cults in america

Five horrifying cults to read up on after you finish Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey

These are so messed up

TW: Child abuse, suicide, murder, sexual assault.

Netflix’s latest true crime, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, has brought to light one of the most terrifying cults of recent years. Using religion as an excuse for his own sick desires, Warren Jeffs abused children, controlled women and organised child sexual exploitation among his friends.

Many people have called the documentary “traumatising” – but if you think you can stomach it, here are five other cults you need to read up on after finishing Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey.



Photo via 7News

Also known as The People’s Temple, this genuinely tragic story began with a conman called Jim Jones.

Jones originally started out as a harmless Methodist minister, with dreams of starting a diverse, socialist commune. As his following began to grow, the leader started to suffer paranoia and delusions of grandeur. He truly believed a nuclear strike on the US could happen at any point, so he moved his home, family and entire sect to a bit of land in Guyana – which he named Jonestown.

While based in Guyana, Jones became increasingly addicted to several different drugs. He was constantly scared he was losing his grip on the group, so turned to manipulation and abuse tactics in order to maintain his position as leader. The once-beautiful utopia quickly began to crumble at his feet, as sexual and physical abuse started to become the norm for his congregation.


Photo via 7News

In November 1978, a journalist investigating Jonestown was shot and killed by Jones himself. Fearing the US military would raid the commune and put an end to his power, Jim Jones instructed all 909 men, women and children to “commit revolutionary suicide.” Tragically, they did exactly as they were told.

Jones laced cups of Flavour Aid (commonly misreported as Kool-Aid) with cyanide – a highly toxic substance. Various members of the cult drank it down, while most were forcibly injected. Jones later shot himself. This was, and still is, the largest loss of American life outside of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and war. And while it used to be thought of as a “mass-suicide,” we now know it to be a mass-murder.

The Manson Family

charles manson

Photo via 60 Minutes Australia

Charles Manson radicalised a number of women – most from middle-class backgrounds – to join his “family,” also known as a commune or cult. Together, the Mansons murdered seven people, including actor Sharon Tate.

Manson was caught in 1970, and his was the longest murder trial in US history, lasting nine-and-a-half months. He was initially sentenced to death, but this was changed in 1977 to a life imprisonment. He died on 19th November 2017.

The Branch Davidians

david koresh

Photo via ABC News

You’ve probably never heard of this cult by name – but you’ll almost definitely know about the Waco Siege of 1993.

The Branch Davidians were lead by David Koresh – an expelled member of the Southern Baptist Church. He’d been thrown out for attempting to convince his pastor that God wanted Koresh to “take his daughter for a wife.” Stranded, he decided instead to join the Branch Davidians – a “new religion” cult based in Waco, Texas. He changed his name from Vernon Wayne Howell to David Koresh, and became leader in 1983.

Just like Warren Jeffs in Keep Sweet, Koresh allegedly physically and sexually abused a number of children within his congregation, as well as “marrying” several of them. Authorities began investigating Koresh for his crimes in 1992, just one year before Waco.

Government agents, Texas police and the US military began searching the Waco ranch with a warrant on 28th February 1993. This caused a gunfight between everyone involved, resulting in the killings of four officials and six Branch Davidians. The authorities’ failures led to a 51-day siege which ended in the FBI attacking the ranch, attempting to gas the Davidians out.

David Koresh’s Waco ranch blew up in flames – killing 76 Branch Davidians. Two pregnant women, 25 children and Koresh himself each died at the scene.

Sources dispute the actual cause of the fire – some say it was the gas itself, others say Davidians secretly started it in a counter-attack.

Heaven’s Gate

cults in america

Photo via YouTube

Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles – known to their followers as Ti and Do – started a cult based on the idea that its followers could transform themselves into immortal aliens. Originally, they believed they’d manage to get to heaven alive, on a spaceship. But after Nettles died from liver cancer in 1985, they changed their minds.

Followers of Heaven’s Gate were then told the body was just a “container” for the soul, and they’d ascend to new levels of immortality after death.

In 1997, Applewhite recorded an hour-long video called “Do’s Final Exit,” in which he detailed the group’s plans to commit mass-suicide. They truly thought their souls would be taken straight to heaven on a UFO.

Sadly, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate were found dead in March 1997, including Marshall Applewhite. The BBC was among those who received Applewhite’s suicide note – as Louis Theroux had actually pitched an episode of Weird Weekends surrounding the cult.

Children of God

joaquin phoenix

Photo via ABC

David Berg – also known as King David and Father David – founded the Family International in 1968. This cult allegedly runs on child sexual exploitation, promoting “free love” between people regardless of age. Rose McGowan and the Phoenix family (including River and Joaquin) were brought up in the cult, and subsequently escaped.

Former member Verity Watt told BBC News: “It actively encouraged sexual activities among minors as young as two or three years old.”

The cult is still going today, but David Berg died on 1st October 1994.

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Featured image via 7News/60 Minutes Australia/ABC before edits.