For hundreds of years, cults have fascinated many journalists and even ordinary people around the world.
In the documentaries, we are often intrigued by the stories behind these cults, their beliefs, way of thinking, and how they persuade people to join them which is often disturbing.
While there are hundreds of cults that are present today, we’ve compiled the list of the 8 most disturbing cults in history.
8.) School of Prophets: From polygamy to death rows
Founder Ron Lafferty murdered his brother’s wife and her toddler in 1984. He killed the woman because of her opposition to polygamy or multiple marriages. After two years of killing his brother’s wife, Lafferty later confessed that he committed the killing after a revelation from God.
Lafferty was sent to Utah’s death row; he died there in November 2019.
Ron Lafferty’s brother, Dan Lafferty, seen here in 2003, is serving a life sentence in connection to the murders.
7.) Love Has Won: The Mummified founder who can cure cancer
After the death of Amy Carlson, the 45-year-old leader of the group Love Has Won, her mummified body was found in a home in Moffat, Colorado on April 28, 2021.
Carlson was known to her followers as “Mother God” and claimed to be able to cure cancer and communicate with angels. She also said she was the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Marilyn Monroe. According to affidavits taken by the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office, the group was brainwashing people and stealing their money.
6.) NXIVM: Abusive sex cult
Founder Keith Raniere was accused of running an abusive sex cult through his Albany-based seminar company. Based on the reports, female cult members were used as sex slaves and punished by their “masters” and blackmailed.
He denied the charges after his March 2018 arrest, but a judge ordered him held without bail until trial.
On April 8, 2019, Allison Mack appeared in a Brooklyn federal court to enter a guilty plea for two racketeering charges in connection with her involvement with the NXIVM cult.
5.) Rajneeshpuram: The mystic
Self-proclaimed “Indian mystic” Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh attracted thousands of hippies in the 1970s when he preached a “religious-less religion” that embraced sexual liberation.
The Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” showed followers wearing only red and worshipping the mysteriously wealthy leader, even when he stopped speaking for a prolonged period.
In the early 1980s, Rajneesh was having trouble with the Indian government and sent his followers to buy a ranch in Wasco County, Oregon, which they converted into a compound (seen here).
The community attracted American and international followers, some of whom left families and high-paying jobs to meditate at the feet of Rajneesh.
Sheela fled to Switzerland, where she served time for her crimes, and later opened nursing homes. In interviews she granted for “Wild Wild Country,” she largely spoke kindly of Rajneesh, who died in 1990.
The movement still has followers in India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.
4.) Heaven’s Gate Cult: the Mass Suicide incident
In the early 1970s, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles took a road trip across the U.S., and founded a group they called “the crew.” After 20 years, the group lived in various camps in Southern California and took on hundreds of followers.
The group believed that Earth was about to be wiped clean and that the only chance to survive was to leave it.
Nettles died of liver cancer in 1985, but Applewhite continued to lead the group. About 5 years later, the group isolated themselves from their friends, family, and the public, and relied on the internet to recruit new members.
In 1997, Applewhite persuaded 38 followers to kill themselves, telling them that they wouldn’t be dying but leaving their earthly vessels behind.
Authorities found the corpses lying in bunk beds, covered by a purple cloth. They were dressed in identical black shirts and sweatpants, new black-and-white Nike sneakers, and armbands reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”
Three other people connected to Heaven’s Gate later committed suicide, bringing the cult’s death toll to 42. In this photo, one of their bodies is carried out of a hotel room in Southern California.
3.) The Manson Family: the murder spree of young women
Charles Manson and his band of deluded devotees, most of them young women, went on their murderous rampage in the 1950s. Manson, who lived as the embodiment of insanity, died in prison.
But as Tara Brown reports, three of the other perpetrators are still alive and one, Leslie Van Houten, could walk free from jail in the next few weeks. Van Houten claims that after half a century behind bars she deserves her release because she’s a reformed woman. However, that assurance holds little weight for the loved ones of the victims.
Debra Tate, the younger sister of Sharon Tate, the beautiful Hollywood actress slain by the Manson family, tells Brown how she has devoted her life to ensuring her sister’s killers are never released.
2.) Children of God
Beginning in the 1960s, The Children of God was a cult founded by David Berg who used a blend of Christian rhetoric and hippie ideals to manipulate and abuse his followers for decades.
Berg’s monstrous acts weren’t confined to the adult members of the cult, either. Sex abuse within the cult was not only tolerated but mandated by its founder. While the cult has changed its name over the years as successive founders have come and gone, there’s no escaping the horrific history of its abuse.
1.) The Peoples Temple
The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ was founded by Jim Jones in Indiana in 1955.
Jones taught a blend of Christianity, socialism and communism, with an emphasis on racial equality. He eventually attracted several thousand followers.
As U.S. media began to scrutinize the group, they fled to Guyana, where they created a settlement called Jonestown.
By 1978, the population there had swelled to about 900. Around that time, some members warned American media of mass suicide rehearsals at Jonestown.
Congressman Leo Ryan flew into Jonestown to investigate. He, three journalists, and a cult defector were shot to death.
Later, Jones had his followers kill themselves by drinking a cyanide-laced drink. In this photo, bodies are placed on Army trucks after the mass suicide.
Jones was later found dead. More than 900 people died at Jonestown.