Arson, Blood Rituals, and Disney Characters: Around the World in 10 Cults
It’s like a timeshare presentation that you and your family can never leave.
There are a thousand facets of a country’s culture that tell you about the values and beliefs of its citizens—like food, music, literature, and cults that reshape your brain and consume your life. The United States has a long and troubled history with Alternative Religions (especially California, where you are legally mandated to start your own cult or they take away your weed card), but it hardly invented the idea of devoting your entire life to a really intense book club. Here are some of the weirdest and most intense cults from around the globe.
Samvado Gunnar Kossatz/Attribution/Wikimedia Commons
Order of the Solar Temple
Founded in 1984, the Order of the Solar Temple is a French cult that’s pretty sure a few things are true: One of the founders is actually Jesus, the Knights Templar still exist and are cooling their heels somewhere quiet, life on earth is an illusion, and the mid-90s is when everyone dies. The cult is actually a Super Cult comprised of two smaller cults—Foundation Golden Way and The Arch—and it essentially became a really involved Knights Templar LARP that resulted in the mass murder-suicide of dozens of members in France, Canada, and Switzerland. Leaders also apparently used holograms and optical illusions to make members believe that they were seeing divine visions. It’s not every cult that has a special effects budget.
Modern life is hard—you start a doomsday cult, you get people signed up for the newsletter, everyone’s waiting for the main event to come, and then you have to distract from the initial promise of the world ending by suggesting that it could be cool to do some murder. Aleph (formerly Aum Shinrikyo) was started in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, who told followers that he was—yes, you guessed it—Christ. The cult’s beliefs look like a wild blanket quilted together from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and some of Nostradamus’ theological B-sides, but it didn’t draw on any of the classics like “don’t murder people” and “seriously, Thou Shalt Not Kill is a banger, consider giving that one more rotation.” The cult was responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attacks that killed 13 people and seriously injured and affected hundreds more, and their motives for this attack remain unclear. Asahara himself was executed for the attack along with a dozen other cult members in 2018, and the cult itself remains committed to college campus recruitment efforts, proving that it is, in fact, possible to hustle as hard as you hate.
[Public Domain]/Wikimedia Commons / United States Public Health Service [Public Domain]/Wikimedia Commons
The Rajneesh Movement
Founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1960s, the Rajneesh movement was a buckwild combination of libertarianism, irresponsible sex, a truly astounding collection of Rolls-Royces, and salad bar contamination. Initially started as an offshoot of the free love movement of the 1960s (which will never not sound like it’s being spoken aloud by a disapproving old man in a suit), the cult didn’t have a terrifically dogmatic theology—you could believe whatever you wanted as long as you gave Rajneesh your money and wore an embarrassing orange costume. They were also pretty interested in real estate, and when they essentially took over large portions of Wasco County, Oregon, the locals weren’t super excited about it. In an effort to snatch political power and suppress votes, members of the cult systematically poisoned 751 people with salmonella by spreading the bacteria at local restaurants and businesses. Nobody died, fortunately, but Rajneesh was forced to high-tail it back to India once the cult’s shenanigans came to light, and the current organization gets really upset if you bring up that time they befouled all those salad bars.
Redheylin (talk) (Uploads) [CC0]/Wikimedia Commons
This Weird Medieval Sex Cult
In 2019, when a 53-year-old man was found in a cute little Bavarian bed-and-breakfast with crossbow bolts through his head along with two women suffering from similar wounds in an apparent murder-suicide, people had some questions. The answer to that question turned out to be a small cult based around BDSM, medieval weaponry, and a desire to transcend this dimension and achieve a higher state of being. The founder of the cult, Torsten Weiss, owned a weaponry shop in Westerwald, which mostly just sold Knights Templar flags and offered sword fighting classes twice a week. Two other members of the cult were found dead 400 miles north, apparently having poisoned themselves. At the very least, using a crossbow to punch your ticket is exceptional commitment to a bit for a medieval sex cult. Even in death, their brand is strong.
True Russian Orthodox Church
Pyotr Kuznetsov started his own cult after becoming gripped with terror that the end of the world was coming in 2008, and he figured that the only way to escape the threat of cannibals and overpowering sexual desires and satanic supermarket barcodes was to move into a bunker beneath the earth in a remote forest. A former engineer himself, Kuznetsov declined to move down into the bunker himself, but it was important to him that his three dozen or so followers never used money or watched the news, and you know where you’re in very little danger of doing those things? It’s in a hole in the ground. However, when the spring thaw melted the snow above the compound and caused sections of the roof to cave in, over half of the disciples decided to leave for higher ground, and the cave was later blown up when the rest had left, too. The sunk cost fallacy is hard to overcome sometimes.
Finally, some levity. After Claude Maurice Marcel Vorilhon had an encounter with an alien in 1973, he changed his name to Raël (which means “messenger of the Elohim,” and which also sounds cooler than Alien Concierge) and started a UFO cult based largely around the idea that life on earth was created by ancient aliens. Pretty standard stuff, right? But it gets better: They claimed in 2002 that the cult, along with a Raëlite-affiliated company called Clonaid, had successfully cloned an actual human being. When the press was like “can we see the clone?” Clonaid was like “no.” Raël’s cult apparently doesn’t require a lot of commitment, which is something I appreciate. Hanging out and talking about UFOs is infinitely preferable to mass murder.
Nesnad [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons
If you asked me what the purpose of a cult is, my first answer would be “causing complete anarchy in public while naked with my friends, who are ALSO naked,” and the Freedomite cult was out here doing it at the turn of the 20th century. An offshoot of the Doukhobor religious group of Russia, the Freedomites (later the Sons of Freedom, which seems needlessly gender-specific) were committed to communal living, being uncooperative with the authorities, and getting naked at the drop of a hat, especially while protesting, which was never really given an explanation aside from “maybe they’re making a statement on materialism.” Some members of the group took this dislike of physical things a step further through arson and the bombing of public buildings they didn’t like, including two incidents where members accidentally blew themselves up and died. It’s important to me that you know that all of these bombings were done in the nude.
True Way Cult
There’s a real Fleetwood Mac vibe with a lot of cult leaders, many of whom start their own groups after breaking with their former companions, and by the time many of them get to their third cult, the vibe is extremely experimental and niche. By the time Chen Hong-min had worked his way through two previous cults, he was ready to start his own project: a fantastically insane combination of Christian doomsday, Buddhism, Taoism, UFOs, and the insistence that everybody actually has three souls. Chen predicted that God himself would appear on Channel 18 of every TV set in North America on March 31, 1998 (even for people who didn’t have cable, which is nice) and when that didn’t happen, the 160-member cult broke up pretty much immediately after. He offered to be crucified by the other members as a way to sweeten the pot and get them to stay, but they were like “nah.” Running a doomsday cult is hard business.
Ho No Hana Sanpagyo
If you’ve seen enough Quentin Tarantino movies, you know to be leery if somebody is weirdly insistent on getting a good look at your feet. In 1987, millionaire Hogen Fukunaga started a cult called Ho No Hana Sanpagyo, and the idea was that Fukunaga had the rare and divine gift of being able to diagnose a variety of curses and ailments purely by inspecting the soles of people’s feet. In order to cleanse themselves, cult members were forced to pay hand-over-fist for the privilege of “training,” which included a variety of uncomfortable things like staying awake for days on end and standing in the street screaming “Kenko afureta tanoshii mainichi-desu!” or “I am living a happy and healthy life!” Fukunaga was eventually sued for hundreds of millions of yen for ripping people off and served a 12-year sentence. The shoe, as they say, is on the other foot now.
You know what? This is the most wholesome cult I’ve ever heard of in my life, and after doing a listicle involving extortion, murder, arson, and mind control, I deserve this. Members of the Chip N’ Dale Rescue Rangers fandom in Russia decided to take their off-putting adoration of mouse mechanic Gadget Hackwrench to the next level by creating an actual cult that worships her, complete with altars, religious texts, and hymns. These little Russian weirdos have developed no fewer than three religious denominations: Traditional Gadgetology, Progressive Gadgetology, and Apocalyptic Gadgetology. A core tenet of their belief system is that if they just want Gadget Hackwrench to exist in real life hard enough, they will literally manifest her into existence like Venus emerging from her shell, and honestly? I hope they win someday. We all deserve some good news.
Loren Javier [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr