Cult. For you, the word may conjure up images of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but there’s a big difference between cult classics and classic cults. The former are fun, lovable, and infinitely re-playable pieces of nearly pop culture. The latter are scary, overzealous, and fanatic organizations that reap real harm on victims and their families.
Cults have existed for as long as people have been getting together and listening sincerely to the most charming guy in the room. In modern times, we’ve seen a resurgence of charismatic religious prophets guiding their flocks with drug-induced visions of apocalyptic futures. Race wars, judgment days, alien infiltration; all are fair game for tall tales that will get a large group of people to commit horrible acts like mass suicide or massacre. Let’s take a look at some of the most infamous destructive cults, where to find their headquarters, and what to do while you’re touring the abodes of those bat-guano crazy cult leaders.
People’s Temple (Jonestown)
Jim Jones’ prophecy of imminent nuclear holocaust and a subsequent socialist Eden on Earth prompted 918 people to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid at The People’s Temple Agricultural Project (Jonestown) in Guyana, in 1978. When Congressman Leo Ryan and several reporters headed down to Jonestown, responding to reports of missing family members and abuse, they found several People’s Temple followers willing to leave Jonestown, but even more of them ready to defend their secrets to the death. Ryan, three of the journalists, and one of the defectors were shot down. That evening, Jones gave his final orders to his congregation, leading to the single greatest loss of civilian American life in a non-natural disaster until 9/11. It was also the only time a congressman has been killed in the line of duty.
Getting into Jonestown today may prove difficult. It’s not exactly mapped out on Google Earth, and the thick jungle has probably overgrown the small airstrip that used to be there. However, Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, is billed as a great place for shoppers carrying American dollars because of a favorable exchange rate with the local currency. Thank your lucky stars that Jones’ prophecy of the fall of American capitalism hasn’t come true… yet.
Heaven’s Gate (Near San Diego)
Take a man recovering from a heart attack and near-death experience, combine with his easily swayed nurse, add a couple lines from the Book of Revelation, a pinch of apocalypse, sprinkle new age doctrine to taste, and add a a heapin’ helpin’ of science fiction, and you’ve got Heaven’s Gate. Defined as a “cybersect” because of their reliance on technology and the internet to spread the good word, Heaven’s Gate propounded a startlingly complete universe where the Earth was coming to an end. Leader Marshall Applewhite convinced 38 of his followers that the only way to preserve their souls was to commit suicide. And that’s what they did, over three days in 1997.
Make sure to don your Nike Windrunners and head to 18239 Paseo Victoria in Rancho Santa Fe California, near San Diego. The original Heaven’s Gate compound has been long bulldozed and rebuilt, but afterward, you could head over to Sea World. It’s only a 30-minute drive away.
Order of the Solar Temple (Zurich, Quebec)
A secret society based on the belief that the Knights Templar exist to this day, The Order of the Solar Temple (or, Ordre du Temple Solaire, in accordance with Canada’s laws on bilingual nomenclature), was responsible for the murder or suicide of dozens of men, women, and children around the world. The cult seems to have mixed an interesting variety of ideologies, combining elements of medieval chivalry, Freemason rituals, and a prophecy of the second coming of Jesus as a solar god-king.
There were Solar Temple lodges in Quebec, Switzerland, Australia, and Martinique, among others, but the headquarters were based in Zurich, and it’s where much of the cult’s bloodier activities took place, including bizarre rituals and the sacrifice of one of the members’ own infant son, believed by leaders to be the Anti-Christ come to foil the group’s plans.
Branch Davidians (Near Waco, Texas)
David Koresh’s followers residing at Mount Carmel Center, near Waco, Texas were Branch Davidians to begin with, although they later came to think of themselves as “Students of the Seven Seals” or “Koreshians.” Branch Davidians preach Adventism’s apocalypticism to the extreme, insisting that we are currently living in a time the Bible predicts to be the end of days, before the second coming of Christ.
76 people (including Koresh) died during the Waco Siege of 1993, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) tried to execute a search warrant at the Carmel Center compound. The Koreshians exchanged fire with ATF agents and held them out of the compound for 51 days before a fire in the building put an end to the standoff. It remains unclear to this day how the fire was started, whether it was the FBI, ATF, or the Davidians themselves. Today, you can drive 20 minutes from Waco to see the location of the massacre/suicide, although it’s most likely just farm land now.
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (Uganda)
778 people were killed when the leaders of this Ugandan movement realized that their prophecy of an apocalypse had failed to come true. Originally, the apocalypse was slated for January 1, 2000; when it didn’t happen, leaders immediately rescheduled the tardy end of days, pushing the deadline back to March 17. The followers were beginning to get restless. At a party to ring in the end of the world, an explosion and fire killed all 530 cult members in attendance, presumably because they were growing dubious of their leaders’ claims.
While you’re in Uganda – home to some of Africa’s richest concentrations of flora and fauna – you would be well advised to check out some of the country’s excellent national parks and reserves. Hopefully, it’ll help you understand that indeed, life does go on.
Aum Shinrikyo Gas Attack (Tokyo)
Shoko Asahara’s cult was responsible for carrying out the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo‘s subway system. Five coordinated attacks on several lines of the Tokyo metro killed 13 people, and severely injured 50. Now known as Aleph, Aum Shinrikyo targeted government offices in their attacks, hoping to hasten the coming of the apocalypse.
Image: MikeDockery/Wikimedia Commons
Despite these attacks, riding the Tokyo subway is an experience not to be missed by any savvy traveler to Japan. Take the Hibiya, Chiyoda, or Marunouchi lines to see where the attacks went down. After that, Tokyo’s notorious Gas Panic chain of clubs are necessary stops. The tongue-in-cheek name reflects the atmosphere of these laid-back, friendly bars, where all patrons must have a drink in hand at all times. The Hibiya line will take you to Roppongi, where you’ll find several Gas Panic locations.
Charles Manson Family (Los Angeles)
Heavily influenced by pop culture of the time, Manson preached his ideas about an impending apocalyptic race war to a group of mostly women that came to be known as The Manson Family. A classic example of the charismatic cult leader, Manson was successful in persuading several of his followers to commit murders on his behalf. In all, 27 people were murdered by the Manson Family in the late 1960s.
Image: Patrick – msigarmy.com/Flickr
Charles Manson traveled all around the West Coast of the United States while preaching his doctrine and building his following as a self-proclaimed guru. You can follow his progression from unknown ex-con panhandler on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, to spiritual leader in San Francisco‘s Haight-Ashbury district, to murderer in and around Los Angeles.
Children of God/Family International (Huntington Beach)
Starting in 1968 with a base of Christian ideologies and practices, David Berg created a group in Huntington Beach, CA that would evolve into one of the most notorious and despicable cults in America. Berg’s Children of God (later known as The Family of Love, The Family International, or just The Family) take a very liberal – and often disturbing – view on sex, allowing and even commanding adult-child sexual relationships and “flirty fishing”: female prostitution to help bring in converts and money.
The cult’s policies have resulted in the abuse of countless children, including Ricky Rodriguez, a second-generation member of the cult. Rodriguez, also known as “Davidito,” had been groomed by his mother and current leader of The Family International, Karen Zerby, to be a future leader of the cult. He grew disillusioned with the group’s practices, however, and defected. After leaving, he eventually sought revenge, killing one person and committing suicide after a fruitless search for his mother. The murder occurred in Tucson, AZ and the suicide in Blythe, CA.
The Church of the Lamb of God (Salt Lake City)
Followers of The Church of the Lamb of God, a polygamous sect in the Latter Day Saint movement, murdered at least 20 people over a 20-year period under the direction of fundamentalist Mormon patriarch Ervil LeBaron. The group of murderers, who were often LeBaron’s wives and children, mostly targeted rival polygamists and other fringe Mormons. Although LeBaron died in prison in 1981, his son Aaron led the cult through more killings in subsequent years, before being sentenced to 45 years in prison himself.
Image: Kenneth Hynek/Flickr
Head to Salt Lake City to see everyday Mormons (the non-homicidal variety), and take in the impressive Temple Square, world headquarters for the Church of Latter Day Saints. Twice a year, the square hosts the church’s General Conference, and the world-famous Tabernacle Choir broadcasts weekly programming from there.