You've heard of the Branch Davidians in Waco and the tragedy of Heaven's Gate, and as illustrated in Hulu's The Path, small cults do exist on the margins of society, recruiting or coercing new followers to swell their numbers and further their agendas. These cults don't make the news as often as the flashy bigger organizations, but there remains incredible stories tied to these fringe groups.
To expand upon our US map of cults and conspiracies, here are 10 sects that are even weirder than the group in The Path.
ORDER OF THE SOLAR TEMPLE
FOUNDERS: JOSEPH DI MAMBRO AND LUC JOURET
PLACE OF ORIGIN: GENEVA, SWITZERLAND
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1984
This suicide cult convinced its followers that founder Di Mambro was a reincarnated member of the Knights Templar and Jouret was a returned Jesus Christ. In return for their devotion, after their deaths followers would be led to a planet called Sirius while the Earth languished in environmental disaster.
While the cult was relatively unknown during its time of operation, it made headlines in 1994 when the bodies of a former cult member and his family — including an infant that the cult had deemed to be the Antichrist — were found brutally murdered. Soon after, the bodies of cult members were unearthed — having died from gunshot wounds, poisoning and asphyxiation — with bags placed over their heads, their bodies arranged in a star shape and burned. From 1994–1997, 74 deaths were attributed to the Order of the Solar Temple.
UNIVERSAL INDUSTRIAL CHURCH OF THE NEW WORLD COMFORTER
FOUNDER: ALLEN MICHAEL
PLACE OF ORIGIN: BERKELEY, CA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1973
When it comes to UFO religions — in which the existence of extraterrestrial entities are a part of the belief system — our minds first go to Scientology or Heaven's Gate. But one of the more interesting yet unknown of these cults is the Universal Industrial Church of the New World Comforter (yeah, it's a mouthful). Allen Michael (born Allen Noonan) claimed to have been abducted by an extraterrestrial in the 1940s and consequently enlightened. In the 1970s, he began writing extensively, beginning with a book of revelations titled The Everlasting Gospel.
As far as cults go, Universal Industrial Church of the New World Comforter is definitely weird but not deadly. Michael preached the benefits of communal living, engaging in tantric sex and karmic yoga, believing that everything should be shared among the community, the end of a working life, and devoting one's body to being a guide for extraterrestrials. The group's website is alive and kicking if you want to read further.
Fun tidbit: Allen Michael ran for president in the early '80s — twice — on the Utopian Synthesis Party ticket, which he also founded.
THE ANT HILL KIDS
FOUNDER: ROCH THÉRIAULT
PLACE OF ORIGIN: ONTARIO, CANADA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1977
Thériault's power of persuasion led to a relatively small group of followers within a commune that was purported to encourage a healthy lifestyle free from sin. In reality, Thériault was a power-hungry abuser who sought control of his followers, forcing them to construct the commune while he oversaw the build, and require his permission to do anything — including speak and have sex.
Thériault convinced his followers that the world was coming to an end and that their commune would be their salvation. He would go on to father some 20 children with nine members of the cult, and secured his power with a series of horrendous punishments for those that disobeyed him — including forcing members to break their own legs, eating excrement, shooting one another, and the sexual abuse of children.
Eventually, Thériault savagely mutilated the bodies of two of his followers, causing the death of one and the other to escape — though not until they lost an arm and a breast — leading to Thériault's arrest and subsequent conviction.
FELLOWSHIP OF FRIENDS
FOUNDER: ROBERT EARL BURTON
PLACE OF ORIGIN: SIERRA FOOTHILLS, CA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1971
According to the Fellowship's official website, the goal of the organization "continues to have a single, overarching aim: to teach its members how to be present and how to prolong presence." But for ex-members of the group, which once numbered about 600 living on a 1100-plus acreage in the Sierra Foothills, the Fellowship of Friends was more a means of satisfying the urges of founder and ex-elementary school teacher Burton.
A lawsuit filed against Burton in 1996 proclaimed:
"Fellowship of Friends is a cult whose sole purpose, despite its claims supporting its tax-exempt status, is to satisfy the sexual, financial and power needs of Robert Burton, the leader. Burton's word is law and cannot be questioned because he is 'awake,' while his followers are 'asleep' and therefore cannot think for themselves."
Despite protests by former members and revelations that the sect's so-called school has no level of completion — similar to how levels within Scientology never end — the fellowship is still active and led by Burton. Naturally, as the group's FAQ states: "There is a fee to join the Fellowship, paid on a month-to-month basis."
FOUNDER: GWEN SHAMBLIN
PLACE OF ORIGIN: NASHVILLE, TN
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1999
Talk about the evolution of a startup. The Remnant Fellowship began in the 1980s and has its roots in Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down workshop, a method of weight loss. Yes, this one particular cult grew out of people wanting to shed a few pounds. Shamblin's basic philosophy was that people should turn away from the love of food and instead put that love in God. After being featured in magazines like Good Housekeeping and a having a book published by Doubelday, Shamblin turned her little weight-loss empire into a ministry — even firing those employees who didn't join the Remnant.
Most recruits practice from their homes and are sought out by the Remnant through their attendance of a Weigh Down event. While members would argue that the Remnant is a legitimate church, a harrowing account from a couple who was recruited into the organization for a time tells a different story:
"They emphasize conformity, denigrate and shame independent thinking, have rigid authority and hierarchy structures, move people by group thinking, use fear as a motivator, and quickly and permanently expel anyone who persistently questions."
The Remnant website claims that Shamblin doesn't take a salary, but states:
Funds that are received through the sale of Weigh Down products and seminar fees or through donations to the church are used to support each respectively in order to help hurting people of every nationality discover the love of God that can set them free.
UNARIUS ACADEMY OF SCIENCE
FOUNDER: ERNEST AND RUTH NORMAN
PLACE OF ORIGIN: LOS ANGELES, CA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1954
Unarius rejects any notion of itself as a religion and insists it's a nonprofit organization. The official website calls it "a spiritual school [in which] the Academy offers a comprehensive curriculum of self-mastery, based on the interdimensional understanding of energy—the joining of science and spirit."
The Normans wrote more than 100 books about what they called channels, i.e., other frequencies of existence where advanced beings operate. Of course there is the possibility of becoming enlightened through a process called "channeling," which gives the practicer access to these other frequencies. The Normans also insisted on being able to access past lives, with Ruth claiming to have accessed 200 of her past iterations.
After Ernest Norman's death in the early 1970s, a division within the group started forming; one side that remained true to Norman's earliest theories and others that took it in a more science-fiction-inspired direction (complete with a supposed space fleet landing that was to occur in 2001) that helped solidify its identity as a UFO religion. While the organization offers classes that can be attended or live-streamed, it seems most operate only on "suggested donations."
THE SOURCE FAMILY
FOUNDER: JAMES EDWARD BAKER, A.K.A. FATHER YOD
PLACE OF ORIGIN: LOS ANGELES, CA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1969
Jim Baker opened The Source restaurant on Hollywood's Sunset Strip in 1969 and soon after he was leading a commune of more than 100 people living in the Hollywood Hills, surviving off the profits of the health food restaurant. Though the Source Family purported to be committed to healthy living, by some reports Baker was a man with a temper — who also had 14 wives.
In 1974, Baker sold the restaurant and moved the group to Hawaii, where he later died in a hang-gliding accident. Members of the family would go on to write about their experiences in the group, participate in the creation of a documentary about the group, and maintain an official site, in which they describe themselves as follows:
We became aware that we had come to this little planet to serve... either as witnesses (watchers from another time) or to be of aid to WoManKind, as one of the tribes (incarnated once again) to merge with humanity in bringing forth this 'New Birth'... for Father taught us that man’s soul is destined to perfection!
THE MOVEMENT FOR THE RESTORATION OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF GOD
FOUNDER: CREDONIA MWERINDE, JOSEPH KIBWETEERE AND
PLACE OF ORIGIN: UGANDA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: ESTIMATED BETWEEN 1989–1994
One of the most tragic stories related to cultism, this group is best known for the tragic events of March 2000 that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 778 people. The MRTC was a doomsday cult that had convinced its members the world would end on January 1, 2000 — the turn of the new millennium. When that didn't happen, the leaders gave a new date — March 17, 2000 — and ensured that it would be the end of all things for their followers as early as weeks before the date given.
Hundreds of followers were locked inside a church as it was set ablaze, some of them already dead via poison, and hundreds more were brutally murdered. The scariest thing of all? Police suspect Kibweteere and Mwerinde are still at large — despite initial reports that they had died in the fire.
FOUNDER: JIM ROBERTS
PLACE OF ORIGIN: AMERICA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1971
The Brethren is a group of homeless wanderers that believes in purification of worldly possessions as a means of cleansing one's soul before the inevitable apocalypse. This means they own nothing and have even been dubbed "garbage eaters" for their dumpster-diving habits, also known as freeganism. But however you slice it, Jim Roberts created a cult.
Within the cult there are Elders who dictate what you can and cannot do — no internet usage, and contact only via pay phones, for instance — and this chilling account of a former member in a Reddit AMA goes further into details about what it's like:
We could easily leave, but we were afraid of going to hell. They would shun you from the group if you disagreed with the doctrine. I have met up with many former members. I wish I never joined. I wouldn't want to do it again.
That being said, the user also describes Jim Roberts as "a sweet man" and the group as ultimately "harmless" — though it seems the parents of those who joined would disagree, and started a website devoted to freeing their loved ones from Roberts.
CHURCH UNIVERSAL AND TRIUMPHANT
FOUNDER:ELIZABETH CLARE PROPHET
PLACE OF ORIGIN: PASADENA, CA
YEAR OF ORIGIN: 1975
An offshoot of her husband's group Summit Lighthouse that formed in 1958 based around his prophetic communications with the Ascended Masters — spiritually enlightened higher beings — which subsequently became the basis for his wife's formation of this church in 1975. The church's official site describes Ascended Masters as:
The ascended masters help us become aware of the Paths back to the Source. Paths that we can walk over to master the seven rays of our Christ consciousness that emerge from the white light.
While there is some disagreement on whether the organization can be deemed a true cult, it was discovered in 1989 that the church was building fallout shelters and amassing weapons. Further, accusations flew from former members that the church used sleep deprivation as a means of controlling its members. The church has never released membership numbers — the closest estimation of 75,000–150,000 members came in 1993.