Warning: Graphic and disturbing content ahead including mentions of sexual abuse.
Led by Amy Carlson, aka "Mother God," the Love Has Won "new religious movement" was founded in 2006 and later described as a cult by ex-members and the media. Members of the group believed Carlson was a 19-billion-year-old being who had been reincarnated hundreds of times — including as Jesus, Joan of Arc, and Cleopatra. The group was eventually accused of physical abuse, brainwashing, and fraud, while Carlson herself died in April 2021. According to Rolling Stone, her cause of death was attributed to "alcohol abuse, anorexia, and chronic colloidal silver ingestion" and her body found mummified. HBO recently released a docuseries, Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God, which chronicles the group and Carlson's exploits.
Founded by David Berg, and currently led by Karen Zerby, The Family International is a "new religious movement" that's been around since the late 1960s and has gone through several name changes over the years. Past members include celebrities like River and Joaquin Phoenix (whose family were members of the cult in the '70s), and Rose McGowan. Berg had told his followers that "God was love and love was sex, so there should be no limits, regardless of age or relationship." Former members have since accused the cult of engaging in the physical and sexual abuse of children.
The most famous member of this cult was David Koresh. Koresh and his followers were part of the famous Waco siege at their compound near Waco, Texas — there was an intense gun battle with the ATF and the FBI ending in a huge fire that killed around 80 members, including children. The siege lasted 51 days.
The religious-based sect was created in the late 1970s or early 1980s by French founders Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro. They operated on the beliefs of the Knights Templar and eventually put down roots in Switzerland and Canada. In 1994, a 3-month-old baby was violently killed, along with his parents, because members of the cult thought he was the Antichrist. A few days later, several members took part in a series of mass murder-suicides in Switzerland.
Founded by Jim Jones in Indianapolis, Indiana, the cult is most known for the mass murder/suicide at Jonestown, aka the Jonestown Massacre, in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978. Over 900 people died by drinking cyanide-laced punch (inspiring the phrase, "drink the Kool-Aid"), many against their will. Jones himself died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The massacre was the largest loss of American civilian life in a single, non-natural event (until the September 11 attacks).
Founded by Elbert "Gene" Spriggs in 1972 in Tennessee, Twelve Tribes aspires to recreate the "original" Christian Church as described in the Book of Acts. However, much of the controversy surrounding the group stems from accusations of their treatment of children, which allegedly involves abuse and child labor practices.
Presenting itself as a multi-level marketing organization that "offers personal and professional development" seminars, NXIVM is generally believed to have been a front for a sex cult that was founded by convicted sex trafficker Keith Raniere. Some of the cult's members included heiresses, powerful CEOs, and even Hollywood actors like Allison Mack, Grace Park, and Kristin Kreuk among many others. HBO released a docuseries in 2020 called The Vow that delved into NXIVM's shady practices via former members.
Founded in the 1970s by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, Heaven's Gate is most known for the March 26, 1997 discovery by police of 39 members after a mass suicide in a San Diego mansion. They were found wearing Nike Decades shoes (which were discontinued as a result), identical black shirts and sweat pants, and their bodies covered by a square purple cloth. The discovery was highly televised at the time and dominated news headlines for weeks.
Started by Ervil LeBaron in the 1970s in Chihuahua, Mexico, the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God was a group originally part of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) movement. They had split from the Latter Day Saints and moved to Mexico in order to continue practicing polygamy. Ervil often fought with one of his brothers, Joel, and eventually orchestrated his murder. Over time, Ervil threatened many other polygamist leaders to pledge allegiance to the Church of the Lamb of God and was also responsible for dozens of deaths or "blood atonements," as he believed them to be.
Founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984, this is a Japanese doomsday cult that is still active today. The cult carried out a number of deadly sarin nerve gas attacks in Tokyo during the mid-'90s. The attack in 1995 killed 13 people and left more than 6,000 injured with some still experiencing after-effects over 20 years later.
11.Blackburn Cult, aka the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven
Founded in downtown Los Angeles by a mother-daughter duo, May Otis Blackburn and Ruth Wieland Rizzio, in 1922, the two believed they could communicate with angels and resurrect the dead. They had been accused of killing one member in an oven, poisoning another, and making many others disappear. The cult disbanded when May was arrested for grand theft.
At its peak, the group had 40 members, including children fathered by Thériault, their self-proclaimed prophet. He would punish members who strayed by making them break their own legs with sledgehammers, cut off the toes of other followers, and sit on lit stoves. He was later arrested, received a life sentence, and was killed in prison by a cellmate.
This Satanic cult targeted women in the Chicago area during the early 1980s. They are suspected of kidnapping, raping, mutilating, and murdering as many as 20 women. Thomas Kokoraleis, a member of the cult, said the group performed cannibalistic and sexual rituals and called the ring leader's place a satanic chapel. Thomas is set to be released from prison soon.
Popularized by the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, the Rajneeshees (followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) founded a commune called Rajneeshpuram in central Oregon during the '80s. They fought with locals for many years, and there was even an internal assassination attempt on their founder Bhagwan's personal doctor.
15.True Russian Orthodox Church, aka the Penza Recluses
This religious doomsday group rejected processed food and considered bar codes “satanic symbols.” In the late ‘00s, they lived in a cave, but slowly emerged over the course of 2008 as a result of the cave collapsing, possible suicide attempts, and toxic fumes from two dead cult members.
Led by yoga teacher and self-proclaimed "living god" Anne Hamilton-Byrne, this 500-member group set out to "build a perfect race through a collection of children." This included dyeing the kids' hair bleach-blonde and having them injected with LSD as part of an initiation. Many of the children in the cult were allegedly taken as newborns from hospitals.
This group was founded in the 1970s by Father Yod, who had previously been accused of murder twice. He and his commune resided in the Hollywood Hills and had 140 members. Aside from leading the commune, Yod also ran one of Los Angeles' most popular health food restaurants known as The Source. At the time of his death, he had 13 wives. Cabo Cantina on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood now stands where The Source restaurant used to be.
The group was formed after its two founders claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary. They followed the Ten Commandments to a T. In 2000, 330 members were killed after a fire broke out in one of their churches. Whether this was a mass suicide or murder is still unclear.
Led by Adolfo Constanzo, they would often team up with drug cartels and perform spells that would ensure the cartel's success and grant them protection. They began by sacrificing animals during their rituals, but then eventually moved on to human sacrifices. They are believed to have killed 15 people and run what one witness calls "a human slaughterhouse." Their most famous killing and mutilation is that of spring breaker Mark Kilroy in 1989.
A cult popular with women, the "Holy Rollers" was started in the early 1900s in Corvallis, Oregon, and believed their founder, Edmund Creffield, could receive messages from God and prepare them for the apocalypse. He used sleep and food deprivation to keep his followers in line with his beliefs. Creffield also tried to seduce women in order to find "the second mother of Christ." He was later killed by the brother of two of his followers.
21.Finally, the Manson Family
Famously led by Charles Manson, the Manson Family came to national attention after the murder of actress Sharon Tate in 1969. Manson himself was not there during the Tate murders, but he was the one who ordered them. Manson, who was serving nine life terms in a California prison, died of natural causes on Nov. 19. 2017.