Death Cults – Introduction

by Willy Wegner, translated by Claus Larsen

In this series of articles, I will describe four death cults. Although the four groups are very different, and cannot be directly compared, they do share some basic characteristics, exemplified by:

  • A charismatic leader
  • A common set of beliefs
  • Partly collective isolation from society
  • A concept of a hostile society
  • A concept of armageddon
  • Striving for a better life
  • Death

The pivotal point is the charismatic leader. Without the leader, no cult. Without followers, no leader.

It is clear that all four cults are built around their leader, representing the only valid truth. The leaders usually surround themselves with an inner circle of followers, who help organizing the daily life and goals of the cult. Their task is to maintain control of all the ordinary members, organize and recruit new members and other practical tasks. They may have special privileges like better living conditions, more freedom or better financial status, as long as they are loyal to their leader and the rules that are set by the leader.

The cults also include the worker bees of the cult, the ordinary members. They often make up the economical foundation of the cult, making it possible for it – and especially the leader – to thrive financially. The members provide money either by various forms of jobs, membership fees or buying their leader’s writings or relics necessary for their own personal development within the cult. The latter was in particularly the case in the Aum cult, reaching grotesque levels.

Everyday life in the cult may be isolated from the surrounding society, but at the same time it is deeply dependent on it, since it is from society it has to get the money to maintain the cult. The articles describe how the cults run multiple kinds of businesses, ranging from web design and arms trade, to selling vegetables from market stalls.

Isolation and imposed silence, practiced in cults like Heaven’s Gate and in particular the Kanungu cult, is not limited to extreme cult life, though. It is also known from monasteries.

While the learned discuss definitions and demarcation lines between religions, New Age movements, sects and cults, I have, as a lay person, chosen to set aside this debate and simply use the term “cults”.

On March 17, 2000, several hundred people died in a church fire in the small Ugandan village of Kanungu. They all belonged to a Catholic cult by the name of The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

The Ugandan authorities first thought it was a case of collective suicide, based on the belief that the cult members by fire could enter Heaven. But while the last embers died out and the stench of burnt human flesh was still lingering, the authorities became aware that it was instead deadly arson.

It would soon become clear that those who had died in the flames weren’t the only victims. Within a month, the number of casualties rose to almost 1,000, mostly women and children.

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, which I will refer to as the Kanungu cult, had other camps throughout Uganda. It was there that mass graves were found, with members being killed before the fire. The total number of deaths is thought to be considerably bigger, but we will probably never know just how big, since the authorities halted the excavations in the beginning of April, 2000.

The sources for the article about the Kanungu cult are primarily the largest African newspapers. Additionally, some of the larger American and British media sent reporters to cover this human disaster. I have also been in contact with the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, which on its own initiative investigated the background for the incidents regarding the Kanungu cult.

On March 27, 1997, 39 bodies were found in a luxurious villa near San Diego, California. All were members of a cult named Heaven’s Gate, and all had committed collective suicide.

They left behind comprehensive documentation of their actions through the years, and a video where they spoke about their intentions, and how happy they were for committing this ultimative action.

Heaven’s Gate was led by 65-year old Marshall Herff Applewhite. The cult was centered around a mix of UFO-beliefs and science fiction. To them, it wasn’t a question of suicide, but of abandoning their Earthly “vessels”. They were convinced that a big spaceshit was approaching Earth, ready to take them onboard to a new and improved life.

March 20, 1995 is another day to remember when it comes to death cults. That was the day the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo launched a gas attack on the subway in Tokyo.

Aum was a spiritual-political movement that had achieved huge financial resources. The cult leader, Shoko Asahara was not content on being a cult leader; his goal was to become lord and saviour of the entire world. The Aum movement would do what it took to achieve this goal.

The following court procedings stretched over more than a decade. Throughout the years, there have been several death sentences and long jail sentences for his closest aides. The final verdict of Asahara came as late as in 2006. The death sentence in Japan automatically means hanging. The career of Asahara ends in the gallows.

On February 28, 1993, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms delivered a search warrant to the Branch Davidians, a splinter group from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and sought to arrest the leader of the cult, David Koresh.

That turned out woefully bad, and ended in a 51-day FBI siege of the cult’s commune, with tanks, snipers and wiretapping. It all came crashing down on April 19th, 1993. FBI tried to drive out the members with gas, and in the subsequent catastrophic fire, about 80 Davidians perished, many of them their own children.

It was assumed that it was the Davidians who lit the fire themselves, but how could it have gotten that far? Ever since, the FBI has tried to close this case, so incriminating and controversial that the FBI even tried to fool its own boss, Attorney General Janet Reno.

The source material is huge. I have in my chapter on Waco tried to describe just some of the many aspects in this case.

There are other precedents, but when I have chosen to describe these four death cults, rooted in the same decade, it is not because they have been the only ones close to the year 2000. Groups like the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, and the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Canada are also part of current trend.

In November 1978, the People’s Temple eradicated itself. Along with the leader, Jim Jones, 914 people were found dead, either poisoned by a lethal concoction, or simply murdered.

The Order of the Solar Temple was led by Joseph DiMambo and Luc Jouret, and originated in Canada and the French-speaking part of Switzerland. More than 50 victims were found in October 1994, some having committed suicide, others had been murdered. Later, in December 1995, an additional 16 victims were found near the border between Switzerland and France.

There have been other doomsday cults, some more known than others, where it didn’t get as far as collective suicide or killing the members in one form of self-fullfilling prophecy or another. My goal with these articles is not to analyze why people seek these cults, better qualified people can do that. My approach to the death cults is the layman’s curiosity, to simply find out what happened. These articles are therefore primarily a description of the chain of events, a puzzle, so to speak, collated from press material, magazine articles, books, official documents and correspondance. The articles can also be a starting point for those readers who want to understand or go further than myself, in the attempt of gaining insight in the bizarre ways the will to believe and to be believed can have.