With Crime+Investigation’s brand newTwisted Faith ‘cults’ season on the horizon, thoughts here have recently turned to the darker side of belief. One of the documentaries we’re bringing you during this seven-day-long extravaganza of original programming - that promises to be as fascinating as it is disturbing - looks into the close-to-home phenomena of British cults.
Our one-off UK cult special,Cults, Taboos and Twisted Faith, delves deep into some truly horrifying real-life survival stories from those caught up in these shores’ most manipulative and dangerous ever sects some of which are featured below.
The Jesus Army
When you think of a cult, naturally the mind takes you to the extreme end of the spectrum. And understandably so. We think of The Waco siege, the Manson killings, the Jonestown massacre. These are the obvious reference points for many of us. But the reality of life under cult influence is rarely as headline-grabbing. It’s often a lot more insidious, with the damage being inflicted slowly and subtly.
Cults also come in many forms, often in really quite recognisable guises. New age movements or, more commonly, in the form of religions we already know of and understand.
The ‘Jesus Fellowship Church’ describe themselves as ‘a UK gathering of people whose lives are being transformed by Jesus.’ To many people though, they’re known by a name they retired in 2017 for - presumably - PR reasons, ‘The Jesus Army’. The Army were the branch of the JFC which worked the streets for the evangelical movement, often recruiting its members from among those homeless people they’d help out in Cardboard City in London. Often these recruits would end up working for the church for one of their money-spinning timber or agricultural concerns.
Members of this ‘neo-charismatic protestant’ sect are expected to practice celibacy and currently total nearly 4,000 members in 24 congregations across Britain.
It’s not just the potential financial exploitation that’s concerning here, though. Down the years there have been many allegations of emotional, physical and sexual abuse against members, including some made when the victims were children. There are currentlymore than forty court cases being prepared against the church.
The church has since defended itself by claiming that all allegations are either false or historical safeguarding issues which have since been addressed.
Strange but true... Amongst all the bizarre rules decreed by the church’s original leader Noel Stanton was that all members were to cover their ears at all time. For some reason, they are seen as ‘sinful’.
The Workers' Institute of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought
Now in his late seventies, Aravindan Balakrishnan languishes in prison, barely having started his 23-year stretch. Known to his followers as 'Comrade Bala', he and his wife Chanda Pattni ran an extreme communist commune in South London. One that, in time, degraded into an inhumane prison that demanded complete servitude from its few followers.
Balakrishnan moved to the UK from Singapore in the 1970's and continued his political activism, quickly setting up a retreat rather awkwardly called 'The Workers' Institute of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought'. It was a small collective of primarily female followers. After a police raid in the early 1980's, the movement went underground. Which is when things turned truly grim...
Soon, 'Bala' decreed himself to possess God-like powers and demanded his followers command him and fulfil his every whim. True to form in so many cases of this type, it didn't take long for the narcissistic Balakrishnan to 'require' his followers to engage in sexual activities with him.
This carried on for decades until the incredibly brave actions of his daughter (who had been born in the house to him and another member) decided to contact the outside world and make a break for it. The police were called and the house was raided.
The remorseless cult leader was convicted in December 2015 for sexual assault, rape, cruelty and false imprisonment and is highly likely to die in prison. His wife, meanwhile, was released without charge.
Strange but true... As a way to control his devotees, Balakrishnan would blackmail them emotionally with threats of demonstrations of his powers. He claimed to be in possession of a type of supercomputer called ‘Jackie’ (short for ‘Jehovah, Allah, Christ, Krishna and Immortal Easwaran’) which he was able to control the weather with. If any of his ‘followers’ defied him or threatened to leave, he claimed he would caused an earthquake, killing thousands.
The North Shields death cult
There are no religious or political overtones here in this third entry. There's no carefully chosen name, no smartly planned recruitment strategy. This is an altogether more unusual situation...
When the people responsible for the brutal crimes you’re about to hear about here were tried, Newcastle Crown Court heard from the prosecution how the group of five had a strange relationship which had developed a 'cultish dimension'. Led by a vengeful, violent and brutal individual, this ragtag group of women helped kidnap, extort, torture, sexually abuse and kill a vulnerable man in North Shields in February of 2016. Some of the women actively engaged in the crimes, while others merely idly sat back, saying and doing nothing, in rapture to the man orchestrating proceedings.
Zahid Zaman, who often pretended to need to use a wheelchair, was known as a harmless disabled man on his council estate in Tyne & Wear. But anyone who knew him knew better. He was borderline evil. A callous and uncaring man with a quick temper, he would often berate and beat his girlfriends. Regardless, he managed to move in three women to his house and conduct sexual relationships with two of them simultaneously.
One of the women, Ann Corbett, lured dad-of-two Jimmy Prout, a man with several severe mental health issues, to the house where he had his bank card stolen. Before his murder, he was tortured. Corbett involved herself fully, while Myra Wood and Kay Rayworth sat back and watched. Those two were cleared of murder but convicted of the crime of 'causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult'.
Both Zaman and Corbett got life for the heinous crimes. The mastermind of the brutality must serve at least 33 years behind bars, while Corbett is to serve a minimum of 27 years.
Cults come in all different shapes and sizes. Some can grow to the size of religions, others can hide in plain sight as ‘wellness retreats’ or faux-political movements. But so long as there’s veneration and adoration of a certain figure and an an unsafe environment (to members or, as we’ve seen here, others), it’s a cult. And it can become dangerous. Extremely dangerous...