Extreme religious sects (also sometimes known as cults) have been captivating the public’s attention for decades—often because of their purported connection to crimes like murder, sexual abuse, kidnapping and mass suicide.
Notorious groups like the Branch Davidians in Waco, the People’s Temple in Jonestown and the Manson cult in California have ended spectacularly badly, with their leaders using questionable tactics like mind control and forced social isolation to keep followers complicit and in line. But what are some of the stranger theories attached to some of the most notable cults of the last 50 years—and are those theories actually true?
With the premiere of the new A&E series Cults & Extreme Belief, A&E True Crime explores some big questions about the groups Heaven’s Gate, the Moonies and the Rajneeshees.
Did Heaven’s Gate leaders really use the Internet as a tool to expound on their bizarre views?
Heaven’s Gate was a strange, hyper-secretive religious group that became famous for the tragic way it unraveled: with 39 followers, ranging in age from 26 to 72, killing themselves in the largest mass suicide on American soil in history. (Fortunately, no children were involved.) Cult expert Rick Ross once called Heaven’s Gate “one of the most extreme cults that I’ve ever dealt with in my 25 years.”
The group was also known for its connection to internet culture: The group left behind a massive web archive, which two former members still run today. It also funded itself—and its eventual mass suicide—via its web-design business, Higher Source, in the 1990s.
A former music professor who lost his job after having sex with a male student, Marshall Applewhite founded Heaven’s Gate in the early 1970s with a nurse named Bonnie Nettles, whom he befriended during a hospital stay. (Reports claim he was hospitalized following a psychiatric breakdown.) Their beliefs were a blend of Christian tenets influenced by Applewhite’s Presbyterian childhood, overlaid with sci-fi-style, UFO-heavy fare.
They nicknamed themselves Ti (Nettles) and Do or Bo (Applewhite), and the group’s teachings only seemed to get weirder after Nettles died of cancer in 1985.
Heaven’s Gate followers were taught that in order to reach the “next level” of heaven, they had to leave their bodies behind and board an alien spacecraft. They were also encouraged to forsake all their earthly attachments: their families, friends, sex lives—even their gender identities. All cult members wore identical Nikes and black sweat suits; they also had the same haircuts and followed the same strict diets, drinking nothing but a mix of lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for three months. Some of the men were also voluntarily castrated in an attempt to quell sexual urges.
The spacecraft never arrived, but in the 1990s, Applewhite started attracting new members, again promising that an alien ship was Earth-bound and ready to pick up believers. This time he claimed the purported spaceship would be hidden behind the comet Hale-Bopp.
In 1996, Applewhite rented a home for his followers in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego. By this time, the group had begun supporting itself with its web-design business. When Hale-Bopp passed closest to Earth in March 1997, Applewhite and 39 of his followers killed themselves in an orchestrated three-day attempt to flee their bodily “vehicles” and access their version of heaven. They ingested large amounts of phenobarbital and vodka.
(You can watch a number of their pre-suicide “exit interviews” online.)
What the group says: “Planet Earth is about to be recycled,” said Applewhite. “Your only chance to survive or evacuate is to leave with us… We’re about to return to whence we came. I can lead you into that kingdom level above human. That can’t happen unless you leave the human world that you’re in and come and follow me.”
What former members say: The two surviving ex-members who still run the Heaven’s Gate website told Cracked they’d taken on the role of managing the cult’s web communications: “In 1996 they trained us in being a satellite-communication center for them. We took care of fulfilling email requests. We sent out books and tapes and answered emails while communicating with members of the Group each day. After they departed, we received all their physical property and intellectual property holdings and followed their instructions to secure, protect and maintain the website, emails and all the issues that come up regarding their book, tapes and other various writings and materials.”
What law-enforcement says: The chief investigator for the medical examiner’s office, Calvin Vine, was one of the first officials on the scene of the grim 1997 suicides. In 2007, he told ABC News about finding the “recipe” they used to kill themselves with alcohol and drugs, as well as the note beside it. “What I found next to their recipe was this, ‘To Be Released to the News Media,’ and I started looking at it. It was crazy talk, about leaving their vehicle and shell and going on to the next higher-level source.”
Did the leader of the Moonies really use the fortune he gained from his group to build a massive business empire?
Followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the religious movement the Unification Church, are often dubbed “Moonies.” The group rose to fame in the 1970s, and cult rumors soon followed.
Moon was a colorful figure who drew attention for both his extreme beliefs and his attention-getting stunts. Moon believed he was the second coming of Christ. (He also reportedly claimed to have spoken with Moses and Buddha.) In 2004, he and his wife staged an elaborate coronation ceremony in a Senate office building in Washington, where they were “crowned” in the presence of several U.S. lawmakers. He became famous for marrying large groups of strangers from different countries in huge mass weddings.
After Moon died in 2012, his wife, Hak Ja Han, ended up taking the helm of the multibillion-dollar venture. The church, which once claimed it had a whopping 3 million members, still exists today, as does the controversy that surrounds it; the group has long been accused of mind control and breaking up families.
Born in 1920 in what would later become North Korea, Moon came from a family who became Presbyterians when he was a child. According to the Guardian, Moon was 16 when he said “Jesus Christ called upon him to complete His work.” In 1954, he founded the Unification Church, which blended his own Christian theories with Confucian principles; followers called him “True Father.”
By the early 1970s, the man who fashioned himself a messiah had settled in the United States and drew more and more young people into his fold, encouraging them to give up sex, drinking and drugs for an almost monastic communal experience. Alarmed by their inability to reach their children, worried parents began hiring cult-deprogramming experts to try to pull their kids away from the Unification Church.
It’s not totally clear where the group’s wealth, at one point believed to be in the billions, came from. Some initially flowed in from its army of followers, who handed over personal assets, and sold flowers and trinkets in airports and on streets. Moon channeled these funds into businesses worldwide, including in the U.S. alone, a shipbuilding firm, a national seafood operation, a cable TV network, and Manhattan real estate. He also cultivated powerful conservative political connections, and founded the right-wing daily The Washington Times. At one point he was accused of being a Korean spy, and he went to jail for tax evasion.
What the group says: Moon has always been proud of his business acumen, writing in his 2009 autobiography, “Money accumulated through business is sacred money.”
What former members say: Steve Hassan, a cult expert, was a member of the Unification Church for two years in the 1970s. He told The Guardian about being recruited into the group in college: “Little did I know, within a few weeks I would be told to drop out of school, donate my bank account, look at Moon as my true parent and believe my parents were Satan.”
Did members of the Rajneesh cult really get accused of murder?
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as Osho) was an Indian guru and leader of a New Age-style religious sect that took off in the 1970s. His followers meditated, fought, danced and had plenty of sex, with enlightenment as their ultimate goal.
Though its sprawling compound was initially based in India, the group moved to a 60,000-acre ranch in Wasco County, Oregon in 1981. They began painstakingly transforming their land into a self-sustained Rajneesh city called Rajneeshpuram. This caused alarm among local residents, who felt their community was being invaded by cult members.
Osho’s followers, dubbed “sannyasins,” all dressed in shades of red, and though Rajneesh himself was a bit of an enigma, his right-hand woman, Ma Anand Sheela, was the group’s most controversial—and reportedly dangerous—figure. She allegedly coordinated a salmonella attack on local townspeople in an attempt to seize control of the county legislature; collected an armory of guns so the Rajneeshees could protect themselves; and plotted a hit on the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, Charles Turner. She also orchestrated an assassination attempt against Rajneesh’s doctor. (The plan failed.)
Osho died in 1990, but not before turning against his former secretary Sheela, who left the group and the country in 1985. Sheela was eventually arrested in West Germany and extradited to the U.S., where she was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault for poisoning, second-degree assault for poisoning and more. She entered an Alford plea (when a defendant pleads guilty and admits the prosecution has enough evidence to show their guilt, but still proclaims their innocence) and was imprisoned for only two years. She now lives in Switzerland, where she runs two nursing homes.
What the group says: Ma Anand Sheela told the Daily Beast that some of the claims against her and the group were overblown: “Whenever something happened in Oregon, they blamed it on Rajneeshees… I had pleaded guilty in an Alford plea, and maintain my innocence.” Osho, for his part, didn’t hold back in his condemnation of Sheela: “She did not prove to be a woman, she proved to be a perfect bitch… Either she will kill herself out of the very burden of all the crimes that she has done, or she will have to suffer her whole life in imprisonment.”
What law enforcement says: William Gary, former deputy attorney general for Oregon, once questioned Sheela. He said, “I was struck by how small and unimposing she was, because she had been a pretty big figure in Oregon at the time… She answered all of my questions with complete honesty and without the slightest trace of shame or regret or anything reflecting remorse. I left thinking this is a person with no empathy.”