of people involved: Around 40,000 at its height
Leader: Shoko Ashara
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Years active: 1984-2018
Bottom Line: Aum Shinrikyo
Also known as Aleph, this Japanese cult believed in the pending apocalypse. And, under orders of their leader Shoko Ashara, it carried out an attack on a busy Tokyo commuter train that killed 13 people and injured many more. The idea behind the attack was to trigger the beginning of the third world war to help bring forward the apocalypse.
This wasn’t the first time this group had acted violently, as they had previously done the same in Matsumoto, killing eight people in the process. After the arrest and subsequent execution of its leadership, the cult seems to have disbanded, though some signs suggest it still exists under the name Hikari No Wa.
No. of people involved: Over 100,000
Leader: Claude Vorilhon (known as Raël)
Location: Geneva, Switzerland (Headquarters)
Years active: 1974 to present
Bottom Line: Raëlism
While this cult may not have any bloodshed to its name, it is not without controversy. Followers of Raëlism believe that aliens have seeded life on this planet, and every prophet that has ever existed was one of these aliens mistaken for a God. They run international organizations, education and festivals.
While their messages are typically peaceful, they check off all the marks of a cult. And if this list has taught us anything, it’s that it doesn’t really matter if a cult begins peacefully. When there are a lot of people who believe something feverishly with a charismatic leader whose words they hold dear, it can lead to dangerous and often tragic endings.
3. Children of God
No. of people involved: At least 150,00 internationally at its height
Leaders: David Berg (founder), Karen Zerby (current)
Location: Huntington Beach, California (originally founded)
Years active: 1968 to present
Bottom Line: Children of God
Also known as “The Family,” this cult became well known in the mid-1980s for a few famous actors who were raised under its belief system, including Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan. It has had a number of different names over the years. Founded as an offshoot of evangelical Christianity, its belief system turned both apocalyptic and paranoid relatively quickly.
There were accusations of child and sexual abuse that were rampant within the culture. Now, The Family still exists as a so-called religious group looking to help others, though it may still use the same practices of praying on weak-minded people in order to sustain itself.
No. of people involved: Up to 500,000
Leaders: Paul Twitchell (founder), Harold Klemp (present)
Location: Chanhassen, Minnesota (Headquarters)
Years active: 1965 to present
Bottom Line: Eckankar
The largest cult you’ve likely never heard of, Eckankar is a holistic belief system that teaches you to use music, sounds and light to call in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Founded by Paul Twitchell, it uses various mantras to detach the soul from the body so that the soul may experience other planes of existence. Part of what is most appealing about ECK, as it's known colloquially, is the fact that you can do it in addition to whatever other religion you choose to practice.
With enough practice and devotion, you can become an ECK master, which means you can toe the line between physical reality and divine connection. All it takes is a lot of time, believing wholly in the doctrine without questioning its, well, questionable origins, and, of course, a hefty ongoing donation to the organization for education, workshops and classes.
1. Unification Church Worldwide
No. of people involved: 1-2 million
Leaders: Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon (founder), Rev. Dr. Hak Ja Han (current leader)
Location: Seoul, South Korea (founded)
Years active: 1954 to present
Bottom Line: Unification Church Worldwide
When it comes to cult classification, there is always a gray area between fervent religion and genuine cult. Usually, the existence of one charismatic leader and some questionable practices that keep people from ever leaving a community are telltale signs that the belief system is edging closer to cult status. And that’s true in the case of the Unification Church Worldwide.
The Moonies, as they’re sometimes called, follow one acting leader, a position currently held by Reverend Doctor Hak Ja Han. The founder, Reverence Doctor Sun Myung Moon, called himself a messiah, claiming he was the second coming of Christ. He co-wrote his own texts, heavily based on Christianity, that are now worshiped with the same reverence as many worship the Bible. With millions of devoted followers, it is a powerful belief system to be reckoned with. And has many of the trappings of a cult, though hopefully will continue to preach more peaceful teachings as it has in the past.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of this group is its unique "Blessing," or mass wedding ceremony (pictured).