Humans love a scandal, which is why we find cults and their stories of sex, death and oddity so endlessly fascinating.
“As far as crime stories go, they’re often the juiciest,” says Jo Thornely, author of Zealot: A Book About Cults (Hachette).
It’s hard to define a cult without also describing a religion, acknowledges Thornely.. You wear robes and live in a compound? You could be a Catholic nun. But, she says, they are some red flags to watch out for.
One, she says, is control – cult members often have limited autonomy. Another is physical or psychological separation from the outside world. Finally, there are usually real or imagined negative consequences for those who leave. “It might be as simple as, ‘you’re going to burn in hell’, or it might be actual violence,” says Thornely.
Cult leaders often share certain traits like narcissism or sociopathic behaviour. Many, haunted by their past, are trying to prove something. The Family’s Anne Hamilton-Byrne grew up in poverty and aspired for wealth and status. Branch Davidian leader David Koresh had an unhappy home life and was teased at school. Most yearn to be adored.
People who join cults are the same as everyone else, says Thornely. “It’s impossible to pick who’s more likely to join than others…It’s all about timing. It’s normal people at the point where they’re looking for something more, or they’ve had a bad experience, and they’re a bit lost. Everybody has one of those spots in their lives.”
"It’s normal people at the point where they’re looking for something more, or they’ve had a bad experience, and they’re a bit lost. Everybody has one of those spots in their lives.”
Here are three cults that continue to fascinate the world.
The People’s Temple
It’s a story that will make you think twice about ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’.
In his 20s, Jim Jones was a preacher who was passionate about social justice. He established a church, set up a soup kitchen and created an unemployment assistance service. He was “a champion of the disenfranchised,” Thornely writes in her book.
At some point, things went awry. Jones, increasingly obsessed with socialism, began claiming he was Jesus reincarnate. He fooled audiences with fake faith healings and claimed the right to have sex with male and female church members, who also gave 25 per cent of their income and often most of their assets to the cause.
In 1977, Jones moved the People’s Temple headquarters to a compound in Guyana in South America. The headquarters was known as Jonestown. By this stage, Jones was a drug-addicted paranoid megalomaniac, a far cry from the defender of the downtrodden he’d been in the sixties.
A visit to the Guyanese compound by US Congressman Leo Ryan in 1978 ended tragically in the politician’s death, and the murder of four others, at the hands of a cult member. At the same time, Jones initiated a mass ‘revolutionary suicide’ that saw his followers drink a fatal mix of cyanide and cordial (Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid). Jones, meanwhile, died from a gunshot wound to the head.
Days later, authorities arrived to discover the bodies of 900 People’s Temple followers – the largest single loss of American life until 9/11 more than two decades later. “It’s the cult by which so many other cults are measured,” writes Thornely.
David Koresh, born Vernon Wayne Howell, was a slightly odd kid who could recite long Bible passages from memory. As an adult, he became the leader of an unorthodox sect known as the Branch Davidians.
Bible study, particularly of the fire-and-brimstone-filled Book of Revelations, was a popular pastime of the group. “It’s all about the end of the world,” says Thornely. “As soon as a cult starts focusing on the Book of Revelations, you’ve got to keep an eye on them.”
As well bible study, the Branch Davidians were busy accumulating a vast arsenal of firearms, even by Texan standards, which soon caught the attention of the authorities. Koresh’s marriage to a 14-year-old was another cause for concern. Like Jones before him, Koresh made a rule that permitted him to have sex with numerous women, even if they were married to someone else.
In 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched a siege on the Branch Davidians’ Texan compound and the 120 people inside, an event recently dramatised in mini-series Waco (broadcast on SBS Demand) The FBI soon came on board, and the two forces attempted to “torture” Koresh’s followers out. A few people left, but the siege dragged on for 51 days. It ended with a shootout and an inferno, thought to have been started by exploding tear gas canisters thrown into the compound by the FBI. A total of 76 people, including 26 children, died in the siege.
Closer to home, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader The Family, a of New Age cult known as both Santiniketan Park Association and the Great White Brotherhood, also billed herself as the Messiah.
Born in Victoria in 1921, Hamilton-Byrne’s mission was to become a “universal mother”, and in the ‘60s and ‘70s she set about collecting a tribe of children that were kept at a compound known as Kai Lama, a rural property near Victoria.
She claimed to have given birth to many of the dozens of children who ended at the compound, but in fact, many were obtained via “forced adoptions”. The children were dressed in matching clothes, had their hair bleached blonde, and were regularly beaten, starved and given drugs including LSD, one of Hamilton-Byrne’s favourite tools in her mission to manipulate her followers.
A police raid of Kai Lama in 1987 marked the beginning of the end for Hamilton-Byrne. In 1993, she was arrested in the US and extradited to Australia, where she faced charges for fraud. Today, Hamilton-Byrne, in her nineties, suffers dementia and lives in a nursing home.
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow Nicola on Twitter @nicoheath.
Documentary Waco: Madman or Messiah airs on Sunday May 5 at 8:30pm on SBS.