When I was a freshman in college, an adorably scruffy guy invited me to an off-campus meeting of free-thinkers. He compared the get-together to a Parisian salon, so I went. We discussed societal issues until they landed at the ol’ Perception vs. Reality crossroads, and then the man in charge of the meeting (not my cute new friend) discussed the conditions under which we could return for future meetings. It included an ever-so-slight threat: my loyalty to the group would be demanded. Then, they prayed. I never went back. A few years later, I saw the news about local parents who had just rescued their son from my group of scholars. The reporter called them a cult. My creepy-detector was going off, fortunately. But not so for some.
Like any great horror movie, these stories of the world’s most notorious cults provide a glimpse of evil without the attendant danger. Unlike pop culture thrillers, however, these books pack more of a punch—because the nightmare is real. You’ll sympathize with the victims of cult leaders in a way you never did for those kids on Elm Street. And if you ever had a brush with a cult like I did, you’ll be all the more grateful that you stayed away.
Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
Bugliosi got a close look at the Manson family and their enigmatic leader when he prosecuted them for the murder of Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate. This is one of the best true-crime stories ever written, and presents a full explanation of how Charles Manson convinced members of his “family” to commit one of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century.
My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru, Tim Guest
At age six, Guest and his mother went to live with Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Tim, renamed Yogesh, saw less and less of his mother—he was raised by his new family on a series of communes as they traveled around the world. Tax evasion and murder charges finally toppled the guru, freeing Tim of his orange robes for good.
Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, Tim Reiterman
Jim Jones was a textbook cult leader. He led people far from home, named a town after himself, and founded a church under which to control his flock. Raven is the absorbing story of Jones’ authority, the growth of The People’s Temple, and how it met its tragic end in the jungles of South America.
For nearly a decade, Warren Jeffs operated as a self-appointed prophet in the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints. Picture 14-year-old girls forced into marriage and a total ban on all media, and you start to get a sense of the reach of his control. Former FLDS wives lent their powerful voices to the well-publicized story of Jeffs’ downfall.
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attacks, Haruki Murakami
Novelist Murakami flexes his journalism muscles to shed light on the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, in which members of religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas (26 times more deadly than cyanide) into five subway stations before they were caught. This is the story of how their blind leader, Shoko Asahara, combined Buddhism with Christian Revelation to spread his message: the coming of World War III.
Founded in 1960 by David “Moses” Berg, the Family International cult took Evangelical Christianity to a dark, abusive place. Lattin opens the story of The Family (also called The Children of God) with a murder-suicide that cracked the story of the emotional and sexual abuse of children—one of the practices at the core of the cult’s beliefs.
God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story, Jill Watts
On the surface, you might not consider George Baker, Jr., to be a cult leader. He established the Peace Mission in 1919, and called upon his followers to work hard, avoid violence, and be celibate. He offered job training and free meals to people suffering during the Depression. Sounds mostly harmless, right? Just one catch: not only did he grow insanely wealthy off of his flock, he had them call him “God.”
Francis tells how an illiterate daughter of an English blacksmith came to be considered the second incarnation of Christ. She led the Shaking Quakers, an end-times religious cult, eventually escaping to America in 1774 and establishing Shaker communities across New England. Because cults are overwhelmingly led by men, Ann Lee’s story is a standout.
Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion, Susan J. Palmer
Palmer’s unique access to the Raëlian cult and its leader gives us a mesmerizing look at their beliefs. The movement was founded in the 1970s by a former race-car driver after an eye-opening alien encounter, where he was informed that humans were the result of alien cloning. Raëlians are waiting for the return of the aliens, and spend the rest of their time on earth practicing free love and, of course, being advocates of cloning.
Have you read any of these? What’s missing from our list?
*This post has been updated.