TCF: Killer Cults

Killer Cults: Stories of Charisma, Deceit, and Death
By Stephen Singular

The crimes:

Nineteen stories of charismatic gurus and false prophets, most of whom were only interested in grabbing money and acquiring harems of submissive sexual partners.

The book:

I don’t see there being much of a market today for a book like this, or any of the Profiles in Crime series of which it is a part. For starters, there are already a couple of anthologies dealing with the same material and even with the same title already out there. In this one the entries on the different cults are little more, and sometimes even less, than you get on a Wikipedia page, the writing is nothing special, the editing poor (it’s the Book of Revelation, not Revelations), and the few pictures are of low quality. There’s only a very brief introduction and no conclusion or summary, so we get little sense of any big picture of the cult phenomenon. Stephen Singular suggests at one point that “a common thread in almost all of them [these cults] is an attempt to control sexual behavior.” But even here more needs to be drawn out. To be sure, many, if not most, of these cult leaders were sexual predators. But to what extent was an out-of-control libido the driving force behind their cults?

Of course, in any book of this nature you’re not expecting a deep dive. But even so the analysis is cursory. I couldn’t even be sure how much research Singular (a veteran true crime author) put into it. The sources referenced at the back seemed very inadequate, mostly consisting of news stories pulled from the Internet. In the section on Jim Jones reference is made to Jeff Guinn’s book The Road to Jonestown, but it isn’t listed in the sources. Nor is Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. In the section on Charles Manson, missing as sources are Vincent Bugliosi’s classic Helter Skelter and Jeff Guinn’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. In the section on Aum Shinrikyo particularly noticeable is the absence of any reference to a couple of pertinent books on the subject and on cults in general: Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche and Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It.

There were at least a couple of directions that Singular might have gone in that occurred to me while I was reading. The first he does touch on, but again only briefly. This has to do with the advent of the Internet and cults going online. The Heaven’s Gate cult was a pioneer in this regard, though their web-page looks laughable today. Singular mentions how The Order had a vision of spreading their white nationalist message online but in the mid-1980s they weren’t there yet. It would take time, but that future has now arrived, as witness the dark fandom of the Columbine cult. But has this made cults more dangerous, or does the intense personal charisma of the leader get watered down, to the point where he or she just becomes another star of YouTube, or Instagram influencer?

The other point I would have liked to hear discussed more has to do with America as the natural home or breeding ground of modern cults. So much so that even people from as far away as India (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) would come to the U.S. to set up their cult communes. Is there something in the American psyche, its status as (in Kurt Andersen’s name for it) Fantasyland, that lends itself to the sort of magical thinking and instinctual worship of gurus? Or something about the link between cults and the anti-government movements and conspiracy thinking that have always been so much a part of the American cultural tradition?

These are the sorts of questions Killer Cults doesn’t ask. Instead, it remains a light read that won’t tell you anything new about the famous cases it discusses and will only whet your appetite for seeking out more information on its more obscure cases elsewhere.

Noted in passing:

What is the link between cults and the products of pop culture? Charles Manson thought the song “Helter Skelter” from The Beatles’ White Album contained a hidden message about a coming race war. Adolfo Constanzo based his brutal crime cult on a 1987 flick called The Believers starring Martin Sheen and Jimmy Smits that I have only the vaguest recollection of today. The Heaven’s Gate cult took its lead from Star Trek mythology, with its members thinkingn of themselves as parts of an “Away Team” as they killed themselves. Why do so many people put so much faith, or even find any meaning, in such crap? I know that’s a question every outsider asks of any belief system, but Star Trek? I guess fandom and cult membership have to be plotted on a spectrum.


Not every cult leader is just a scammer looking to score a fleet of Rolls-Royces and a harem of young lovers. Unfortunately, the true believers are no less toxic than the cynical ones.

True Crime Files


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