Six of the Most (In)Famous Cult Leaders

| | January 8, 2024

Cults are led by charismatic leaders whose personalities draw people to them.

They believe that they alone have the answers to life’s problems or that they alone can save others from their struggles and misery. With the right mix of flattery, otherworldly teachings, and control over finances, these leaders create an environment where followers feel they have no choice but to obey.

Due to their charisma and ability to convince others, cult leaders have become some of the more famous, or infamous, characters in history.

Shoko Ashara: Cult Leader of Aum Shinrikyo

The symbol associated with Aum Shinrikyo

We are starting off with the Japanese cult leader Shoko Ashara, who is responsible for the worst terrorist accident in Japan. Ashara was formerly known as Chizuo Matsumoto but changed his name to be more in line with his self-image as Japan’s only fully enlightened master.

The Life of Shoko Ashara and Aum Shinrikyo

Ashara was born into a poor family in 1955. He lost his vision due to an illness, which changed his outlook on the world. His loss of vision and claim of being able to read minds gained him a lot of followers.

Ashara had long hair and a long beard, wore bright robes, and practiced meditation while sitting on satin pillows. He was also a writer, and his books described his claims about being the second coming of Jesus Christ and that he could travel through time.

Because of his followers, Ashara was able to run for parliament in 1990. He lost, but that didn’t mean that the story of one of the most famous religious cults stopped there.

Shoko continued preaching his worldviews and grew his cult significantly. By 1995, his cult had an international following of about 30.000 people worldwide, including many intellectuals from the best universities.

Aum Shinrikyo

The cult that Ashara was the leader of was named Aum Shinrikyo. As indicated before, cults claim to have the pathway to truth. This, too, is reflected in the name Aum Shinrikyo: ‘Supreme Truth.’ The things that the cult is famous for are the Tokyo subway attacks and the Sakamoto family murder.

The cult had a belief system that combined elements of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism, as well as Hinduism, Christianity, the practice of yoga, and the writings of Nostradamus. That’s a mouth full and a lot to integrate into just one ideology.

With such a wide rooting, Ashara claimed he could transfer spiritual power to his followers while taking away their sins and bad deeds. The ideology is often portrayed as Japanese Buddhism, meaning that combined elements of other religions formed a whole new branch of Buddhism.

Tokyo Subway Attacks Carried Out by Cult Members

However, everything would change in 1995. In late March of 1995, members began releasing a poisonous nerve gas called sarin on five crowded subway trains. It was the morning rush hour in Tokyo, meaning that the attack had serious consequences. Thirteen people were killed in the attack, with around 5.000 victims being harmed by the gas.

The target of the attack was the Kasumigaseki station, specifically because it was surrounded by many offices of Japanese government officials. This was the beginning of an apocalyptic battle with the government, or so the cult believed.

That is to say, the attack was in anticipation of Armageddon, which was believed to be a nuclear attack by the United States on Japan. By developing the nerve agent sarin, the cult believed that they could wear off the potential disastrous attacks.

Of course, these attacks never took place, but it is unthinkable that this was due to the subway attack. Anticipation of the attack was real and people were aware of its consequences.

Sakamato Family Murder

Well before this time, the cult already committed three murders that are now known as the Sakamoto family murder. However, the murders only came to light with the investigation surrounding the subway attacks. The Sakamoto family was killed because the husband filed a lawsuit against Aum Shinrikyo.

What was the lawsuit about? Well, it revolved around the claim that members did not join the group voluntarily but were lured in by deception, probably being held against their will by threats and manipulations.

Sentence and Execution

Ashara did quite a good job hiding after the attacks, and the police only found him hiding at his group’s compound several months later. In 2004, he was convicted to death. Only 14 years later, this sentence would become reality. However, this didn’t result in the death of the cult, which is still alive to this day.

Charles Manson: Cult Leader of the Manson Family

Charles Milles Manson’s booking photo for San Quentin State Prison, California

One of the most notorious cults sprouted in San Francisco. Its leader goes by the name of Charles Manson. Manson was born in 1934 to his 16-year-old mother. His father would never be of any relevance in his life, and after his mother was imprisoned for a robbery he was responsible for himself. From an early age, he spent a lot of time in juvenile reformatories or prisons for crimes like armed robbery and theft.

At the age of 33, in 1967, he was released from prison and moved to San Francisco. Here, he would attract a devoted group of followers. By 1968 he had become the leader of what is now known as the Manson Family.

The Manson Family 

The Manson Family can be seen as a communal religious cult dedicated to studying and implementing religious teachings drawn from science fiction. That sounds quite amusing, right?

Well, don’t get it twisted. Because the teachings were so extravagant, the dangerous message encapsulated in them might have been overlooked by many cult members and dedicated followers. That is to say, the Manson Family preached the coming of an apocalyptic race war that would devastate the United States, opening the way for the Family to be in a position of power.

Manson and the Family believed in an upcoming apocalypse, or ‘Helter Skelter.’ It indicates a race war between the so-called ‘blackeys’ and ‘whiteys.’ Manson planned to hide himself and the Family in a cave located in Death Valley until the supposed war ended.

Attacks Carried Out By the Manson Family

But, one has to wait quite a long for the ending of a war that hasn’t even started yet.

This is where the attacks from the Family come into play. They would facilitate the start of this war by killing ‘whiteys’ and placing evidence that would lead back to the African-American community. For example, they would leave the wallets of the victims in areas that were highly populated by African-American residents.

One year after founding the group, the Family carried out several murders as ordered by Charles Manson himself. A couple of attacks were carried out, but not all of them ended up in murders. Still, some attacks did end in murder. The first murder conducted is nowadays known as the Hinman murder.

Tate Murder

However, the most famous murder might be the murder of actress Sharon Tate and her three guests.

The murders were conducted in Beverly Hills on August 9, 1969. Actress Sharon Tate was pregnant and enjoying the company of her friends. The objective of Manson and the Family was to ‘destroy everyone in the house – as gruesome as you can.’ While Manson himself was in a safe space, three members of the family entered the property with this objective.

The first murder was conducted when someone was leaving the property. One of Tate’s guests was killed with a knife swing and four gunshots in the chest. After entering the residence, Tate and her guests were tied together by their necks and stabbed.

All the guests and Tate herself were murdered by a combination of gunshots and stabbings. Some victims were stabbed up to 50 times, leaving everyone in the house dead, including Tate’s unborn baby. 

Manson Joins for the LaBianca Murder

Only one day later, the Family committed another series of murders. This time, Charles Manson joined himself because the murders from the previous day weren’t frightening enough. Yet, the target wasn’t picked beforehand. It seems like just a random house in a wealthy neighborhood was picked.

The home belonged to a successful grocery company owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. Watson, one of Manson’s close companions, began stabbing Leno multiple times. Leno was eventually killed with a total of 26 knife stabs. Afterward, in the bedroom, his wife Rosemary died after receiving 41 stabs.

Sentence of the Family

In the end, one of the most famous cult leaders, Manson, was sentenced for two direct murders and seven murders by proxy. Although not responsible for every murder, Manson was sentenced to death because of his role. However, in 1972 capital punishment would be abolished by the state of California. Therefore, he would spend his life in prison to eventually die of illness at the age of 83.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Rajneeshpuram

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

If you’ve watched the documentary “Wild Wild County,” the name Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh shouldn’t be new to you. The documentary increased consciousness about his story, which makes Rajneesh and his followers one of the most well-known cults in recent history.

The Life of Rajneesh

Rajneesh studied in Jabalpur and was an excellent student. He didn’t have to go to classes at all and was allowed to just take the exams. Because he had so much free time, he reckoned he could spread his thoughts through public speaking at the Sarva Dharma Sammelan conference. The conference is the place where all religions of India gather.

At age 21, Rajneesh claimed to be spiritually enlightened. Sitting under a tree in Jabalpur, he experienced a mystical experience that would change his life. 

It led to Rajneesh preaching that spiritual experience could not be just one system and that there has to be more. Because of his emphasis on spiritual experience and moving away from any god, Rajneesh would deem himself a guru and practice meditation.

Also, he had a very liberating view on sexuality and multiple wives, which would become problematic about his cult.


The cult of Rajneesh is known as Rajneeshpuram, a wildly creative community with thousands of cult members. So it’s not a small group, with both male and female followers. At first, the cult was in India. But, after some trouble with the Indian government, the group lived in Oregon for quite some time.

In Oregon, the cult grew in the number of members significantly. It is believed that at least 7000 people were living on the ranch in Oregon at some point. There might have been even more people since the cult often hid how many members there actually were.

One of the reasons that the cult is so notorious is because of its sexual practices. Former members of the cult claim that their leader enforced sexual participation, which would also result in sexual abuse. The idea of free love was sold under the idea of ‘saying yes to life,’ but it often resulted in unwanted actions.

Indeed, one mechanism for the sex cult to enforce participation was psychological pressure. Yet, violence was also a mechanism, meaning that people were not just sexually abused but physically as well. The stories of a regime of sexual abuse are ample, and more and more people that were sexually abused in the free love movement came forward with their stories.

Bioterror and Collapse of the Cult

Yet, it was not just abuse or sex trafficking that made the cult so notorious. There is also a story in which one of the members spread salmonella in bars in the area. The idea was to let people think that non-organic food was bad for them while influencing a local election. Although not entirely false about the merit of organic food, the mechanisms of spreading the message are very troublesome.

After some time, the original residents of the place became frustrated with the cult members. They had good reasons since the Rajneeshees even attempted to take over the government of the nearby town of Antelope. This initiated the downfall of the cult with several people being convicted for crimes while their leader Rajneesh was deported.

Jim Jones and the Mass Suicide of Jonestown

Jim Jones outside the International Hotel in San Francisco

Born in Indiana, Jim Jones was a Christian minister who founded the People’s Temple church. Jones was a churchgoer from an early age. After graduation, he entered the ministry. He’s always been charismatic, which made him believe that he even had psychic powers. Foretelling futures, healing people, nothing was too ludicrous for Jones.

Only at 19 years old, he founded the religious institution and eventually relocated it to San Francisco in the 1960s, apparently a hotspot for murderous cults. Remember, the Family of Charles Manson also started there.

After founding the church and moving to the city of San Francisco, Jones adopted the name ‘the Prophet’ and became obsessed with demonstrating power. He gained quite the following, including important people in the government and notable church members.

The temple members consisted of many female members, underage girls, or children of young age in general. Former members claim that Jones obliged any member to bring their whole family if they join the cult, hence the number of young children.

Jones’s intentions and his interpretation of a religious organization were questionable from the very beginning. Several allegations were aimed at demolishing Jones’s power, but none of them resulted in anything significant that caused his downfall.

Jonestown and the People’s Temple

With already quite the following, Jim Jones and a thousand members of the Peoples Temple decided to flee the allegations and immigrated to Guyana. Jones’s followers set up an agricultural commune in 1977 and named it after their leader: Jonestown. It was located in the middle of the jungle of Guyana, and inhabitants were expected to work long days without a lot of pay.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Jones confiscated passports and millions of dollars from Temple members. Not only that, he conducted widespread child abuse and even rehearsed a mass suicide with the whole group.

Members of Peoples Temple (Richard Parr, Barbara Hickson, Wesley Johnson, Ricky Johnson, and Sandra Cobb) in San Francisco, in January 1977. The photo was taken by Nancy Wong.

Why 900 People Committed Suicide

Indeed, Jones’s tragic goal was to eventually commit a mass murder-suicide. Why would anyone want to do that?

It is hard to understand that a whole cult committed suicide because of just one guy. Indeed, only his followers would be able to truly understand. This, too, is affirmed by a former member of the cult who left a letter on the day when the cult committed suicide. It states:

´We have pledged our lives to this great cause. […] We are proud to have something to die for. We do not fear death. We hope that the world will someday realize […] the ideals of brotherhood, justice and equality that Jim Jones has lived and died for. We have all chosen to die for this cause.´ 

The Initiation of the Mass Suicide

Although mass suicide was practiced many times, there was no set date for it to be conducted. Yet, it all started when congressman Leo Ryan heard about the story of Jonestown. Representative Leo Ryan, together with reporters and concerned relatives of members of the Peoples Temple, traveled to Guyana to investigate the situation. 

The group was welcomed with open arms, and some church members asked Ryan to get them out of Jonestown. On November 14, 1978, the group planned to leave through the airstrip.

However, Jones wasn’t satisfied and ordered the other Temple members to assassinate the group. Only Ryan and four others were killed in the attack, with nine others fleeing the scene.

Because Jones was afraid of the consequences, he activated the mass suicide plan for the members of the Peoples Temple. He ordered his followers to drink a punch that was induced with cyanide. Jones himself died of a self-inflicted gunshot. When the Guyanese troops reached Jonestown, the death total was set at 913, including 304 under the age of 18.

The Davids: Branch Davidians and Children of God

As indicated, it is hard to cover the most famous leaders in just one article. However, two cult leaders should still be mentioned before concluding. Outside of a preference for San Francisco, it seems like leaders of a cult might also be identified by screening everyone named David.

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

Mug shot of David Koresh

The first leader was David Koresh, who was the prophet of the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians were a religious group with an alternative vision of the fundamentalist church. The church of the Branch Davidians began in the city of Waco.

The Branch Davidian compound was raided by a small group of federal agents from the US Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. The Branch Davidians protected their compound, killing four agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

A lengthy standoff would follow, which resulted in the burning of the compound. In the fire, no officers were hurt, but 80 members (including David Koresh) himself died.

Branch Davidian compound in flames

David Berg and the Children of God (Family International)

Another David with the last name Berg was the founder of a movement called the Children of God. After some time, the Children of God became known as Family International, a name that the god cult continues to use to this day.

Family International cult leader David Berg with a Filipino woman

Berg died at the age of 75, but his legacy is still felt. As the leader of the cult, he can be traced back to ample cases of child pornography, child abuse, and much more. One story states that the youngest members of the cult learned to have sex, which was deemed God’s way of expressing his love. Other than that, Berg could do what he wanted. Once, or perhaps more than once, he married a three-year-old girl which he claimed was born for that purpose. Yikes.

READ MORE: The Dawn of Desire: Who Invented Porn?

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