Charismatic leaders, questionable philosophies, and secret agendas. These were some of the most shocking cults in US history, whose stories completely defy belief.
1. Peoples Temple
The Peoples Temple was the brainchild of Indiana-born preacher Jim Jones. Outwardly a Christian, he was a passionate Marxist and atheist who utilised religion as a way to spread his political beliefs. Creating the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s, Jones earned acclaim as a fierce campaigner for civil rights and racial integration. He packaged progressive politics in religious terms, once saying “If you're born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you're born in sin. But if you're born in socialism, you're not born in sin.”
In the 1970s, the Peoples Temple established its headquarters in California, where Jim Jones mingled with other radical activists as well as prominent political figures, including Governor Jerry Brown and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. However, he came to be dogged by allegations of faith healing practices, corruption, and abuse of Temple members, spurring him to resettle the group in Guyana.
Heralded as a kind of utopian commune, Jonestown actually became a place of back-breaking labour and endless sermons by the increasingly paranoid and unhinged Jones. Relatives of his followers expressed concern over what was happening there, and in November 1978 US Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown to investigate claims of human rights abuses.
The trip would end in a bloodbath, with Ryan and members of his party shot dead. Jones shot himself the same day, but not before forcing the dazed, exhausted, and petrified Jonestown community to drink a cyanide-laced fruit drink, in what he called an act of “revolutionary suicide”. In all, 918 people – including children – died because of Jim Jones.
2. Heaven’s Gate
The deadly cult that would become known as Heaven’s Gate was formed in the early 1970s by music professor Marshall Applewhite and nurse Bonnie Nettles. They forged a close bond based on a hodgepodge of “esoteric secrets”, as Applewhite would later put it. Their beliefs drew on Christian apocalyptic thinking, science fiction, and ufology, with the pair convinced that it was their destiny to ascend to the 'Next Level' by literally transforming into aliens and flying away on a spaceship.
They led a nomadic existence across America, spreading the message and gathering followers. Their bond was close but platonic. Applewhite had previously gone through a divorce after an affair with a male student had come to light and his tortured relationship with his own sexuality fed into the cult’s beliefs. Heaven’s Gate’s teachings explicitly forbade sex, and Applewhite himself was surgically castrated.
The death of Bonnie Nettles from cancer in 1985 forced Applewhite to reboot the group’s belief system. He taught that the ascension didn’t have to be physical; it could also involve the spirit leaving behind the vessel of the body, as in Nettles’ case.
This shift in Applewhite’s ideology would have appalling consequences for the group in 1997. Believing that an alien spacecraft was flying alongside Comet Hale-Bopp, which was passing close to the Earth, the cult members chose to take their own lives so their souls could board the ship.
In all, 39 people – including Applewhite – killed themselves in the cult’s San Diego headquarters by ingesting a mix of drugs and alcohol. They wore identical black uniforms and Nike trainers, along with armbands labelled “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”.
This Star Trek reference had a particularly grim resonance because one of the dead was the brother of Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in the original series.
One particularly surreal news story of recent years was the 2018 arrest of Allison Mack, former star of hit superhero drama Smallville, on sex trafficking charges. The explosive scandal came in the wake of revelations around NXIVM (pronounced nex-ium), one of the most unlikely cults in US history.
It was founded in 1998 by Keith Raniere, who’d previously got in trouble for running a pyramid scheme, and his associate Nancy Salzman. Based in the State of New York, NXIUM sold itself as a personal development company, offering 'Executive Success Programs' for an elite clientele. Prominent people from the worlds of big business, politics, and showbusiness entered the orbit of Raniere and his organisation – most notoriously Allison Mack.
Behind its gleaming corporate façade, and its perceived wholesome interest in wellness and empowerment, NXIVM harboured a sinister sect known as Dominus Obsequious Sororium (roughly, “master of the obedient female companions”). Dark allegations emerged of women in this 'sisterhood' being effectively treated as sexual slaves by Keith Raniere, some even allegedly branded with his initials.
Arrested while attempting to evade scrutiny in Mexico, Raniere was eventually convicted of numerous charges, including sex trafficking and racketeering, and sentenced to 120 years in prison. Allison Mack, widely alleged to have been a senior figure in the secret sorority, pleaded guilty to racketeering and was handed three years.
4. The Manson Family
On the surface, Charles Manson was the archetypal 1960s hippie – a shaggy-haired musician, a fan of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and a stalwart of San Francisco’s bohemian subculture. Yet, by the time he started to form his now-notorious ‘Family’ of free-spirited hippies, he was already a habitually violent criminal with convictions for armed robbery.
For Manson, the 60s zeitgeist provided the perfect cover for manipulating the impressionable dreamers and dropouts around him. He established himself as a guru, weaponizing the countercultural ethos of the time to maintain messianic control. He encouraged them to take hallucinogenic drugs and preached of an imminent race war in America, which he dubbed 'Helter Skelter' (after The Beatles’ song of the same name).
It’s been speculated that these apocalyptic ideas motivated the Manson Family’s most notorious crime: the massacre of movie star Sharon Tate and several others, who were savagely killed at Tate’s home in August 1969. Infamously, the word 'Pig' was scrawled in Tate’s blood on the door of the property.
Though Manson wasn’t present at the Tate house, he was eventually jailed for his part in this and other atrocities. During his decades behind bars, he remained a kind of American bogeyman, endlessly mythologised in pop culture before his death in 2017.