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‘Starve yourself to meet Jesus’ to ‘We will ride on a comet to escape apocalypse’: How doomsday cults have claimed thousands of gullible victims across the world

Cult leaders use fear tactics to persuade naive people that they are under attack from the outside world and that only the cult and its charismatic leader can protect them. Ironically, their yearning for comfort, stability, approval, community and a twisted quest of 'meeting God' or 'attaining salvation' leads them to mental and physical torture and ultimately to their tragic end.

The cycle of life, death, and the ‘afterlife’ has long piqued the interest of many people across socio-cultural origins. The yearning for a greater purpose in life and the allurement of ‘meeting God’ has frequently lured people to enigmatic cults that use myriad tactics to gather followers. Some of these cults, when the leader is a maniac, often end up in tragedy.

The recently uncovered Kenyan starvation cult and the hundreds of deaths caused by it demonstrate how people with deep-seated fear are drawn to charismatic cult leaders who persuade them to believe in apocalyptic prophecies inspired predominantly by the Biblical Book of Revelation. In many of such cults, faith becomes one with fear, creating a dangerous delusion.

The term “cult” most commonly refers to a group of individuals who live in a state of solitude from the rest of the world and have unusual beliefs. They tend to center on a charismatic figure—the cult leader—who orders the beliefs, behaviors, and customs of all members. The cult followers are influenced to such an extent that they feel incapable of living a free life outside the belief system of their cult.  

History has witnessed many such doomsday cults emerge, thrive, and end. Let’s take a look at some notorious cults that have caused widespread deaths and pain.

Kenyan doomsday cult

These doomsday cults thrive on the belief that people are living in the end times, that is the world will end soon and only those who follow their prescribed rituals and traditions will be able to meet God. As seen in the case of Kenya’s Christian doomsday cult, its leader and pastor Paul Mackenzie who ran the Good News International Church urged his cult followers to starve themselves to death if they wished to reach heaven ‘faster’ and meet Jesus Christ there. So far 403 dead bodies have been recovered and over 600 are missing.

Dead bodies of Kenyan starvation cult followers (Image via NewsCentral)

The pastor told his adherents that the world will end on April 15 and Satan would rule for thousand years. As told by the relatives of those who died following Mackenzie’s command, the pastor had cut off his followers from their families and society through extreme teachings.

Pastor Paul Mackenzie who led the Kenyan starvation cult (Image via Reuters)

He even called schools and hospitals ‘institutions controlled by Satan’. Apparently, the idea behind cutting off people from the world was to establish absolute control over their thought processes and make them do things the cult leader believes should be done to meet God. 

Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God’ 

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) was a Ugandan religious cult that rose to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This Christian cult was dedicated to restoring God’s Ten Commandments to their rightful position in the world. In a horrific turn of events, the leaders were eventually found to have engineered a mass murder-suicide of its followers in 2000, killing over 900 people.

Credonia Mwerinde, a former sex worker, and Joseph Kibweteere, a former politician, set up the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in the early 1990s. They proclaimed to have received revelations from the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, and their doctrines were an amalgamation of Christian and indigenous African traditions.

MRTCG cult founders Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kwibeteere (Image via Sword and Scale)

The doctrines of the group emphasised the importance of faithfully following the Ten Commandments and preparing for the end of the world. Members were instructed to adhere to a stringent set of rules and rituals. 

The followers of this cult were preparing for the second coming of Jesus Christ. According to the book of this cult titled “A Timely Message From Heaven: The End of the Present Time”, they believed in twelve apostles called Entumwa (messenger). They also believed that the world would end and a new earth “will begin with year one, after the year 2000.”

Bodily remains of the MRTCG death cult followers (Image via Facebook)

On the fateful day of March 17, 2000, the leaders of the group summoned all members to a church in Kanungu, a small town in southern Uganda. After locking the doors and windows they set fire to the Church. It remains one of the most horrific mass suicide incidents in history. Ironically, those who led this mass suicide drive were never found. 

Heaven’s Gate

Heaven’s Gate, led by Marshall Applewhite alias Do and Bonnie Nettles alias Ti believed in a UFO-related end-of-the-world catastrophe. 39 members committed mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in 1997, believing their souls would ascend to a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

Heaven’s Gate cult leaders Bonnie Nettles alias Ti and Marshall Applewhite (Image via ABC/VCI)

They believed that this spaceship would grab their souls and send them to a higher realm of existence, therefore they mixed phenobarbital with apple sauce and vodka. They also used bags tied over their heads to cause asphyxiation or simply suffocation.

Mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California where 39 dead bodies of Heaven Gate cult followers were found in 1997 (Image via AP)

They directed their followers that the human body was merely a “vehicle” for their spirit to travel in and that the “savior” had returned in the human form of Applewhite. Their members were told to obey strict regulations, including severing links with family, friends, and society. They were also instructed to assume an asexual appearance. Many had even been castrated. 

People’s Temple

Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple was a cult notorious for its mass suicide/murder incident at Jonestown, Guyana. More than 900 followers, including over 300 children, perished on November 18, 1978, after drinking cyanide-laced grape-flavored Kool Aid. The Jonestown Massacre remains one of the largest single losses of civilian life in an American non-natural disaster.

Rev Jim Jones and his wife, Marceline (Image via Bettmann Archive/Guardian)

The cult’s apocalyptic doctrines were based on the premise that the world was on the verge of destruction and that the only way to avoid the looming catastrophe was to commit “revolutionary suicide.”

Corpses of people who died in the mass suicide event at Jonestown in 1978 (Image via Bettmann Archive)

On November 18, 1978, more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in Jonestown, Guyana, after eating cyanide-laced Flavour Aid on the orders of Jim Jones, also called the ‘Mad Messiah’. This mass suicide/murder event is known as the Jonestown Massacre.

The Mansion Family

Charles Mansion, founder of The Mansion Family cult in the 1960s in California believed he was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and propagated that a ‘race war’ is coming in the apocalypse. His followers were mostly comprised of young women. Charles Mansion influenced young women using his captivating manipulative techniques. 

Charles Mansion, founder of The Mansion Family cult (Image via CBS)

He sent a group of his followers to a residence in Benedict Canyon in August 1969 and urged them to kill everyone inside. Actress Sharon Tate, who was married to Roman Polanski at the time, and renowned hairdresser Jay Sebring were among those killed. The following night, Manson’s followers murdered Rosemary and Leno LaBianca at their Los Feliz home. His other prominent victims included Beach Boys band’s drummer Denis Wilson who was also Mansion’s friend. The murder of actress Sharon Tate inspired the iconic film ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,’ starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt, with actress Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate.

Actress Sharon Tate’s dead body was taken from her house in California in 1969. (Image via AP)

Manson encouraged his followers to murder individuals because he believed it would spark a race war. He gave heavy doses of LSD to his followers. In total, nine persons were killed in a series of separate incidents. Manson was found guilty on all nine counts of first-degree murder. He was incarcerated until his death in 2017.

Church of the Lamb of God 

Ervil LeBaron founded the Church of the Lamb of God also called Mormon Manson in Chihuahua, Mexico. A polygamist leader of the Mormon sect of the church, LeBaron persuaded his followers that he had received direct orders from God, including the use of an abandoned Mormon teaching known as “blood atonement,” which enables the slaughter of sinners to purify them of wickedness.

Mormon fundamentalist Ervil LeBaron (Image via AP)

LeBaron had 51 children with 13 different spouses and amassed hundreds of followers over two decades, who allegedly murdered more than 20 people on LeBaron’s commands. Mexican authorities arrested LeBaron in 1979, and he died in prison in 1981. His horror, however, persisted as he left a “hit list” featuring people he considered to be “traitors.” LeBaron’s wives, children, and followers continued to kill people in his name.

The Family International 

Children of God/The Family International’s sexual abuse and pedophilia have a long history in the international cult. David Berg utilised the cult to promote “free love,” founding ‘Flirty Fishing’ in the 1970s, in which the cult’s women were instructed to sleep with men in order to entice them into its folds. This cult even attracted actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan.

David Berg was accused of molesting his own daughter after the cult encouraged sexual interaction with children. Despite the cult’s denial of sexual assault charges, numerous survivors of this heinous group have stated otherwise.

Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo, founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, originally made news in the late 1980s over allegations that Asahara was forcing members to give money to the organization and holding people against their will.

Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult (Image via Getty/AFP)

Asahara, like many cult leaders, believed in an impending doomsday, this time triggered by a world war initiated by the United States. Only his adherents, he claimed, will survive.

The dead body of one of the Sarin gas attack victims (Image via Junji Kurokawa/Getty)

In 1995, the organization carried out a sarin gas attack on Tokyo Subway System, killing 12 people and injuring countless others. The attack purportedly was aimed at bringing about the ‘apocalypse’. Cult leader Asahara deemed the horrific attack as a “holy attempt to elevate the doomed souls of this world to a higher spiritual stage”.

Order of the Solar Temple

The Order of the Solar Temple, founded in Switzerland in 1984 by Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret, attributed its roots to the medieval Knights Templar but also predicted the end of the world in the 1990s. As the cult became more focused on the end of the world, it gained more adherents.

Luc Jouret and Joseph di Mambro, the founders of the Order of the Solar Temple (Image via Infobae)

Di Mambro ordered the murder of a Swiss man, his wife, and children in Quebec in 1994. Later that year, more than 50 members of the group were murdered or committed suicide, and the group’s buildings were burned down. Members committed suicide in 1995 and 1997. Surprisingly, the Order of the Solar Temple is still operating today, with several hundred members.

How doomsday cults attract followers?

There have been lethal doomsday cults in the past, such as NXVIM, and many remain operational in some form or another even now. The question here is, what draws people to these weird, sometimes ridiculous, and often dangerous cults? As with the cults discussed above, certain aspects are shared among them, such as a projected ‘apocalypse,’ seclusion of cult believers from family and society, and excessive control over both mental and physical activity through rigorous rituals.

While most people are preoccupied with worldly material gains and conventional achievements, many are eager to find absolute answers to avenues such as right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, the existence of God, and so on. Many of the victims of dangerous cults are often vulnerable individuals who seek companionship and a purpose in their life, and most importantly, a sense of belonging.

Such people find their ‘solutions’ in the discourses of extremely manipulative cult leaders who position themselves as a charismatic figure who has somehow figured out answers to all the complex questions about life, death, hell, heaven, and, of course, the existence of God and how to meet him. 

Cult leaders find a popular audience in vulnerable people, especially those with poor self-esteem and confidence. It is because people with low self-esteem are easily emotionally broken down and remolded into cult-compliant personalities. Such people, who frequently feel excluded or unaccepted by mainstream society, find the milieu of these cults encouraging and get a false sense of healing.

Their desperate search for a better life leads them to dangerous apocalyptic cults. The cult members are embraced with open arms and showered with love and acceptance. However, when individuals become accustomed to the cult and its practices, they are mentally and physically abused in various ways.

Many cults have prospered by spreading the ‘us versus them’ mentality. Many leaders of doomsday cults persuade their adherents that they are unique and superior to outsiders. They further convince them that a war has to be fought against people who oppose what they believe. This further isolates members of the cult from their families and friends. They employ paranoia to create a false sense of comfort and security in their followers. Cult leaders use fear tactics to persuade naive people that they are under attack from the outside world and that only the cult and its charismatic leader can protect them. Ironically, their yearning for comfort, stability, approval, community, and a twisted quest of ‘meeting God’ or ‘attaining salvation’ leads them to mental and physical torture and ultimately to their tragic end.

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