In March 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, a cult started in the early ’70s, put on matching dark clothes, swallowed barbiturates, and placed plastic bags around their heads. It was one of the largest mass suicides in the history of the United States.
Although you may have heard of that incident, when it comes to the world’s most infamous cults, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
INSIDER looked back on some of the most dangerous and infamous cults throughout history and the charismatic leaders who founded them.
The Manson Family famously murdered seven people over the course of two nights to start a race war.
In the late ’60s, Charles Manson brought together a group of displaced young people and called them his “family.” They settled in Spahn Ranch, a sprawling former movie studio near Los Angeles, where drugs were free-flowing, mandatory orgies were enforced, and Manson pushed his ideas about an imminent race war.
The cult leader told his followers he wanted them to go on a killing spree. On August 8, 1969, a few members of the cult headed to a Beverly Hills home and murdered five people, including actress Sharon Tate. They wrote the word “PIG” in Tate’s blood on the door. The violence continued the next night when Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were murdered in their Los Feliz home by Manson’s followers on his orders. Rosemary was stabbed 14 times.
Manson was convicted of first-degree murder in 1971. He served out his prison sentence until he died on November 19, 2017, at age 83.
Members of Heaven’s Gate were told that God was an alien. 39 members died by suicide.
In the early ’70s, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles went on a road trip across America and found a group of people they dubbed “the crew.”
Applewhite told his followers many things, including that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, the end of the world was upon them, and that God was an alien. He encouraged them to give away all their money and cut off contact with their families. Cult members were also put on a Master Cleanse diet of lemonade, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup, in order to get rid of sexual thoughts. Eight men volunteered to be surgically castrated.
In March 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate donned dark outfits and matching Nike shoes. They drank vodka and ate applesauce and pudding that contained barbiturates and put plastic bags over their heads to suffocate themselves. When police officers entered the home, they found a line of bodies, each covered with purple fabric. It was one of the largest mass suicides in the history of the United States.
Members of Aum Shinrikyo left five bags filled with a toxic nerve agent on three Tokyo train lines during rush hour.
The cult Aum Shinrikyo was founded in the ’80s by Shoko Asahara. He claimed to be Christ and – at one point – garnered tens of thousands of followers across the world. His teachings started out spiritual and then became increasingly violent. Cult members even paid money to drink Asahara’s blood.
On March 20, 1995, members of Aum Shinrikyo left five bags filled with a toxic nerve agent on three Tokyo train lines during rush hour. Passengers began choking and throwing up. 13 people died because of the attack and 5,800 were injured. As months went by, the cult tried – and failed – to attack other subway stations with a deathly cyanide.
Asahara was sentenced to death, along with 12 other members of Aum Shinrikyo. Seven members were executed in July of 2018, including Asahara himself. The other six members are still on death row in Japan.
The Branch Davidians had a 51-day standoff with the FBI.
David Koresh believed that he could talk to God. He also thought that the world was ending. The cult leader managed to convince more than 100 people to move to a compound outside of Waco, Texas, and follow his teachings (which included his belief that men could have multiple wives, including girls as young as 10).
On February 28, 1993, the FBI arrived on the scene to arrest Koresh and ended up in a 51-day standoff. “Never before have so many heavily armed and totally committed individuals barricaded themselves in a fortified compound in a direct challenge to lawful federal warrants,” a report from the Justice Department said.
In the end, the standoff came to a close when the compound combusted into flames. 75 people died, and Koresh was found with a gunshot wound to the head.
Children of God was accused by numerous members of child abuse. It later rebranded to The Family International.
The Children of God was established in the late ’60s by David Berg, a traveling preacher. They believed in “free love” that reportedly involved female members recruiting with sex (sometimes known as “flirty fishing”) and survivors say children were regularly abused. Both Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix grew up in the Children of God.
“There was sexual abuse for myself from the age of 4, not just from my dad who got convicted, but from various other members of the cult, some related, some not,” Verity Carter, who grew up in the cult, told BBC News. “I wasn’t comfortable with the things being done to me but if I asked a question I got beaten or put on silence restriction. I was punished a lot because I was never able to stop asking questions.”
Berg died in 1994. The Children of God later rebranded and changed its name to the Family of Love, and later The Family International after it had been labeled a cult and was investigated by the FBI and Interpol.
Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple and instructed all of his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. More than 900 people died.
In 1955, Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis. He grew concerned that a nuclear attack would fall on the area, so he moved his congregation to Eureka, California, which he thought would be safer. Paranoia struck again in 1977 (this time born out of media attention), and Jones moved The People’s Temple to a settlement in Guyana dubbed Jonestown.
US Congressman Leo Ryan decided to visit The People’s Temple’s new location in Guyana in 1978 in order to investigate reports of abuse of members. He was shot and killed by four members of The People’s Temple. Jones then instructed all of his followers to drink Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. Over 900 dead bodies were discovered at the settlement, including Jones, who had a bullet wound to the head.
In an unsigned suicide note, one member of the cult wrote: “If nobody understands, it matters not. I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth.”
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