Cult Deaths

In the past several decades, a handful of cults have been associated with mass deaths, either through murders, suicides, or standoffs with the government that ended tragically. These highly publicized cases have convinced the public that many or all cults are extremist groups that are highly dangerous; in fact, there is little understanding by many people of what constitutes a cult, how they recruit, or what turns a small number of these groups toward violence.

Defining cults and deciding which groups should be labeled as such is sometimes a difficult task because of the variety of groups that exist outside of the mainstream. However, in their The Will to Kill (2001), James A. Fox and Jack Levin define cults as being "loosely structured and unconventional forms of small religious groups, the members of which are held together by a charismatic leader who mobilizes their loyalty around some new religious cause—typically a cause that is at odds with that of more conventional religious institutions" (Fox and Levin 2001, p. 141). Part of the difficulty of defining what groups are cults is that cults may move to mainstream status over time by becoming conventional institutions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints made just such a transition since their founding in 1830.

Many groups can be categorized as cults under the previous definition, although the vast majority of them are harmless (Richardson 1994). However, society has a negative view of groups labeled as cults and typically treats such groups as dangerous. Furthermore, the public often views religious commitment "as properties of the lunatic fringe" and views cult members as fanatics (Miller 1994, p. 7). The negative connotation of the term cult resulted in many scholars avoiding its use and instead using "new religious movement" or "minority religions" (Lewis 1998, p. 1).

The anti-cult movement feeds part of the negative view that the public holds toward cults. A number of groups are part of this movement: Their common tasks are "disseminating information, offering advice and counseling, and/or lobbying those in authority to take action to curb the activities of cults" (Barker 1986, p. 335).


There are different viewpoints as to how cults procure new members. The anti-cult position takes a negative view of the groups' activities, often assuming that people join cults because they were brainwashed, or were the victims of other mind control procedures that rendered them "helpless victims" (Barker 1986, p. 335). However, many researchers view brainwashing as a stereotype of actual cult practices: It represents society's attempt at a "simplistic explanation of why people adopt strange beliefs" that are at odds with conventional wisdom (Wessinger 2000, p. 6). In her studies of cults, the sociologist and cult expert Eileen Barker notes that empirical evidence supporting the use of brainwashing is lacking.

Another explanation of cult membership focuses on deficiencies within the people themselves. This view, also popular within the anti-cult ranks, treats cult members as "abnormally pathetic or weak" (Barker 1986, p. 336). Yet evidence gathered through psychological testing does not support this position (Barker 1986).

In 1965 the sociologists John Lofland and Rodney Stark proposed a model of cult conversion by studying a millenarian cult interested in returning the world to "the conditions of the Garden of Eden" (Lofland and Stark 1965, p. 862). Their model is comprised of an ordered series of seven factors, all of which are necessary and sufficient for a person's decision to join a cult. The model focuses on how situational factors influence people who are predisposed, due to their backgrounds, to join such groups. Each step in the model reduces the number of potential converts, leaving only a few people eligible for conversion. Lofland updated the model in 1977 to reflect a more sophisticated effort on the part of the group they studied to obtain converts. He notes that the characteristics of the converts changed over time: The group attracted young people from "higher social classes," rather than the "less than advantaged" people they attracted in the past (Lofland 1977, p. 807).

Lofland's later explanation of conversion does involve persuasion on the part of cult members. For example, of the group he studied, weekend workshops were used to help potential converts form "affective bonds" with group members while avoiding "interference from outsiders" (p. 809). During these weekends a group member constantly accompanied potential converts; furthermore, people were discouraged from leaving the event, although physical force was never used to encourage them to remain.

Although the use of persuasion has been noted in conversion, and "coercive measures" have sometimes been used to prevent defection, it is incorrect to say that converts are universally victims of brainwashing (Wessinger 2000, p.7). In fact, many people who join cults ultimately choose to leave them, with many groups experiencing high turnover rates. One argument against brainwashing is that cults appeal to people more during "periods of rapid social change, at times when individuals are feeling a lack of structure and belonging . . . and when the credibility of traditional institutions is impaired" (Fox and Levine 2001, p. 142). This explanation of membership emphasizes social as well as life circumstances.

When Cults Become Dangerous

Despite the fact that most cults are harmless, some groups do become dangerous either to themselves or others. A particularly dangerous time for cult activity coincides with the ending of a century or millennium. During these times, groups sometimes "prophesize the end of the world" (Fox and Levine 2001, p. 143). This belief is originally rooted in biblical tradition predicting a cataclysmic event followed by a period of a thousand years of perfection on the earth. However, the original meaning of millennium has now come to "be used as a synonym for belief in a collective terrestrial salvation" involving the formation of a "millennial kingdom" in which suffering does not exist (Wessinger 2000, p. 3). Some groups expect the paradise to be earthly, while others, like the group Heaven's Gate, expected it to be "heavenly or other-worldly" (Wessinger 2000, p. 3). Still others, like the Branch Davidians, are ambiguous on this issue.

Just because a group is a millennial group does not necessarily mean that violence will result. For example, in 1962 the scholars Jane Allyn Hardyck and Marcia Braden followed the activities of an Evangelical Christian group that prophesized an impending nuclear disaster. Despite moving into fallout shelters for forty-two days and emerging to find that their prophecy was incorrect, the group's core beliefs withstood the ordeal and no violence resulted. However, in rare circumstances violence does erupt. The scholar Jeffrey Kaplan notes that groups that become violent follow a specific pattern, with a key factor involving a leader who begins to feel persecuted for his or her beliefs. This combined with a tendency to withdraw from society and to develop "an increasingly idiosyncratic doctrine" may push the group toward violence (Kaplan 1994, p. 52).

The violence from millennial groups arises when they begin to play an active part in bringing about the prophesized apocalypse. One of the most dangerous of these groups was the Aum Shinrikyo, who released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and injuring 5,500. They also released sarin gas in 1993 in Matsumoto, Japan, injuring 600 and killing 7. The group's leader, Shoko Asahara, was a self-proclaimed Buddha figure claiming psychic powers, including the ability to prophesize future events. In creating his religion, he hoped to bring about the creation of Shambhala, "the Buddhist Millennial Kingdom" that was to be populated with converts who were themselves psychic (Wessinger 2000, p. 142).

Asahara predicted that a worldwide nuclear Armageddon would occur in 1999, but said that the world could be saved if their group grew to 30,000 members. Although membership grew to as many as 10,000, it was clear that he had not reached his recruitment goal. As a result, Asahara began to move the date of the apocalypse closer and closer in an attempt to increase recruitment while also enhancing loyalty of group members. The date was finally moved to 1995, forcing his inner circle to launch their own Armageddon in order to preserve the illusion of his prophetic powers (Wessinger, 2000). The Tokyo subway attack was to be one step in their attempt to "overthrow the Japanese government" and then later "initiate a worldwide nuclear disaster that only he and his disciples would survive" (Fox and Levine 2001, p. 147).

The Solar Temple represents another example of a millennial group that resulted in the deaths of seventy-three people in multiple locations across Switzerland, France, and Canada between 1994 and 1997. The deaths involved both current and former members of the Temple. Letters left by group members note that the deaths were a combination of executions of "traitors," murders of weaker members who lacked the strength to "transit to a higher world," and suicides (Wessinger, 2000, p. 219). Group members believed that they must transit to "a higher realm of existence and consciousness" in order to find salvation: The destination of this transit appears to have been a star or one of several planets (Wessinger 2000, p. 219).

Membership in the Solar Temple reached as high as 442 people worldwide in 1989 but internal strife began in 1990, leading to a steady decrease in membership during the following years. Former members began demanding reimbursements for their contributions. Even the son of one of the founders proved disloyal when he revealed to others that cofounders Joseph DiMambro and Luc Jouret used electronic devices to create illusions to fool Solar Temple members. Though the original position of the group merely involved bringing about an age of enlightenment involving "an evolution of consciousness on Earth," this position changed when internal problems as well as "persecutory" external events caused a shift in theology: The new theology justified leaving the earth since it could not be saved (Wessinger, 2000, p. 224).

Other millennial groups have been involved in mass deaths since 1990, including an incident that occurred in early 2000 in several remote locations in Uganda. Members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were either murdered or engaged in mass suicide, leaving more than 500 people dead. Their leader, Joseph Kibwetere, had long prophesized an imminent end to the world. The truth surrounding the deaths as well as a final death toll may never be known because there were no survivors (Hammer 2000).

See also: Death System ; Heaven's Gate ; Jonestown ; Waco


Barker, Eileen. "Religious Movements: Cult and Anticult Since Jonestown." Annual Review of Sociology 12 (1986):329–346.

Fox, James A., and Jack Levin. The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.

Hammer, Joshua. "An Apocalyptic Mystery." Newsweek, 3 April 2000, 46–47.

Hardyck, Jane Allyn, and Marcia Braden. "Prophecy Fails Again: A Report of a Failure to Replicate." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 65 (1962):136–141.

Kaplan, Jeffrey. "The Millennial Dream." In James R. Lewis ed., From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1994.

Lewis, James R. Cults in America. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.

Lofland, John. " 'Becoming a World-Saver' Revisited." American Behavioral Scientist 20 (1977):805–818.

Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective." American Sociological Review 30 (1965):862–874.

Miller, Timothy. "Misinterpreting Religious Commitment." In James R. Lewis ed., From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1994.

Richardson, James T. "Lessons from Waco: When Will We Ever Learn?" In James R. Lewis ed., From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.


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