Famous Cults You Had No Idea Were Still Active

Some creepy cults just refuse to die, with members holding onto their beliefs, despite a destructive or tragic collapse of the main group. For all their goofy ideas and disturbing practices, cults like the following show a tenacity matched only by cockroaches in a nuclear war.

Aum Shinrikyo

We all know someone who comes back from a trip to India and says they've figured it all out, man. Yoga instructor Chizuo Matsumoto took it too far when he returned from the Himalayas calling himself Asahara Shoko, claiming to be both Christ and the new Buddha. The busy holy bee formed Aum Shinrikyo, combining the Sanskrit word Aum, meaning "powers of destruction and creation in the universe" and the Japanese Shinrikyo, "teaching of the supreme truth." The group believed in an eclectic mix of Buddhist doctrines and prophecies from Revelations and Nostradamus, all centered around the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva. Asahara taught bad karma could be reduced through suffering, which justified being cruel and manipulative to his followers, and became paranoid and apocalyptic in his worldview.

In 1995, ten high-ranking members of the cult boarded Tokyo subway trains with packages containing liquid sarin, which they punctured with umbrellas. The attack incapacitated thousands and killed twelve people, and was the largest terrorist attack in Japanese history. Twelve members of the cult were arrested and placed on Death Row, while Asahara was charged with the sarin attack, several murders, and the manufacture of illegal drugs. Pretty heavy charges for a Christ-Buddha.

The cult remains active today as "Aleph." It's distanced itself from its former leader, though people remain suspicious (plus, any business that was already using the name "Aleph" quickly suffered a significant crisis in consumer confidence). Bizarrely, the original cult seems to have survived in Russia, of all places. In March 2016, a cult conference was raided by police in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, and 58 attendees were expelled for visa violations. Of the group, only four were Japanese — the majority were Russian. It appears the cult has been attracting Russian converts by holding conferences in nearby holiday destinations, like the Ukraine and Turkey. Russia has pronounced Aum Shinrikyo an illegal terrorist group, but prosecutors estimate there could be as many as 30,000 adherents in the country.

Heaven's Gate

Bonnie Lu Nettles was a nurse in 1972 when she met patient Marshall Herff Applewhite, and they saw themselves as kindred spirits. While that sounds like a recipe for a romance novel, instead the pair formed a cult, combining Christian and Theosophical ideas with extraterrestrial doctrines. In their belief system, humanity was created by extraterrestrial botanists who intended us to ascend to the "Next Level," but we're being kept down by evil beings called Luciferans. Worst. Meet-cute. EVER.

Nettles and Applewhite fully expected to be martyred by a government wetworks squad, fulfilling a prophecy in Revelations about two witnesses killed for spreading the word of God. They weren't, and Nettles died of cancer in 1985. Applewhite, in his grief, decided the Hale-Bopp comet was a spaceship piloted by Nettles, coming to pick him up along with their followers. In March 1997, he and 39 of his cult members committed suicide via vodka and Phenobarbital-laced applesauce/pudding, while others helped them shed their physical shells by tying plastic bags around their heads.

After a mass suicide, you'd expect the cult to be gone, or at least their website to be down. But it isn't, and in fact, its administrator still answers emails. Whoever it is calls themselves "we" or TELAH: "The Evolutionary Level Above Human," claims to be the group's communication center, and was apparently asked to stay behind on Earth to look after the cult's digital space. TELEH fully expects to be picked up themselves, but aren't sure when. As Hale-Bopp won't be back until the year 4380, there's still plenty of time to chat with them, and check out the cult's creepy videos too.

The Branch Davidians

David Koresh's Mt. Carmel cult compound had a complicated history. Koresh took over the Branch Davidians group in a violent hostile takeover from former leader Benjamin Roden, who himself had built the group from a faction of the collapsing Shepherd's Rod sect dominated by Bulgarian immigrant Victor Houteff, which itself was a 1940s offshoot sect of the Seventh Day Adventist movement, which ultimately had its origins in the prophetic Millerite movement of the 19th century. Whew, got all that?

Houteff invented the name "Davidian," as he believed he was the latter-day equivalent of the biblical David, destined to establish a holy kingdom when Christ came back and shooed the Arabs and Jews out of the Middle East. The Branch Davidians, under Koresh, had doctrines reflecting the long history, from unremarkable practices like observing the Sabbath, vegetarianism, and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and drugs, to more cultic ideas like seeing Koresh as the Lamb of God and Jesus Christ Himself.

The cult was famously wiped out in the botched 1993 ATF/FBI operation in Waco, following suspicions that Koresh was hoarding weapons and explosives, committing polygamy, and sleeping with underage girls. Those who survived were arrested, but after being released from federal prison, some still believe Koresh will be resurrected and that God will intervene on behalf of his chosen people, if perhaps belatedly. A particularly stubborn Waco Davidian community called Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness is still avidly awaiting the collapse of the United States and the beginning of the End Times.

Nation of Yahweh

In 1979, Hulon Mitchell Jr. attracted followers with the notion that black people were the real Jews and he was empowered by "the Terrible Black God, Yahweh" to lead them to Israel. They didn't get that far, but established a stronghold in Miami called the Temple of Love instead. Followers adopted Hebrew names, were cut off from their families, forced to tithe their earnings to the sect, and dressed in first African apparel, and later white turbans and robes.

From 1986, Mitchell dispatched "death angels" to attack random white people in retribution for slavery, but also to kill black people they considered defectors or obstructionists. He also ordered an attack on a black neighborhood where his enforcers attacked homes with Molotov cocktails, then cut down those trying to escape with swords and machetes. Strange behavior for a group which taught that black people were the chosen people of God.

Mitchell and six others were indicted for the murders in 1990. When he was released in 2001, Mitchell declared he no longer hated white people or wished to kill them. The sect still considered the United States a spiritual enemy and convened regular conventions in Montreal, of all places, to talk about it.

One prominent former cult member is Michael the Black Man (yep, that's his name), who became famous for supporting Rick Santorum in 2012 and accused Obama of being the Antichrist. In 2016, he earned Donald Trump's approval for a raising a "Blacks for Trump" sign at a rally. Just when you think politics can't get any weirder...

John Frum

The isolated Tanna islanders in northern Vanuatu were under British rule but underexposed to industrialized civilization when American GIs landed in their land during World War II. The locals were astounded by the wealth of goods and material, which they called cargo, as well the sight of black American soldiers controlling it. They decided the soldiers must have sourced the goods from the spirit world, and after the Americans pulled out, religious cults formed to try and entice them back by building recreations of shipping piers and airstrips.

The largest such cult is devoted to John Frum, probably a generous GI who introduced himself as "John, from America." Every February 15th, believers will paint USA on their chests and perform localized versions of military drills with wooden rifles. According to one elder speaking to a reporter from the Smithsonian Magazine in 2006: "John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things."

Another related cargo cult is centered around Britain's Prince Philip, believed to be the prophesied son of a mountain spirit who crossed the sea and married a powerful woman. Noticing the respect shown towards the Duke of Edinburgh by colonial authorities, Philip seemed a likely candidate, and when he visited Vanuatu's capital Port Vila, in full regalia, with Queen Elizabeth II in 1971, his status as a god was cemented.

When anthropologists ask how the slanders can still believe in John Frum or Prince Philip today when they have received no cargo, the believers have a ready retort: that Christians have been waiting for Jesus for 2000 years. Well-played, weird cultists. Well-played.

The Brethren

In 1971, ex-Marine and former Pentecostal preacher Jim Roberts formed a sect which would become known by critics as the "Garbage Eaters." Roberts preached modern America was a cesspool of sin, but as God saved Noah and his family from the Flood, so too would He save members of his "true church."

He attracted religious college students to follow his nomadic ascetic path from city-to-city, eating from garbage cans the whole time. While Roberts maintained the same lifestyle as his followers — a laudable rarity among cult leaders — his authority on all matters was absolute, and disciples cut off all contact with their families.

According to one professed former member of the sect, the hierarchy was based not on age, but how long one had been a follower. Thus, a 17-year-old who had grown up in the sect would have authority over an adult who had only been a member for a few years. That didn't really apply to women, who were subordinate to men, and there have been repeated accusations of sexual abuse masquerading as "free love."

Roberts died in late-2015, but the group is believed to still be operating under their hierarchy system, though it's difficult to know for sure. Whether or not they have any quarrels with hipsters following their shared freegan lifestyle is also unknown, but we imagine it's uncomfortable for all concerned.

Unification Church

In 1936, 16-year-old Yong Myung Moon claimed to have a vision of Jesus Christ, and changed his name to Sun Myung ("Shining") Moon. He was (somewhat impressively) arrested thrice: once by the Japanese for sedition, once by the South Koreans for sexual immorality, and once more by his native North Koreans.

Undaunted, in 1954 he established the "Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity," or Unification Church. After gaining converts in Korea, Japan, and other Asian nations, Moon began preaching his message in the United States from 1970. His movement took off and became notorious for its mass weddings, but he was arrested in 1982 for tax evasion and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Still undaunted, he founded the Washington Times newspaper, and developed links with conservative politicians.

His sect teaches an Taoist-inflected variation of Christianity which sees the Universe as dualistic and subject to an endless struggle between God (or "Universal Prime Energy") and Satan, represented in the Earthly realm by the forces of democracy and communism respectively. The objective was to create a pure bloodline from which humanity could spring anew, a task which Jesus Christ apparently failed at by selfishly getting crucified before having any kids. Moon was heavily implied, and later outright identified, as a second Messiah, even better than Jesus thanks to his large family.

Today, the Moonies aren't as impressive as their heyday, but they're still around. Family turmoil and scandals tarnished their reputation in the 1990s, and in 2012, Moon himself died. In the struggle for succession and inheritance among his family members, his wife seized control of the sect, and may have abandoned her husband's four-decade project to convert America.

Palmarian Church

In 1968 at the village of Palmar de Troya, four young kids had a vision of Mother Mary as they picked flowers, and pilgrims flocked there. Others reported smelling perfume and hearing messages which were recorded and sent to the Archbishop in Seville, who dismissed them as superstition (besides, since when does the Virgin Mary wear perfume?)

A mad visionary named Clemente Dominguez Gomez, who claimed to have experienced stigmata at the site, wasn't about to let that stop him, and spread word of the miracle throughout Europe and South America. In 1975, he was blinded in an accident in Rome, which another man might have seen as a sign Mary wanted him to cut it out. Instead, he said God told him to form the Order of the Carmelites of the Holy Face.

Gomez and his group were duly excommunicated by Pope Paul VI, but after he died, Gomez declared the Papacy had moved from Rome to Palmar de Troya, and anointed himself Pope Gregory XVII. The Palmarians would go on to canonize dictator Francisco Franco and murderous explorer Christopher Columbus, and pressured followers to cut of contact with their families. They were ignored, except when the Spanish media discovered something ludicrous about the Palmarian Pope. In the 1980s, rumors persisted that Gomez had mutilated his own testicles, and in 1997, he apologized for molesting his priests and nuns, and for "sexual incontinence." The most lurid tabloid stories followed revelations he was once active in the 1970s Seville club scene as drag queen La Voltio, the Volt.

Despite these scandals, and the death of "Gregory" in 2005, the sect has survived and even gone through several new antipopes. One would expect them to fade away any day, but instead they've been spreading insidiously into Ireland, where the cult targets lonely, elderly people.

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Though mainstream Mormons abandoned polygamy in 1890, hardcore polygamists formed a splinter group, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS survived through the 20th century, living in the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City, on the border of Utah and Arizona. They have deep racist and homophobic beliefs, believing black people to be the spawn of Cain through which Satan acts upon the Earth.

In 2002, Warren Jeffs took over the group and ruled with an iron fist, banning television and swimming, and taking personal control of the "spiritual marriage" system. To reduce competition for wives, he exiled young men and forced others to sign their property over to the sect. Jeffs went on the run in 2005, when sought for arrest for conspiracy to commit rape and sexual conduct with a minor — he was later caught at a random traffic stop and sentenced to life imprisonment for marrying a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.

Despite being in federal prison, Jeffs is believed to maintain control over his sect by communicating his commands through encrypted letters and recording devices in watches worn by his wives. Apostate rebels opposed to the church are in conflict with FLDS control over the community, and there are rumors the sect may relocate entirely to compounds in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas.

Nuwaubian Nation

In 1964, ex-con Dwight York began peddling his idiosyncratic beliefs on the streets of Harlem. Known first as the Ansar Pure Sufi and later the Ansaru Allah Community, in the 1970s and 80s the cult grew to control many Brooklyn businesses and established chapters in other US cities and overseas in Trinidad, London and Toronto. Cult members handed their assets over to the sect while working for free or a meager stipend, and York controlled their "mating" while treating the cult as his own personal sex harem.

The eclectic and changing cult doctrines incorporated elements of the Bible, Egyptian myths, Atlantis lore, and UFO/conspiracy theories. York claimed to be an alien god from the galaxy Illyuwn (a galaxy that does not exist), and promised 144,000 chosen would be taken by spaceships for rebirth in 2003. One consistent theme in his theology was the superiority of black people over white people, who were said to descend from both lepers, and humans mating with dogs and jackals.

York moved the cult to a compound in Georgia in 1993 to avoid police attention, rebranding it as Yamassee Native American Moors of the Creek Nation (and later the United Nation of Nuwaubian Moors. The man couldn't commit to a name!) There, they built wooden pyramids to earn money by hosting events and running an illegal nightclub, until York was arrested for child molestation and rape, and sentenced to 135 years in prison. His group still exists, frequently harassing the sheriff who arrested their leader. The wooden pyramids, meanwhile, were bulldozed, which is a pity: they seem like the only product of the whole sorry affair that might have been worth keeping.