The craziest cult leaders with the personality to influence thousands
With an impressive magnitude for intellectual manipulation and false empathy, cult leaders are able to control their followers through the power of belief. The limited worldview that cults can inculcate makes it difficult for members to see their actions as anything but normal—even when they include mass suicides, abductions, and terrifying violence.
As if brainwash culture isn’t eerie enough, we’re taking a deep-dive into the minds of five cult leaders active in the 20th century, all of whom had the power to strip a person of their autonomy, ultimately amounting in mass destruction and bloodshed.
Shoko Asahara—Aum Shinrikyo or “The Supreme Truth”
In 1987, Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto) founded the religious group Aum Shinrikyo, which began as a yoga school that blended Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism. Originally, the group sought and encouraged spiritual mindfulness, amassing thousands of acolytes all over Japan.
Eventually, the group began preaching Doomsday prophecies and occultism, and soon thereafter Asahara claimed that he was actually the reincarnation of Buddha. Asahara’s charisma and manipulative empathy opened the gates to thousands of devotees, all the while promising that they could acquire the “power of God with the right training.”
By the 1990s, Asahara had recruited some 10,000 followers who believed that he was a savior and future emperor. The group operated out of a hub at the base of Mt. Fuji, where members synthesized chemical weapons.
The growing cult ran for parliamentary election in 1990 but failed to get enough votes, inciting anger in Asahara. Thus, in June of 1994, Asahara led a sarin gas attack in Matsumoto City, which injured over 500 people and killed eight.
But the cult evaded detection, and on March 20, 1995, five members of Aum Shinrikyo descended into the Tokyo underground at different points during rush hour, exposing passengers to deadly WWII-era sarin gas.
The group members wore surgical masks and carried the chemical in packets hidden inside newspapers in plastic bags. After piercing the packets with sharpened umbrellas, the five men and their accompanying getaway drivers fled the scene.
In the end, 688 people were rushed to hospital while over 5,000 more hurried there on their own. With 13 dead, the crime led to dozens of the members’ arrests, including Hideo Murai, one of the cult’s other top leaders. However, Asahara had yet to be located.
Shortly after the crime, police found a hidden basement at the Mt. Fuji compound where other cult members were holed up, including Masami Tsuchiya, a chemist who admitted to making the sarin gas. Still, Asahara remained at large and Aum Shinrikyo made four more gas attacks on the subways.
Finally, on May 16, 1995, Asahara was found in yet another secret room of the Mt. Fuji compound and arrested, with his lengthy trial landing him on death row in 2006.
Shoko Asahara was hanged for his crimes in July of 2018.
David Koresh—The Waco Disaster / Branch Davidians
David Koresh, born Vernon Howell, was the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians, taking over control in 1987 after the death of the group’s predecessor. Koresh had extensive knowledge of the Bible, believing that he could speak to God and prophesized about the Second Coming of Christ as well as the imminent End of the World.
Having convinced more than 100 people to live in his secluded compound—known as Mount Carmel—near Waco, Texas, Koresh proceeded to use his position in the group to have sex with multiple wives, including girls as young as 10.
Meanwhile, Koresh was preaching to his followers that the End Times were near and that forming an “Army of God” was imperative. But by February of 1993, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attempted to arrest and serve Koresh with a warrant for the possession of illegal firearms.
Infamously, a four-hour gunfight erupted, leading to the deaths of four ATF agents and six of Koresh’s followers. This resulted in a standoff that lasted an astonishing 51 days and was highly covered in the media.
Some of the Branch Davidian members managed to escape the compound during the standoff, but over 80 people still remained inside. ATF and FBI negotiators worked to come to a compromise, but things only escalated out of control.
Tear gas was eventually lobbed onto the premises of Mount Carmel, and Koresh’s followers retorted with gunfire. The compound eventually caught fire, leaving 76 people dead.
Followers died when the compound’s gymnasium collapsed, while others were shot. Koresh was found shot in the head, but whether or not it was an act of suicide remains unknown.
Jim Jones—The Peoples Temple
On November 18, 1978, over 900 cult members of the Peoples Temple in Guyana died in a mass murder-suicide via cyanide-spiked punch. Later known as the Jonestown Massacre, the group’s leader, Reverend Jim Jones, commandeered the genocide through means of control and fear.
Jim Jones was born in rural Indiana on May 31, 1931. He founded the Peoples Temple in the 1950s before its growth led the cult to settle in Mendocino County in the 1960s, and later in San Francisco in the 1970s.
It wasn’t long before Jones’ preachings became paranoid. His speeches began referencing a coming Doomsday, being the result of a nuclear apocalypse brought about by government mismanagement.
Focusing on social outcasts who were left behind by the status quo, the racially integrated church offered free food, drug rehabilitation, and legal services to idealistic youths dejected by the politics of the era.
But as Jones’ social goals became more openly radical, the media-savvy leader began schmoozing with local politicians to establish useful relationships. He even forced his loyal followers to give up their belongings and for their relatives to send money to the church.
And by the cult’s 1977 move to Guyana, South America, the Peoples Temple had amassed around 20,000 members.
The compound in Guyana was coined as a utopian community, removed from the structures of U.S. politics. Jones claimed that the lack of corruption would allow the Temple’s members to be free to actualize themselves with God and nature.
But Jones also confiscated everyone’s passports upon arrival, and set up chores and routines for everyone to follow on a daily basis. Jones’ Marxist fantasies provided a grim reality to his followers—amounting in grueling work days and nights spent watching Soviet-style documentaries about the dangers, excesses, and vices of the outside world.
Rations were limited, and even Jones’ health began to deteriorate, leading him to begin taking nearly lethal amounts of amphetamines and pentobarbital as treatment. His speeches—sounding over the compound speakers nearly all hours of the day—became incoherent and dark in tonality.
And when U.S. Representative Leo Ryan traveled to Jonestown on November 18, 1978, to investigate claims of abuse on the commune, chaos ensued, resulting in the politician and four of his companions to be rapidly murdered on the airstrip as they landed on Guyana.
Presumably aware that the Peoples Temple was finished, Jones told his congregation that the authorities would be “parachuting in” at any moment, subsequently ordering the now infamous mass murder-suicide in the guise of being a “revolutionary act.”
Children were the first to go. Parents injected them with the cyanide before drinking cyanide-laced fruit juice themselves. Jones was found dead in a chair with a bullet wound in the head. The total death count at Jonestown was 909.
David Berg—The Children of God
Still in existence today, The Children of God cult founded by David Berg promoted sex with minors, incest, and belief in the Antichrist. Established in 1968, Berg claimed that revolution and happiness were his major goals.
Toward the end of the 1960s, events like the Manson Family murders, drug burnout, and escalating crime rates contributed to the decline of the Summer of Love.
It also gave way to new organizations to move onto the scene and entice people with alluring messages.
Berg, who was a pastor before he started Children of God in Huntington Beach, California, preached an “old world” idea of Christianity. Namely, his philosophy equated to a lot of sex.
If that weren’t confusing enough, the Children of God believed the notion that God loves sex because sex is love, and Satan hates sex because sex is beautiful. Berg was also an advocate of sex with minor-age children in an effort for the children to “embrace sexuality.”
Not only that, Berg believed that incest was okay because it’s best to learn from your family.
One of Berg’s nicknames was Grandpa, in addition to King David, and Mo (for Moses). And by 1972, Children of God was international—with a staggering 130 communities worldwide.
Many members lived in communes together and shared stringent communist ideologies, relying on street performances and begging for their earnings. Naturally, nearly all of this money went to Berg, who perpetuated the belief that his Children of God would save the world from the Antichrist.
But by 1978, allegations of abuse and reports of misconduct started piling up, and the Children of God was abolished.
However, the cult continued under various reincarnations, until settling on the Family in the 1980s. And when Berg died in 1994, his widowed wife Karen Zerby took over.
Today, the Family is governed by a new document called the Love Charter and bolsters a love of Jesus. But the horrific history behind the Children of God can’t be so easily erased.
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