Four of the most infamous cults of all time

From Charles Manson to David Koresh, these sects had a charismatic leader in common — along with strict controls on members' freedom

15 November 2020 - 00:00
By Andrea Nagel, , rea nagel AND Andrea Nagel
Cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (far right) and his disciples in Pune, India, in 1977.
Image: Redheylin (talk) (Uploads)/CC0 via Wikimedia Commons Cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (far right) and his disciples in Pune, India, in 1977.

There's a fine line between being drawn into what appears to be a utopian community and falling for a manipulative mind controller.

Most cults, sometimes referred to as new religious movements or NRMs, have the same characteristics: strict demands on members' lifestyles such as giving up possessions, professions and contact with family to live in a commune.

These are four of the most notorious cults of our time:


Leader: Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Philosophy in a nutshell: Embracing of worldly pleasures. Rajneesh owned 93 Rolls Royces and promoted sexual indulgence.

Location: Originally in Pune, India, then Oregon, US.

Second-in-command: Ma Anand Sheela, an Indian woman who spoke for Rajneesh and organised daily operations.

Notorious behaviour: Orchestrated the first bioterrorist attack in US history by poisoning restaurant food in the town of Dalles.

How it ended: In 1985 Rajneesh was deported from the US for immigration fraud.

Documentary: Wild Wild Country on Netflix.


Leader: Charles Manson.

Philosophy in a nutshell: Predicted a violent race war; fed his young acolytes LSD, and had sex with them.

Location: Los Angeles, US.

Charles Manson.
Image: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Getty Images Charles Manson.

Notorious behaviour: In August 1968, Manson Family members killed several people in a LA house, including actress Sharon Tate (the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski) and coffee-heiress Abigail Folger. The next night, hey murdered two more people. In both cases, the killers repeatedly stabbed their victims and wrote messages on the walls with their blood.

How it ended: Manson and his cohorts were sentenced to death, but got life in prison after California banned the death penalty.

Documentary: There are many but perhaps the most popular is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a fictional film starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio that references the cult.


Leader: David Koresh.

Philosophy in a nutshell: A religious sect that pushed its leader's New Light doctrine declaring that all women were Koresh's spiritual wives, even underage girls and women who were already married. He also preached that the apocalypse was imminent.

David Koresh.
Image: McLennan County Sheriff's Office/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons David Koresh.

Location: Texas, US.

Notorious behaviour: Amassed a vast arsenal of firearms and faced suspicion of child abuse.

How it ended: Based on weapons charges, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) raided Mt Carmel in February 1993. After a shoot-out and stand-off lasting 51 days, the ATF battered down the walls of the centre and fired tear gas. A fire broke out, killing more than 80 members, including around 20 children and Koresh himself.

Documentary: Waco on Netflix.


Leader: Jim Jones.

Philosophy in a nutshell: Influenced by liberation theology and socialist beliefs, Jones preached integration and racial equality.

Location: "Jonestown" in Guyana, South America.

Jim Jones and his wife (left), surrounded by their adopted children. Jones is seated next to his sister-in-law (right) and her three children.
Image: Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co/Getty Images Jim Jones and his wife (left), surrounded by their adopted children. Jones is seated next to his sister-in-law (right) and her three children.

Notorious behaviour: Was reported to operate on "a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation".

How it ended: US Congressman Leo Ryan flew to visit Jonestown to learn more about the cult. On November 18 1978, as he was about to leave, Jones's men killed him and others. The same day, Jones convinced his congregation to kill themselves. More than 900 people died, including 276 children.

Documentary: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.