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Multiple murders committed by cults reflect, at least in part, the desire of loyal

disciples to be seen as obedient to their charismatic leader. Members of cults who commit mass suicide often do so to show love, commitment, and loyalty to the cult itself or the leader of the cult. Members often form a suicide pact. One of the most famous examples of cult-related mass murder is the Peoples Temple in which 918 Americans committed a mass suicide led by their leader Jim Jones. The dead included 303 children. The suicide occurred in an town that the cult built, called Jonestown, in Guyana, South America. A tape of the Temple’s final meeting in a Jonestown pavilion contains repeated discussions of the group committing “revolutionary suicide”, including reference to people taking the poison and the vats to be used. The people in Jonestown died of an apparent cyanide poisoning, except for Jones (injury consistent with self-inflicted gunshot wound) and his personal nurse. The Temple had spoken of committing “revolutionary suicide” in prior instances, and members had previously drunk what Jones told them was poison at least once before, but the “Flavor Aid” drink they ingested contained no poison.

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A second famous example of cult-related mass murder is Heaven’s Gate. On March 26, 1997, 39 followers of Heaven’s Gate died in a mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, which borders San Diego to the north. Members of the cult believed, according to the teachings of their group, that through their suicides they were “exiting their human vessels” so that their souls could go on a journey aboard a spaceship they believed to be following comet Hale-Bopp. Some male members of the group underwent voluntary castration in preparation for the genderless life they believed awaited them after the suicide. In May 1997, two Heaven’s Gate members who had not been present for the mass suicide attempted suicide, one succeeding, the other becoming comatose for two days and then recovering. In February 1998, the survivor, Chuck Humphrey, committed suicide.

The popular media often portrays cults as aggressive recruiters that gain and maintain their membership through brainwashing, hypnosis, or other mind control techniques. Most scholars who have actually done research on the topic believe that this is an inaccurate description of cult conversion. Several studies have found that new members of religious cults do not join unwillingly, but are often “religious seekers” who are looking for a new religious group or social network to join (Roof, 1993; Zimbardo & Harley, 1985; Paterline, 1998). Persons who join religious cults tend to come from a religious background, have been members of a variety of different religious groups, and are more willing to solve their problems through religion (Barker, 1984). In truth, there may be a variety of reasons people join cults; they may feel alienated from society, they may be unhappy with their current religion, or may be looking to solve one of their life’s problems. There are, however, several common characteristics that most successful cults share that allows them to attract new members and to keep members committed to the group. These characteristics include: (1) Transcendence, (2) Sacrifice and Investment, (3) Renunciation, and (4) Communion (Kanter, 1972).



Common Characteristics of Killer Cults Transcendence Members of the group believe that the cult is somehow special and the leader is capable of extraordinary feats. Sacrifice and Investment Members are asked to give up something important for the price of membership. The greater the investment, the greater the commitment to the group. Renunciation The cult demands that members give their complete exclusive allegiance to fellow members and ties with “outsiders” should be broken. Communion Increased solidarity and brotherhood is achieved through rituals, communal living, and the sharing of property and tasks.

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