Hollywood is a land of transplants, arriving alone and looking for connections. Most eventually find friends or core groups of like-minded souls to share their experiences with. Others find connection in religion, but some end up in stranger fringe groups commonly referred to as a cults. When discussing Hollywood cults, the Manson family is always the first one to come to mind. However, Los Angeles is a rich tapestry of charismatic individuals feeding off of the weak. Here are just five of non-Manson cult factions that had their humble beginnings in the City of Angels.
The Children of God
David Brandt Berg, a former Christian Missionary born in 1919, was known to his flock as Moses David, Mo, Father David, Dad, or Dear Grandpa to the children of the group. In January of 1972, he announced that he was God’s prophet. Berg oversaw 130 communities around the world from his Laurel Canyon home, an affluent section of the Hollywood Hills known for its plethora of young Hollywood stars and musicians. The Children of God ceased to be in 1978, but was reorganized later that year under a new name- The Family of Love. During this time, female members of the group employed a tactic known as “flirty fishing” in order to enlist male followers to the group. Women who were the “bait” for such practices were called “God’s Whores”. It is believed that from 1974 to 1987 the group had sexual contact with around 223,989 people.
Berg died in 1994, but instead of dissolving, the group took on a new leader, Mama Maria. To this day, the group still exists under the name The Family International. The children of Children of God have had a fairly famous roster over the years. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer, a founding member of Fleetood Mac, left his own band after joining the cult. In 1973, Joaquin and River Phoenix’s parents joined the group, working as missionaries in Caracas, Venezuela. In his later years, River spoke very negatively about the group stating in one interview that “They’re disgusting, they’re running people’s lives.” He also stated that because of the cult, he had lost his virginity at the age of four, an experience he struggled to block out up until the day he died of a drug overdose at the age of 23.
Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ
Jim Jones was born May 13, 1931 in Crete Indiana. As a young man in Indiana, he was fascinated by communism and detested the prevailing American view towards it. In 1952, he became a student pastor at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church in Indianapolis ,but left when they prevented him from allowing African Americans join the congregations. So in 1954, he began his own church called the Community Unity Church. Influenced by Seventh Day Baptist Church faith healers, Jones incorporated the faith healing practice into his own church as a way to increase his numbers. In 1956, Jones expanded his desegregated church into a racially mixed neighborhood of Indianapolis and renamed it the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. During this period, his church claimed over 11,000 members.
In 1963, Jones moved his church to California where he began teaching a more communist influenced gospel. He also began preaching of an impending nuclear apocalypse. Jones reached out to more urban African American neighborhoods for followers, holding services at urban centers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, establishing permanent churches in both cities by 1972. With these new centers came increased media scrutiny under which Jones and hundreds of his followers fled to Guyana where they founded the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. By 1977, the project had become a town of 50 residents, while back home the church was being attacked in the press over allegations raised by former members. More members fled to Guyana, and by 1978 the population of what became known as Jonestown had reached over 900, all under the pretense that they were moving to a tropical paradise.
Then on November 17, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan of San Francisco flew down to Guyana to investigate allegations of abuse. During his visit, several members of the group approached the Congressmen expressing their desire to leave. The next day, these members left with Ryan to a small airstrip where a plane waited on the runway to fly them out of Guyana. A few minutes later, several “Temple Security Guards” drove to the airstrip in trucks and opened fire on the Congressman and the defectors. Ryan, three journalists, one of the defectors were shot dead. That evening Jones, seeing his empire crumbling around him, ordered his people to drink cyanide-laced grape Flavor Aid. Jones along with 918 followers died.
The Church of Synanon
The Church of Synanon began as a drug rehabilitation center by Charles Dederich, a recovering alcoholic. A graduate of Alcoholics Anonymous, he was disappointed by the group’s lack of support for those addicted to other substances. One day, after taking LSD, Dederich decided to start his own program that would cater towards abusers of illegal drugs. Thus, began the Synanon Foundation of Santa Monica, California. Purchasing a large beachside hotel to serve as a dormitory, the group began accepting non-addicts into their fold. Dederich employed a practice called “The Game”, a form of group therapy that encouraged members to humiliate each other. Female members of the group were required to shave their heads, and men were forced to have vasectomies while women who did become pregnant were forced to have abortions. With their shaved heads, members of the Church of Synanon possessed a very unique look. In 1971, when George Lucas was filming THX 1138, a film that required men and women with shaved heads, he hired several members to work as extras on the film. Robert Altman did likewise for his 1974 film CALIFORNIA SPLIT.
Members were, of course, required to remain drug free. Addicts wishing to join the group had to quite cold turkey causing them to become extremely ill during their first few days of withdraw. By 1964, the church was under investigation for running an unauthorized medical clinic, in addition to rumors of beating members who attempted to leave the group. In the summer of 1978, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS did a segment on The Church of Synanon after a former member was severely beaten on his honeymoon. During the months that followed, several more former members were beaten up ultimately causing the LAPD to raid the church headquarters where they found several incriminating audio tapes containing some of Dederich’s sermons. On those tapes Deiderich threatened to kill his enemies and stated, “I am quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs, and next break his wife’s legs, and threaten to cut their child’s arm off.”
On December 2, 1976, an intoxicated Dederich was arrested along with two other church members. Dederich received probation, but was told he could no longer participate in church activities. Without their leader and owing the IRS $17 million in back taxes, the church dissolved in 1991. Dederich died in 1997.
The Blackburn Cult
The Blackburn Cult was started in Downtown Los Angeles in 1922 by May Otis Blackburn. Blackburn claimed that he spoke directly to angels who passed along their revelations. He also believed that the archangel Gabriel dictated his teachings to Blackburn’s daughter Ruth Wieland Rizzio. She then wrote these teachings into books which supposedly revealed the mysteries of the universe. Newspapers of the time published stories about the rumors of animal sacrifices and orgies. There were also reports that the cult tried to resurrect a dead sixteen-year-old girl, a claim seemingly proved true when the police found Willa Rhoads’ corpse under the floor of her home. She was wrapped in spices and surrounded by the remains of seven dead dogs. Willa’s parents told police that Blackburn told them to place their daughter there fourteen months earlier. The cult was also believed to be responsible for killing two of its members. In 1929, members of the group, including Blackburn, were indicted for grand theft. The cult fell apart soon after their leader was sent away for stealing $40,000.
The Source Family
From all outward appearances, James Edward Baker was an all-American lad. He was born on the 4th of July in 1922. He served as a Marine in World War II and received a Silver Star. After the war, he earned a black belt in Jujutsu, then moved out to Hollywood to become a stuntman. Once in LA, he became acquainted with a group called the Nature Boys, a collective of vegetarian naturalists. During this time, he also studied Eastern religions and spirituality, becoming a follower of Yogi Bhajan, a teacher of Kundalini Yoga. In 1969, he opened the Source Restaurant, one of the country’s first organic vegetarian restaurants. The Source was a popular eatery frequented by the likes of John Lennon and Marlon Brando.
Not long after opening his restaurant, Baker stopped following Yogi Bhajan and changed his name Father Yod or sometimes Ya Ho Wah. He took on fourteen wives, however, only one was legal. Father Yod referred to himself as a “spiritual father” and purchased a mansion in the Hollywood Hills off of the success of his restaurant which was earning close to $10,000 a day. In its heyday, Father Yod’s cult had over 150 members all living communally in the mansion. As several members of the group were musicians, Father Yod assembled an improvisational psychedelic band called Ya Ho Wha 13. The band released nine improvisational albums which they sold out of the restaurant.
Although, based on a peace and love agenda, there are those who claimed Father Yod had a temper. One source claimed that he killed a neighbor over a dispute involving a dog. Members also claimed he was always quick to anger over trivial affairs. The family eventually sold the restaurant and moved to Hawaii on December 26, 1974. Then on August 25, 1975, Father Yod decided to go hang-gliding, despite never having done so before. Father Yod jumped from a 1,300-foot cliff and crashed on the beach below. He passed away nine hours later.