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Killer Cults

This isn’t a book. It’s a “topic magazine,” published by Time Life Books in early 2018, and drawn from both publications’ years of historic editions.

   Now a confession: a few years ago I became intrigued by Charles Manson, Laurel Canyon, the burgeoning of the youth culture, and ultimately, the Tate/LaBianca murders. So I read just about everything I could find on the subject. When I saw this title staring at me from the grocery store magazine racks, I couldn’t resist.

The thick glossy actually recounts the stories, in chronological order, of 5 cults that rose, from the 60s through the 90s, though one is reputedly still operating. Each one promised the coming Apocalypse, relied on a charismatic central figure, and ended up delivering a horrific story of the promised land gone awry.

Included in the book are The Manson Family, Jonestown, The Branch Davidians, Heavens Gate, and Aum Shinrikyo.

The book starts with probably the most notorious, and clearly the one that most captured the popular imagination: Charles Manson. An arguably pathetic figure, who just ended his days a convict, “Charlie” was abandoned by his teen prostitute mother at just 11, and had been put in detention by the time he was 14 for burglary. Manson was a drifter, a grifter, and a Rasputin-like con-man who quickly identified an opportunity in the Haight-Ashbury scene in California.

A common feature of each of these cults, and their Shaman-like leader (who is invariably a man), is that they are drawn from the ranks of those seeking heaven-on-earth: the young, the disaffected, the idealistic, the magical thinkers. And the Sixties was a perfect opportunity for a guy like Charlie.

Manson was a drifter, a grifter, and a Rasputin-like con-man who quickly identified an opportunity in the Haight-Ashbury scene in California.

He soon drew a band of merry mostly girls to his side, and his pattern of use and abuse, while perhaps more brutal, was repeated by each of the cults’ Svengalis: intermittent re-enforcement, hypnotic mantras, periods of physical stress, punishment, and excess – and a guarantee that he, the leader, is The Messiah.

While Biblical promises are most often the tool of these tradesmen, that’s perhaps because all but one of the cults was American made. Manson found parallels with The Beatles and The Book of Revelation, and handy paths into the psyches of his Family members with LSD and pot.

Another common feature of the Cults seems to be that at some point, each Leader has a break. Hardly unexpectedly, the burden of keeping his members under his influence, as well as his own psychoses, at some point in each story lead the prophet to offer the Final Solution.

Book-ending the stories are two tales of murder and mayhem, with three mass suicides in between.

Manson’s demand that his subjects commit “Helter Skelter,” by killing apparently innocent people and bringing on what he predicted would be a race war, followed by his return in glory, ended in one of the more notorious trials of modern history – complete with magical “mind control,” courtroom antics, and Charlie drawing more “fan mail” while incarcerated than any prisoner recorded.

About ten years later, the newspapers were full of terrible fly-over photos of heaps of bodies in a place called “Jonestown,” after its master, the Reverend Jim Jones. Another charismatic figure, he moved his followers to a new paradise on earth in Guyana, where his People’s Temple actually did seem to thrive for a time – growing crops, raising children, and while Jones was less abusive in life than some of the other cultists, his “snap” came suddenly and at a price: today we talk about
“drinking the Kool-Aid” as a short hand for accepting a myth a truth, at the time, Jones convinced his followers to truly drink the Kool-Aid – a fatal drink mixed with cyanide. Almost all of them perished as a result.

In the early 90s, a scandal rocked both Washington and the people of the nation: Waco, Texas, and the Branch Davidians.

Led by David Koresh (a name he chose for himself to align him more closely with Bibical greats), this group were once again sad and lonely people drawn to a smooth-talking, straight-out-of-the-book manipulators, who used the classic patterns of privilege and deprivation, along with lengthy sermons and the promise of his own Divinity to keep his flock behaving. Granting himself a great car, all the women, and regular meals —while his people had none of this with any regularity—
Koresh, too, seemed to have deteriorated and snapped.

David Koresh, the leader of the Waco, Texas cult,

The question remained: would this have happened had the FBI and BAFT not  intervened? Then AG Janet Reno’s handling of the situation was called into question again and again – did the Branch members actually plan to blow themselves up, or stage an attack? They were armed, there was no doubt. But they also had squirreled away food and supplies for the coming End of Times.

What remains is the aftermath: the federal government did go in, armed, and the Branch compound was blown up, killing almost all of the men, women and children living there – Koresh included. The most curious detail was that Timothy McVeigh, of the Federal Building bombing 2 years after Waco, was on the scene at Waco (out of curiosity) and committed his heinous act on the anniversary of that event.

Possibly the strangest of the cults was Marshall Applewhite’s Heavens Gate cult. He was yet another leader who used the Internet and videos to draw some of his followers – who may have stumbled onto him as they watched the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet (a fly-by event that will not happen again for another 4000 years) on NASA’s website. Applewhite convinced a small band of true believers that the comet came with an alien spaceship, which would take the pure up with it in a kind of Rapture, to move on to the next dimension in time.

Followers were relatively few, but ardent: when the bodies of the cult were found, most had shaved their hair, and some of the men had castrated themselves in order to shuck their “old” bodies in hopes of a new on the next plane. Among them was the brother of Star Trek’s Lt. Uhuru, Nichelle Nichols; most of the cult neatly dressed in new black clothing, lay upon their bunks, and took a final dose of earthly life.

The final cult the book covers is one that still exists – and in somewhat alarming numbers. Aum Shinrikyo was most notorious for its mid-90s sarin attack (sarin is a nerve gas first experimented with in Nazi Germany) on the Tokyo subways. Horribly fatal, the cults’ actual death toll wasn’t
massive, but the fear that it inspired was. If a tube of chemical compound could be dropped
inconspicuously in a heavily trafficked area – what kind of risk are we all under?

The cult’s leader was a Yoga master who used mysticism, existing religious belief, and his own personal charm (though among the group, he’s the least likely looking) to convince true believers (in the tens of thousands in various “chapters”) to create the gas while living sequestered in
compounds, and practicing various forms of meditation and physical and mental deprivation.

While the master, Shoko Asahara, was captured and imprisoned, some unknown but significant number of his followers have apparently ended up in Russia, where they still look for the advent of Supreme Truth.

The book is a wealth of photographs and stories written at the time, so the perspective on the events is that of the people witnessing the events as they occurred. The editors have combed the files to distill each story into its essential parts: the leader, his story, his end; the cult’s members, their ideals and dreams; the ultimate outcome of the tale.If you lived through these times, its a reminder. If not, its a stroll through a darker side of not-too-distant history, and the vulnerability we seem to have for such pies in the sky with alarming regularity.

The actress Sharon was the victim of one of the grisliest murders imaginable.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.