When does a cult become a cult? Some would argue that it’s when the weird stuff starts happening – rituals, clothing, chanting, what have you.
But if you look objectively at most religions, old or new, there’s a big fat dose of kooky involved. Catholics eat little wafers and pretend that it’s tiny chunks of Christ’s body.
Muslims don’t eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. Buddhists chant mantras while spinning decorated prayer wheels. Air fryer owners cook things in air fryers.
It’s easier to argue that a cult becomes a cult when it becomes dangerous or violent. The danger or violence could appear anywhere on the spectrum: it could be minor and insidious, or it could be completely, pant-leakingly terrifying. And that’s when cults really get frightening. You get a scary cult when you get a cult leader who becomes – through power, paranoia, drugs, or cerebral malfunction – proper, proper bonkers.
I’m a pretty tough old boiler, but these cults scare the willies out of me.
The Peoples Temple
Might as well start with the most famous cult, the one by which all other cults are measured - formally known as The Peoples Temple and familiarly known as Jonestown once the group moved from San Francisco to Guyana in South America.
It would have been fine if the so-called ‘agricultural project’ temple members built from scratch in the jungle was just a group of people farming, cooking, and listening to a guy in transition lenses talk a lot. But Jim Jones, socialist preacher and, it turns out, insane person, trained his followers to perform what he called “revolutionary suicide”.
When he wasn’t pretending to cure people by hiding chicken gizzards up his sleeve and convincing his congregation they were magically-removed tumours, Jones got his followers to practice drinking poison to prove their loyalty to him and their socialist cause. Completely pickled on a combination of drugs and egomania, Jones couldn’t handle even the slightest pellet of criticism, so when US Congressman Leo Ryan brought staff and journalists to check if Jonestown was okay, Jim finally snapped.
If you listen to a recording of his final speech to followers (don’t) you can hear Jones snapping in an unsettlingly calm way. Jim Jones had the Congressman and members of his travelling party shot, and then had over 900 of his followers, including children and the elderly, drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.
If you see the aerial photos of all those bodies strewn around the compound like crumpled laundry blown off the clothesline (don’t), you understand what ‘bone-chilling’ means.
Less well-known but completely upsetting was a cult made of Germans and situated in central Chile called Colonia Dignidad. Its leader, Paul Schafer, was the answer to the question ‘what does a one-eyed Nazi paedophile torture expert control freak look like?’, which should make you immediately regret asking the question in the first place.
After World War II, a load of Nazis and Nazi sympathisers fled to South America to avoid persecution because they are cowards. Nazi Paul Schafer brought a congregation of followers to Chile with him from Germany and very quickly threw some Chilean nuns off their land and set up a camp that his followers could only leave if they could get past the barbed wire, armed guards, and attack dogs because he was a psychotic bastard.
On top of that, Schafer would offer to educate local children at the compound school or treat them in their hospital, because he was a paedophile who preyed on children.
And on top of that, Schafer was very good at perfecting torture techniques, so much so that Chile’s General Pinochet – another member of the psychotic bastard club – would send his men to Schafer’s camp to be trained in those techniques to help deal with Pinochet’s detractors. It’s likely that at least 100 people were murdered at Colonia Dignidad.
In the Worst Human Of All Time Olympics, Paul Schafer is a consistent finalist.
The leader of Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, Shoko Asahara, wanted his followers to build a giant laser weapon to help kick-start a war to end the world. Shoko Asahara was not, in the classical sense, a nice guy.
Despite installing his followers as spies in technology companies to steal their giant laser weapon-building blueprints, in the end Shoko had to settle for a less space-age method of destruction. In 1995 he sent his cult members out onto the Tokyo subway system carrying little bags of sarin gas that they poked with sharpened umbrella tips to release into the carriages.
Thousands of commuters were affected by the gas, 13 died, and Shoko never got his World War 3, instead being arrested and eventually executed. There were some ridiculous aspects to the Aum Shinrikyo cult – members could buy vials of Shoko’s bathwater or clippings of his hair to brew into tea.
They could wear an electrode-studded helmet to absorb Shoko’s thoughts. He kept a single pubic hair from every woman he had sex with, and stored them in little jars like a personal pube museum.
But for all the weirdness, and even though the occasional defecting cult member would be hunted down and murdered, the scariest thing about Shoko Asahara and his cult was what is scary about so many cults. We usually don’t hear about these genuinely terrifying groups until they’ve done something bad.
The cult leaders – often men but not always – fester away in secret, slowly gathering grudges, paranoia, a sense of entitlement, and often drugs and weapons.
We don’t know anything until the leader’s invisible tripwire is triggered – be it the fear that their grip on the group is slipping, or that someone is standing in the way of them becoming more powerful, or they can’t think of any better way of getting attention.
And then we know about them: people go missing, bodies are found, buildings go up in flames. By the time the story breaks, the damage has been done.
Now I’ve gone and scared myself. Time to go look at cats on the internet for a bit.
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