When it comes to cults, everyone knows the big ones: Jonestown, Scientology, the Taylor Swift fandom, etc. But wherever there are lost souls searching for meaning, there are sociopathic swindlers eager to exploit them for their own financial, sexual, or plain old evil gain, and even if they don’t earn international headlines or the attention of your favorite true crime podcaster, that doesn’t mean they haven’t left a trail of destruction and sometimes actual death.

The Family

Kids

(Ben Wicks/Unsplash)

The Family (no, not that Family) was an Australian cult whose sole purpose appeared to be providing yoga teacher and possibly god Anne Hamilton-Byrne with children, either their own or by stealing babies, who Hamilton-Byrne turned into perfect blond clones. It was a real Village of the Damned situation, except instead of terrorizing the town, it was the children who were terrorized, beaten, starved, and drugged. She was only ever fined $5,000 for her crimes and died at the ripe old age of 98, so maybe she did have an in with some kind of deity.

The Brides of Christ

Veil

(Gwen Mamanoleas/Unsplash)

In the early 20th century, Edmund Creffield amassed a following of a few dozen women, who he convinced to renounce their husbands and families to be “purified” with his dick, earning the wrath of small-town Oregon. He was literally tarred, feathered, and run out of town, but he wasn’t stopped that easily. At the height of their frenzy, he and his followers lit a massive bonfire in the middle of the street to burn all their worldly possessions and a stray dog or two. He ended up with several murderous husbands and brothers on his tail, one of whom eventually succeeded at killing him but was acquitted because even the prosecutor was like “Yeah, he had it coming.”

Synanon

If anyone ever tells you “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” tell them to stuff it because that phrase was popularized by Chuck E. Dederich, leader of Synanon, which was like Narcotics Anonymous if you were forced to live with all those people under the thumb of a guy who makes you yell at each other under the pretense of therapy and generally controls your life, your money, and your genitals. People were actually court-ordered to get involved with Synanon at one point, but it all kind of fizzled out after two members tried to murder a lawyer representing a former member with Dederich’s encouragement and he was legally forced to leave the group. What’s a cult without its leader?

The Ant Hill Kids

Ants

(Prabir Kashyap/Unsplash)

It sounds like a ‘90s Nickelodeon show, but the Ant Hill Kids were actually a doomsday sex cult led by Roch Thériault, so named because members “scurried like ants while their leader supervised.” While they all awaited the apocalypse, Thériault sexually abused and tortured his followers, up to the point of pulling out one’s teeth and then cutting off her arm because she failed to make enough business for their bakery. He almost certainly killed people, but he was only ever convicted of that. And bakers always seem so nice.

The Blackburn Cult

Cabin

(Olivier Guillard/Unsplash)

In the ‘20s, May Otis Blackburn started telling people that angels told her when Jesus would return and to come with her to a cabin in Simi Valley if they wanted to hear more, but mostly what happened was general cult stuff like animal sacrifices and naked dancing. Things started going south when Jesus kept failing to appear and the body of a teenage girl was found under the cabin, and after Blackburn was acquitted of fraud (it turned out the girl had died of a tooth infection), she disappeared from history. She could be behind you right now.

Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God

Temple

(Michael Hart/Unsplash)

The Church of the Lamb of God was a fairly run-of-the-mill Fundamentalist Mormon sect until founder Alma LeBaron died and his son Joel took his place, which pissed off his older son, Ervil, who declared himself the First Born of the Lamb of God and anyone who didn’t follow him was asking for bloody vengeance. It was like Game of Thrones but with bonnets. It turned out Ervil was mostly interested in killing his own family, and the whole thing fizzled out in a mess of death and prison by the late ‘80s. Never trust a man named Ervil LeBaron.

The Yahweh Cult

In the early ‘80s, a Nebraska high school dropout and manual laborer named Michael Ryan claimed to be possessed by the Archangel Michael, and the sort of people liable to believe that sort of thing believed it. His cult was confusing, as it claimed supremacy over the Jewish people but used the ancient Hebrew word for God and kept kosher, but things seemed mostly fine until two followers questioned Ryan’s obviously fake miracles and he responded by horrifically abusing them in just about every way possible before brutally murdering one of them and the other’s five-year-old son. Cult leaders really don’t like to be questioned.

The Zebra Murders

Zebra

(Jeff Griffith/Unsplash)

But hey, white supremacy isn’t the only kind. In the ‘70s, a “terrorist cult” of black men who called themselves the Death Angels but became known as the Zebra murderers “after the special police radio band assigned to the investigation” killed or tried to kill at least 12 white or uncooperative black people in San Francisco, but that number may be as high as 73. According to one, members advanced through the cult via how many people they killed and how creatively they did it, like some kind of deeply morbid reality TV competition.

The Garanhuns Cannibals

In Brazil, three people were killed by a throuple after the sadistic dude at the top of the triangle convinced his gal pals that killing and eating four people corresponding somehow to the four elements would open a “portal to paradise.” They even kidnapped their first victim’s daughter and raised her for four years as their own. We’ll never know if it would have worked because they were tracked down after using a victim’s credit card and their “daughter” told the police everything. Good job, little girl.

Los Narcosatánicos

Cocaine

(Colin Davis/Unsplash)

Adolfo Constanzo started out selling protection spells to drug dealers, but as he gained power within the cartels, he also gained a band of followers the media called Los Narcosatánicos who fetched him human sacrifices from the Mexican underworld to power his “magic.” It was an effective strategy for a while, but then they snatched a white tourist whose disappearance the police finally decided not to ignore, and it was all over for Constanzo. If any of this sounds familiar, it was the basis of 2007’s Borderland, starring Rider Strong. Yep, they dragged Shawn Hunter into this.

Magdalena Solis

At 16, sex worker and fortune teller Magdalena Solis caught the eye of a pair of dudes who had an unusual proposition for her: They’d convinced this tiny farming town that they were prophets, but the farmers were getting antsy, so they promised to bring back a goddess. Would she help them out? She would, and under her leadership, the previously tame-ish ritual orgies turned into literal blood lust. She sacrificed at least six people, mostly doubtful followers, and drank their blood before she was caught. She’s “regarded as one of the few documented instances of a sexually-motivated female serial killer.” You go, girl?

The Kidwelly Sex Cult

Satanic

(Denny Müller/Unsplash)

In the incredibly unfortunately named Welsh town of Kidwelly, Colin Batley and the handful of adult women who followed him lured troubled teens and preteens to their homes and then trapped them into sexual slavery. It would sound like a depressingly standard sex trafficking ring except the whole thing was cloaked in satanic ritual, with the girls undergoing an “initiation rite” they didn’t know would include sex with Batley on the threat of death and then forced into satanic orgies. Remember when we thought the satanic panic was overblown? Wasn’t that nice?

The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments of God

Ten Commandments

(Sean Foster/Unsplash)

The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments of God started out as little more than a group of harcore Catholics -- guess what their major cause was -- but then they got all armageddony, claiming doomsday would come in 2000 and spending the next several years preparing for it. When that didn’t happen, the group’s leaders burned down their church with themselves and hundreds of their followers inside. They couldn’t have just done the normal thing and claimed a math error?

OneTaste

OneTaste is (allegedly) like an MLM that forces you to sign up for sex work along with your starter kit. On the surface, they just sell exorbitantly priced workshops to teach women how to have great orgasms via getting fingered by some strange dude, so that’s already weird, but members are also compelled to sell workshops to others, and if they find they can’t keep up with the mounting costs, one woman says the company advised her to get a sugar daddy, and wouldn’t you know it, they know so many they could hook you up with. Though she said she wasn’t attracted to her new sugar daddy, she said OneTaste taught her that, basically, “Ugly sex is so hot!” It’s the only cult cribbing lines from Sex and the City.

Sachiko Eto

Drumsticks

(Samuel Woods/Unsplash)

Sachiko Eto claimed to be a psychic healer whose talent was literally beating the devil out of her followers with drumsticks. It just so happened that the people who had devils in them tended to be people she didn’t like or displeased her in some way. Eventually, things went too far, she and her followers beat six people to death, and Eto became the first woman executed in Japan in 15 years in 2012. Japan does not fuck around, you guys.

Top image: Sander Sammy/Unsplash

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