American Horror Story Has Nothing on These Real-life Cults

By Jake Schroeder
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From utopian compounds to UFO religions, the world’s history has no shortage of cults and their controversies. Whether they’re proponents of child sacrifice, abuse, nudity, cannibalism or gulag-like prisons, these cults have one thing in common: what they practice is far more terrifying than anything you might see on American Horror Story. And the scariest part? Some of them are still recruiting new members and spreading their controversial ideologies to this day.

The Family International

Once called Teens for Christ, The Family International is a cult still recruiting members today. Its founder, David Berg, turned the original group members into a religious cult called The Children of God. On the outside, the organization appeared to spread the original message while living in seclusion from the rest of the world.

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But on the inside, reports came out that the founder was actually involved in a child sex ring. In fact, sexual sharing is encouraged in the group and isn’t limited to kids. Accusations of sexual abuse came from many members, including Berg’s own daughter.

Rajneesh Movement

Materialism and sexual hedonism were the primary messages of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the leader of this cult. In 1981, he purchased a ranch where his cult followers escaped in order to create their own utopian reality.

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The cult is responsible for some of the largest recorded immigration fraud cases. They also wanted to take over the local government and contaminated local and supermarket produce with salmonella. Their mission was to get enough people sick so that they wouldn’t be able to vote in a local election, raising the chances of their own cult members getting elected.


When kumbaya meets emotional and physical abuse, welcome to Buddhafield. The leader, Jaime Gomez (also known as The Teacher), had a talent for attracting members into the cult by making them feel welcomed and loved. He also wore nothing but Speedos.

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He was very much into recruiting good-looking young men, many of whom later came forward and accused him of sexual abuse. The cult is still active in Hawaii. After ex-members made a documentary about it called Holy Hell, the cult leader allegedly encouraged some of the current members to attend the premiere and threaten the creators.



The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is one of the Mormon offshoots that believe in polygamy. The cult has an estimated 10,000 members. Controversies around the FLDS include child labor and arranged child marriage, with leader Warren Jeffs getting sentenced to prison for life for child sexual assault.

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Eleven members of the cult, including Jeffs’ brother Lyle, were also accused of fraud and money laundering. While under house arrest, Lyle even removed his tracking bracelet and fled from the FBI — he was on the run for a year. This insular church is still in existence today.

Peoples Temple

Led by Jim Jones, Peoples Temple followers were promised the ultimate utopia. Jones recruited members by inviting sick people and miraculously healing them from their illnesses. In 1974, he bought land in Guyana, where he made a home for himself and his followers called Jonestown.

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Instead of the promised utopia, Peoples Temple followers experienced a prison, living in captivity with very little food or any other amenities. After a standoff with a congressman and defectors, Jones forced all members of the cult to drink poison. Over 900 people died, including Jim Jones, who shot himself.

The Manson Family

The Manson Family case is perhaps known as one of the most terrifying cults of the ‘60s. Charles Manson, the cult’s leader, created a family that lived together on a ranch where he preached his ideologies about a race war. He encouraged killing sprees, which ended in murdering the then-pregnant actress Sharon Tate at her own home.

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Following several other murders, Charles Manson was sent to prison. He died at the age of 83 in 2017. The Manson Family members who were on death row were sentenced to life in prison instead after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.


Heaven’s Gate

Heaven’s Gate had a slightly different set of guiding principles than many other cults. Members believed that the planet was under control of aliens, but that there were a few good aliens — these included Jesus and the cult’s leaders. Almost all of the members participated in a mass suicide on March 26th, 1997, hoping to be transported onboard a spacecraft they believed was trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet.

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The members were found wearing the same clothing and had the same haircuts as one another. Together, they drank poison and put bags over their own heads. Several members didn’t participate in the group suicide and maintain the cult’s original website to this day.

Aum Shinrikyo

The Aum cult was founded in the 1980s. Its leader, Shoko Asahara, claimed to be Jesus Christ — the statement alone attracted some followers. Although the cult’s primary focus was on spirituality, it soon became a violent organization. From drinking blood to manufacturing their own weapons, there’s no shortage of Aum controversies.

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But the biggest crime committed happened in 1995 on Tokyo train lines during rush hour when the cult members left bags of a toxic nerve agent at the station in order to poison the passengers. Thirteen people died and almost 6,000 were injured.


Founded by fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, Scientology follows "spiritual healing" technology called Dianetics. Scientologists believe in the concept of immortality and reincarnation. Following a strict code of ethics, Scientologists must undergo intense questioning from the church at regular intervals in order to eventually clear themselves from imperfect thoughts and harmful, soul-like beings.

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The church came under fire for abuse, manipulation and threatening tactics against members. Tom Cruise, Laura Prepon and Nancy Cartwright are just a few celebrity Scientologists, with Leah Remini being one of the ex-members who publicly came forward to unveil the horrific acts of the church.


Ho No Hana Sanpogyo

Nicknamed the Foot Reading Cult, this Japanese organization believed in being able to predict illness by examining people’s feet. The leader, Fukunaga Hogen, made members recruit more people by essentially lying about the cult’s capabilities.

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Members told people that cancer spread through their heads and the only way to heal it was through the cult’s training sessions. But the leader came under fire after people discovered he was charging a steep fee of $900. It was later revealed that the whole thing was a fraud and Hogen, along with other cult members, was imprisoned.

Order of the Solar Temple

Believing in UFOs, Freemason rituals and hardcore New Age philosophy, the Order of the Solar Temple was a peaceful cult until one particular incident involving a baby. The cult was started by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret in 1984 in Geneva and spread to several countries around the world.

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In the ‘90s, an infant child belonging to one of the cult members was sacrificed by the cult because they believed the baby was the Antichrist. Several members of the cult also committed mass suicide, while others were shot or smothered.


The Freedomites originated back in Canada in 1902 after a number of people from various religions escaped Russia. Their beliefs included living in a communal space while being naked. They also supported anarchy. The cult was well known back in the 1950s when it began popularizing its belief system.

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Members were best-known for their fully nude demonstrations and public buildings aimed at bringing exposure to their group. To fight back, the government of British Columbia seized almost 200 cult children and imprisoned them in order to attempt to end the unruliness the cult was causing.


The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments

As the cult’s name suggests, it was on a mission to live strictly by the Ten Commandments. It was started by five members who claimed they were able to see the Virgin Mary. The group was often referred to as a "doomsday cult" after a failed apocalypse prediction resulted in mass murder orchestrated by the founders.

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Although the police initially believed the founders died with the group, it’s assumed that two of its members might still be alive, issuing an international warrant for the arrest of Joseph Kibweteere and Credonia Mwerinde.

The Twelve Tribes

The Twelve Tribes was first founded in the 1960s. Although it was a fairly small Christian fundamentalist group, it was able to attract followers from around the world. One of the biggest beliefs of the cult was to beat children with a willow cane in order to take out the devil in them.

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The group came under fire after an undercover journalist exposed the German branch to be severely beating children. During the recording, six children received 83 lashings from the willow cane. The cult defended its actions, claiming it had every right to hit children.

Unification Church

The Unification Church’s biggest controversy is its mass weddings. They were a result of a firm belief that the cult’s leader Sun Myung Moon was able to create perfect children by pairing the best couples together. Founded in the ‘50s, the cult featured members from more than 100 countries who called themselves Moonies.

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The followers believed that Moon, who was considered to be the third Adam, and his second wife were the true spiritual parents of humankind. All members of the cult considered themselves Moon’s children, and some are still alive today.


Branch Davidians

Founded in 1959 by Ben Roden, a self-proclaimed religious prophet, the Branch Davidians are a splinter branch of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The cult’s biggest scandal happened in 1993 when it was involved in a 51-day standoff with the FBI, who wanted to investigate the cult’s compound after reports emerged about the stockpiling of illegal weapons.

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Reportedly, these weapons were produced to prepare for the apocalypse. Known as the Waco Siege, the standoff resulted in 80 people, including more than 20 children, being killed in a compound fire. Several Branch Davidians are reportedly still alive today.

Nuwaubian Nation

One of the newer cults, the Nuwaubian Nation believed in a supremacist ideology, Illuminati conspiracies and worship of the Egyptians. Over the years, Dwight York, the group’s founder, abandoned several ideological concepts and preached everything from Judaism and Christianity to a UFO religion and Kemetism.

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His followers built an ancient Egypt-themed compound where they lived together with the leader and changed their name to the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. Over the years, allegations of child abuse and fraud started to emerge, putting York behind bars for 135 years.


Based near Albany, New York, the NXIVM cult is described as a multi-level marketing company, offering success seminars through its program. The cult created a special society through its recruiting platform dedicated to women who were branded with a symbol and forced into slavery.

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In 2018, the founder was arrested for sex trafficking and federal crimes. The cult’s associate was identified as the Hollywood actress Allison Mack, known as Chloe Sullivan on Smallville. As of 2019, she is awaiting her sentencing for her close involvement with the controversial and cruel cult.


Church of Euthanasia

Founded by Reverend Chris Korda and Pastor Kim, The Church of Euthanasia is a recent cult with an extreme belief of restoring population equilibrium between men and animals due to the Earth’s unsustainable population. Its slogans include "Save The Planet, Kill Yourself" and "Eat a Queer Fetus for Jesus."

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To fulfill the mission, cult members have participated in voluntary suicides, abortions and cannibalism in order to reduce the human population. The Church of Euthanasia faced legal threats after it posted public videos online to demonstrate how one should take their own life.

The Symbionese Liberation Army

Started in 1973, the Symbionese Liberation Army was an American terrorist organization that was active for just two years. The group committed several crimes and cruel acts of violence, including the kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst, who accused them of sexual assault and brainwashing.

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The cult was involved in one of the largest police shootouts in American history, with over 9,000 rounds of ammunition fired during the operation. All members of the cult were imprisoned, but as of 2017, most have been released. The organization is no longer active.

Boko Haram

The Jihadist terrorist organization Boko Haram was founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002. From suicide bombings to militant attacks and other means of radicalization, Boko Haram killed thousands of people in order to "purify" Islam in northern Nigeria.

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One of its biggest crimes occurred in 2014 when the group kidnapped more than 270 schoolgirls, many of whom were forced into marriage with the cult members. The cult also held hostage the girls who refused to convert to Islam. Due to international coverage, rescue operations to save the girls are ongoing. As of 2019, 112 girls are still reported missing.


Creativity Movement

The Creativity Movement highlights the supposed creative superiority of the white race. The group was formed in 1973, and in 1987 its founder Ben Klassen released a statement that the cult is on a mission for a racial holy war. He describes other races as being inferior, with the cult’s biggest opponent being the Jewish people.

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The group was involved in bomb attacks and violent crimes, including a rampage that resulted in two dead and nine injured. The cult was later sued by the victims’ families; however, the lawsuit was unsuccessful.

The Church of Bible Understanding

The Church of Bible Understanding was founded in 1971 by Stewart Traill. It follows a strict Christianity protocol, and at one point, it boasted more than 10,000 members. Some of the ex-members came forward saying they were employed by the church, but all their wages went to the organization. Its leader soon became a millionaire.

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Over the years, the cult started losing members due to the fact that cult leaders encouraged adherents to break contact with family members. The church came under fire after it was revealed it was running dirty and overcrowded orphanages.

Chen Tao

Founded only in 1993, Chen Tao’s leader Hon-Ming Chen believed in spiritual energy and its intervention in the current world. The cult’s members believed that the world was dominated by evil spirits and only its leader was able to take them to true salvation.

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One of Chen’s bold predictions was that God would come to Earth in a human form on March 31, 1998, with an announcement made on TV a few days before. When nothing happened, Chen relocated the cult and the original members decided to move on with their lives.



The Raelism movement is a UFO religion, believing that aliens are roaming the planet in disguise. Its founder, Claude Vorilhon, claims that he is the only person who ever got in contact with alien scientists who, according to the cult, created all life on Earth.

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The group’s mission is to spread awareness in order to restore peace and welcome the aliens back home. They want to prepare mankind for the potential meeting with extraterrestrial life. The cult is still active today and claims it has successfully managed to clone a human baby.

Bikram Choudhury

Bikram yoga may be practiced in plenty of cities around the world, but the true story behind it is a bit scary. Many original practitioners have reported that the yoga phenomenon’s founder Bikram Choudhury thought of himself as a god that could provide health and happiness to the people.

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His followers were forced to accept the teaching methods of original Bikram yoga without complaints, which resulted in sexual assault and abuse. Many of his victims were too afraid to speak out, believing they would be kicked out of the practice they loved so much.


This cult once had a YouTube channel through which it preached its belief in exorcising demonic life out of non-cult members. The charismatic leader, Bernard Poolman, was able to convince his followers that they could be unprogrammed from typical societal beliefs.

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One day, he met Sunette Spies, who believed she could channel Hitler along with several other people and inanimate objects. She posted her preaching on the now-removed Desteni YouTube channel. Following the structure of Scientology, Desteni ultimately failed in its mission after Bernard Poolman passed away. Many of its members, including Sunette Spies, are still alive today.


The Chicago Rippers

This Illinois-based satanic cult might’ve been much smaller than others on our list (consisting of only four members), but it was involved in several violent crimes, many of which included kidnapping and murdering women. The satanic rituals involved murder and amputation of the women’s breasts.

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The cult’s only reported ritual survivor was able to give the description of her attacker to the police. All members were imprisoned with extended sentences. The cult was later connected to several mysterious disappearances; however, the police weren’t able to get more leads.

Villa Baviera

Once known as the Dignity Colony, this organization was located in a remote area of central Chile. The cult-like organization featured more than 300 German and Chilean residents who made the area their home. The group’s leader, Paul Schäfer, was previously accused of child molestation, but the cult itself was reported as harmless.

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That was until the Chilean government uncovered the cult’s participation in child sexual abuse, money laundering and illegal weapon sales. The cult is still present today, although its current members claim that it’s now a changed and much more civilized colony.


The cult of Eckankar is a form of Hinduism, its leader being an ex-staff member of the one and only Church of Scientology. Founded in 1965 by Paul Twitchell — Scientology alumni and one of the first to reach "clear" status — Eckankar quickly became a popular organization, attracting tens of thousands of followers.

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The cult teaches its followers how to perform higher physical and spiritual techniques that uplift the soul. Former members of the cult have reported Eckankar as a scam and even alleged abuse during their time in the cult and outside it.