The 13th Floor

The Five Scariest Real-Life Cults in Modern Times

Cults are terrifying. The idea that one person can convince dozens — or even hundreds — of people to take part in heinous crimes to serve some ludicrous idea that no normal person would consider rational makes my skin crawl. The following cults are all lesser-known than, say, the Manson Family or Jonestown, but are no less terrifying.


The Chicago Rippers

Also called the Ripper Crew, they weren’t a cult in the traditional sense: they didn’t try to recruit members. However, they were more than just serial killers. There were four Rippers (unusual for killers to attack in a group), including Robin Gecht, who was once employed by John Wayne Gacy, and was said to be the leader of the group. The Rippers operated in Chicago in 1981 and 1982, during which time they abducted, gang raped, tortured, and killed 18 young women.

The foursome were part of a Satanic cult, who met at an altar in Gecht’s attic. They amputated the left breast of their victims and used them to “take communion” — they would each take a bite of the severed flesh. The other men in the cult believed that Gecht had a supernatural power over them, to force them to take part in the rituals. One witness claimed that Gecht could get you to do his bidding just by looking him in the eyes. All four Rippers were eventually convicted of various capital crimes. One was executed; another had his death sentence commuted to life; and two others, including Gecht, were given life sentences.


Heaven’s Gate

The Heaven’s Gate cult was huge headline fodder in the 1990s. Led by Marshall Applewhite, the cult believed that Earth was going to be “recycled” (destroyed) and the only way to survive was to jump on a space ship that was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. In order to board this space ship, they would need to kill themselves because it was their spirits that would hitch a ride.

In a rented mansion just outside San Diego, police found the bodies of 39 cult members, Applewhite among them. All had an overdose of phenobarbital in their systems, but they also had plastic bags tied over their heads as a backup. They wore identical sweat suits and brand new Nike sneakers; had purple ceremonial cloths over their heads; and arm bands that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”


The “Carny Cult”

At age 15, Mark Goodwin created his own Satanic cult, called Satan’s Disciples, during which he would “dance wildly,” and partake in animal sacrifice and sex rituals. Eventually, Goodwin moved out of this Satanic phase, until he met Keith Lawrence, who had his own interest in Satanism and brought Goodwin back into it. The two drew up a contract with the devil, signed in blood. Keith’s brother David, and Jimmie Penick also joined the cult. All four men worked with a traveling carnival, and in 1991, another carny, William Ault wanted to join their cult.

The cult rejected him, so Ault tried to blackmail his way into the group by threatening to tell the cops about another murder Penick and Keith committed earlier in the year. Seeming to give in, the five men drove out to a secluded area, and Ault was laid out on a makeshift altar. He was tied and gagged and Penick said a prayer to Satan. The cultists then carved inverted crosses into Ault’s flesh and asked if he was ready to die before his throat was slit. They later cut off Ault’s hands and head and tossed his body in a field. All four men pled guilty to various crimes against Ault, with Penick pleading guilty to the actual murder.


The Order of the Solar Temple

Started in the early 1980s by Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret, the Order of the Solar Temple is a secret society that supposed to be modeled after the Knights Templar. Some of their goals included preparing for the second coming of Christ as a “solar god-king,” and unifying all Christian and Islamic churches. Allegedly, they drew some of their teachings from noted occultist Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The OST is best known for the 1994 murder of an infant boy, who di Mambro believed was the antichrist. A few days later, a series of mass suicides/murders occurred in Switzerland. At least 15 poisoned themselves and 30 were shot or smothered. Additional mass death scenes were discovered in December 1995 and March 1997, a mix of murders and suicides. Many of these mass deaths included ceremonial touches like the bodies forming symbols; the dead dressed in ceremonial robes; and farewell letters. Swiss musician and conductor Michel Tabachnik was arrested as the leader of the Solar Temple in the late 1990s, and was acquitted in two separate trials for murder and participation in a criminal organization.


Superior Universal Alignment

Valentina de Andrade, a woman in her mid-seventies, was the leader of the Superior Universal Alignment in Brazil. In 1989, young boys were going missing in the small town of Altamira. It is estimated that 19 boys disappeared in the following years, but only six bodies were ever found. Five boys escaped. Each one had been castrated; many were raped and tortured.

It wasn’t until 2003 that charges were finally brought against de Andrade and several other members of her cult. All were prominent members of society and used their position and influence to avoid prosecution. Four men were eventually convicted, but de Andrade was acquitted of all charges. The cult believed that all children born after 1981 were evil and needed to be killed. The sex organs the cult stole from the children were used in voodoo ceremonies.