Want to leave your life behind in exchange for eternal enlightenment? You're not alone.
Sure, some people channel their desire for spiritual direction and everlasting redemption into, say, religion or nihilism—but cults often offer easier and sexier alternatives to good old-fashioned faith. Cult leaders tend to offer quick, life-changing solutions to problems, cultivating a reverent base of followers by lavishing attention on them while simultaneously exploiting their insecurities and offering them a purpose.
Those techniques were used by Larry Ray, the man who lured six Sarah Lawrence College students into a cult after moving into his daughter's dorm living room. Though many of them have extricated themselves from Ray's grip, his influence still affects many of their lives today.
New York Post
To make a long story short: After being released from prison, Ray moved into his daughter Talia's home at Sarah Lawrence and immediately began to preach his strange gospel to the students living there. He eventually persuaded them to live with him in Manhattan, coerced them into sex acts, and forced them to pay him thousands of dollars for damages he told them they'd caused. Though his story has now been made public, Ray still remains in contact with his daughter and some of his "lovers" (whom he referred to as wives).
Larry Ray is far from the only charismatic, manipulative figure out there, ready to take advantage of impressionable people seeking guidance. Here are six of the strangest, currently-active cults you should be aware of—so you can know to watch out if one of them ever approaches you and tells you that aliens are on their way, and only ones who will be saved are those who move into his spare bedroom.
1. Unification Church: The South Korean Cult Recruiting On Wall Street
A Unification Church "mass wedding." Image via channelnewsasia.com
Take a wrong turn in NYC's Wall Street and South Ferry area and you may run into a recruiter for the Unification Church, a South Korean organization that preaches—among other things—that before she married Adam, Eve had an affair with Satan, causing the downfall of humanity. They also believe there is a female aspect of God called the Holy Spirit who has manifested herself as an old South Korean woman, and, of course, the end of the world is nigh.
This cult goes by many names, including Shinchonji, Church of Jesus, and the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. It was founded in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon, whose book Divine Principle builds on the New and Old Testaments. Among other doctrines, it proclaims that Sun Myung Moon is the new messiah, able to bring people back to their unfallen state.
Known for separating recruits from their families and for conducting elaborate marriage rituals, the cult has fractured into several offshoots since its leader's death in 2011, but it still actively recruits all over the world. Typically, the cult reels in members by disarming potential candidates, initially refraining from mentioning the Unification Church and acting like they are just trying to share eye-opening religious doctrines.
2. Eckankar: Interdimensional Soul Travelers
Have you heard the call? Image via Eventbrite
This cult supposedly has ancient roots that were "rediscovered" in 1965 by a man named Paul Twitchell, who told followers he studied under two Eck masters. Sometimes called "The Religion of Light and the Sound of God," the path proposes that the human body is split into two levels—the soul, which is the eternal, innermost part of each person; and the body, the tangible and temporary part. Within the holy spirit, there are two parts: the inner light and the inner sound, which can be used to connect with God. Members of this cult use a method called "Soul Travel" to project themselves into other dimensions, like the astral plane or the realms of the gods. They also believe that God speaks to followers through dreams and memories of past lives.
Unlike the Unification Church, Eckankar does not actively recruit members, but rather distributes literature and information to interested parties. However, former members have stated that its leaders have threatened nonbelievers with dangerous consequences. Ex-members have accused the organization of "use of mind control terror" during "sleeping and waking states" and "use of entities/demonic appearances to terrorize," among other things. Additionally, its current leader is also its CEO, who has sold the organization's materials and publications for profit.
3. Raëlism: The Extraterrestrials Are Waiting
Image via io9.gizmodo.com
This "UFO cult" was founded in 1974 by Claud Vorilhon, who allegedly encountered aliens who informed him of the true origins of all religions. After this encounter, he created his own spiritual path, preaching that the earth was created by humanoid extraterrestrials called the Elohim, who informed early humans that they were actually angels, cherubs, or gods. Raëlism is based on eventually creating an earth that is peaceful and beautiful enough for the Elohim to visit. It preaches free love and denounces money and work. Things get weirder, though; it also states that an important part of reconnecting with the Elohim is cloning—a process that, when perfected, will allow humans to achieve immortality. Members participate in a baptism ceremony that involves transferring human DNA to the alien realm, so you can be recognized as a believer when the time comes for eternal judgment.
Though they supposedly have around 85,000 followers, the cult has recently had trouble recruiting They are currently trying to build an embassy in Cambodia.
4. The Brethren: Freegans for Jesus Christ
Image via Daily Mail
Alternatively known as the "Body of Christ" and the "Garbage Eaters," this cult preaches the renunciation of all earthly delights in exchange for total devotion to Jesus Christ. Its members live as vagrants, eating trash and avoiding bathing in order to purify themselves for the impending end of the world. The cult also forbids dancing, laughing, communicating with family members, using technology, and interacting with the opposite sex—at least until Jesus descends again. They also mandate a strict dress code, forcing women to wear ankle-length skirts and head coverings, and banning sideburns and long hair for men.
The cult received some bad press in the 1970s when families staged deprogramming interventions for loved ones who had joined. Since then, members were encouraged to completely cut off contact with their families. The Brethrens' founder, Jim Roberts, died in 2015, and he was succeeded by a man named Jerry Williams, aka "Brother Hatsair." So just make sure to exercise caution if a gutter punk ever starts spouting metaphysical poetry about renunciation and apocalyptic revelations.
5. Nuwaubian Nation: The Final Battle Against Satan Approaches
Image via Who Magazine
This cult initially pieced together New Age mythos, Christianity, Egyptian iconography, African rituals, and a belief in aliens to form a tapestry of conspiratorial thinking. It was founded by Dwight York, and it proclaims that when the aliens return to earth, a select group of 144,000 humans will be spirited away in a flying city to fight a final battle against Satan.
The Nation caught on, even building a compound in rural Georgia. But in 2002, York was finally arrested for running a massive child molestation ring. He was sent to prison for life, but the compound still remains, as do small clusters of followers.
6. Church of God With Signs Following: Poison Has Nothing On Faith
Image via Wikipedia
This bizarre cult hinges around one peculiar practice: snake-handling. Based on a misinterpretation of a passage from Mark in the New Testament, it proposes that snakes are actually demonic, and in order to prove one's faith in the holy spirit, one must lift them up in the air and even allow them to slither across their bodies.
Here's the seminal quote: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing*, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover,"
The cult also believes that if a snake bites you and you convulse or die from the venom, you simply have not followed the church's doctrines appropriately. As of now, there have been over 60 deaths from snakebites in their religious services across the US.
Most of its members still live in a tiny community called Jolo, which has a population of about 824. Recent studies reveal that there are about 40 snake-worshiping churches in America.
7. House of Yahweh: The Only Way to Survive the End of the World
Image via CBS News
This cult was founded by J. G. Hawkins, who first changed his name to "Buffalo Bill" Hawkins and then to "Yisrael" Hawkins. It is currently headquartered in Eula, Texas. House of Yahweh followers practice a form of Jehovah's Witness doctrine emphasizing polygamy, total allegiance to Hawkins, and the importance of preparing for the upcoming apocalypse.
The cult treats women harshly; according to one ex-member, women are marked as "unclean" during the daylight while on their periods, ordered to sit on a placemat, and forced to carry a sign that marks them as "unclean till sunset." Women as young as 15 are told that if they marry Hawkins, they will receive a ticket to heaven. The cult renounces politics, advocates for strict diets, and forces members to break ties with their families.
According to Hawkins, the end of the world is near and only those who join his cult will survive. He also informs followers that aliens will return to earth—but these aliens are manifestations of Satan, and so all members must follow Yahweh's laws to resist the temptation of evil.
Hawkins' organization has a global reach: A group in Kenya made the news for building nuclear fallout shelters in response to his predictions, and the House also has bases in South Africa, Burma, Kenya, Australia, and Belgium. The cult has been under fire from allegations of abuse, sexual assault, and criminal negligence. However, it still remains active, and Hawkins allegedly has $2.1 million to his name.
So why do people join these cults, and why do they stay? The aforementioned survivor of the House of Yahweh wrote, "I think the truth to a lot of this revolves around the idea that we all want answers in our life. We desire some form of certainty so strongly, that we are able to get near a 'danger zone' and risk our capacity for logic and rational thinking to fly out the window. The more desperate we are, the easier it is to let this happen."
Though they're bizarrely entertaining in a kitschy, American Psycho-type way, it's actually tragic that so many of these cults have descended into violence, abuse, and manipulation, when most of them were founded on an ethos of love, unity, and purpose. Then again, the same fate has plagued so many religions that have lost touch with their central messages (usually nothing more or less than love thy neighbor) in exchange for hate, control, and monetary gain. Because of this, we all have to watch out for anyone who calls themselves a modern messiah and seems to be selling redemption for a small fee.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.
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