From a deadly train attack to drinking blood: Inside a truly bizarre cult

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You shouldn’t have a favourite cult.

Cults are extremely bad and damaging, and no good at all can possibly come from joining one.

As an obsessive cult researcher, though, I’m often asked what my favourite cult is. “How dare you!” I reply. “You shouldn’t have a favourite cult!”.

That said, Aum Shinrikyo is my favourite cult.

Aum Shinrikyo is not my favourite cult because of the bad things its members have done, and its members have done some extremely bad things.

It’s my favourite because it’s the weirdest. 

This strange group is the subject of the ninth episode of the Yahoo News Australia's Cults Unpacked series.

This undated file photo shows leader of Aum Supreme Truth cult Shoko Asahara at an unknown location. Source: EPA via AAP
Leader Shoko Asahara headed up this strange cult. Source: EPA via AAP

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first, though, before getting onto the weird stuff.

On a very bad day in March 1995, 13 people died and thousands more suffered illness and injury in Tokyo because members of Aum Shinrikyo poisoned them on a train. 

Five devotees of Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara had travelled on the Tokyo subway system that morning, each carrying newspaper-wrapped plastic packages full of lethal sarin gas and an umbrella with a sharpened point. 

At a pre-agreed time, all five cult members dropped the packages onto the floor of the trains they were on, stabbed into them with their pointy umbrellas, releasing the gas, and then promptly skedaddled.

Some of the world’s cults and their leaders have had a bizarre obsession with kickstarting the end of the world, and Shoko Asahara was no exception.

He had sent his minions out into the Tokyo subway system that morning to kill and damage for two reasons. 

The first was to distract authorities from investigating him for some other trouble he’d caused here and there – torturing and killing followers, trying to poison court judges who ruled against the cult in a real estate case, yada yada yada. 

Subway passengers affected by sarin nerve gas in the central Tokyo subway trains are carried into St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo. Source: AP via AAP
The horrifying aftermath of the sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Source: AP via AAP

The second was because Shoko wanted the world to end in a gigantic nuclear war between Japan and America, figuring that the US would somehow be blamed for the subway Sarin attack, tensions would rise, and KABOOM. 

Shoko was completely fixated on Dr Evil-levels of destruction. Shoko was, it’s fair to say, an insane person.

Because of this obsession with annihilating others, Shoko mostly recruited super-smart engineers, technicians, and scientists who were sick of the stereotypically Japanese slog of the daily grind and wanted to mix things up a bit. 

He even brought some of his army of nerds to Australia at one point for a definitely-not-holiday. 

Wanting to test the Sarin gas that his cult members were learning to produce without being spied on, he bought a remote sheep and cattle station in Western Australia, flew out some of his flunkies, and gassed some sheep. He gassed. Some sheep. 

Those were our future Aussie lamb cutlets, you violent bastard.

Okay. So the weird stuff. There’s SO much weird stuff, so we need a list of highlights.

A woman walks on a street while watching TV news reporting executions of six members of Aum Shinrikyo. Source: AP via AAP
TV news reports the executions of six members of Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo in 2018. Source: AP via AAP

Cult leader uses cartoons to recruit members

Shoko recruited followers using methods that would appeal to the Japanese nerds he wanted to attract. 

One of these methods was making manga-style animations featuring Shoko in the lotus position, flying over the city skyline. 

Originally Shoko distributed leaflets featuring a photo of himself levitating in lotus position — a photo that looked very much to the critical eye like he was just jumping a couple of centimetres off the floor in lotus position — but animation made it much, much easier to levitate.

Homemade LSD used in initiations

New Aum Shinrikyo recruits were required to undergo a range of initiation ceremonies, pretty much all of which included liberal doses of LSD, which the cult made themselves. 

There was the ‘Christ Initiation’, where recruits would take LSD and sit in an isolated individual meditation cell for 12 hours, tripping balls. 

This combination of undated file photos shows 13 members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult hanged in July 2018 for crimes committed in the 1990s, culminating in sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people and sickened thousands. Source: Kyodo News via AP
Thirteen members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult who were hanged in July 2018 for crimes committed in the 1990s. Source: Kyodo News via AP

The ‘Kundalini’ process, where aspirants had to demonstrate that they could lower their heart rate, brain activity and oxygen levels (while on LSD). 

And the ‘Perfect Salvation’ initiation, where newbies were required to erase their previous thought patterns and replace them with those of Shoko, their guru (while on LSD). How did they do that, you ask?

Erasing thoughts with the hat of happiness

To erase their thoughts and replace them with Shoko’s, Aum Shinrikyo members could rent — for $700 a month — a ‘Hat of Happiness’. 

This was an unwieldy helmet covered in electrodes which Shoko himself would wear while thinking really hard about stuff. 

The idea was that if you wore one, you could absorb your messiah’s thoughts. For a bargain.

In this March 20, 1995, file photo, subway passengers affected by sarin nerve gas are treated near Tsukiji subway station, right, in Tokyo. Source: AP via AAP
In this March 20, 1995, file photo, subway passengers affected by sarin nerve gas are treated near Tsukiji subway station, right, in Tokyo. Source: AP via AAP

Shoko's bath water and blood sold to followers

For lots and lots of money, cult members could quite literally absorb more than just their leader’s thoughts. 

Like an evangelical eBay, there were numerous products available to Shoko’s devoted followers. 

For $300 an ounce, they could buy ‘Miracle Pond’, a container filled with Shoko’s used yet blessed and holy bathwater, which they were encouraged to either drink straight or cook with. 

Alternatively a cool $8,000 could buy you a vial of Shoko’s blood to drink, nummy num num. The more budget-minded could order clippings of Shoko’s hair to brew into a nice steaming cup of Messiah tea.

Arrest uncovers collection of pubic hair

While we’re talking about hair, one of my favourite cult facts of all time comes from Shoko Asahara’s arrest in May 1995. 

Despite Shoko releasing some videos proclaiming — in song, bizarrely — his innocence, Japanese authorities were not convinced. 

After finding sarin-making equipment in the Aum Shinrikyo compound, the jig was up and Shoko was dragged away.

Impressively, while police were searching his secret underground quarters, they found millions of yen hiding with him. 

Perhaps even more impressively, they also discovered just under forty individually labelled glass vials, each with a single pubic hair inside. 

In contravention of the cult’s own no-sex rule, Shoko had been diddling select members of his cult and deftly plucking a curly souvenir afterwards. 

Shoko Asahara was a violent, destructive, terrible human, but you have to be slightly impressed by the fact that he maintained his own personal pube museum.

In case it needs saying, don’t join a group that makes you pay money for the privilege of drinking bath water. Don’t join a group whose leader claims they’re a guru or messiah. Don’t join a group that wants to poison people on a train. Don’t join a cult.

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