13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History

Yvonne Villasenor explores the creepies REAL cults throughout history!

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Earlier this month, DREAD released Sacrifice, its second horror movie of 2021! The film stars horror icon Barbara Crampton as the leader of a sinister cult that worships a sea-dwelling deity.

Synopsis:
New Yorker Isaac and his pregnant wife return to a remote Norwegian village of his birth to claim an unexpected inheritance. Here they find themselves caught in a nightmare as an ancient evil awakens to claim a birthright of its own.

Inspired by the Paul Kane short story “Men of The Cloth”, Sacrifice is written and directed by Andy Collier and Tor Mian, and stars horror icon Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond, You’re Next), Dag Sorlie, Erik Lundin, Jack Kristiansen, Johanna Adde Dahl, Ludovic Hughes, Lukas Loughran, and Sophie Stevens. The film follows an American couple visiting a remote Norwegian Island who is drawn into a sinister cult that worships a sea-dwelling deity. 

Sacrifice was released on VOD back on February 9th. Now, the film is available to own on Blu-ray!

To further celebrate Sacrifice’s release, we thought we’d dive into some of the creepiest cults throughout history featuring 13 megalomaniacs, heinous crimes and devastating tragedies. 

Please note: Some of the material contains disturbing details of abuse.



1. Peoples Temple

Peoples Temple - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1955 – 1978
  • Location: Indianapolis, San Francisco & Guyana
  • Recruited: Middle class progressives, civil rights activists
  • Peak following: 5,000+
  • Targeted: Members 
  • Death toll: 918
  • Creepy fact: Some of Jones’ followers, including children, were forced to confess to made-up crimes and were beaten.

Reverend Jim Jones started his own congregation known as the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ. He proclaimed to have a vision of a nuclear attack and when it would occur, causing him to move his church from Indianapolis to San Francisco. There, Jones’ ideologies of social activism were welcomed. His church became popular, attracting people of all kinds, evening gaining the support of politicians like George Moscone, Harvey Milk and Jerry Brown. 

However, what many didn’t know was that Jones was said to have been using heroin and speed and sexually, physically and emotionally abusing Temple members. This kind of media coverage prompted Jones to convince about a thousand of his followers to move away to Guyana, A.K.A. Jonestown. He talked Jonestown up to be a utopia, but this was simply a tactic to isolate followers and gain complete control. 

Jonestown became a prison camp. Followers were publicly beaten, put in solitary confinement and even put down with sedatives. On November 18, 1978, Jones was upset when he heard some members wanted to return to the states with California Congressman Leo Ryan. As Ryan was on his plane waiting to fly back to the states, he was killed as an order by Jones. 

Later that day, Jones ordered everyone to the pavilion. He urged everyone to participate in a revolutionary suicide by drinking grape Flavor Aid mixed with cynanide, transquilizers and sedatives. People were pressured into drinking it in fear of being shot. Those who didn’t want to drink it were forcibly injected with poison. Jones was found with what was believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his head following the mass-murder suicide. 

The Jonestown massacre is known as one of the largest mass deaths in American history with a total of over 900 deaths. 

2. Synanon

Synanon - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1958 – 1991
  • Location: Santa Monica
  • Recruited: Addicts (drugs/alcohol), families
  • Peak following: 1,300
  • Targeted: Former members, media organizations
  • Death toll: 0
  • Creepy fact: Charles Dederich claimed children were “a bad investment” and forced men to have vasectomies and pregnant women to have abortions to lower the compound’s energy expenses.

Charles Dederich opened the infamous Synanon location in 1958. There were three phases to Synanon over the course of its lifespan: a drug rehabilitation program, utopian society and church. Synanon was characterized by quitting cold turkey, tough love and “The Game,” a session where one member would open up about themselves and face verbal attacks from others.

Synanon eventually gained overwhelming support. Hundreds of people moved in and were charged a fee to live in the compound. People of all professions worked to give their money to Synanon, often doing a tremendous amount of physical labor. Synanon, at one point, had $33 million in assets.

Dederich’s hunger for power grew, and the rules of Synanon became stricter and the abuse became more rampant. Dederich compiled an enemies list, which ultimately, became a hit list. On it included lawyer Paul Morantz who wanted to help free families kept in Synanon and had won a $300,000 judgment against Synanon for abducting and brainwashing a member. 

This enraged Dederich to the point that he ordered two of his Imperial Marines to place a venomous rattlesnake in Morantz’ mailbox the following month. Morantz was bitten and barely survived. 

Police raided Synanon, and a drunk Dederich was arrested in his Lake Havasu home on December 2, 1978. He was sentenced to five years’ supervised probation, fined $5,000 and ordered to no longer run Synanon. Synanon shut down forever due to violence and tax fraud in 1991. Dederich died on February 28, 1997. 

3. The Family

The Family 1024x580 - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1963 – 1987
  • Location: Australia
  • Recruited: Wealthy moms, middle class professionals
  • Peak following: 500
  • Targeted: Children
  • Death toll: Unknown
  • Creepy fact: Anne Hamilton-Byrne went as far as to bleach children’s hair to lead them to believe she was their biological mother.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher by trade, referred to herself as the “reincarnation of Jesus Christ.” She and Raynor Johnson, a Melbourne University academic, started what was initially known as “the Great White Brotherhood.” Hamilton-Byrne adopted 28 children by receiving the kids as gifts from members as well as falsifying papers to convince others to give their children up for adoption. She planned to create a master race that would survive the apocalypse and rule the world.

Hamilton-Byrne claimed to be all 28 children’s biological mother. Other adults in the group were known as either “aunties” or “uncles.” The kids were severely punished for not behaving up to their standards. They were beaten, starved, given LSD, forced to do yoga and locked in their rooms to “work on themselves.” Hamilton-Byrne told the kids she was Jesus Christ, and members truly thought she was.

Local officials investigated the property in 1983 in an attempt to find a missing girl. When asked if any children were on the property, she denied there were any there at all. The children were told to hide when there were any visitors. If they did not hide, they were threatened to be beaten, tortured and killed. This is how the cult went undetected for years.

However, the psychological problems the children faced as a result of their abusive environment led to some getting kicked out and others escaping as they grew older. When they became free from The Family’s shackles, they went to the authorities to tell them of the horrors at the house. Police raided the Lake Eildon property and removed the children from the area in 1987.

Authorities discovered Hamilton-Byrne had collected 10% of her followers’ incomes to become incredibly wealthy. She also encouraged followers to commit fraud, forgeries, spousal swaps and scam adoptions to bring more children to the Lake Eildon property.

Hamilton-Byrne fled to New York and was extradited. She was only charged with falsifying three birth certificates. She continuously denied and lied about her wrongdoings and never apologized. On June 13, 2019, Hamilton-Byrne died from dementia at 98 years old.

4. The Manson Family

The Manson Family - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1967 – 1969
  • Location: Los Angeles
  • Recruited: Young women and men who were anti-establishment
  • Peak following: About 100
  • Targeted: those they felt crossed by, those whose deaths could ignite a race war; Terry Melcher and those close to Melcher
  • Death toll: 9 (convicted), likely more
  • Creepy fact: The Manson Girls showed their devotion to Manson during their trial by singing, carving X’s in their foreheads and shaving their heads, just as he did.

Following his prison release, long-time criminal Charles Manson decided he would leave for San Francisco to form the “Manson Family.” The so-called family’s ideologies consisted of psychedelic drugs, free love and mind control. Manson fit in well with the hippie scene in the city and fed women LSD, asking them to join him.

He and his five female followers traveled to Los Angeles, eventually settling in an abandoned film set in Chatsworth as well as a second home in Death Valley. Manson predicted an armageddon and told his followers they should stay with him to survive. Upon listening to The Beatles’ White Album, Manson felt as though the band was speaking directly to him and warning him of a race war, “Helter Skelter.”

Manson saw himself as a messiah. His following grew as he drugged and sexually violated female followers. He also sexually exploited them to recruit male followers. Manson manipulated young female followers by discouraging them from free thinking and threatening violence if they did not comply. Once they were under his spell, he convinced them to commit “witchy” crimes for him as acts of devotion.

On August 9, 1969, an 8-month pregnant Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojceich Frykowski and Steven Parent were brutally murdered by Manson Family members. The members used Tate’s blood to write “pig” on the front door.

The following night, grocery store owners Leno and Rosemary LaBiana were tied up by Manson and stabbed. The couple’s blood was used to write “helter skelter” and “rise” on the walls and refrigerator. The word “war” was carved into the man’s chest.

In 1971, Manson was convicted of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison and died on November 19, 2017. Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkle were also convicted; Van Houten is the last surviving and remains in prison.

5. The Children of God

Children of God - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1968 – Present
  • Location: Huntington Beach, eventually worldwide
  • Recruited: Young Christian men and women
  • Peak following: 150,000+ internationally
  • Targeted: Children
  • Death toll: 31
  • Creepy fact: David Berg believed God was love, and love was sex no matter what age and used this as a means to have sex with minors.

The Children of God was started by former pastor David Berg under the initial name of “Teens for Christ.” Upon the group’s formation, Berg preached about the rise of an Antichrist and only Jesus could save. He and his hundred followers had two main bases in California and Texas where they lived together in in the first year, where there were strict routines and rules, including no premarital sex. No one could leave the commune without permission.

Berg began having an affair with his personal secretary, Karen Zerby. When the two married, the group radically changed. Berg, who preferred to go by “Moses David” or simply “Mo”, started spreading the idea of free love. This was the catalyst to an immeasurable amount of sexual and physical abuse among adults and children. Members were subjected to pedophilia, adultery and incest, including Zerby’s son, Ricky Rodriguez.

Young women, both single and married, were encouraged to sleep with men and bring them back to the sect. They were told they would be doing so in the name of God. This became known as “flirty fishing.” It is estimated that flirty fishing brought in 220,000 converts. 

When more attention was brought to what was going on in the Children of God in 1986, Berg banned adult/minor sex and ended flirty fishing. He died in November 1994, and Zerby took over as leader following his death. The Children of God, now known as “The Family International,” is still active today.

6. Heaven’s Gate

Heavens Gate 1024x576 - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1974 – 1997
  • Location: San Diego
  • Recruited: Men and women unsatisfied with their life on Earth
  • Peak following: About 200
  • Targeted: N/A
  • Death toll: 39
  • Creepy fact: Marshall Applewhite enforced tight regulations to remain “in craft,” such as castration.

Heaven’s Gate founders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles immediately clicked upon meeting in a psychiatric institution. Their connection led them to believe they were aliens who took on human bodies as camouflage and were sent to teach people about the afterlife in outer space called “the Next Level.” The two went by “Bo” and “Peep” and spent months on the road looking to bring new followers into their group. 

Applewhite and Nettles convinced followers to move away from their families and get rid of their belongings to Colorado so they could get picked up and taken to the so-called “kingdom of heaven.” When it didn’t happen, members became disappointed and the cult lost its following Applewhite and Nettles had worked so hard to build. Nettles died from liver cancer in 1985, but Applewhite carried on with Heaven’s Gate and revised the cult’s philosophies following her death. He claimed members would acquire a new body in the Next Level.

Applewhite used the internet to acquire more followers through their Higher Source website and even ads in the newspaper. He said there would be a cosmic sign of when members would know when it was time to leave their bodily “containers” (i.e. kill themselves) and travel to the Next Level. Their website featured videos on how to “exit their vehicles” and transcend into returning to their world.

Heaven’s Gate rented a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe to live in until they saw the Hale-Bopp comet, the marker they had been waiting for, to “graduate” from the Human Evolutionary Level. Applewhite and 38 of his followers participated in a mass suicide on March 26, 1997. They were found all with: buzzed haircuts, a $5 bill and three quarters in their pockets, wearing black uniforms with Nike Decades and arm bands patches that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” The Heaven’s Gate website remains up on the internet.

7. The Ant Hill Kids

The Ant Hill Kids 1024x576 - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1977 – 1985
  • Location: Canada
  • Recruited: Young women
  • Peak following: 12 adults, 26 children
  • Targeted: Followers
  • Death toll: 2
  • Creepy fact: Roch Thériault’s fascination with anatomy motivated him to drunkenly conduct surgeries on his followers.

Roch Thériault belonged to Seventh-Day Adventist Church, living a life with no tobacco, unhealthy foods, drugs or alcohol. He preached that the world would end on February 17, 1979 and formed The Ant Hill Kids. He gained a small but loyal following through his charisma and looks. While hiking, Thériault — who went by “Moses” — claimed to have received a message from God, prompting him to start a healthy living clinic in Quebec so they could all be saved. He moved his followers to tents on a hill and made them build a town. Thériault thought they worked together like ants, coining the cult name, “The Ant Hill Kids.” He married his followers to each other to eventually void them and later began having sex with his followers.

Thériault became a violent alcoholic and tortured his followers through drunken surgical operations and cut off their limbs to prove he could heal them. He also forced members to break their legs with sledgehammers, shoot one another’s shoulders and eat their own feces. Thériault was convicted of criminal negligence and spent two years in prison after causing the death of a 2-year-old with a failed circumcision attempt. Once he was released, he moved his followers to a different forest.

Thériault continued to abuse his followers, including their children and even his own. In 1985, one of Thériault’s wives left their newborn son out in a blizzard, where he froze to death, to keep him away from the cult leader’s abuse. The police investigated the group and the remaining children were taken away. 

Follower and wife, Solange Boilard, was killed after yet another failed operation from Thériault. Boilard complained of stomach pains and as a form of “treatment,” had an olive oil and molasses enema and part of her intestines removed. Another of Thériault’s wives, Gabrielle Lavallée, experienced severe abuse; she had lost several limbs, had her head smashed in with an axe and was nearly killed until she fled and contacted the police. Thériault was arrested six weeks later and issued a life sentence in prison. This was the end of the Ant Hill Kids.

Thériault was sentenced to life in prison. He was murdered by another inmate on February 26, 2011 at 63 years old. The inmate said he killed Thériault because he didn’t like the crimes he committed against children and women.

8. Order of the Solar Temple

The Order of the Solar Temple Cult - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1984 – Present
  • Location: France, Switzerland & Canada
  • Recruited: Wealthy, accomplished men and women
  • Peak following: 1,000+
  • Targeted: Antonio & Nicky Dutoit and their baby who was believed to be the Antichrist
  • Death toll: 77 
  • Creepy fact: Luc Jouret said he was the third reincarnation of Jesus Christ and chose female members of the cult to engage with sexually before ceremonies, claiming they gave him the spiritual strength to perform his holy duties.

Joseph Di Mambro was a devoted Catholic until he discovered occultism in his twenties. He was a cult member and founded the Golden Way Foundation, a way to meet other occultists. There, he met Luc Jouret, a man who gave up becoming a doctor to pursue spiritual healing. The two formed the International Chivalric Organization of the Solar Tradition, or the Order of the Solar Temple.

Order of the Solar Temple was an amalgamation of other ideologies belonging to the Knights Templar, New Age, Evangelicalism and freemasonry. They and their followers believed the apocalypse would occur in the mid ‘90s. The end of the world, they thought, would be the second coming of Jesus Christ, who they referred to as “the solar God-King.”

Elites belonged to the group and had to pay to move up in the ranking, and it wasn’t cheap. Members were required to pay for initiation fees, gifts for the leaders and tuition. Di Mambro and Jouret could, of course, live lavishly this way.

Di Mambro’s son, Elie, grew skeptical of the group when he discovered the apparent spiritual visions were actually just holograms from projectors. This resulted in him speaking out against the Order of the Solar Temple, which would play a part in the group’s plans to participate in a mass suicide.

Di Mambro ordered three members to be killed on September 30, 1994: Antonio and Nicky Dutoit and their 3-month-old baby, who he claimed to be the Antichrist. Antonio had named his son Emmanuelle, which Di Mambro did not take lightly since his son was also named Emmanuelle; except his child was god-like. Antonio had also told others that he helped trick members into having spiritual visions by installing mechanisms.

Di Mambro and Jouret soon told others that life on Earth was all an illusion and that they should shed their bodies to be transported to a planet orbiting the star, Sirius, to begin their afterlife. Di Mambro and 12 high ranking members recreated the Last Supper just days before they carried out the first mass suicide.

On October 5, 1994, Di Mambro and Jouret died by suicide, which led to 53 deaths due to murder and suicide. Followers were found dressed in white ceremonial robes and had either drank poison, been shot or been suffocated. The buildings they died in were set on fire by remote-control devices. The following year, 16 others died by suicide and another five the same way in March 1997.

9. Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo 2 - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1984 – 1995
  • Location: Tokyo, eventually worldwide
  • Recruited: Scientists and engineers
  • Peak following: 40,000+
  • Targeted: Judges, random
  • Death toll: 13
  • Creepy fact: Shoko Asahara made followers wear masks of his likeness along with ‘Perfect Salvation Initiation’ headgear so they could align their brainwaves with his.

Shoko Asahara was a partially blind former yoga instructor who had an apocalyptic obsession and proclaimed to be the first “enlightened one” since Buddha. He started the millennialist group, Aum Shinrikyo (translation “supreme truth”). Asahara believed the end of the world would happen in 1996 or 1999-2003 and that the only ones who would survive would be his followers. 

Asahara wanted to perform acts of terrorism so the Japanese would think Americans did it and World War 3 would ensue. He recruited highly trained scientists and engineers to develop weapons of mass destruction. The group tried to conduct several biological assaults and failed. 

On March 20, 1995, members released sarin — a nerve agent known to cause suffocation, convulsion and death — on five different trains throughout the city. It left over 5,000 injured, 1,000 hospitalized and 13 dead. Members attempted to release hydrogen cyanide at several other stations months following the attack.

Asahara was charged with multiple counts of murder and even expressed he was disappointed with the low death count. He was sentenced to death in 2004 and died on July 6, 2018.

10. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

Movement for the Restoration - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1989 – 2000
  • Location: Uganda
  • Recruited: Former Catholics
  • Peak following: 5,000
  • Targeted: Insiders
  • Death toll: 924
  • Creepy fact: Leaders discouraged talking and forbid sex and soap.

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commands of God was founded by Credonia Mwerinde, Joseph Kibweteere and Bee Tait. Kibweteere and Mwerinde said they had been receiving messages directly from the Virgin Mary. The group acted as a breakaway movement from the Roman Catholic Church. They, like many other doomsday cults, believed the apocalypse would take place on December 31, 1999. It was believed that if they followed the Ten Commandments, they would avoid damnation.

The group spent all its time preparing for the apocalypse. As 2000 approached, members confessed their sins, sold clothes and cattle for cheap and ceased working. When what they thought would be the end of the world didn’t happen, leaders claimed it would happen on March 17, 2000 and that the Virgin Mary would take members into heaven. But some members were not convinced and the Movement saw a massive decline in payments.

On March 17, 2000, the Movement’s leaders invited hundreds of members to a party at a secluded church. The church caught fire; windows and doors were boarded up, many were stabbed and poisoned. All 530 who attended died. Other bodies were found in compounds throughout Uganda, for a total of 924 deaths. Police initially suspected mass suicide but later determined that the deaths were the result of a mass murder.  

Kibweteere and Mwerinde were said to have died on March 17, 2000, however, the Ugandan government issued warrants for their arrest since it was unclear whether they actually died in the fire or fled the scene.

11. Los Narcosatánicos (The Narcosatanists)

Los Narcosatanicos - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1986 – 1989
  • Location: Mexico
  • Recruited: Gang members, occultists
  • Peak following: 11
  • Targeted: College students, drug dealers, the homeless, prostitutes
  • Death toll: 15, possibly as many as 100
  • Creepy fact: Adolfo Constanzo convinced followers to kill animals and drink their blood, then later perform human sacrifices. 

Adolfo Constanzo was raised by his mother to believe he was chosen for greatness in evil. Constanzo’s mother, who was a priestess in Santeria, encouraged him to torture and kill animals as a child. He grew up to become a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who was seen as a God-like protector by government officials, celebrities and drug dealers. 

Constanzo became a Palo Mayombe priest and began performing animal sacrifices for the Hernandez gang, claiming it would provide them protection and prosperity. Members of the gang became Constanzo’s followers, as they believed he had supernatural powers. 

Constanzo became known as the “El Padrino” or the godfather. He recruited men and women of all professions and had sex with them. He convinced them to take part in human sacrifices since he held the belief that different parts of the human body had different powers. Whichever body parts were not used as part of the ritual were buried on their Matamoros property. 

Mark Kilroy, a 21-year-old University of Texas student, was horrendously murdered by Constanzo and his followers: he was tortured, his brain eaten, legs removed and spinal cord removed. Authorities investigated his disappearance and followed member, Serafin Hernandez Garcia, back to the property. A total of 15 bodies were found; 10 were drug-related murders and five were used as sacrifices. 

After the police tracked down Constanzo on May 6, 1989, a 45 minute showdown ensued. Realizing his fate, Constanzo ordered his follower, Álvaro de León, to shoot and kill him.

12. The Kirtland Cult

Kirtland Cult 1024x696 - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
The Lundgren family, Alice, left, Damon, their son, center, and Jeffrey, right, stand in a San Diego Municipal courtroom, Jan. 4, 1990. The three refused to waive extradition, triggering a legal process that could take at least 90 days before they are returned to Ohio to face charges of slaying an Ohio family. (AP Photo/Joan C. Farenthold)
  • Active: 1987 – 1989
  • Location: Cleveland
  • Recruited: Unsatisfied members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS)
  • Follower count: About 20
  • Targeted: Avery family
  • Death toll: 5
  • Creepy fact: Jeffrey Lundgren said he felt the killings of the family that was loyal to him as “justified” and “mandated by God.”

Mormon extremist Jeffrey Lundgren claimed he was a prophet and could talk to God. He took an unpaid position as a temple guide at the Kirtland Temple to provide housing for him and his family. Lundgren was fired for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars, which was not out of the ordinary since he had stolen from employers before. After losing his job, he started his own church with members who felt the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was becoming too inclusive to women and the LGBT community. 

Lundgren members rented a farmhouse for his followers to live in, which would of course come at a price. He would soon meet the Avery family, who had moved from Missouri to join his group. And although they gave Lundgren thousands of dollars, he found it sinful that they didn’t live on the commune and had saved money from selling their previous home. Lundgren had several criticisms about the family as well: he disliked the husband Dennis, thought the wife Cheryl was too independent and felt their children were misbehaved. 

Lundgren had become more violent and paranoid in his beliefs. He encouraged male followers to start firearms training to prepare for the end of days. He also devised a plan to take over the Kirtland Temple. However, a member shared these plans with police and it never happened. Lundgren later preached that he would bring about Zion to Kirtland if members got rid of their belongings and moved into the wilderness. The Avery family was on board and prepared to do so, but Lundgren told others the family must be killed to reach Zion. 

On April 17, 1989, the entire Avery family was invited to the farmhouse and killed by Lundgren and several members of the Kirtland Cult, including his son. Authorities would not know about the bodies until a cult member, whose wife had become Lundgren’s second wife, told them about the murders. The family’s bodies were found beneath piles of garbage, soil and their personal items in January 1990. They had been bound and gagged, thrown into a pit and shot. 

Lundgren was found near the Mexican border shortly after the bodies were discovered. He was convicted of murder and died by lethal injection on October 24, 2006.

13. NXIVM

NXIVM 1024x683 - 13 of the Creepiest Cults Throughout History
  • Active: 1998 – 2018
  • Location: Albany
  • Recruited: Actresses, heiresses and CEOs
  • Peak following: 16,000 enrolled in courses; 150 women in DOS; 6 members charged
  • Targeted: Wealthy and young women, girls
  • Death toll: Potentially linked to 4
  • Creepy fact: Keith Raniere branded members’ pelvises with his initials, nearly starved them and threatened to blackmail them if they didn’t have sex with him.

NXIVM was founded by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman as a so-called multilevel marketing company. Raniere, who went by “Vanguard,” was a failed businessman with a history of sexual assault. Salzman, also known as “Prefect,” was a former nurse and trained hypnotist.

The two started personal development workshops called Executive Success Programs. These courses claimed to help celebrities, CEOs and heiresses overcome fears, anxieties and “self-imposed” limitations. However, NXIVM’s $3,000 course was ultimately psychological manipulation, as well as a part of Raniere’s pyramid scheme. The course involved 17-hour days, ritualistic practices and greeting Raniere with a kiss on the mouth. 

Actress Allison Mack formed a subgroup of NXIVM, Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), that was disguised as an apparent women’s empowerment group. DOS was really a “master-slave” sex ring where women recruited other women to make a lifelong vow of obedience to Raniere. Women were forced to provide “collateral” (A.K.A. naked photos and sensitive documents) so they would have sex with Raniere and keep quiet about DOS.

NXIVM had been suspected of being a cult initially in 2003 then again in 2012 by cult experts. These suspicions were confirmed when a New York Times article ran with statements from former members who spoke out against the group. On October 27, 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison. NXIVM is no longer active, although there are reports of followers forming splinter groups.

Which cult do you find the creepiest? Are there any other cults you would add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

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