From time immemorial, hyper-charismatic individuals have attracted lost, lonely outcasts and converted them into fierce, devoted disciples by commingling quasi-religious “prophecies” with anger-inflamed righteousness and promises of love, belonging, and a better reality than anything that’s ever been previously possible.
The phenomenon of cults, then, is nothing new.
History records, as well, that virtually every society and religious movement has grappled and at times even been convinced that they are living on the brink of the end of the world. Our species’ and/or planet’s apocalypse has been actively expected time and again by way of a divine being’s wrath, alien invaders, ecologic calamity, nuclear annihilation, or any other number of existential checkmate propositions.
And since there have been doomsday cults, there have been doomsday-cult leaders who have commanded their acolytes to commit violence as the “final times” approach — often against nonbelievers, but many times against themselves as well.
The following seven examples all occurred in recent decades, showcasing that this phenomenon is hardly just a relic of the past.
1. SHOKO ASAHARA of AUM SHINRYKO
On the busy morning of March 20, 1995, five devotees of cult leader Shoko Asahara and his Aum Shinrikyo cult bombarded the Tokyo subway system with 11 bags of an extremely toxic gas known as sarin.
Thirteen commuters died and more than 6,300 others were injured, many of them to the point of becoming permanently blind and/or paralyzed. The point of the assault was to bring on the apocalypse.
Former acupuncturist Shoko Asahara founded Aum Shinryko just eight years earlier. He rapidly captivated followers — including numerous police officers, scientists, doctors, and other high-profile members of society — by preaching conspiracy theories and endtimes prophecies. He also claimed he could fly and read minds, and devotees could buy his urine to drink as a health tonic.
Asahara ultimately dictated that Armageddon would relieve humanity of its sinful state —hence, the sarin attack.
During Ashara’s trial, which lasted an astounding eight years, multiple other crimes came to light. He was sentenced to death by hanging in 2004, but his execution has been repeatedly postponed as authorities continue to round up fugitive Aum Shinrinkyo members. [Vice]
2. ADOLFO DE JESUS COSTANZO and SARA ALDRETE of LOS NARCOS-SATANICOS
Adolfo de Jesus Costanzo and Sara Aldrete, better known to their followers as El Padrino (“The Godfather”) and La Bruja (“The Witch”), oversaw a Mexican drug cartel named for its distinguishing ritual practices: Los Narcos-Satanicos; i.e. — the Satanic Drug Gang.
Costanzo and Aldrete functioned as high priest and priestess over the organization that proved immensely powerful and profitable due, they believed, to the blood sacrifices, grave-robbing rituals, and other black-magic practices they conducted in the name of their evil overlord.
After slaughtering countless animals, Costanzo moved on to live human offerings, believing that this next level of occult access would make them impervious to death and, in time, be able to end civilization and take over the earth.
First, Los Narcos-Satanicos killed and mutilated members of a rival drug family. Then, in 1986, they kidnapped and physically dismantled Mark Kilroy, an American pre-med student in Mexico on spring break.
After encountering a cult member running a road block, police moved in on the cartel’s ranch. There, they discovered Kilroy’s brain inside a black cauldron. It had been “boiled in blood over an open fire along with a turtle shell, a horseshoe, a spinal column, and other human bones.” Fourteen other dismembered corpses turned up on the property.
El Padrino and La Bruja were on the lam for three years. Finally, as authorities moved in on their hiding place in 1989, Costanzo ordered an underling to shoot them both to death. He did. [Rolling Stone]
3. MARSHALL APPLEWHITE aka “DO” of HEAVEN’S GATE
On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult were discovered dead in bunkbeds inside the group’s residence just outside San Diego. Each believer sported black clothes, short hair, and Nike sneakers. Their pockets each contained one $5 bill and three quarters. It was the largest mass suicide in American history and, by most accounts, the devotees ended their lives happily.
The self-extermination came at the guidance of Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, referred to by the group as “Do,” who claimed to be a descendent of Jesus Christ.
Applewhite declared that space alien forces were en route to wipe out the Earth, but he and his devotees could unite with friendly aliens onboard a spaceship that was following the Hale-Bopp comet. To get there, they just had to shed their “containers” — i.e., kill their human bodies.
Over the course of three days, the Heaven’s Gate faithful consumed phenobarbital in applesauce or pudding, then placed plastic bags over their heads to suffocate after passing out. All of the successfully shed their “containers.” It remains unknown if they subsequently made it to the spacecraft. [CrimeFeed]
4. CHARLES MANSON of THE MANSON FAMILY
In the late 1960s, California’s infamous homicidal hippie guru Charles Manson indoctrinated his youthful Manson Family acolytes in a doomsday scenario he deemed “Helter Skelter.”
In essence, Manson predicted that a worldwide race war was about to ignite, during which Black people would conquer white people. Afterward, the victors, having never known such power, would turn to the Manson Family to serve as the leaders of the entire planet — according to Charlie himself.
Aiming to ignite the conflict, Manson dispatched followers to wealthy areas of Los Angeles over two nights in August 1969, setting off the notorious and still shocking Tate-LaBianca massacres. [CrimeFeed]
5. CREDONIA MWREINDE, JOSEPH KIBWETEERE, and BEE TAIT of THE MOVEMENT FOR THE RESTORATION OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF GOD
Upon breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, Ugandan nationals Credonia Mwerinde, Joseph Kibweteere, and Bee Tait mounted The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
As the year 2000 arrived, the Movement foresaw full-blown Armageddon on the horizon. That March, 530 followers, including the cult’s leaders, gathered in a church that was then sealed up, detonated with explosives, and burned to cinders.
Afterward, authorities came across hundreds of other bodies at Movement sites throughout Uganda. Six turned up in Kanungu, 153 in Buhunage, 155 at Rugazi, and 81 on property belonging to Movement official Joseph Nymurinda. [New York Times]
6. JIM JONES of JONESTOWN
The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” begins here. On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones informed members of his Peoples Temple at their Jonestown commune in Guyana that the end was at hand.
Four days earlier, Jones had ordered the execution of Congressman Leo Ryan and U.S. Ambassador to Guyana Richard Dwyer. They had come to investigate allegations of abuse in Jonestown. Peoples Temple gunmen murdered the two officials, along with an NBC cameraman and a follower they deemed a turncoat.
Jones then announced that the world was ending, Jonestown first. To best meet their maker, Jones instructed his flock to consume cyanide-laced grape punch that was being ladled out of tubs at station all over the property. Some volunteered to down the poison, many others did so at gunpoint. Still others were shot to death.
In the end, more than 900 Peoples Temple members expired on the spot. More than a third of those killed were under the age of 18. Jones himself succumbed to a gunshot wound, believed to have been self-inflicted.
Up until the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks, the Peoples Temple tragedy stood as the largest mass slaughter of U.S. civilians in history. [CrimeFeed]
7. JOSEPH DI MAMBRO and LUC JOURET of ODRE DU TEMPLE SOLAR
In 1984 Geneva, Switzerland, spiritual seekers Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret launched Odre du Temple Solar (OTS) — in English, The Order of the Solar Temple — by combining the teachings of famed occultist Aleister Crowley with Rosicrucian beliefs, Freemason rituals, and traditions of the Knights Templar.
OTS eagerly anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ following an environmental apocalypse. After no such event looked to be immediately forthcoming a decade into their existence, the cult declared that followers should leave this plane of existence behind and ascend as one to a planet in the orbit of the star Sirius. That meant everyone had to die.
In October 1994, OTS members in Quebec stabbed a three-month-old baby and his parents with a wooden stake, claiming the infant was the Antichrist. Five days later, OTS conducted a slaughter ritual among their members in two separate Swiss locations. Many believers killed themselves, others were suffocated, shot, or stabbed. Police identified 48 bodies at the two scenes.
The corpses kept coming. In 1995, 16 more OTS members’ remains were discovered in a Swiss Alps chalet that had been burned to the ground. Two years later, another five disciples died in Quebec. Since then, OTS founders Di Mambro and Jouret have also committed suicide. [Biography]
Main photo: Investigation Discovery, Crimes of the Century video/screenshot