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American Cult: 5 Spiritual Groups That Went Too Far

From the Heaven’s Gate tragedy to a sect that allegedly encouraged sex between kids and adults, a look into some utopian communities gone wrong

Cults are having a cultural moment. Between the success of Hulu’s The Path, the upcoming Waco miniseries and recent allegations that R&B singer R. Kelly has been operating a sex cult – which he has denied – we can’t turn away from all the gory, manipulative details. But perhaps the best example of the pervasiveness of cults in pop culture came last week with the premiere of American Horror Story: Cult in which we can expect to see versions of cult leaders like David Koresh and Jim Jones – all portrayed by Evan Peters. 

Our fascination with cults – real or fictional – may stem from the fine line between being drawn to what appears to be a utopian community and a dangerous, free-will-stripping group. Here, five examples of American cults that have exerted undue influence on members – sometimes with fatal results. 

Members of the peace haven of the Children of God movement at Bromley in Kent take part in communal worship. The movement claims over 170 communes in the USA and Europe. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Members of the peace haven of the Children of God movement at Bromley in Kent take part in communal worship. The movement claims over 170 communes in the USA and Europe.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty

Children of God – Family International (1968 – Present)

David “Moses” Berg founded this communist Christian offshoot in California in 1968. For someone so concerned with moral decay and evolution, Berg had a very sex-centric perspective on how to spread the views of Jesus, including reported recruitment through “flirty fishing” (i.e. using young women to lure in new members by having sex with them) and apparently opposing anti-pedophilia laws – according to some former members, having sex with children was not only permitted, but also a divine right. Berg was a master of propaganda, writing, publishing and distributing pamphlets discussing his teachings. The group changed its name several times – most recently to “Family International” in 2004 – and still exists today, operating in 80 countries, although no longer permits sex between adults and children. Actors Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were born into the cult and have since left and spoken out against the group. 

FILE--A group of former Heaven's Gate members has planned a public showing of a 70-minute tape in Berkeley, Calif., featuring the cult's late leader, Marshall Applewhite, shown in this March 28, 1997 file photo. ``We've been feeling like we're not doing a good enough job of making our information available to people,'' said Chuck Humphrey, a spokesman for the group calling itself the Away Team. Humphrey gained notoriety when he and another man downed a mix of alcohol, phenobarbital and applesauce in May with hopes of joining 39 Heaven's Gate members who committed suicide near San Diego in March. Wayne Cooke died, but Humphrey was found in a hotel near San Diego unconscious with a plastic bag pulled off his face. He was revived. (AP Photo/File)

A group of former Heaven's Gate members has planned a public showing of a 70-minute tape in Berkeley, Calif., featuring the cult's late leader, Marshall Applewhite, shown in this March 28, 1997 file photo. ``We've been feeling like we're not doing a good enough job of making our information available to people,'' said Chuck Humphrey, a spokesman for the group calling itself the Away Team. Humphrey gained notoriety when he and another man downed a mix of alcohol, phenobarbital and applesauce in May with hopes of joining 39 Heaven's Gate members who committed suicide near San Diego in March. Wayne Cooke died, but Humphrey was found in a hotel near San Diego unconscious with a plastic bag pulled off his face. He was revived.

File/AP

Heaven’s Gate (1972 – 1997)

Heaven’s Gate – founded in San Diego in 1972 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles – was based on the premise that aliens would escort members of the group to the “Kingdom of Heaven” via extraterrestrial spacecraft. They first made headlines in 1975, when they convinced 20 new followers to give up their earthly possessions, leave their families and disappear. On the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite reporting that “it’s a mystery whether they’ve been taken on a so-called trip to eternity – or simply taken.” (They turned out to be living underground, camping everywhere from Rhode Island to Oklahoma.) But Heaven’s Gate is best known for a much more tragic event two decades later. In March 1997, the group carefully planned and then executed a mass suicide, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, which members thought would conceal the alien spacecraft on its way to earth. Clad in black tunics and Nikes, 39 Heaven’s Gate members ate applesauce mixed chased a sedative with vodka, covered their heads in plastic bags and died. Nine of the 18 men – including Applewhite – had been surgically castrated, as the group mandated celibacy. An upbeat videotaped message made the members prior to the suicide indicated that they were willing – even happy – to die and move to the “next level.”

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