From Jim Jones to the Manson family, cults evoke the frightening image of glassy-eyed followers willing to kill or be killed at the whim of their leader. There are always idiots who take it too far.
These fanatical organizations aren’t just relics of the recent past, however. Here are five modern-day cults you might not have heard about:
1. Eastern Lightning.
Followers of this Chinese cult believe that Jesus Christ has returned to Earth in the shape of “a plain-looking, 30-year-old Chinese woman who lives in hiding,” according to Shangaiist.
The cult has been accused of threatening, kidnapping and torturing other Christians, as well as coercing or offering sexual favors to potential members.
In 2012, leading up to the Mayan “apocalypse,” Chinese authorities cracked down on the group, which is thought to number a million of members around the country.
They operate out of forbidden underground churches and have loudly expressed a desire to topple the “Great Red Dragon” – their name for the Chinese communist party.
The latter undoubtedly sees echoes of the 19th century Taiping rebellion, which left 30 million dead and was led by a man who said he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother.
Labeled with the somewhat ironic tagline “Intelligent Design for Atheists,” Raelism is the belief that extraterrestrial scientists landed on our planet thousands of years ago and created humans.
Followers of this religion know this because its founder, former Swiss racecar driver and car journalist Claude Vorilhon, now known as Rael, met one of these aliens and was told of their secrets.
The cult gained notoriety in 2002 when one its members falsely claimed to have cloned a human being.
It’s also well-known for its liberal attitude towards sexuality, including a pro-prostitution off-shoot called Rael’s Girls.
3. Aum Shinrikyo (now Aleph).
In 1995, this group carried out a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway that left 12 people dead and more than 5,000 people sickened.
It took years for Japanese authorities to find the perpetrators, but it eventually sentenced thirteen cult members to death.
The prosecution of the cult, whose thousands of members wanted to cause WWIII to hasten Armageddon, is still ongoing. A former senior member, Makoto Hirata, went on trial in January 2014 for kidnapping a cult member’s brother.
Aum Shinrikyo has not carried out any attacks since, but is still active under the name of Aleph, claiming to be a peaceful organization that is currently recruiting young people.
4. The cargo cults of South Pacific.
On the tiny, isolated island nations of the South Pacific, some groups believe that if they please the gods by carving wooden guns and painting “USA” on their chests, goods will rain from the sky.
The notion was actually first introduced by European colonists, who would receive goods from ships simply by writing something on a piece of paper.
It gained popularity during World War II, when supply drops of ammunition, food, and equipment meant for Americans would sometimes land on the islands.
They’re still active today, although some occasionally mix their beliefs with more unsavory practices – such as cannibalism.
5. Twelve Tribes.
This extremely fundamentalist Messianic Judaist cult believe that all other religious movements and denominations have fallen from grace – they even refuse to be called Christian, referring to Christianity as the “Harlot of Babylon.”
It started out as a relatively peaceful religious group that lived in communes and stayed away from drugs and alcohol.
But even as its back-to-basics, scripture-only approach to Christianity (or Messianic Judaism if you will) gained popularity and started spreading around the world, the church grew more and more authoritarian.
Members around the world, from the U.S. to Germany and Britain, have been accused of physical child abuse and using children for labor.
(Members of the church can refer to the Twelve Tribes website for an article called “Why To Be Scared of the Anti-Cult Movement” to find out how totally wrong these claims are).