American Horror Story’s latest venture is Cult, looking at what happens when an enigmatic personality goes a step too far and things turn deadly. It’s an interesting premise, especially considering it’s using the 2016 US presidential election as its starting point, but it’s not exactly unique.
There are plenty of famous cults that have popped up over the years, like Jonestown, the Order of the Solar Temple, etc. But sometimes, it’s the lesser-known ones that are more horrifying. Plenty of them go on for years, if not decades, because they manage to fly under the radar. A couple of them are still around to this day. Here’s a selection of some of the weirdest, scariest, and most terrifying cults that you may not know about.
Roch Thériault ran a small doomsday cult in Ontario, Canada between 1977 and 1989, exercising absolute control over a dozen adults and at least 26 kids, most of whom he’d fathered himself with his nine concubines.
Before getting kicked out of the Seventh Day Adventists, Thériault had amassed a following by organizing detox seminars for people trying to quit smoking or drinking. He convinced several of them to quit their jobs and leave their families to live with him in the wilderness, dubbing them the Ant Hill Kids because of how hard he demanded they work—and when I say demand, I mean he forced them to break their own legs with sledgehammers if they refused.
Though he failed to predict the end of the world in 1979, Thériault successfully became a sadistic cult leader, demanding absolute loyalty and punishing naysayers and doubters. He nailed children to trees, made his followers eat their own feces, and when angered, he’d strip them down and bat them, pluck their hairs out one-by-one, and many other forms of abuse. He also refused to take anyone to the doctor, instead performing surgeries himself (without anesthetics), which resulted in one woman’s death from pulling out her intestines. He also killed a child during a failed circumcision, and one more died after being left outside during a blizzard as punishment.
It wasn’t until 1989 that Gabrielle Lavallée, having been brutally mutilated by Thériault on more than one occasion, finally escaped and contacted authorities. Thériault was given a life sentence, but he was killed in 2011 by his cellmate. Still, a good portion of his followers never recovered from their abuse, and have continued to obey his teachings.
It’s a case of “You can’t sit with us” gone horribly, horribly wrong. In 1991, a traveling carny named William Ault found out that a couple of his co-workers were involved in a cult called Satan’s Disciples, and he wanted in. Only problem was, Mark Goodwin, Jimmie Penick, and brothers Keith and David Lawrence didn’t want him in their club. Ault, not wanting to give up on being one of Satan’s Disciples, decided to blackmail the group with his knowledge that Penick and Keith Lawrence had killed an 18-year-old boy earlier that year. Only it didn’t actually work on the group.
The five members of Satan’s Disciples drove Auld out to a secluded area, told him to lie on a makeshift altar, then proceeded to mutilate and torture him. After tying and gagging Auld, the group invoked Satan before cutting an inverted cross into his body and killing him. They later cut off his head and hands, then tried to burn him—when that failed, they dumped his body in a field. Goodwin’s father found the body, told police, and the cult was arrested shortly later, serving between eight and 60 years for their crimes.
In the 1970s, a New York housewife saw visions of Jesus and two Hindu spirit guides, gave herself a new name, and started her own religion. Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati was the founder of Kashi Ashram, a spiritual group that became famous in the 1990s and early 2000s, and was beloved by celebrities like Julia Roberts. The religion promised kindness and compassion, but ex-members accused Ma Jaya of turning herself into a deity, telling followers: “The guru is greater than God.”
According to an investigation in the Miami New Times, dozens of former Kashi residents accused Ma Jaya and the movement of physical abuse, psychological control, kidnapping, and sexual assault. These mostly included beatings, either performed by Ma Jaya herself, or ordering someone else to do it. At one point, she reportedly punished a boy whom a member had molested by beating him, then painting his penis black and making him parade around the grounds of their compound.
Ma Jaya was also obsessed with children, possibly as a result of having several miscarriages with her second husband. Former members reported having to ask Ma Jaya’s permission to have kids, and some of them were coerced into handing over their babies to her for training. At least four mothers from 1978 to 1982 listed Ma Jaya or her husband as biological parents on their child’s birth certificates. But the worst offense had to be when Ma Jaya forced her 14-year-old daughter to marry an adult member of the church, ordering her to have sex with him and then checking to see if she was pregnant.
Ma Jaya may have died in 2012, but her legacy has not. Kashi Ashram still exists to this day.
It all started when the body of 17-year-old sex worker Doreen Levesque was found outside a Massachusetts high school. Her wrists were bound with fishing line, and she had been horrifically beaten and sexually assaulted. Police originally suspected one of her clients had done it, but one year later the body of another sex worker was found on a “makeshift altar.”
Later, a sex worker named Karen Marsden came forward, fearing for her life, claiming that pimp Carl Drew and sex worker Robin Murphy, who was also Marsden’s girlfriend, were responsible for the murders. She said Drew and Murphy were part of a devil-worshipping prostitution ring, and that they’d perform rituals and human sacrifices deep within the forest. More so, she worried that she could be the next victim for cooperating with the authorities, though they didn’t take her concerns seriously. Six months later, Marsden’s body was found–or rather, her toothless skull.
Drew was arrested in April of 1980 and charged in Marsden’s death, while another man, Andrew Maltais, was charged in connection to one of the other murders connected to the alleged cult. Murphy pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and got a reduced sentence in exchange for her testimony against the others. However, there are those who believe Murphy, an aspiring pimp herself with ties to the occult, was the real mastermind behind the ritualistic killings. Others think the murders weren’t actually devil worship, and were sensationalized because of the Satanic panic of the 1980s.
Maltais died while behind bars, Drew has maintained his innocence during his entire stint in prison (claiming Murphy was responsible), and Murphy has been in and out of her cell. Most recently, she was denied parole in March 2017 because the parole board thought she was untrustworthy.
Valentina de Andrade was the leader of a 1980s UFO cult called Superior Universal Alignment in a remote part of Brazil. She claimed to receive messages from extraterrestrials that God didn’t exist—rather, Jesus was an alien and he was going to send a spacecraft to save true believers from the End Times. However, her prophetic beliefs came with one caveat: All boys born after 1981 were possessed by evil and had to be purged.
At first, de Andrade simply demanded that some couples turn their children over to other couples, grandparents, or other guardians so they’d qualify to leave on her spaceship. However, that didn’t turn out to be enough, and things became violent. Between 1989 and 1993, members of Superior Universal Alignment are believed to have sexually assaulted, mutilated, or killed at least 19 boys between 8 and 13 years old. Six of them died and five were never found, while the rest escaped—though some had been drugged or mutilated (including castration).
It took 11 years for Brazilian police to gather enough evidence to bring de Andrade to trial, along with four male members of her cult, many of whom were prominent citizens in their remote Amazonian community. While all four of the men connected to the boys’ murders were sentenced to decades in prison, de Andrade was acquitted of all charges...because she wasn’t in the area when the crimes were committed. And weirdly enough, de Andrade’s Superior Universal Alignment still has an active presence online.
In 2004, 57-year-old Marcus Wesson stepped out of his house in Fresno, covered in blood, and police knew that something had gone horribly wrong. Piled in the back of the house were the bodies of nine of his kids and grandkids, surrounded by antique coffins.
For decades, Wesson had cultivated and controlled an incestuous family of followers through manipulation and physical abuse. He followed his own spiritual practice that combined Christianity and vampirism, believing the Jesus Christ was actually a vampire, and that the End Times would be upon them when a police officer arrived at their door.
Wesson kept his sons separate from his daughters and refused to let them socialize with each other, in fear that they would develop sexual feelings for each other. This is primarily because he considered himself God, and all his daughters were his future wives. Wesson started marrying his daughters in 1974, sexually abusing them as children so they could bear even more kids for him. It’s believed he fathered about 18 children through seven women, five of whom were young girls at the time.
After Wesson had declared that he planned to move his daughters and their kids to Washington state, several members of his extended family (along with two nieces who had rebelled against him) showed up to his compound and demanded he release the kids. The police were called, believing it was a standard custody battle, but it soon turned deadly. Wesson was found guilty of nine counts of murder and several counts of rape and sexual assault. He’s currently sitting on death row.
Clarification: The article previously said Ma Jaya died in 2003, this has been corrected.