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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. 

Hundreds of bodies are strewn around the Jonestown Commune in Jonestown, Guyana where more than 900 members of the People's Temple committed suicide in November 1978. The Rev. Jim Jones urged his disciples to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Jones, who was among those who died, led the Peoples Temple, which ran a free clinic and a drug rehabilitation program. (AP Photo/file)

Hundreds of bodies are strewn around the Jonestown Commune in Jonestown, Guyana where more than 900 members of the People's Temple committed suicide in November 1978. The Rev. Jim Jones urged his disciples to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Jones, who was among those who died, led the Peoples Temple, which ran a free clinic and a drug rehabilitation program.

File/AP

The Peoples Temple (1955 – 1978)

When Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple in Indiana in 1955, it appealed to many as a progressive organization advocating for civil rights, and operating homes for the elderly and those with mental health issues. Like previous progressive groups, Jones’s goal was to create an egalitarian utopian community. In 1965, Jones moved his family and the Peoples Temple to the Redwood Valley in California, based on recommendations from an article in Esquire suggesting places to survive a nuclear war. In 1974, the Peoples Temple leased land in Guyana, where the group would flee media scrutiny in the United States and set up an agricultural commune. By 1978, the population of “Jonestown” in Guyana had grown to around 900, but a few disillusioned members tipped off the American media of the armed compound in South America and rehearsals of mass suicide. In November 1978 Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Jonestown where he, three journalists and one defector were shot and killed, before Jones ordered his followers to drink a cyanide-laced drink, resulting the loss of 909 lives.

Smoking fire consumes the Branch Davidian Compound during the FBI assault to end the 51-day standoff with cult leader David Koresh and his followers. --- Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis SABA (Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty Images)

Smoking fire consumes the Branch Davidian Compound during the FBI assault to end the 51-day standoff with cult leader David Koresh and his followers.

Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty

The Branch Davidians (1955 – 1993)

Although this extremist sect of the Seventh Day Adventists has been active since the 1950s, the Branch Davidians are best known for the 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas. David Koresh, the leader at the time, believed he was the Messiah and declared all women – including those underage or already married – his “spiritual wives.” The group believed the apocalypse was imminent and, fearing its arrival, locked themselves into a sprawling compound. On February 28th, 1993, agents from the Department of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco raided the Waco compound on the suspicion that Koresh was stockpiling weapons. What started as a shootout soon turned into a standoff between the Branch Davidians and the FBI. It lasted 51 days, and eventually ended when tanks were brought in: the compound was filled with tear gas and caught on fire, leaving more than 80 people dead.

Barbara Antmann standing resolutely outside of building belonging to eccentric pyschotherapy cult, the Sullivanians; her sister is a member of this cult which is dedicated to destroying ties to the nuclear family. (Photo by Marianne Barcellona/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Barbara Antmann, sister of a Sullivanian follower, in front of the sect's Upper-West-Side headquarters.

Marianne Barcellona/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Sullivanians (1957 – 1991)

Saul B. Newton founded The Sullivan Institute in 1957 with his wife, Dr. Jane Pearce, in an attempt to create a viable alternative to the traditional nuclear family, which he viewed as the root of all social anxiety. Located in three buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Sullivan Institute operated as both a therapy center and a polyamorous commune, despite the fact that Newton, the leader, had no formal training as a therapist. Unlike other practicing therapists who worked under a strict code of ethics, there were no such boundaries for the Sullivanians, as the members of the Institute were known, with therapists and other members of the community sleeping with each other regularly. In fact, they were forbidden from engaging in exclusive relationships. Any children born to Sullivanians were sent away to boarding school or caretakers with very little visitation from their parents. All members were encouraged to cut ties with their former friends and family members. In the 1970s, the group – which had around 500 membersmerged with a progressive theater collective call the Fourth Wall and relocated to Orlando in 1979 following the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. After seeing a decline in membership in the 1980s, the Sullivan Institute ended with the death of Newton in 1991.

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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