Religious cults have always been equally compelling and sickening. Their association with this eerie and unwelcome stigma is often for good reason.

Some cults have become so well-known that people are familiar with them from the mention of a single word – Manson and Jonestown to name a few. Others may not be that popular, but still send chills up our spines whenever their stories are told.

Below, we take an in-depth look at three of history’s scariest religious cults.


1. The Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux KlanPerhaps the most well-known and most fear-inducing of all religious cults in modern history, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee in the 1860s after the American Civil War. It was originally founded as a social club for former confederate veterans, but quickly turned into a hate group who would terrorize anyone unfortunate enough to happen to disagree with their radical political and social views.

In their early years, they convened regularly and established what they called “The Invisible Empire of the South”- led by former Confederate general Nathan Bedford, who was chosen as their first ‘Grand Wizard’ to preside over a hierarchy of grand dragons, grand titans and grand cyclops.

Notorious for their white robes and pointed masks, the Ku Klux Klan began a campaign of violence against African-americans and Republican leaders in the name of religion and restoring white supremacy. They would burn mighty wooden crosses as they threatened anyone who opposed them. If people did not back down, they would sometimes be killed. Their growing numbers prompted more violence, the Klan subjecting more and more people to lynchings (murder, usually by hanging, without a fair trial). In the early 1870s, the KKK were prohibited and many of its members were imprisoned.

In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan were restarted in Georgia. Their recruitment was propelled by a newly released movie depicting African American men as dense, sexually-aggressive threats to white women. The Ku Klux Klan were, unsurprisingly, depicted as a heroic force. During this resurrection of the KKK, their old traditions and rituals were still being proudly kept. However, they became more aggressive, attacking mainly African Americans in their bid to maintain white supremacy, acting in the name of religion. Over the course of their existence thus far, the KKK had killed over 3000 African Americans, most of those were lynchings. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the Klan was effectively using fear and spreading terror as a means to control black people and limit their political freedom. However, their lack of proper organizational hierarchy, great number of internal feuds and the onset of the Great Depression lead to their numbers deflating massively. At their peak, there were around 5 million members – that number went down to 30,000 by the 1930s.

The Ku Klux Klan continued to be active despite growing more and more disorganized. There are many records of independent attacks conducted by Ku Klux Klan members or followers of their ideology, mostly on minorities, including harassment, assault, vandalism and sometimes even murder.


2. Rajneeshpuram

Welcome Sign to City of RajneeshpuramRajneeshpuram is a cult whose roots trace back to Pune, India back in the 1970s. The leader of the cult was a man known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He was an unorthodox Indian guru, who went against the beliefs of many conservative Indians. Rajneesh believed in indulging in materialistic and worldly pleasures – he was an advocate of a more open attitude towards human sexuality, something that did not sit well with the Indian community. This forced him to leave his native land and begin his journey anew in Oregon.

Rajneesh purchased a massive ranch in Oregon, which was soon populated by thousands upon thousands of Neo-sannyasins (Rajneesh’s disciples).  The ranch was briefly incorporated as a small city; it had all the necessary infrastructure, including police, a fire department, a public transport system and even a mall.

But with time, tensions with the outer world began rising. Legal issues related to acquiring land-use permits, and more importantly, wanting to be recognized as a legitimate community, led to belligerent folk on both sides. Rajneesh himself was largely uninvolved in this matter, his right-hand woman, Ma Anand Sheela, was effectively the voice and leader of the commune.

Things reached a boiling point when, in 1984, it was revealed that Rajneesh’s disciples, including Sheela and many high ranking officers, committed America’s first bioterror attack by poisoning food in local restaurants, leaving almost 750 victims sick.

Sheela was extradited for her leading role in this shameful bioterror attack, as well as other crimes, and imprisoned. Rajneesh himself was accused of illegal immigration and agreed to return to India. His disciples left Rajneeshpuram shortly after.


3. Fall River

Half of a skull found in forestThe town of Fall River, Massachusetts was hit hard during the economic recession that took place in the late 1970s. Closed down factories, unemployment rates skyrocketing and rising crime rates made for a difficult time for the residents of Fall River. Subsequently, Fall River became a fertile ground for drug dealing, prostitution and other generally shady businesses.

Amid these economic hardships, a series of mystifying and violent murders took place – resulting in a panicky frenzy. The first body was found on October the 13th, 1979. The bloodied and bludgeoned body belonged to Doreen ‘Donna’ Levesque. Her skull was very badly fractured, her wrists were tied up and her body exhibited signs of sexual assault. Moreover, forensic examiners suspected the crime may have been committed by a number of people. Donna, a 17-year-old prostitute in Fall River, was the first of a series of what the media dubbed ‘The Fall River Cult Murders’.

Enter Andy Maltias. He visited the Fall River police station a month after the discovery of Donna Levesque’s body. He was there to file a missing person’s report for his missing girlfriend, Barbara Raposa, who worked the same street as Donna. He then mentioned something about a Satanic cult and claimed to know information about the Levesque murder. The police, intrigued and desperate for a lead, interviewed Maltias. He claimed he and his girlfriend had dabbled in Satanism and joined a local cult. He added that even though he did not have any direct information, he knows two other cult members who do have information on Donna Levesque’s murder. Police were later introduced to the two cult members; Kate Marsden and Robin Murphy.

Marsden, another drug-riddled prostitute, was nervous and emotional during the police interview. Murphy, on the other hand, was silent and calculating. Robin Murphy stayed silent during the police interview, letting her friend Kate Marsden do all the talking. After intense questioning, Kate finally broke down and said, “Carl Drew killed Donna Levesque.”

Carl Drew was a pimp who publicly claimed to be the son of Satan. He had a very rough childhood that involved plenty of abuse and hardships. His profile certainly fit the police’s profile of someone capable of vicious, cold-blooded murder. Unfortunately, save for the words of a young drug addict, there was no proof that Drew murdered Donna Levesque. The police were powerless. However, they were alerted and kept tabs on the ‘Fall River Cult’, who was led by Drew. The police also got to talking more with Kate in private when she revealed that Robin Murphy had dabbled in Satanism before even joining the cult, and was prone to violence and psychosis. Robin Murphy soon shifted, in the eyes of the police, from unwilling witness to possible central player.

On January the 26th, 1980, the body of a second victim was discovered. The second victim was found to be Barbara Raposa – Andy Maltias’ former lover. Her wrists were also tied up, her skull badly fractured and she showed signs of sexual abuse. It didn’t take too long to suspect that whoever had murdered Barbara Raposa had also likely murdered Donna Levesque.

Andy Maltias was the police’s first suspect, and he was soon apprehended. Despite this, Kate Marsden, who was in constant contact with the police, maintained that Drew was behind the murders, with Murphy playing a big role. She also kept insisting that she was next in the line on the ritual killings. Unfortunately, Marsden was considered an unreliable source.

Sadly for Marsden, her paranoia was well-placed. About two months later, a man near Devol Pond in Westport discovered what appeared to be half of a human skull. Police were promptly alerted and found three dead cat carcasses, human hair and sheep bones. Forensic officers found that the skull belonged to Kate Marsden. A couple of cult members came forward to the police naming Drew and Murphy as Marsden’s killers. Murphy later revealed that she did in fact kill Kate Marsden. She went into detail: She pulled Kate Marsden by the hair out of the car. Kate was then subjected to a ritual stoning, courtesy of Murphy, Drew and two others. One of her fingers was cut off, and Drew then broke her neck with his own hands. Finally, Murphy was ordered to slit Kate’s throat. Her head was then torn off and kicked into the woods. Drew carved an X into Kate’s torso, paying homage to Satan. Dipping his thumb in the blood, Drew then drew an X on Murphy’s forehead. Finally, the finale of this horrifying series of events; Murphy was forcefully made to perform oral sex on the headless body before it was doused in fuel and burned.

Drew, Murphy and others were tried in relation to these three murders.


No End In Sight

There are dozens of cults still active today. These cults prey on the unsuspecting, vulnerable minds of the mentally unstable. It is no surprise that many famous cult members have been victims of abuse or drug addicts. They are drawn in by a charismatic leader, who promises them and reassures them that they are doing ‘good’, spiritual work. They often perform these tasks, which are usually illegal, unethical or socially unacceptable, because they’re scared or because they are utterly convinced that there is some higher power waiting to reward them. It is a terrifyingly sad fate to all those who befall it.