The most terrifying cults in history
Cults have made headlines around the world for many years and continue to fascinate in documentaries and popular podcasts.
The stories behind these cults' origins, leaders and demises are riveting — and often disturbing.
Warning: Some images in this gallery are graphic in nature.
Love Has Won
On April 28, 2021, the mummified remains of Amy Carlson, the 45-year-old leader of the group Love Has Won, were found in a home in Moffat, Colorado.
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.
While police do not believe that there was any foul play associated with Carlson's death, seven members of the group were arrested and charged with abuse of a corpse and two counts of child abuse.
Police identified the arrested members as Ryan Kramer, Christopher Royer, Sarah Rudolph, Karin Raymond, Jason Castillo, John Robertson and Obdulia Franco. Kramer and Raymond were released from jail on personal recognizance bonds, with more hearings scheduled for later this month.
School of Prophets: From polygamy to death row
Ron Lafferty was convicted of murdering his brother's wife and her toddler in 1984. Lafferty, a member of a renegade polygamist cult called the "School of Prophets," killed the woman because of her opposition to plural marriage. Lafferty claimed he committed the killing after a revelation from God.
Lafferty was sent to Utah's death row; he died there in November 2019.
School of Prophets: Life sentence
Ron Lafferty's brother, Dan Lafferty, seen here in 2003, is serving a life sentence in connection to the murders.
NXIVM: The founder
NXIVM founder Keith Raniere was accused of running an abusive sex cult through his Albany-based seminar company.
He denied the charges after his March 2018 arrest, but a judge ordered him held without bail until trial.
NXIVM: The accusations
Before Raniere's arrest, in 2017, a New York Times exposé accused NXIVM of fronting a cult called "DOS" or "The Vow." The Times reported that female cult members were branded, used as sex slaves, punished by their "masters" and blackmailed.
Here, attorneys representing Raniere prepare to hold a news conference after he was arrested on sex trafficking charges in March 2018. He pleaded not guilty.
"Smallville" actress Allison Mack (seen here) was subsequently accused of recruiting "DOS" slaves by convincing women they were joining a female empowerment group that would help them overcome weaknesses.
Mack was arrested and indicted on federal charges, including sex trafficking. She initially pleaded not guilty.
NXIVM: A guilty plea
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.
NXIVM: The end?
Here, a courtroom sketch shows Raniere at a hearing in April 2018. The following March, Raniere faced new charges of exploiting a child and possessing child pornography.
He was found guilty on all counts on June 19, 2019. In October 2020, a judge sentenced him to 120 years in prison.
The fate of Allison Mack
TV actress Allison Mack (center) was sentenced on June 30, 2021, to three years for her role in the alleged cult.
She's seen here leaving the federal court in Brooklyn, New York, after sentencing.
Service in her future
Mack was also fined $20,000 and will have to do 1,000 hours of community service as part of her sentence, CBS New York reported.
At her sentencing, Mack expressed remorse.
"I made choices I will forever regret," she said, telling the judge she was filled with "remorse and guilt."
Rajneeshpuram: The mystic
Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh attracted followers by the thousands in the 1970s. 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.
Rajneeshpuram: The Oregon compound
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.
Rajneeshpuram: The collapse
Wasco residents were frustrated by the cult members, known as Rajneeshees, to begin with, but tensions rose when the Rajneeshees attempted to take over the government of the nearby town of Antelope.
The cult collapsed after authorities deported Rajneesh and convicted some of his staff, including secretary Ma Anand Sheela (seen here), of orchestrating a food-poisoning scheme against locals. No one was killed, but at least 700 people were poisoned in an effort to influence a local election.
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.
Angels' Landing: Daniel Perez
For 15 years, Daniel Perez — a self-described "seer" who claimed to be a 1,000-year-old angel — led a traveling group of mostly women from state to state. Perez told his followers that he needed to have sex with young girls to stay alive.
Over the years, Perez collected millions of dollars in life insurance policies from members who died.
The 2003 drowning death of 26-year-old Patricia Hughes at the group's compound outside of Wichita, Kansas, was originally ruled an accident. But when police received new witness testimony, they arrested Perez on suspicion of murder.
Prosecutors alleged that Perez forcibly drowned Hughes to collect a life insurance policy after her death.
He pleaded not guilty.
Angel's Landing: A conviction
Following his 2015 trial, Perez was convicted of 28 crimes, including first-degree murder, rape, aggravated assault, and sexual exploitation of a child, among others.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
Heaven's Gate cult: The leaders
In the early 1970s, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles renamed themselves Bo and Peep and took a road trip across the U.S., assembling a group they called "the crew."
For the next 20 years, the group lived in various camps in Southern California and took on new followers. The group believed that Earth was about to be wiped clean and the only chance to survive was to leave it.
Heaven's Gate: A turning point
Nettles died of liver cancer in 1985, but Applewhite (seen here) 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.
Heaven's Gate: Mass suicide
The group rented a mansion in Southern California, where members took phenobarbital mixed with applesauce and washed it down with vodka, then put plastic bags over their heads.
Applewhite plus 38 other people between the ages of 26 and 72 died in three groups over three days.
Heaven's Gate: 42 dead
Authorities found the corpses lying in bunk beds, covered by a purple cloths. 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.
The Manson Family: Charles Manson
The Manson Family was a commune and cult created by Charles Manson in California in the 1960s.
The Manson Family: Followers
Manson's followers were mostly young women. They believed that he was a reincarnation of Jesus, and he taught that a race war was coming.
Pictured from left, Charles Manson followers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten.
The Manson Family: A command to kill
Manson instructed followers to kill people because he believed the murders would provoke the race war.
The Manson Family: Multiple killings
In all, nine people were murdered in several separate attacks. Manson was convicted of nine counts of first-degree murder. He was imprisoned until his death in 2017. Other members of the cult are still in prison.
In this photo, the body of one of the victims, actress Sharon Tate, is taken from her house in California in 1969. She was eight months pregnant.
Children of God: The beginning
The Family International, also known as the Children of God, was founded in Huntington Beach, California, by David Brandt Berg in 1968.
Here, members sing before sitting down for lunch at their Los Angeles headquarters in February 1971.
Children of God: Recruiting with sex
By the 1970s, the group had communes around the country and outposts overseas. Berg encouraged female members to recruit new members through sex - a practice he called "flirty fishing."
Here, women prepare a communal meal in a Children of God mess hall in 1971.
Children of God: Allegations of abuse
Berg also encouraged sex with children. In one letter to members, he said, "God created boys and girls able to have children by about 12 years of age."
Several former members have alleged they were sexually assaulted and beaten as children.
Some people who were born into the group later killed themselves, including one of Berg's sons, who first killed his nanny.
Children of God: Famous faces
Actor Joaquin Phoenix was born into the Children of God. His parents, suspicious that the group was becoming something more insidious than a religious community, decided to separate from the group in 1977, when Joaquin was 3 years old.
They changed their surname from Bottom to Phoenix, signaling their new beginning, and moved from Venezuela to the United States.
This photo shows the Phoenix family in 1983. Joaquin, age 9, is at center.
Children of God: Rose McGowan's escape
Actress Rose McGowan was also born into Children of God. During her childhood, her family lived in Italy with other members of the group.
McGowan has said that when her father learned Berg was advocating for child-adult sexual relations, he packed up his three daughters and escaped to the U.S.
Children of God: Now
After Berg's death in 1984, the group tried to distance itself from his endorsement of pedophilia. Now they preach that they are in a war of good versus evil. It's unclear how many members the group still has.
The Peoples Temple: The founder
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.
The Peoples Temple: Jonestown
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.
The Peoples Temple: Mass suicide
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.
The Peoples Temple: Hundreds dead
Jones was later found dead. More than 900 people died at Jonestown.
Aum Shinrikyo cult: The leader
Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese doomsday cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984.
Aum Shinrikyo: Followers
The cult attracted young, elite university students and graduates who believed that the apocalypse was near and that they would be the only ones to survive.
Aum Shinrikyo: Sarin gas attack
In 1995, members carried out a sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, possibly in an attempt to bring about the apocalypse, and possibly to keep authorities from shutting down the group. Thirteen people died, and thousands were injured in the attack.
Thirteen members of the group received death sentences. The first seven, including leader Shoko Asahara, were hanged in early July 2018, and the remaining members were executed later that month.
Aum Shinrikyo: Today
The cult was never banned in Japan, and lives on in offshoots including Aleph and Hikari no Wa, which have an estimated 1,500 followers today.
Matamoros human sacrifice cult: Gruesome find
In 1989, authorities found 12 male bodies on a ranch in Mexico, near the U.S. border. They would later find three more.
Matamoros cult: Ritual human sacrifices
Five drug smugglers were arrested in connection with the murders.
They told police they thought the human sacrifices would protect their drug smuggling operations.
Matamoros human sacrifice cult: Leader revealed
When the suspects were asked who murdered an American victim, Mark Kilroy, they named Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, 26, the leader of the cult, and Sara Aldrete, a student at Texas Southmost College, known as "the witch."
Here, members of the cult stand by a table filled with satanic cult items.
Matamoros human sacrifice cult: The end
Constanzo and Aldrete fled to Mexico City with three cult followers. By the time police tracked him down, they found Constanzo and another follower both fatally shot.
Constanzo had instructed his follower to kill him to avoid arrest. Aldrete and the other follower were arrested on the spot.
Order of the Solar Temple: A leader's notes
The Order of the Solar Temple was formed in 1984 by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret. The cult, based on New Age spiritualism, drew followers in Switzerland, France, and Canada.
As the cult became more doomsday focused, it got more followers, who brought in more money.
But in the 1990s, authorities in Canada began investigating the group amid accusations of sexual misconduct, and people started to leave.
Order of the Solar Temple: Bodies found
In 1994, a man who spoke against the cult was killed in his home, along with his wife and baby.
Days later, two Solar Temple buildings in Switzerland went up in flames. Investigators found 48 bodies inside. Some were shot, some were found with bags over their heads and some had been injected with tranquilizers.
Joseph Di Mambro's gun was found during the investigation. He and his family were among the dead.
Order of the Solar Temple: Another deadly blaze
Then, in 1995, a Solar Temple building in the Swiss Alps was found burned down with 16 bodies inside.
Order of the Solar Temple: Still more deaths
Five more members died in a burned Quebec house in 1997. In all, 74 cult members and former cult members died.
Branch Davidians: Origins
The Branch Davidians originated in 1955 from a schism among the Shepherd's Rod/Davidians, which stemmed from Seventh-Day Adventist teachings.
Branch Davidians: The leader
David Koresh began leading the group in 1987, abandoning many of the original teachings and adopting the belief that the end of the world was near.
Branch Davidians: The compound
Koresh's followers took over the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, also known as Mount Carmel. Koresh kept "spiritual wives," some of whom were underage. The government also had eyes on the group because they believed Koresh was stockpiling weapons.
Branch Davidians: The blaze
In 1993, the ATF and Texas National Guard raided the Waco compound. The raid led to a shootout that left four agents dead, followed by a 51-day standoff with the FBI.
On April 19, federal agents launched tear gas to try to force people out. Soon after, the compound erupted in a massive blaze. Eighty-two people, including Koresh, died.
Russian doomsday cult: The leader
The Russian doomsday cult was founded by Pyotr Kuznetsov. The group broke off from the Russian Orthodox church.
Russian doomsday cult: The cave
In 2007, about 30 members of the group holed up in a cave in Russia's Penza region. They said they would commit suicide if authorities intervened.
Kuznetsov, who was not with them, had told them to wait there for the end of the world, which he thought was coming in 2008.
Russian doomsday cult: Emerging from the cave
After about six months, 14 members came out of the cave, and nine members came out later. Two cult members died in the cave.
Russian doomsday cult: A suicide attempt
Kuznetsov (pictured here with followers) reportedly attempted suicide when his doomsday prophecy didn't come true. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God: The founding
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a breakaway movement from the Roman Catholic Church founded in Uganda in the 1980s.
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God: Beliefs
The group believed that the apocalypse would occur on Dec. 31, 1999, and to avoid damnation, members had to follow the Ten Commandments very strictly.
Leaders even discouraged talking to avoid breaking the Ninth Commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
Sex and soap were also forbidden.
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God: The end
As 2000 approached, the group prepared for the end. When the apocalypse didn't come, leaders proposed a new date: March 17, 2000.
The leaders planned a big party at a secluded church. After guests arrived, the venue burst into flames. All 530 in attendance, including dozens of children, were killed. The windows and doors had been boarded up to bar escape.
Here, a soldier views the burned remains.
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God: Mass murder
After the fire, police found hundreds of other bodies in compounds across Uganda. Many victims had been poisoned. In all, 924 died.
Police initially suspected mass suicide but later determined that the deaths were the result of a mass murder.
Here, locals and relatives of the cult victims wait in a Ugandan church compound during a mass burial in 2000.