False Facts About Cult Leaders You Always Thought Were True

If you think about it, forming a bona-fide cult is hard work. You have to convince large numbers of people to do things they normally wouldn't, you have to navigate a hostile society that gives you the side-eye at best and storms your compound's walls at worst—and you have to build said compound! As a result, real cults aren't all that common, and by necessity usually operate behind a veil of secrecy that leads to a lot of misinformation and myths. The myths especially can be easy to believe in because a cult is already such a bonkers concept it's possible to buy just about anything you hear about them. 

Being a cult leader basically requires the ability to think the craziest things are perfectly reasonable. That's why the myths discussed here have persisted for so long: when talking about people who claim that aliens are coming to beam up their souls, or that God has given them permission to murder anyone who opposes them, any weird story about them seems possible. But if you believe the supposed facts about cult leaders listed here, it's time for some reeducation, because they're not true.

Jim Jones got those at Jonestown to voluntarily drink the Kool-Aid

When people think "cult leader" they probably think of Jim Jones, who founded the People's Temple in 1954, led it to a level of legitimate prominence in the 1970s, and then moved close to 1,000 of his followers to a compound called Jonestown in Guyana. The move was pitched as a way for Jones and his followers to live freely, but it was prompted by media scrutiny and interviews with former members who described beatings and other shady practices, revealing the Temple as the cult it really was.

Everyone thinks they know what happened in Jonestown on November 18th, 1978—nearly a thousand people drank poisoned Kool-Aid and committed mass suicide at the prompting of the charismatic (and heroin-addicted and totally insane) Jim Jones. After all, to this day the phrase "drank the Kool-Aid" implies a cultish belief in something. But this isn't true.

First of all, it wasn't Kool-Aid, as the folks at Kraft-Heinz would very much like you to know. And second, as SFGate reports, almost all those people were murdered. Many assumed there was no poison because Jones often liked to "test" people's loyalty by pretending to make them drink it, but just giving them something harmless. And many—probably several hundred—were beaten and forced to drink the poison, probably at gunpoint (Rolling Stone notes the presence of armed guards). It wasn't a mass suicide by a group of brainwashed people. It was a mass murder of a group of terrified captives.

Charles Manson was a prolific serial killer

Fifty years on, Charles Manson and his "family" still hold the public's attention. Manson's cult was short-lived but surprisingly effective in the terrorize-the-world department. It doesn't hurt that Manson's murder spree intersected the worlds of music and entertainment, or that one of their victims was a beautiful Hollywood starlet (Sharon Tate), or that Manson lived on for decades with those crazy eyes, giving reliably crazy interviews every few years—though, surprisingly, he was never actually diagnosed with any sort of mental illness.

But once you strip away the Hollywood glamour and the whole Summer-of-Love-souring-into-nightmare narrative the media has constructed around Manson, you find that Manson was convicted of "physically participating" in just two murders, those of Gary Hinman, and Donald "Shorty" Shea. As the Washington Post reports, Manson was present when Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered, but he didn't actually kill them. And he wasn't even there when Sharon Tate and her guests were murdered. Now, last we checked the acceptable number of murders committed remains "none," so the fact that Manson may only be directly responsible for two killings doesn't make him any less of a monster. And the other deaths definitely happened due to his malign and inexplicable influence on his followers. But it's time to stop thinking Manson was some sort of unstoppable demonic killing machine, instead of a weirdly charismatic loser who caused a lot of suffering and heartache for no sensible reason.

The Heaven's Gate leader always had the same end plan

In 1997, 39 people put on matching sweatpants, shirts, and Nike sneakers, took sleeping pills mashed up in applesauce, tied plastic bags over their heads, and lay down with purple shrouds over their bodies to die. They were members of the UFO death cult Heaven's Gate, led by a man named Marshall Applewhite. They believed they were about to be removed from their mortal bodies and beamed aboard a spaceship traveling in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. (The group's website is unbelievably still online.)

While most people assume that all the cult members knew what they were getting into, the fact is that Applewhite initially told his followers that no suicide would be necessary—they would simply be "beamed up" when the spacecraft arrived. Rolling Stone reports that as late as 1994 the members thought they'd be able to take their bodies with them when they went into space. Applewhite changed his teachings when the group's co-founder, Bonnie Nettles, died from cancer, but his followers still hoped to manage the trick without having to take any extreme measures. How Applewhite convinced so many to take the leap of faith isn't certain, but it was apparently totally voluntary. Salon reports that the suicides occurred in three waves over two days, in a very orderly fashion.

The Children of God ended when David Berg died

Cults usually don't outlast their leaders. Even the ones that don't end in suicide and horror are typically cults of personality above all else: when that personality goes away so does the organizing force behind the cult. So you might be forgiven for thinking that one of the most notorious cults in recent history, The Children of God, stopped being a thing when it's founder and leader, David Berg, died in 1994. But you'd be wrong.

Berg founded The Children of God in 1968, and from the beginning it was a sex cult with an apocalyptic twist (Berg predicted the end of the world several times). Sure, it was a religious cult, but it was all about sex, mixing some old-school Christian doctrine with 1960s free love. Berg even trained his followers to use "flirty fishing" to bring new members in and encouraged incest and other horrors as part of God's (creepy) plan. One former member told BBC News that she was beaten for minor transgressions, and some members—including, as Esquire reports, actor Joaquin Phoenix's parents—left the cult once they realized what was going on.

When David Berg died in 1994, The Children of God had already changed its name to The Family of Love and then simply The Family. What's truly mind-blowing is that this weird sex cult, despite many documented cases of abuse, continues to this day as The Family International.

Gary Heidnik was just a crazy serial killer

You might not recognize Gary Heidnik's name, but if you've seen the film The Silence of the Lambs you know something about him. Heidnik was the inspiration for the serial killer character in the movie, dubbed "Buffalo Bill" for his penchant of skinning his victims. Between 1986 and 1987, Heidnik abducted, raped, and tortured six women in Philadelphia. He kept them in a pit dug into his basement, eventually killing two of them and feeding one of the bodies to the other victims. He was eventually convicted of the crimes and executed in 1999, and the entire world slept a little easier that night.

But Gary Heidnik wasn't just a prolific serial killer—he was also a successful cult leader. He founded the United Church of the Ministers of God in 1971, boasting five members. As the New York Daily News reports, he opened a brokerage account for the church with an initial deposit of $1,500 and eventually grew that to over $500,000. By the time Heidnik was in jail for his horrific crimes in 1987, his cult had over 50 members who continued to hold services despite the fact that their founder turned out to be an extremely evil guy. (The church's own lawyer expressed amazement that it wasn't just a tax scam).

Ervil LeBaron was a Mormon

You can't get a more pitch-perfect name for a cult leader than Ervil LeBaron (admit it, you misread that as Evil). Ervil (pictured far left) founded the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God after a falling out with his brother Joel (second from left) over business ideas. Ervil's new church made use of the old Mormon doctrine of "blood atonement." This concept required that a sinner's blood be shed in order for them to attain God's forgiveness—which basically meant the death penalty for anyone that Ervil deemed to be a sinner. In 1972, Ervil carried out the first blood atonement murder—by killing his brother Joel.

Ervil evaded justice at first, but was eventually turned over to the FBI—and as BBC news reports, proceeded to use the concept of blood atonement to kill a further two-dozen people over the next decade, even ordering many hits from prison. Ervil died in prison in 1981, but his extended family still lives in a compound in Mexico founded by his father, Alma, where nine Americans were killed in an apparent drug-related ambush last year, according to The Washington Post.

While most people think LeBaron and his family and followers were Mormons, they weren't. The Mormon church has excommunicated the polygamous cults that set up shop in Mexico in the 20th century, and also doesn't acknowledge blood atonement as a legitimate practice anymore. In short, LeBaron wasn't a Mormon, he invented a religion all his own.

Sun Myung Moon was always considered a flake

Even the nickname "Moonies" conjures up a flaky, silly image, as does the spectacle of thousands of people getting married in a mass ceremony. Founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church believed that Jesus had not finished his work before he was crucified, and that Moon had been appointed to finish the job. Marriage was part of Moon's idea of producing "sinless children" who would complete mankind's salvation. Thus the mass ceremonies where Moon would bless the folks getting hitched so their children would be in turn blessed.

If you're thinking that this slightly wacky little cult was always regarded as such, though, you'd be wrong. While it's true that in its early years most people thought of the "Moonies" as a cult, if an apparently harmless one, Moon worked hard to gain some legitimacy—and for a while almost had it. In fact, as The New York Times reports, Moon was able to get legitimate political leaders like Presidents George Bush and Gerald R. Ford, Senator Jack Kemp, and Soviet Premier Mikhail S. Gorbachev to attend his events. He founded charities and civic organizations and was often invited to Capitol Hill functions. While these figures often tried to walk back their connection to the Moonies in later years, there was a time when Moon and his followers weren't considered total nutjobs.

Donald DeFreeze and the Symbionese Liberation Army were brilliant revolutionaries

Everyone knows that the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst—heiress to the Hearst family fortune—in 1974. Patty Hearst later appeared to have joined her captors, assisting in bank heists where she was famously photographed wearing a kicky little beret and holding an automatic rifle. The SLA leveraged Hearst's kidnapping into a few minor victories for their radical politics, like forcing Hearst's father to donate millions to feed the hungry in San Francisco as a form of ransom.

But if the grand name and the minor success makes you think the SLA and their leader, Donald DeFreeze, were a bunch of radical geniuses ... think again. As Jeffrey Toobin writes in his book American Heiress, in comparison to other radical black figures of the time, DeFreeze was "not as intelligent, not as good-looking, not as strong, not as charismatic, not as competent." The Symbionese Liberation Army wasn't much of an army—it barely counted a dozen members at its height—and the kidnapping was an amateurish and poorly-planned event. The main reason the SLA enjoyed as much success as it did, as noted by NPR, was because they were so insignificant no one knew who they were. DeFreeze and the SLA never had much of a coherent belief system or political agenda, and lived in deplorable conditions while holding Hearst, who quickly became less of a prisoner and more of a hanger-on. Hearst later claimed she'd been brainwashed, but many believe she simply enjoyed play-acting revolution.

Adolfo Constanzo was a Satanist

The Narcosatanists cult erupted into the headlines in 1989 when an American student named Mark Kilroy was abducted while on vacation in Mexico and murdered. As Rolling Stone reports, this led to the discovery that Adolfo Constanzo led a cult that believed ritualistic murders would protect their drug cartel partners from police intervention. So the cult had murdered more than 20 people over the course of several years, all of whom had been viciously tortured and in some cases dismembered as Constanzo escalated his rituals. When Constanzo decided he needed a fresh human brain for the most powerful ritual he'd ever attempted, Kilroy was the unfortunate victim chosen.

According to Oxygen, when the press got wind of the cult's weird beliefs, they dubbed them "Los Narcosatánicos," which translated to The Narco-Satanists, and the satanic connection was born. But there's actually no evidence that Constanzo or his followers were satanists. The Sun-Sentinel says Constanzo actually practiced a form of Santería, a religion merging Christian practices with traditional pagan religions practiced in Cuba. Santería utilizes rituals that often require blood sacrifice, usually of an animal.

While the fact that Constanzo wasn't a Satanist doesn't make the brutal, horrifying murders—committed in the belief they would protect violent criminals from justice—any less horrifying, it's absolutely a mistake to think they were doing all this in Satan's name. They didn't need Satan to be evil as heck.

Keith Raniere was the sole leader of Nxivm

The story of Nxivm, the new-age cult that somehow convinced a lot of smart women to be recruited as "slaves," is filled with recognizable Hollywood names, most prominently actress Allison Mack. Mack had a real, legit career highlighted by her starring role on Smallville in the early 2000s, which makes her connection to a cult fascinating—especially when you find out she wasn't just a victim. She was one of the leaders.

Keith Raniere, the founder of Nxivm, was apparently the main beneficiary of its dicta regarding the bodies of its female members. For example, the members of the secret group within Nxivm, called DOS, had his initials branded onto their bodies. But if you thought he was the only one in charge in this bizarre self-help cult, you'd be dead wrong.

As CNN reports, the women recruited into DOS came to regard themselves as "masters" and the women they personally recruited into the cult to be their slaves. Although only Raniere and actress Alison Mack were convicted of any crimes, it's clear from the testimony offered that Raniere wasn't the only one running the show in Nxivm—these female "masters" pressured their recruits to record compromising videos, often confessing to things they hadn't actually done, as proof of their loyalty and for the cult to use as collateral against any backsliding. This is one cult where there wasn't just one charismatic leader—it took a very deeply weird village to make Nxivm work.

Fred Phelps was awful in person

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has made a name for itself as one of the ugliest and most intolerant cults of all time. These are the people who believe that military deaths and other bad things that happen to the United States are the result of God's anger at our tolerance of homosexuality, so they show up at military funerals with hateful and insulting signs in an effort to open everyone's eyes to this very obvious and not at all insane concept.

The church began as an outgrowth of an established Baptist church in Topeka in 1954, and for decades its pastor, Fred Phelps, was the WBC's face. So it's easy to imagine that a man who could casually use hateful expletives and slurs while torturing grieving families must have been a complete monster.

And he was. Except, evil is always more complicated than that. As Mother Jones reports, Phelps was a champion of Civil Rights in the 1960s, working as a lawyer for the cause and often bragging that he "systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws" of Topeka. He later applied the same passion to his anti-gay stance as he had to his work for civil rights, seeing racism and tolerance of homosexuality as both against God's word. And Time reported Phelps could be very friendly and polite in person—even as he casually used slurs when referencing homosexuals. For all his evil, Phelps was more complicated than you think.