September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Five most evil brainwashing cults

17 min read
Five evil brainwashing cults are examined by TV historian Tony McMahon including the Branch Davidians and Heaven's Gate
brainwashing cult

The 1970s 1980s, and 1990s saw some terrifying brainwashing cults emerge resulting in mass murder and suicide. In November 1978, the bodies of over 900 men, women, and children were found at a remote site in Guyana. The Jonestown mass suicide was on a scale not seen since a similar number of Jewish zealots took their own lives at the fortress of Masada, rather than be captured by the Romans in 73 CE. Many evil cults bubbled under the surface during these years only to erupt into the public view in the 1990s.

Take for example the Branch Davidians in the United States and the deadly Aum Shinrikyo in Japan. The former involved in a bloody stand-off with American law enforcement in a siege that gripped the nation’s TV viewers. The latter, a Japanese cult that forced members to drink blood and then tried to gas thousands of commuters on their way to work on the Tokyo subway. The 1990s also saw a ghoulish sacrifice of a baby believed to be the Antichrist by the Solar Temple cult and another bizarre mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate cult, led by Marshall Applewhite. We’ll look at all these evil brainwashing cults in more detail below. Read on!

This year’s starvation cult in Kenya – many dead

Brainwashing cults are typically led by charismatic, single-minded leaders capable of inspiring vulnerable people into unusual courses of action. But these people also have a degree of agency. They may be vulnerable, angry, and easily duped – but without their complicity, these cults would never get off the ground. An additional ingredient for the success of a brainwashing cult is not being noticed or taken seriously by the authorities until it’s too late.

In recent weeks, it’s been reported that at least 90 people starved themselves to death in Kenya allegedly inspired by the teachings of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie of the Good News International Church. More information has yet to emerge and the “pastor” is in court. So for now, I’ll leave you to read more about this latest cult. Tragically, this shows that evil brainwashing cults are not only still with us but thriving in these troubled times.

Many of these cults are millenarian in nature believing that this corrupt world is about to end and cult members, if they lead the designated lifestyle and stick to the rules, will become part of the post-apocalyptic elite. In the 1990s, with the new millennium approaching, this way of thinking gained traction for a while. But the roots of millenarianism are deep in history, and in the human psyche, and will be with us in the future for a long time – possibly in increasingly virulent form.

(Blog post continues after the video below with an analysis of five deadly cults).

Jim Jones: the Jonestown massacre

The world was shocked in 1978 at the sight of about 900 people lying face down in the jungle in Guyana, having apparently committed mass suicide. Though it became clear that murder had also taken place. It brought to a grisly end what had been a decade of violent terrorism increasingly from esoteric and religiously motivated groups. People who could not be negotiated with and whose motives were grounded in the supernatural.

The murderous and suicidal cult was the People’s Temple, founded by Jim Jones. Like many cult leaders, he had dabbled in different branches of Christianity blending it with other esoteric philosophies, very much in keeping with the freewheeling spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. Based in California, his cult grew from the mid-60s and was notable for being very racially integrated with many African-American members. But Jones played on the insecurities of ethnic minority members telling them that if they were less than obedient, they would end up in government run concentration camps. His colour blindness, in other words, came with a big poisonous sting.

Initially, press coverage of the cult was inquisitive but not damaging. However, by the late 1970s, journalists began to delve into accusations of brainwashing and financial impropriety. So, Jones moved the cult en masse to a compound in Guyana – a former British colony now independent bordering Venezuela. His community was dubbed Jonestown. The Guyanese authorities had no inclination to monitor what Jones was up to and he felt free to set up his new utopia in the jungle. But reports began to leak out that what he was actually creating, was a hellish dystopia where members were regimented and tortured.

As concerns mounted about what was going on at Jonestown, a Democrat Congressman – Leo Ryan – flew out to investigate. Ryan had befriended the father of a cult member whose mutilated body had been discovered after he tried to leave the People’s Temple. Ryan flew to Guyana making his way to Jonestown with the families of cult members and journalists. Against the wishes of Jones, he talked to people at Jonestown with one woman begging that she wanted to leave. In a previously unthinkable incident, Ryan and his party were ambushed at the airport and the Congressman was riddled with bullets. Three journalists were also killed. It’s hard to convey now just how shocking this was – the idea a US leading political figure could be slain in such circumstances.

After that, Jones knew he had unleashed the full fury of Washington DC. What followed was described as a “revolutionary suicide”. Cyanide and sedatives were mixed with a grape flavoured fruit drink in a large vat, first squirted into the mouths of babies and children and then drunk or injected by the adults. The fruit drink was reported to be Kool Aid – a popular American soft drink – giving rise to the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” in reference to people who believe anything. Kool Aid’s then manufacturer, the General Foods Corporation, was appalled at the association with the massacre though sales weren’t affected in the United States. Within months, it was being widely asserted that the mixer wasn’t Kool Aid but a cheaper competitor. This is now the conventional wisdom today.

Press reports I’ve read from the time stated that the cyanide took five minutes to kill. Adults therefore witnessed their children go through the writhing death agonies. Then took the poison themselves. Given the sheer number of people, it has to be assumed that many committed the act of revolutionary suicide voluntarily. As we’ll see with the other cults detailed below, cult members do have a degree of agency in their decisions. Yes, there are always overbearing and controlling leaders. And a brainwashing ideology. But…people still needed to buy into the BS. And they surely did.

After the massacre, there were so many bodies that the US authorities struggled to both identify and repatriate them. The rows of corpses, some holding hands in death, began rotting in the jungle and posing a health hazard, even a cholera outbreak. The US suggested a mass cremation but the Guyanese government put its foot down. The bodies of these crazy Americans had to go back home and nowhere else. So for several days, decomposing cult members were stuffed into green army bags and flown out in scenes reminiscent of the Vietnam war that had ended only a few years before and was fresh in the public memory.

A forgotten aspect of this story was that after the massacre, surviving members in the United States were terrified about rumours that a 200-strong People’s Temple hit squad was out to kill ex-members, seen as having betrayed the cult. Former members in hiding told journalists that Jones had created this murder machine and set aside money for its operations in case he died.

Branch Davidians and the Waco Siege

For the next four cults, I’m leaping forward to the 1990s when cults exploded into the news with their murderous deeds. The approaching millennium seemed to set them off, given that all of them believed in an impending end times of some description. All of these brainwashing cults had been recruiting and growing below the radar through the 1980s, getting occasional attention from journalists. Now they found their moment!

Jonestown had set a high benchmark for madness by a cult in 1978. The Branch Davidians did their best to meet this standard in early 1993. But like the People’s Temple, there was a history behind what was about to unfold. With all these cults, we find a long trail of personality clashes; financial skullduggery; brushes with the law; and the intervention of police or the courts as families try to get their loved ones back.

Between February 28 and April 19 1993, US federal and Texas state law enforcement besieged a compound, The Mount Carmel Center, owned by the Branch Davidian cult, led by David Koresh. Firearms had been stockpiled in contravention of federal regulations. Allegations of child abuse had also filtered out to the authorities. The resulting confrontation between the cult and the state ended in an inferno with 76 Branch Davidians lying dead, 25 of whom were women and 28 were children. Two of the dead women were pregnant.

The roots of the 51-day siege went back decades. The Branch Davidians were a split-off from an earlier split-off from the Seventh Day (SDA) Adventist church. The Davidians left the church in the 1930s led by Bulgarian-born Victor Houteff who believed insufficient attention was being paid to the imminent return of Jesus Christ with SDA leaders more interested in earthly matters. Houteff set up the compound at Mount Carmel in Waco.

Houteff died in 1955 and his widow, Florence, announced that Jesus would be back on April 22, 1959. A thousand Davidians sold their property and possessions handing over everything and setting up a tent city at Waco to greet Christ after his two thousand year absence. When the son of God failed to appear, a revolt was led by Ben Roden who set up the Branch Davidians, still convinced Jesus was returning very soon. When he died in 1978, his son George and wife Lois clashed over control of the Waco compound. Lois enlisted the help of a devotee, Vernon Wayne Howell, and when she died in 1986 – all hell broke loose.

November 3, 1987 saw a 45 minute gun battle between factions supporting Roden and Howell. Roden was shot in the chest and head. Howell was put on trial for attempted murder but was acquitted when a mistrial was declared. Three years later, Howell had taken over the Waco compound and changed his name to David Koresh. The surname was Hebrew for Cyrus, the Persian king revered by the Jewish people for freeing them from Babylonian bondage. While not claiming to be Jesus, Koresh said he was the Messiah and this newfound status allowed him to take multiple wives whose children would eventually rule the world.

A combination of Koresh’s violent rhetoric, hoarding of guns, and child abuse allegations led the FBI and the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to act. The ATF discovered that the cult had 136 firearms; over 200,000 rounds of ammunition; grenade launcher attachments; and explosive chemicals. The ATF sent an undercover agent into the Branch Davidians though this person couldn’t get access to the compound. However, there were sufficient grounds to move against Koresh and his followers. Federal warrants were issued but when agents went to execute them at the compound, they came under fire.

A two and a half hour gun fight followed with four ATF agents killed and 20 wounded. So began a 51 day siege of the compound. Tear gas was used to try and get the Branch Davidians out but that failed. In response, cult members set fire to the premises and were consumed in their own flames. Koresh died among them. The handling of the siege by law enforcement wasn’t without criticism and subsequent scrutiny but the idea that the FBI and ATF were to blame for the fire, as some suggested, was not true.

Still, that hasn’t stopped lingering conspiracy theories on the subject. Especially in extreme-Right circles. I’m not going to give the oxygen of publicity to these views but they have unfortunately provoked other acts of unrelated violence based on spurious claims that federal agents set fire to the compound. These conspiracy theories tend to overlook a long history of violence and factionalism among the Branch Davidians themselves in the run up to the siege.

Japan Subway gas killers: Aum Shinrikyo

On March 20, 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan released highly toxic Sarin gas on the Tokyo metro system killing 13 people and severely injuring hundreds more. The death toll undoubtedly rose over time as a direct result of the gas attack. The leader of this evil operation was a partially blind man, Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto), who blended different belief systems – as other religious charlatans have done – eventually declaring himself to be the new Christ.

Aum devotees were required to drink his bathwater and wear electric caps that linked their brain with his. Asahara sought to recruit doctors, lawyers, and scientists from top universities to be ministers in his future imperial government. Alarmingly, he was able to attract some significant talent into his organisation to help develop its weapons, though others resisted his charms.

Astonishingly, Asahara had appeared on Japanese TV in the years before the attack blathering on about this half-baked philosophy on the world without mentioning the sordid details of what his cult was really up to. Here he is being interviewed by the famous Japanese actor and TV host Beat Takeshi, who looks like he’s figured out the guy in front of him is up to no good (blog post continues after video).

Shoko Asahara interviewed by Beat Takeshi

This was a cult that thought big and global. Rumoured to have up to a billion dollars in available cash; the ability to obtain weapons of mass destruction; an arms dealing operation inside Russia; and reportedly mining for uranium in Australia to go nuclear. But despite these impressive claims, its one big attack – where it intended to display its lethal capability – backfired. Still killing several people but not on the scale for which it had hoped and planned. The graphic below, based on data from the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, shows the alarming reach and complexity of the Aum cult.

Aum cult members took liquid Sarin on to the Tokyo subway in bags, which they then punctured with umbrellas. As most of the Sarin remained in liquid form and didn’t vaporise, that thankfully lessened the number of casualties. It later emerged that Aum had run a trial operation in the central Japanese town of Matsumoto killing seven people and injuring many more in their homes. When the Aum cult was raided by police after the Tokyo attack, they found a concealed laboratory near Mount Fuji capable of producing vast amounts of chemical weapons.

Asahara was apprehended, put on trial, and sentenced to death. Throughout the trial, he was apparently suffering from incontinence and wore diapers to try and hide his condition. His lawyers pleaded insanity but this was firmly rejected by the courts. It took until 2018 for the hanging to take place at the Tokyo Detention House. Six other cult members were also hanged on the same day.

What terrified the authorities around the world about Aum was a realisation that a new wave of religiously based cults saw no limits to their destructive power. They were remarkably well financed, had access to top talent, and an ideology with no reference points in the real, secular world. Unlike the Marxist, anarchist, or nationalist influenced terrorists of the past, there was no offer to negotiate, ransoms to pay, hostages to release, or demands that could be fulfilled. Because these new apocalyptic cults, with their otherworldly and supernatural outlook, had no interest in talking or dealing with the majority of humanity. Their only mission was uncompromising chaos and death.

The Solar Temple: suicidal Knights Templar

The next two cults involved a belief that through death, one could enter a higher spiritual plain, leaving the corrupt body behind. But with the Solar Temple, as with Jonestown mentioned above, this tipped into murder. Including the despicable homicide of a baby, accused of being the Antichrist. As with the Branch Davidians, cult members were told the hour of domesday for the planet was approaching and to be saved, total obedience was required.

There were several very similar grotesque incidents linked to the Solar Temple. In 1994, forty-eight people were found in a farmhouse and three chalets in Switzerland, consumed by fire. There were children among the dead suggesting murder as well as suicide. Five more bodies turned up around the same time in another burned down house near Montreal, Canada. The following year, 1995, sixteen cult members were discovered in a torched house in Grenoble, France. Two of the dead were French police officers and the charred bodies were arranged in a star-shaped formation.

Then in 1997, five people in Quebec used propane tanks and gas to trigger an inferno in a suburban home incinerating everybody. This time, their bodies were arranged like a cross. They apparently believed ending their lives would reunite them with their compatriots who had gone up in flames in 1994.

The cult’s co-founders, Luc Jouret and Joseph di Mambro, were already dead by 1997 – having instigated the mass suicide in Switzerland three years earlier and joined in. Though not before a very lavish meal the night before with others about to share their fate. While the collective act of suicide was presented as spiritual – journalists later uncovered financial irregularities, splits within the Solar Temple, and Di Mambro’s declining health that together led to this moment. Comparisons were understandably made to both Jonestown and Waco.

Di Mambro was a French-Canadian jeweller who became a Rosicrucian in the 1950s; then got immersed in the New Age beliefs of the 1970s; and finally convinced himself he was part of something called the Great White Brotherhood. This is a claimed secret elite of super-humans who direct us mere mortals – an idea popularised by the esoteric writer Madame Blavatsky. Di Mambro was sure he was the reincarnation of Moses or the Pharaoh Akhenaten, or possibly both. By the time of his suicide, a cancer-stricken Di Mambro apparently no longer believed the movement was making any progress.

In the early 1980s, Di Mambro had invited Jouret, a Belgian homeopath born in the Congo, to set up the Solar Temple. It was a meeting of minds. Jouret was involved in neo-Templar activity, believing the Knights Templar were never really crushed. Jouret mashed this Templarism up with ultra-Right political views under the banner of a racist ideology, National Bolshevism. But like Di Mambro, he became disillusioned and the two decided to end it all.

As the full details of the horror surrounding The Solar Temple emerged, the media was full of talk about “millennial fever” – not the millennial generation, who were still in nappies, but the anticipation of the 21st century. This looming date was fuelling end-of-times cults who stoked apprehension and anxiety about what lay ahead. This was mirrored in dire warnings at the time about IT systems crashing on January the first, 2000 – the so-called “millennium bug”.

Suffice it to say, when I woke up with a hangover in the 21st century, my computer worked and the world had not ended. But by that time, cult members had taken their own lives.

Heavens Gate and joining the Halle-Bop comet

On March 26, 1997, San Diego police found 39 people dead on bunk beds in a suburban residence. An eerie calm hung over the house, darkened with the curtains closed. They had killed themselves in stages with a combination of phenobarbital, vodka, and plastic bags secured over their heads. Members helped each other with the grim process. They believed that their true selves were being liberated from their earthly bodies ascending skywards to join a passing UFO.

Several leading male members of the cult had been castrated some time before their mass suicide. They believed that as immortal galactic beings, they would be androgynous. But some journalists in 1997 saw in the castration, Applewhite’s struggle with his own homosexuality. In the 1970s, he was fired as a music professor at a Catholic university in Texas after a same-sex relationship. From a very religious background, he hated being gay and even attempted conversion therapy.

It was while undergoing this therapy in a psychiatric hospital that he met a nurse, Bonnie Nettles, with whom he would form the Heaven’s Gate cult. They recruited hundreds of members who were told to dress in identical uniforms, same haircuts, and no sex. When the San Diego police found the 39 bodies, they initially thought all the dead were male. Such was the success of Applewhite in enforcing an asexual ethos. Nettles, his co-founder, died of cancer in 1985 – twelve years before the final gruesome realisation of their vision.

In the house, investigators chanced upon an image of a dome-headed alien believed to be traveling right behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Members of the cult who took their own lives left messages on the internet and videotapes explaining that they had to leave their bodies, or “containers”, to join the extra-terrestrials. Surviving members of Heaven’s Gate claimed their cult differed from Jonestown and Waco in that those who died were not forced to terminate their lives and were allowed to opt out of the oncoming suicide at any point. Nevertheless, there was clearly a large element of brainwashing into what was a total myth.

Through death then, the 39 cult members shed the earthly containers that had constrained their real selves, and left the planet, boarding a passing spaceship to a galactic utopia. Relatives of the dead interviewed afterwards seemed unsurprised by the suicides. The victims had deliberately estranged themselves from families and friends who in turn sensed something appalling was going to happen at some point. Actress Nichele Nicholls who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek series lost her brother who committed suicide with the other Heaven’s Gate devotees. She told journalists that her brother had hardly spoken to the family for 20 years since joining the cult.

Marshall Applewhite records a video message

Heaven’s Gate shone a light on other weird sects operating on the American west coast at that time. The Garbage Eaters, for example, competed with the involuntarily homeless to forage from dumpsters for food – and spiritual nourishment. They blamed the resulting stomach aches and rushes to the toilet on Satan.

Meanwhile in El Cajon, a town near San Diego, a 76-year-old cult leader, Charles Spiegel, was upset at the publicity he was receiving as a result of Heaven’s Gate. He believed that in 2001, four years in the future at that time, a thousand aliens would arrive from a planet called Myton. They would land in the Bermuda Triangle on the submerged remains of Atlantis.

Most of these cults were relatively harmless. One woman claimed to be channelling a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis. Another woman in Chicago was channelling the thoughts of Sananda, a spaceship commander coming to save humanity. And in rural Montana, members of the Church Universal and Triumphant were waiting for Armageddon. They received messages from the “Ascended Masters” whose aims were being thwarted by dark forces – mainly liberals and left-wingers it seems.

Didn’t many religions start as a brainwashing cult led by an apocalyptic preacher?

Many of our mainstream religions, if looked at dispassionately, were founded by cult leaders who demanded complete obedience and promised death and suffering to outsiders who opposed them. Didn’t Jesus tell his apostles to reject all ties of family and friendship putting the cause first? Wasn’t hell-fire promised to those who refused to accept the truth as revealed by the prophets or son of God? It’s not that difficult to see how some people brought up in these accepted faiths might emphasise the cultish aspects with the attendant violence. Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite were all exposed to very literalist interpretations of Christian scripture growing up and defined their cult ideologies accordingly.

What unites all these cults is the presence of vulnerable people looking for meaning; charismatic leaders with apocalyptic answers; and a willingness by the leaders and the led to take things to their logical, ultra-violent conclusion. Sadly, it seems unlikely the evil brainwashing cults are going to disappear any time soon.

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