7 of the Worst Cults of All Time

7 of the Worst Cults of All Time

America: the land of the brave, the land of the free and the land of… brainwashing.

Whatever the reason, the US has long been a breeding ground for religious cults. Some are (relatively) harmless, most are not. All involve brainwashing or indoctrinating innocent people for money, sex or their own sick amusement.

The cults on this list may sound familiar; some like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate are well-known doomsday cults, whereas others like Love Has Won and NXIVM have gained notoriety in the last 12 months as shocking details of their exploits have emerged.

Here are 7 of the worst cults of all time, from the good old US of A.

7. Love Has Won Cult

Originally known as the Galactic Federation of Light, this New Age cult has been making headlines recently as its leader, 19-billion-year-old (allegedly) Amy Carlson has passed away.

Love Has Won Amy Carlson
To think, her death would happen in our lifetime…

After an infamous appearance on Dr Phil in 2020, Love Has Won became nationally recognized.  

What did Love Has Won followers believe?

Followers of the cult believed Carlson had birthed all of creation and lived multiple lives as Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and Marilyn Monroe, amongst others. Members referred to her as Mother God.

Love Has Won ran daily streams on YouTube, sold vitamin supplements, and offered etheric surgery to remove “bad energy”. The bad energy, in this case, being your money.

The media have described Love Has Won followers as “programmed” and genuine believers of their unfounded health supplements. One of which is colloidal silver and may have played a part in Carlson’s death.  

Where is Love Has Won now?

Love Has Won leader, Amy Carlson’s body was found, on April 28th 2021. As part of a cult ritual, her remains had been wrapped in cloth and her eyes removed. Her followers claimed she had ascended and immediately disbanded, creating a new smaller cult called 5D Full Disclosure.

In reality, Amy had died from cancer, and multiple cult members are now under arrest for the physical abuse of a corpse, tampering with deceased human remains, and false imprisonment.

Look out for the Love has Won documentary (we all love one of those), that’s just been commissioned by HBO.

6. Heaven’s Gate Cult

Founded by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate cult ended in tragedy with the members committing mass suicide.

Nettles and Applewhite’s followers believed that when the time came, chosen humans would board a UFO that would teach them how to “ascend” to reach a higher state of being and they would become immortal, extra-terrestrial beings.

After Nettles died of cancer, this belief changed slightly to their soul ascending after death. How convenient.

Heaven's Gate, Nettles and Applewhite
Is that not a face you can trust…. ?!

Integration into Heaven’s Gate cult

Like most of the worst cults of all time, they preyed on the vulnerable. They encouraged followers to sell all their worldly possessions and tie themselves to the group. They taught they should live lifestyles completely free of worldly pleasure, and a lot of the men in the cult even castrated themselves to achieve this – including Applewhite.

In 1997, 22 years after the cult’s formation, 39 members of the cult were found dead of ritual mass suicide. They believed that in order to graduate to the next stage of their evolutionary journey, they needed to die on Earth to ascend and meet their true leaders.

The group updated their website just before the mass suicide:

‘Hale–Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate … our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.’

There are two Heaven’s Gate survivors who were chosen to remain on Earth and continue the administration of the cult and do so to this day.  

5. NXIVM Cult

NXIVM is at the tip of everyone’s tongue right now. The truth of the cult and its exploits are currently front-page news, as it attracted high-profile members like Smallville actress Allison Mack. On June 30th, 2021, for her involvement and leadership role, Mack was sentenced to three years in prison.

The cult of NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um) was the brainchild of manipulative Keith Raniere, who promised a path to happiness through self-improvement workshops.

Portrayed as an MLM (multi-level marketing scheme), Raniere used NXIVM to manipulate, blackmail, and trick people out of thousands.

Over 2021 more details about the NXIVM cult emerged, and it transpired it was a front for a darker secret cult named DOS; where women were branded and forced into sexual slavery.

A cult within a cult – like a worse version of Inception.

nxivm branding
Keith Raniere and Allison Mack branded their initials into their victims.

How did the NXIVM cult begin?

Thousands of people took part in NXIVM without experiencing its dark underbelly (aside from being cheated out of thousands for faux self-improvement workshops).

These workshops were intensive, running for 12 hours a day, 16 days straight, and were actually an expensive form of mind control aimed at psychologically breaking down the participants.

Keith Raniere promised his victims the key to contentment whilst using mind control, shame, and blackmail to keep members trapped. Those who may have wanted a way out found themselves in financial spirals, unable to escape.

As Raniere’s influence grew, he insisted on being known as Vanguard’ and the most indoctrinated members of the cult moved to his headquarters in rural Albany.

 DOS – the cult’s dark underbelly

DOS was portrayed as a secret woman’s mentorship group for the female followers of NXIVM. Instead, they found themselves part of the dark and twisted world of Keith Raniere; abused and forced into sexual slavery.

Forced to be available to Raniere at all times, they were branded like cattle with his and Allison Mack’s initials and forced to hand over explicit videos to ensure their compliance. It’s the addition of DOS that makes NXIVM undoubtedly one of the worst cults of all time.

Keith Raniere and NXIVM’s downfall

The media caught wind of the cult’s activities in 2017, and search warrants were issued shortly after in 2018. Despite Raniere protesting his innocence, he and several other cult leaders were convicted.  

In 2021, Allison Mack was sentenced to only 3 years in prison but Keith Rainere was slapped with a far more satisfying 120-year sentence, meaning he will definitely die in prison.

worst cults of all time nxivm
Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

4. Children of God/The Family International cult

 Children of God has been home to many famous cultists, including actors Rose McGowan and Joaquin and River Phoenix. The cult still exists but has been “abolished” multiple times and recreated under new names. It’s currently known as The Family International.

Church minister, David Berg established the Children of God cult in 1968. He claimed he had communicated with God and had been assigned as his prophet for the new world. To keep cult members under his control, Berg spoke of an inevitable doomsday event, encouraging them to avoid making long-term plans.

david berg children of god
Look at those ‘definitely not forced’ smiles!

Sexual abuse in The Family International

Children of God/The Family International cult has a dark history of sexual abuse and pedophilia. David Berg used the cult to encourage “free love” and established ‘Flirty Fishing’ in the 70s where the women of the cult were told to sleep with men to lure them into its folds.

But more disturbing, darker sexual perversions lay within the cult.

Reports emerged that the cult encouraged sexual activity with children and Berg was accused of abusing his own female offspring. As a result, Children of God was under scrutiny for much of the 70s for alleged child endangerment and abuse.

The cult publicly denounced any incidences of child sex abuse and writings that encouraged it; though former members tell a very different story.

Soon after Children of God was “abolished” and the cult sprung up anew under a different name.

The Family International cult still has over 2,500 members globally. Since Berg’s death in 1994 and a British court case in 1996/97 addressing past pedophilia, the cult has remained more under the radar.

3. Angel’s Landing Cult

Angel’s Landing was a cult in Wichita, Kansas led by Daniel Perez, under the pseudonym Lou Castro. The true purpose of the cult was to cover for Perez’s horrifying crimes including murder, rape, and child sexual abuse.

Before settling in Kansas, the cult moved from state to state as Daniel Perez fled his crimes. His followers were abused and over 10 years he murdered 6 of them in order to receive their life insurance pay-outs.

Daniel Perez had a long, troubled history with the law. Before settling in Kansas, he frequently moved from state to state, fleeing his crimes whilst gathering supporters.

Perez indiscriminately abused people, using their money and bodies for his own purposes. Over 10 years he murdered 6 of his followers to receive their life insurance pay-outs.

angels landing cult
Daniel Perez/Lou Castro

Angel’s Landing cult beliefs

Daniel Perez’s crimes finally caught up with him, and he was arrested and charged in 2010. During the trial, his victims testified that Daniel Perez/Lou Castro had told them he was a centuries-old seer who could tell if they would be inhabited by angels. He claimed he needed to have sex with young girls to stay alive. His victims were as young as 8.

The Downfall of Angel’s Landing Cult

Perez’s defense (if it could be called that) was, simply, ridiculous. “Seer” was just a nickname; he had severe memory loss because of an old head injury and didn’t know where his millions of dollars had come from; and most insultingly, a genital injury prevented him from having sex without consent. Because that’s how it works.

He was found guilty on all counts brought against him and received two life sentences, plus 406 months (33.8 years) on lesser charges, with no possibility of parole for 80 years.

2. Jeffrey Lundgren and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Jeffrey Lundgren ticks all the boxes for an insane cult leader.

His cult was born from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a more liberal, inclusive denomination of Mormonism) and until 1988 he worked as a senior Temple Guide, running his own bible study sessions.

Lundgren used his position at the church to appeal to the more conservative members of RDLS and embezzle funds from the temple; slowly building his influence and convincing those in attendance he was God’s last prophet. Over time, he built up a small base of followers loyal only to him.

Lundgren’s progression to doomsday cult leader

In 1987 Lundgren moved with 12 of his followers to farmland in Ohio. All but the Avery family moved into the compound he owned (more on them later).

Lundgren’s followers believed he could help them see Jesus by achieving a higher state of being called Zion. They called him “Dad” and signed over their life savings to him.

As leader, Lundgren established a doomsday cult mentality at the Ohio compound, filling sermons with stories of the “end of days”. He wore military fatigues to symbolize the oncoming war, and instructed all men at the compound to begin firearm training.

Attacking the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

The RDLS finally excommunicated Lundgren in 1988.

In response, Lundgren rallied his followers to take over the main Latter-Day Saints church – Kirtland Temple, claiming it would help them reach Zion.

The takeover ultimately never happened after a disaffected cult member went to the police. To his followers, however, Lundgren claimed a higher power had told him he needed to change his plan.

One year later, Lundgren instructed his followers to sell their worldly possessions and retreat into the wilderness in order to reach Zion. In reality, he was attempting to avoid the FBI, who had taken an interest in his little piece of heaven.

reorganized church of jesus christ of latter-day saints

 The Avery family

Jeffrey Lundgren had had issues with the Avery family ever since the move to Ohio. As the only ones who didn’t live on the compound, and kept a small stipend of their money for themselves, he claimed they were committing a great sin against him.

The Averys’ were oblivious to Lundgren’s feelings. They were devoutly loyal and planned to follow the cult into the wilderness when the time came.

Lundgren, however, was already planning their deaths. He blamed them for the failed takeover of Kirtland Temple and told the others that in order to reach Zion a blood sacrifice was required, and the Avery’s had been chosen for their “disloyalty”.

Debbie Kroesen, a former member of the Lundgren cult, recalled:

 “Jeff started teaching that a third of the world was made to live with Christ, a third of the world would have to fight for that, and a third of the world was made to be destroyed… I believe there were thirty of us at that time and so that meant that a third of our group would be destroyed.”

The Avery family murders

On April 17th 1989, Lundgren called all his cult members to dinner. Shortly after, he led the Avery’s one by one outside, starting with Dennis Avery.

They bound and blindfolded each member of the family before executing them with shots to the head and chest. First Dennis, then his wife Cheryl, and finally their 3 young daughters – 15-year-old Trina, 13-year-old Becky, and 7-year-old Karen.

They buried the family behind the barn in the compound.

 The end of Lundgren and the cult

After the Avery family’s executions, Lundgren’s fear of capture led him to flee to West Virginia with the remaining cult members. Months later and with no arrest forthcoming, Lundgren grew bored, abandoning his followers and moving to California.

The bodies of the Avery family were found in January, 1990 and Lundgren became a fugitive until he was found later that same year and arrested, along with his family and 13 other cult members. 

Jeffrey Lundgren was executed by lethal injection in 2006. His wife and son continue to serve multiple life sentences.

Jeffrey Lundgren's family. doomsday cult
The Lundgren family, Alice, left, Damon, their son, center, and Jeffrey, right.

1. Jonestown Cult

Like Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown is famous for its tragic end. With all 909 members dying in a mass suicide, it is unquestionably one of the worst cults of all time.

Jonestown cult leader, Jim Jones believed in a pure, communist society. He set up The Peoples Temple in 1957 as a response to anti-Marxist persecution and racial inequality in the US.  

Despite not being religious himself, Jones recognized the value of a church community in pushing his communist agenda.

By reading the works of Hitler and Stalin, Jim Jones learned how to manipulate and influence his ideals through The Peoples Temple sermons. 

Where is Jonestown located?

In the 70s, following accusations of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, Jones moved his 1000 loyalist members to the compound they christened Jonestown in Guyana, Africa.

Once there, children were taken to be raised communally and adults were expected to work 12-hour days with only 15 minutes of rest.

Across Jonestown, recorded readings praising communist leaders and ideals played on giant speakers, encouraging the feeling of constant surveillance.  

Fully in control of his own utopia, a dystopian nightmare emerged that was so shocking it inspired the popular horror game Outlast 2.

where is jonestown loated
Doesn’t this just scream ‘happy family home’?

The massacre

By 1978, amid rising reports of the crimes committed at Jonestown, including several members turning up dead, US Congressional candidate Leo Ryan committed to visiting the cult.

After visiting the cult and promising a positive report, Ryan took 11 defectors with him when he left. He was seemingly in the clear until tragedy struck at the airport.  

One defector was a spy, turning on the others once on the plane. Other cult members circled the aircraft, shooting until Ryan and his team members were dead or too injured to retreat.

On November 18th, 1978, Jim Jones called his cult to the town pavilion. It was there he told them of the fate of Ryan’s crew, saying they had no choice now but to commit what he called “revolutionary suicide”.  

It was a premeditated plan.

The Jonestown cult leader had been secretly receiving stocks of cyanide from abroad for the past two years and had instructed every follower to simulate mass suicide in what he named “White Night Rehearsals”.

As his Red Brigade of soldiers surrounded the pavilion, Jones commanded the members of the cult to give grape-flavored Kool-aid laced with cyanide to the children, before drinking the poison themselves. 304 of the 909 victims were children.

Unlike his followers, Jim Jones did not poison himself; instead, his body was found with a single bullet wound to the temple.

You can listen to the ‘Jonestown Death Tape’ on YouTube where the last remaining moments of the cult are recorded. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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