3 of History’s Scariest Cult Leaders

Human beings feel the need to belong, to have an identity that’s representative of something greater than the mere individual. This partly explains why people join even the most ridiculously misguided cults: a sense of community supersedes rationale. And behind every cult is an uninhibited leader who is somehow charismatic enough to make a backwards belief system seem appealing to otherwise intelligent people. Today, we’ll be looking at some of history’s scariest cult leaders.

Keith Raniere

Keith Raniere is one of recent history’s scariest cult leaders. Before becoming the leader of so-called “celebrity sex cult” NXIVM (pronounced nek-see-uhm), he operated a multi-level marketing scheme called Consumers’ Buyline. CB was shut down in 1996 after being investigated for fraud. Fascinated by the ways in which the human mind could be manipulated, Raniere used CB as a reference point to create NXIVM. NXIVM was a so-called “personal development company” hosting self-improvement classes that cost upwards of $7,500.

When one watches interviews with Raniere, it seems obvious that he’s simply spouting nonsense wrapped in clichés. (“Knowing what to do is useless without the emotional strength to do what you know.” Okay?) So just how did he convince roughly 18,000 people to join his cult? Well, firstly he lied about his credentials. Raniere claimed to have an IQ of 240, be a judo champion, and possess three degrees (in math, biology, and physics). All of these claims were proven to be false.

NXIVM had been referred to as a cult since the early 2000s. However, it wasn’t until 2017— when allegations of sex trafficking within the group surfaced—that the organization was heavily investigated. Apparently, Raniere had been coercing female members into both having sex with him and branding his initials into their bodies. Raniere was thankfully arrested in 2018 (as were his co-conspirators, including Smallville actress Alison Mack). Deservedly, he will spend the remainder of his life in prison.

Jim Jones

One can’t broach the topic of the world’s scariest cult leader without mentioning Jim Jones. Believe it or not, there was a time when the minister turned cult leader could’ve been considered an inspirational figure. While he was certainly never what you’d call “normal” (he sold monkeys to fund his first church in 1953) he was an early advocate for civil rights. And in 1961, he was named director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. His vehement activism is what attracted many to his church, called the People’s Temple. The People’s Temple combined Christianity with the Marxist ideals that were popular within activist circles at the time.

According to SFGate, “The church gave food, clothes and shelter to the most vulnerable in the community. They opened senior living facilities, some of the best in the state, and found jobs for unemployed congregants. Their drug and alcohol rehab programs provided life-saving help. Young followers who couldn’t afford to attend college were given scholarships.”

Jim Jones Relocates: the Jonestown Massacre

a photo of jonestown
A Photo of Jonestown, Source: Wikimedia Commons

While the initial goals of the People’s Temple may have been noble, Jones’s sanity spiraled downwards through the ‘60s and ‘70s. This was likely due to genuine mental illness, as well as his growing addiction to amphetamines, quaaludes, and opiates. His persecution complex grew increasingly out of control.

In response to media criticism of his church, he and over 900 followers moved to Guyana, South America and founded Jonestown. Only members of the People’s Temple lived in the community. Conditions in Jonestown were extreme. Members of the cult labored day-in and day-out to preserve the community. Escape was attempted by some, but it was nearly impossible due to the surrounding jungle. 

The radical self-isolation of the People’s Temple reached its peak on November 18, 1978. At the command of Jones, the cult drank Kool-Aid laced with potassium cyanide, resulting in what is history’s largest murder-suicide. Jones even forced small children to drink the deadly liquid. He claimed that his cult was committing “revolutionary suicide.” Following the deaths of his followers, Jones committed suicide via gunshot wound to the head. 

Charles Manson

To many, the crimes of Charles Manson’s cult—the Manson Family—signified the end of the hippie era. They were the unmasking of a world that was supposedly built around the concepts of peace and love. However, before Manson became entrenched within psychedelic culture, he spent the majority of his youth in and out of prison, mostly for robbery.

Upon his 1967 release, Manson traveled to San Francisco, where he became something of a fixture in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district, preaching his own philosophy that combined spiritualism with the free love ideals expressed by bands like the Beatles. He soon amassed followers, who took Manson’s claims to be the second coming of Jesus Christ as gospel truth. (Among these followers was Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, though he had a falling out with Manson about a year after joining the Family.)

Manson exploited his influence over his followers, commanding them to commit a string of murders in August of 1969. Manson—who wanted to be a rockstar—ordered the death of the record producer and associates who had refused to work with him. It is also said that Manson, a white supremacist, believed that he could instigate a race war by killing affluent white people and blaming it on Black Panthers.

While Manson himself did not physically commit the murders, he is still one of the world’s scariest cult leaders merely because of his ability to manipulate others into committing acts as extreme as murder. Thankfully, after his arrest, he served the remainder of his life in prison. He died in 2017 due to a heart attack.

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