16 Infamous Cults in History

16 Infamous Cults in History

Trista - December 1, 2018

Cults are notoriously tricky to define. Mainly though, for something to qualify as a cult, it needs to hold a creed that is deviate from the mainstream religious community or have a leader that is somehow deified. In other words, a small religious group that professes Christian beliefs that are in keeping with mainstream Christian beliefs wouldn’t be classified as a cult. A small Christian group that believes its leader is the reincarnation of Jesus almost certainly would. Read on to find out about some of the most notorious, infamous cults in history.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Artistic depiction of Hassan is-Sabbah, the founder of the Hashishin. Wikimedia.

16. The Hashishin

When European Crusaders and later Marco Polo returned to Europe after their adventures and exploits in the Muslim world, they carried with them stories of a group of guerrilla fighters known as the hashishin. Marco Polo had actually misunderstood the word “assassins” and interpreted it as being “hashishin,” referring to hashish, more commonly known as marijuana. The assassins were a group of Nizari Ismail Muslims, a splinter group from the Shi’a sect, that formed in response to the First Crusade. Today, their name – which derives from the Arabic word for “principle” – refers to somebody who kills a target in cold blood.

The Assassins were based in Alamut, Iran, and Masyaf, Syria. The order was led by a grand imam, as it was first a religious order, though they largely deviate from the mainstream teachings of Islam. The agents in the order were called upon to engage in what the leaders called self-sacrifice; in other words, they were to engage in guerrilla warfare and even target specific people for assassination at the risk of their own lives. They were highly trained and well-read so that they could blend in with their enemies’ surroundings, even speaking different languages, if necessary. They struck fear in the hearts of both the European Crusaders and their fellow Muslims.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Adolfo Constanzo. YouTube/Allthatsinteresting.com.

15. Adolfo Constanzo’s Santeria Cult

Adolfo Constanzo was born in Miami in 1962 and grew up with a traditional Roman Catholic religion. However, he had a fascination with the Santeria religion – a syncretism of Voodoo and Roman Catholicism – that he may have inherited from his mother and grandmother, both believed to be Santeria priestesses. Constanzo became involved with some of the darker, occultish aspects of Santeria, a side that many followers disavow. After training with a Santeria sorcerer, he moved to Mexico City and established himself with the local drug lords and crime syndicates. He charged the leaders exorbitant prices – thousands of dollars – to perform Santeria rituals that would guarantee their safety, particularly from their enemies and the police.

Constanzo’s followers worshiped him as if he was a god. Some of the people who followed him found that they were becoming powerful within their cartels, and he tried to extract more money from them, as well as positions of power for his own self. When people refused, they would mysteriously disappear. When police eventually found the bodies of people he had killed, what came to light is that he had dismembered many people and used their body parts in his rituals to strengthen his own powers. The official count of people he killed is 23, but it may be as high as four dozen.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Emperor Hirohito. US Library of Congress/Wikimedia.

14. Japanese Cult of the Emperor

All throughout history, there have been entire civilizations and religions built upon the worship of a monarch. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was worshiped as a god, believed to be a reincarnation of the son of Iris and Osiris, the god Horus. Many of the ancient Roman emperors, such as Nero and Caligula, claimed that they were divine and required people in the empire to burn incense to them as a ritual act of worship. Likewise, in imperial Japan, the emperor was worshiped as if he was a manifestation of the divine.

Emperor Hirohito, who was the last emperor of Japan, reigned in the years leading up to and during World War II. He reinvigorated the Shinto belief that the emperor was the connection between heaven and earth and a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. His religious and political mission, given to him by heaven, was the expansion of Japan and defeat of the Western forces that tried to dismantle the Japanese Empire. Many of his followers swore such a high level of allegiance to him that they strapped themselves into glider-like planes and dive-bombed into American warships stationed in the Pacific. They were known as kamikazes – the word literally translates as “divine wind” because they were sacrificing their lives for their emperor god.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Charles Manson pictured following his arrest after the 1969 killing spree. Bettmann Archives/DailyMail.

13. The Manson Family

Nothing defines the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s in America quite like the rise of cults. One of the most notorious factions to arise in that era was the Manson Family, led by none other than Charles Manson, who claimed to be the manifestation of Jesus Christ. Manson had just been released from prison and, in the free-wheeling culture of flower children and hippies, lured people to his family with promises of drugs and free love. Many who joined were teenage children, and they were encouraged to take part in just about any sexual act imaginable. Some were raped and beaten; they often scavenged for food.

Manson also taught his family members how to use weapons, in preparation for what he believed was an impending race war that he termed “Helter Skelter.” In August of 1969, several members of the family went on a murderous rampage, beginning with the slaying of the pregnant actress, Sharon Tate. Those involved in the murder were sentenced to life in prison. Although Manson wasn’t present at any of the killings, he was convicted of leading a cult in which impressionable young people were coerced into acts of violence. He died in prison in 2017.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Print from 1870 portraying George Washington as Master of his Lodge. Wikimedia.

12. The Freemasons

Freemasonry is something that is difficult to understand. The Freemasons are a secret society that doesn’t necessarily have a creed, as far as people on the outside are aware, although there are plenty of conspiracy theorists who believe that there is a creed. Freemason rituals, such as initiation rituals, are dramatic and filled with symbolic meaning, but they aren’t known to be particularly evil or sinister. They instead make Freemasonry look like its own quasi-religious group. George Washington was a leader of a Masonic lodge, and many other of America’s founders were known to be Freemasons. Innocent enough, right?

The challenge is in the crimes throughout history that seem to be somehow linked to the Freemasons. In 1833, John Quincy Adams wrote, “I do conscientiously and sincerely believe that the Order of Freemasonry, if not the greatest, is one of the greatest moral and political evils under which the Union is now laboring.” Conspiracy theories suggest that Freemasonry is associated with the occult, that it engages in mind control or other similar activities, and that it is satanic. One belief held by many who are not Freemasons is that Freemasonry requires allegiance to a Masonic god, one that falls outside of the mainstream of religion.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati. Wikimedia.

11. The Illuminati

No single group in history, cult or not, has the notoriety and infamy of the Illuminati. Many believe that its members are compelling people who are behind every major event that happens in the world today. The origins of the Illuminati, however, are a bit less dramatic than the modern perception. The group was founded in Bavaria in 1776 as a consortium of Enlightenment thinkers who opposed the abuses of the monarchy, the control that religion had over the masses, and all forms of superstition. The group was outlawed a few years later, but its members were believed to continue underground and were blamed for the French Revolution that broke out in 1789.

Today, the Illuminati is at the center of the New World Order conspiracy theory, which suggests that they are orchestrating all significant events to gain world domination through a secret world government. Some indicated that the Illuminati supported both the capitalist West and the communist East during the Cold War as a means of dividing the world. Elite fraternal organizations, such as Yale’s notorious Skull and Bones fraternity, are believed to be fronts for the Illuminati. It’s unclear if these conspiracies have any substance, but even if the Illuminati cannot in itself be considered a cult, it has gathered a cult-like following of conspiracy theorists.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Moon performs a mass wedding. Rex/mirror.co.uk.

10. The Moonies

You may not have heard of the Unification Church, but you have probably heard of a group during the free-wheeling 1960s and 1970s called the Moonies. The Moonies were followers of Sun Myung Moon, who claimed that Jesus had invited him to finish His mission on earth by arranging mass weddings among complete strangers to create “pure” families. In 1954, he formed the Unification Church in Seoul, South Korea. It was a blend of shamanism, Christianity, anti-communism, and Confucianism. The message of the church was to achieve world peace by creating pure families through marriages.

Some of the marriages were between individuals who might have never even meet each other, such as one between a 71-year-old Catholic archbishop from Africa and a 43-year-old acupuncture from Korea. The couples were forbidden to consummate their marriage for 40 days to prove that their marriage was about more than sex. In 1988, when Moon married 6,516 people in one mass ceremony, he entered the Guinness Book of World Records. When the movement spread to the United States, many parents became outraged that he brainwashed their children, many of whom were teenagers or in college, to sell all of their possessions to him and enter into a scandalous marriage with a stranger.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Peoples Temple members attend an anti-eviction rally at the International Hotel, San Francisco, January 1977. Nancy Wong/Wikimedia.

9. Peoples Temple

When Jim Jones founded The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ in 1955, many people viewed it as an egalitarian project through which people could truly live out the message of the gospel by living in the community and sharing everything they had. However, Jim Jones was actually a dedicated Marxist and founded his church as a means of infiltrating Christianity with communism. The church grew quickly under the premise that its members were social justice activists; even the members themselves had no idea that they were part of a much more sinister agenda.

In 1974, Jim Jones leased land in Guyana for a project that he termed “Jonestown.” The commune was to be a completely self-contained socialist community in which the members grew their own food and met their needs. It evolved over the next few years as members of the church moved to South America to continue living out their social justice dreams. However, Jones’ drug-induced mania led him to turn from the charming pastor that they had loved into a ruthless dictator. In November 1978, he and the leaders of Peoples Temple forced everyone at Jonestown to drink Kool-Aid that had been laced with cyanide. 918 people, including 276 children, died.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. poorwilliam.

8. Branch Davidians

David Koresh was a troubled youth who was kicked out of his mother’s church for insisting that God had ordered him to marry the pastor’s daughter. He went on to join the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, where he pursued the founder’s 65-year-old wife, claiming that God had told him to father a child with her. Koresh soon lost interest in her and set his sights on a 14-year-old girl, who consented to marry him. He and his wife had a fallout with the founder and led members of the Branch Davidians to live in tents and buses 90 miles away in Palestine, Texas. When the founder died, he gained control of the entire group in Waco.

The group’s members engaged in behavior that would be considered disturbing at best, such as exhuming corpses in the attempt to resurrect the dead. However, what would make the group go down in history was when federal agents surrounded the Waco compound with a warrant for illegal firearms. A four-hour gunfight ensued, followed by a 51-day siege in which none of the federal agents apprehended that the cult members believed that they were doing God’s will. The compound caught on fire, and 76 people were killed.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Logo for Heaven’s Gate cult. Wikimedia.

7. Heaven’s Gate

Marshall Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian minister and displayed a fascination with Biblical prophecy. During a stay at a psychiatric hospital in 1972, he met Bonnie Nettles, a nurse there who also showed a keen interest in Biblical mysticism, with an extraterrestrial flair. She told Applewhite that aliens had said to her that they would meet and concluded that he had a divine mission to fulfill. Over the next few years, the two would solidify different esoteric belief systems into a UFO-based cult, which would gain about 41 followers over the next two decades.

The meetings that they held were centered around trying to contact aliens. In 1975, members of the group sold all of their possessions and effectively disappeared. Applewhite and Nettles toured the country under various aliases and preached a message of higher evolutionary transformation through contact with extraterrestrials. They even purchased alien abduction insurance, which would cover up to 50 people with $1 million each. On the night of March 19, 1997, convinced that the Hale-Bopp comet was passing through with a UFO that they would board and thereby achieve a higher level of consciousness, all the members of Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide. The bodies would not be discovered for a full week.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Aum Shinrikyo carried out the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Japanese history. abcnews.

6. Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese doomsday cult led by Shogo Asahara. It operated under the front of being a yoga-style organization, and its teachings were a conglomeration of Buddhist, Hindu, and apocalyptic beliefs. However, the message preached by Asahara was that anyone outside of the cult was doomed to go to hell. The only way for them to be saved was to be killed by members of Aum Shinrikyo, thereby elevating them to a higher spiritual state. The group operated its own research and development center, where its members amassed firearms and prepared chemical weapons.

On March 20, 1995, members of the cult boarded the Tokyo subways at rush hour with bags containing the nerve agent known as sarin. They punctured the bags, and within seconds, people on the subway began vomiting and choking. A total of 13 people died, and many more were injured in what was the worst terrorist attack in Japan’s modern history. The cult’s members later tried unsuccessfully to release hydrogen cyanide into crowded subway stations. At least seven members of Aum Shinrikyo have been executed by hanging for the attacks. Today, Aum Shinrikyo is still in existence and has many followers, though its members claim that they no longer hold to the violent ideology of Shogo Asahara.

16 Infamous Cults in History
The Order of the Solar Temple used the Templar cross as its symbol. Wikimedia.

5. The Order of the Solar Temple

The Order of the Solar Temple was an esoteric cult that merged Gnosticism, alien beliefs, the occult, and other out-of-mainstream elements to create a creed that centered on establishing a correct order of authority and power. The members believed that they were heralding the second coming of Jesus Christ as well as creating a unified belief system for both Christianity and Islam. The Order of the Solar Temple was primarily regarded as a secret society, mainly based in Switzerland and France, and few people outside of its cloisters had access to information about its goings-on.

In October 1994, one of the cult’s leaders, Joseph Di Mambro ordered the murder of a three-month-old boy because he believed that the infant was the antichrist, born into the group to keep Di Mambro from becoming the leader. He then held a ritual Last Supper, just a few days before different groups of The Order of the Solar Temple began committing mass suicide. Some groups committed suicide in chapels that were adorned with symbology of the Knights Templar, suggesting that the mass suicides were rituals ordered as part of the cult’s religious beliefs. In some cases, the buildings where they committed suicide were set to detonate so that the souls of the deceased would be purified with fire. The mass suicides continued for three years.

16 Infamous Cults in History
FLDS Temple in El Dorado, Texas. Randy Mankin of the Eldorado Success/Wikimedia.

4. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was a polygamous cult founded by Warren Jeffs, a charismatic Mormon leader. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the founder and an early leader of Mormonism, believed that polygamy was necessary to produce as many offspring as possible. However, in 1890, the Mormons officially disavowed polygamy and, in 1935, excommunicated clergy who still advocated it. However, the polygamous faction of Mormonism never entirely went away. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) operated mostly under the radar of both federal authorities and the mainstream Mormon church.

Warren Jeffs was a leader, or “prophet,” of one of the FLDS groups. His father, Rulon Jeffs, had previously led the group and married a total of 75 women who bore him 60 children. Allegations soon began to spread that under Jeffs, underage girls were being forced into marriage, as well as reports of crimes such as rape and incest. In April 2008, Texas child services raided the FLDS compound and brought 439 children into protective care. Many of them had already been married, and some of the girls already had children of their own. Many men were arrested for sexually assaulting children, including children to whom they had been “spiritually married.”

16 Infamous Cults in History
Movement villagers were horrified at the mass murders committed by the leaders of The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. gutsandgore.co.uk.

3. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

In 1989 in Uganda, a man named Paulo Kashakun met Joseph Kibweteere, both of whom claimed to have seen images from God. The visions consisted of things like the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ; besides, Kashakun reported sights of his deceased daughter. Together, they formed a breakaway religious movement that they called The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. The Ten Commandments figured heavily into the group’s ideology, as did the apocalyptic belief that the world would end at midnight on the dawn of the year 2000.

The group gained many followers who were disaffected with the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda, but when January 1, 2000, came and went without anything remarkable happening, the group began to unravel. The leaders set new dates for when the end of the world would come, but it still didn’t happen. March 17, 2000, became a modern predicted day of the apocalypse, and on that day, those who were still faithful gathered in a church to pray. The church was set on fire by Kibweteere, and 530 people died. Hundreds more were killed when he threw them into wells or killed them through other means. All told, 778 people died.

16 Infamous Cults in History
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is based loosely on the Cult of Kali. i.ytimg.

2. Cult of Kali

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is based loosely on a Hindu cult known as the Cult of Kali. In the movie, Indiana Jones and his band of sidekicks have to infiltrate a temple dedicated to the worship of Kali, where people are gruesomely killed. Kali is a Hindu goddess who worshipers believe demands human sacrifice. The Thuggee were a band of Hindu and, surprisingly, Muslim assassins who would strangle people so that they could offer them up as sacrifices to Kali. The purpose of strangling was to make sure that not a drop of blood would be spilled so that all of it could be offered to Kali.

Under the British imperial rule in India, a concerted effort was made to stamp out the Thuggee, who were terrorizing people all throughout the country. Their primary weapon of choice was the garrote, but they soon turned to use yellow scarves that they could carry on their persons. They were responsible for as many as two million deaths over at least 450 years of their existence. What remains largely under speculation is why so many Muslims joined the Thuggee, when Islam explicitly affirms the oneness of God and is incompatible with the polytheism of Hinduism. Nevertheless, today, we refer to bandits and robbers as “thugs,” after the Thuggee.

16 Infamous Cults in History
The Children of God cult encouraged promiscuous sex and worship of Jesus Christ. starcasm.

1. Children of God

In the 1960s, David Berg formed what just may be the most notorious, infamous cult in American history, the Children of God. The group’s teachings blended ecstatic worship of Jesus Christ with promiscuous sex. In fact, one of the group’s evangelistic techniques during the 1970s was something called “Flirty Fishing.” In Flirty Fishing, female members of the cult were encouraged to win over potential converts by having sex with them. They often worked as prostitutes in escort agencies. The belief was that people could receive God’s gift of salvation by having sex with members of the Children of God.

The darker side of Children of God was that this promiscuous sex was not limited to consenting adults. Children who grew up in the cult were frequently raped. The late actor River Phoenix grew up in the cult, and he claimed that the first time he was forced to have sex, he was four years old. Additionally, the children were discouraged from attending school, as they should eschew the world to earn the favor of God. After all, the apocalypse was coming.

In 1993, Interpol and the CIA finally began investigating the allegations of sexual abuse made against David Berg. He died the next year, but the cult continued until as late as 2009, under the new moniker The Family International. The Family claimed that any form of sexual conduct with a minor was strictly forbidden, but the evidence that thousands of children were sexually abused by cult members is overwhelming.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Imperial Cult.” Wikipedia.

“Kamikaze.” Wikipedia.

“How Adolfo Constanzo Went From Catholic Boy to Drug Kingpin – Then to Satanic Cult-Leading Serial Killer,” by Gina Dimuro. “All That’s Interesting.” August 1, 2018.

“Assassins.” Wikipedia.

“‘They’ll be chopped to pieces, there’ll be blood-spattered everywhere’: Charles Manson’s chilling warning months before murders is revealed as lost tapes from inside his cult show his followers cavorting naked,” by Natalie Corner. “Daily Mail.” September 27, 2018.

“Freemasonry.” Wikipedia.

“Masonic conspiracy theories.” Wikipedia.

“Illuminati.” Wikipedia.

“New World Order.” Wikipedia.

“Dark Side of the Moon: How megalomaniac Moonie leader built a billion-dollar business empire through sinister cult,” by Rachael Bletchly. The Mirror. September 4, 2012.

“David Koresh and the Branch Davidians: Leader of a Deadly Cult,” by Patti Wigington. ThoughtCo. September 21, 2018.

“Heaven’s Gate.” Wikipedia.

“Tokyo Sarin attack: Aum Shinrikyo cult leaders executed.” BBC News. July 6, 2018.

“Order of the Solar Temple.” Wikipedia.

“Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” by James K. Walker. Watchman Fellowship Profile.

“Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” Wikipedia.

“Cults: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.” Encyclopedia.

“Thuggee.” Wikipedia.

“The Family International.” Wikipedia.

“Life after a sex cult: If I’m not a member of this religion anymore, then who am I?” by Sophia Tewa. The Guardian. March 11, 2017.