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Doomsday Cults

Jan 18, 2022
Weird World
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22
minutes

People can be convinced to do all sorts of things if they believe that the world is about to end.

In this episode, we'll explore four different doomsday cults, the charismatic leaders behind them, and the loss of life that followed.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Doomsday Cults, times when a charismatic person has managed to convince large groups of people that the world is about to end, or at least plunge into chaos.

[00:00:36] And as a result, tragic things have happened.

[00:00:40] I have to warn you, this episode will have plenty of slightly unpleasant stories. 

[00:00:45] There will be sex, drugs, suicide and murder, and plenty of people claiming that the world is about to end. 

[00:00:54] OK, you’ve had your warning. If you’re ready for it, let’s get started.

[00:01:00] Let’s first start with a quick definition.

[00:01:04] What is a cult?

[00:01:07] If you look it up in a dictionary you will find definitions such as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous”.

[00:01:23] For a cult to be a cult, and not simply a “belief”, it really needs to have three things:

[00:01:30] Firstly, it needs to be relatively small. 

[00:01:34] Once a cult becomes too large, well, it becomes mainstream, it becomes normalised, and it isn’t really a cult at all any more. There are plenty of religions that started out being viewed as dangerous cults, and as they grew they stopped being referred to as cults.

[00:01:54] And secondly, for a group to be considered to be a cult, the beliefs they hold need to be considered dangerous or extreme by mainstream society. A cult needs to pose a danger, either to normal society or to itself, to its members. 

[00:02:13] And in every example we’ll learn about today, there was plenty of danger, and in the next twenty minutes we will step over plenty of dead bodies.

[00:02:23] Now, there’s one more thing that almost every cult has, and without which it’s hard for a cult to really get started.

[00:02:32] A charismatic leader.

[00:02:34] If you’ve listened to our episodes on Scientology and Mormonism, you will remember the stories of how Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard were incredibly charismatic men and managed to encourage others to follow them.

[00:02:51] The doomsday cults we’ll learn about today have similarly charismatic leaders, men who may well have been insane and in some cases horrendously evil, but certainly men with the ability to persuade others to follow them, to do what they said, which meant killing on their behalf, and even killing themselves for them.

[00:03:15] And when you add in the doomsday element, the idea that the end of the world is imminent, people can clearly be persuaded to do all sorts of slightly unusual things.

[00:03:30] So, let’s just get right into it and kick off with our first doomsday cult, the Branch Davidians.

[00:03:39] This cult had been active since the 1930s, and was based in a large compound called New Mount Carmel in Texas, in the United States.

[00:03:50] The hundred or so members of the cult lived in that compound where they were waiting for the Second Coming, they believed that Jesus Christ would come to Earth and they needed to get ready for it.

[00:04:03] For the first fifty years or so of its existence, nobody knew much about it, but one day in 1993 that all changed.

[00:04:15] The cult had been taken over by a 28-year-old man named Vernon Wayne Howell. 

[00:04:22] Howell changed his name to David Koresh, to suggest that he was a descendant of both King David of Israel and the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and he most certainly suffered from delusions of grandeur.

[00:04:38] He declared that he was the messiah, and that all women living in the compound were his spiritual wives. 

[00:04:47] If you think this sounds harmless and innocent, think again.

[00:04:52] Koresh forced young girls to bear his children, and essentially turned the entire cult into his own private hareem.

[00:05:03] It wasn’t to be the sex abuse that brought the Branch Davidians to the public eye though.

[00:05:09] Instead, the American authorities suspected Koresh of stockpiling illegal weapons in the compound, of buying guns illegally, in preparation for the Second Coming and all of the chaos that would ensue.

[00:05:25] The police certainly had reason to believe that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling weapons because, well, Koresh had publicly stated that God had told him to do so.

[00:05:36] In 1989, shortly after taking control of the cult, he released a piece of audio in which he revealed firstly that God had told him to sleep with all of the women in the cult, and that all of the other men in the cult should be celibate.

[00:05:54] And, importantly, that God had also told him to start building an army to prepare for the Second Coming and the Apocalypse.

[00:06:04] There was also plenty of evidence that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling and modifying weapons - neighbours had heard machine guns going off, delivery people had seen guards with weapons, it seemed pretty clear what was going on.

[00:06:21] So, the US authorities, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to be precise, decided to go and have a look for themselves.

[00:06:31] But they weren’t prepared for what was to come.

[00:06:35] When the authorities raided the compound on February 28th of 1993, the Branch Davidians fought back. 4 government agents were shot and killed, and 6 Branch Davidians lost their lives in the ensuing firefight.

[00:06:53] That wasn’t it though.

[00:06:55] There was a standoff, and the entire compound was under siege for the next 51 days.

[00:07:03] It all ended when the FBI launched a tear gas attack on the compound, there was a huge fire, and 76 members of the cult, including its leader, David Koresh, perished.

[00:07:18] Strangely enough, the Branch Davidians are still active today, they still have a compound in the same area of Texas, but they are keeping a low profile, certainly not publicly claiming that they are building an army and preparing for the Second Coming.

[00:07:36] Our second doomsday cult is The People’s Temple. 

[00:07:41] It might have a fairly innocent-sounding name, but it has gone down in history as one of the most destructive cults ever, and resulted in the needless loss of life of almost a thousand people.

[00:07:55] It all started with a young, charismatic American, a man named Jim Jones. 

[00:08:02] In 1955 he founded “The People’s Temple”, which was a Christian-socialist organisation, meaning a group whose beliefs came in part from Christianity, and in part from communist and socialist thought.

[00:08:18] That was the theory at least.

[00:08:21] In practice, what being part of The People’s Temple meant was that all followers of The People’s Temple had to give all of their property, income and possessions to Jones and the cult.

[00:08:34] Much like the other stories we’ll hear today, Jones also required female members of the cult to be willing to turn over not just their material possessions but also their bodies to him.

[00:08:48] For the first 15 years or so of the cult’s existence, it had bases in California, but after a growing backlash against it, Jones relocated the entire cult to a remote settlement in the jungle of Guyana, the small South American country to the east of Venezuela.

[00:09:09] Approximately 1,000 followers came with him, moving their entire lives from the United States to the Guyana jungle, which gives you some idea of quite how much power he held over his followers.

[00:09:24] This settlement was to be a jungle utopia, a communist Christian heaven where believers could live a true, honest life.

[00:09:35] So, what happened next?

[00:09:37] Well, it didn’t last for long.

[00:09:40] A US Congressman named Leo Ryan came to investigate in 1978, after receiving pleas from concerned relatives of members of the cult. There were now almost a thousand people living in this compound in the Guyana jungle, people who had cut off all contact with the outside world, and this congressman came down to see what was actually going on.

[00:10:07] The congressman arrived in the Guyana jungle, checked out the compound, and as he was on the plane about to leave back to the United States he was murdered with five of his party.

[00:10:21] Meanwhile, back at the compound Jones had convinced all of his followers that they were about to be taken from the compound and converted to fascism, a fate worse than death for anyone subscribing to this Communist Christian ideology.

[00:10:40] So, Jones convinced his followers to line up, one by one, and drink poison, to kill themselves. 

[00:10:49] Men, women, children. 918 people in total died at Jonestown after drinking a soft drink called “Flavor Aid” which had been laced with cyanide.

[00:11:03] This was, until the September 11th attacks, the single event that caused the largest loss of American lives in history. 

[00:11:13] Mad, right?

[00:11:15] It also gave rise to an expression in English that you may have heard of, to “drink the Kool-aid”.

[00:11:22] If you “drink the Kool-aid”, it means you believe everything someone says, no matter whether it is right or not. This expression comes from the Jonestown Massacre, as this event has come to be known, even though it’s not technically correct - the cult members didn’t actually drink “Kool-aid”, they drank something very similar called “Flavor Aid”.

[00:11:47] For our next doomsday cult we actually move away from America and cross the Pacific to Japan.

[00:11:56] Although this is a decidedly non-American cult, we will encounter many familiar themes.

[00:12:03] A charismatic leader. A belief that the end of the world is imminent. Violence. And followers prepared to do anything the cult leader says.

[00:12:15] The protagonist of this particular story is a man named Shoko Asahara.

[00:12:21] He was born in 1955, and when he was in his twenties he became interested in a wide variety of religions, everything from Buddhism to Christianity as well as Astrology, Taoism and yoga.

[00:12:37] Out of this he created his own belief system, which he called Aum Shinrikyo.

[00:12:44] Surprise surprise, he was the head and most important figure in Aum Shinrikyo. He said he was Jesus Christ and was the first truly enlightened being since Buddha.

[00:12:56] Some big claims, right?

[00:12:59] In any case, Aum Shinrikyo was recognised as a real religion in Japan, and it soon started amassing a relatively large following, with tens of thousands of members around the world, most of them in Japan and Russia.

[00:13:16] Part of Asahara’s teaching was that the world was ending, that Armageddon was imminent.

[00:13:23] He believed that conflict between America and Japan was inevitable, it would result in a Third World War and the subsequent end of the world.

[00:13:34] The only way to avoid this, and to achieve salvation would be for people to give up everything and join Aum Shinrikyo.

[00:13:44] Anyone who didn’t join the cult would be doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members of the cult.

[00:13:53] The cult became increasingly violent in the early 1990s, and then on March 20th, 1995, members of the cult went on to commit what would become, and still is for that matter, the most deadly terrorist attack in Japanese history.

[00:14:12] Members of the cult boarded the Tokyo metro, the underground train network, and released the deadly chemical agent sarin.

[00:14:22] 14 people were killed and over a thousand injured.

[00:14:27] It’s still not completely clear why they did it. One theory is that members thought that they were actually saving the souls of members of the public by killing them.

[00:14:38] Another theory is that they were trying to distract attention away from investigations into other crimes that had been committed by members of the cult.

[00:14:48] And another theory is that they thought that this might be a way of triggering the apocalypse and kick-starting the Armageddon that they so fervently believed was inevitable.

[00:15:02] In any case, the world didn’t end, and launching a deadly terrorist attack might be a good way of distracting attention away from something else but it certainly isn’t a good way of deflecting attention away from you.

[00:15:18] In the aftermath of the attack Shoko Asahara and other senior cult leaders were tracked down, arrested, and all either sentenced to lengthy prison sentences or executed.

[00:15:32] Now, doomsday cult number four, our last doomsday cult, is probably the most famous cult in the world, although at least in terms of the number of people who died, it’s far from the most deadly.

[00:15:46] Charles Manson and the so-called “Manson Family”.

[00:15:51] Indeed, there is probably no name more associated with the term cult leader than “Charles Manson”.

[00:15:59] Manson was a failed musician, who started his own cult in the late 1960s in California.

[00:16:07] Like the other characters we’ve come across in today’s episode, he believed that he was the Messiah.

[00:16:14] His cult started simply as a group of friends engaging in a hippie life of drugs and open relationships, but by the late 1960s his views became more and more extreme, and his delusions of his own grandeur had continued to grow and grow.

[00:16:35] His followers numbered around 100, most of whom were middle-class women. Hallucinogenic drugs and sex were a common feature.

[00:16:46] There was a much darker side though. He had become obsessed with the idea that America was on the cusp of a race war between the black and the white community, and that this was going to cause the end of the world.

[00:17:02] He believed that the black community was going to win this race war, and that when the war was won, the black community would need a white person to lead them, and Manson would be that man. 

[00:17:16] At the same time, Manson had been trying to break into Hollywood, he had been trying to make it as a singer. 

[00:17:23] The problem was, he just really wasn’t very good, and although he had managed to make friends with some famous musicians, such as Dennis Wilson, the drummer from the Beach Boys, Manson was continually rejected.

[00:17:39] As a result, Charles Manson wanted revenge on Hollywood, revenge on the people he believed had rejected him.

[00:17:48] He instructed his followers to go to the house that Roman Polanski and his actress wife, Sharon Tate, were renting, and to kill everyone they found there.

[00:18:00] Polanski wasn’t there at the time, but Manson’s followers brutally murdered the five people they found there, including the eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant Sharon Tate.

[00:18:12] The murderers weren’t immediately caught, allowing them to kill again the following night, when they went out and murdered two more celebrities.

[00:18:22] These crimes shocked the nation. 

[00:18:25] They were brutal, unprovoked, and committed in the heart of Hollywood.

[00:18:31] Charles Manson, it turns out, did not personally murder anyone, but the murders were all carried out on his orders. He forced his followers into committing these heinous acts.

[00:18:45] And, of course, he paid the price, or at least he was sentenced to death.

[00:18:51] But he was never actually executed - his sentence was changed to life imprisonment, and he died in prison in 2017 at the age of 83.

[00:19:03] Now, we have evidently just skimmed the surface of these stories, there is so much more to them than we’ve covered today. 

[00:19:10] We could certainly have done an episode on each of these four barbaric but fascinating doomsday cults. Maybe we’ll do just that.

[00:19:19] In any case, the stories of these four cults show quite what people will believe, and what people can be forced to believe, and therefore forced to do.

[00:19:31] Equally interesting, and perhaps even more shocking, is to think about the manipulative, insane and barbaric behaviour of the leaders of these doomsday cults, to think about the men who sought power, sex, and adoration from their followers, only to force them to do horrible things either to themselves, to each other, or to innocent people who had nothing to do with the cult whatsoever.

[00:19:58] The four characters in our story certainly aren’t the only doomsday cult leaders, they weren’t the first and unfortunately they won’t be the last. 

[00:20:08] Perhaps if there’s one thing we can take away from all this, it’s that if a strange man claiming to be the Messiah offers you a glass of Kool-Aid, or should I say “Flavor Aid”, it’s probably time to make a run for it.

[00:20:25] OK then, that is it for this little look into our four creepy Doomsday Cults. 

[00:20:32] I hope you enjoyed it, and that it wasn’t too difficult to listen to - in fact I left out a lot of the bloodiest parts, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys that kind of detail, well you can go and read up on it for yourself.

[00:20:47] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:51] Do you know anyone, either directly or indirectly, who has ever been caught up in a cult? I imagine you might not know anyone who was part of any of these four cults, but perhaps you might have a weird cult story that you would like to share.

[00:21:07] Or are there other chilling stories of cults from your country? Are there similar situations where someone has predicted the end of the world and used that as cover to do terrible things?

[00:21:19] I would love to know. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Doomsday Cults, times when a charismatic person has managed to convince large groups of people that the world is about to end, or at least plunge into chaos.

[00:00:36] And as a result, tragic things have happened.

[00:00:40] I have to warn you, this episode will have plenty of slightly unpleasant stories. 

[00:00:45] There will be sex, drugs, suicide and murder, and plenty of people claiming that the world is about to end. 

[00:00:54] OK, you’ve had your warning. If you’re ready for it, let’s get started.

[00:01:00] Let’s first start with a quick definition.

[00:01:04] What is a cult?

[00:01:07] If you look it up in a dictionary you will find definitions such as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous”.

[00:01:23] For a cult to be a cult, and not simply a “belief”, it really needs to have three things:

[00:01:30] Firstly, it needs to be relatively small. 

[00:01:34] Once a cult becomes too large, well, it becomes mainstream, it becomes normalised, and it isn’t really a cult at all any more. There are plenty of religions that started out being viewed as dangerous cults, and as they grew they stopped being referred to as cults.

[00:01:54] And secondly, for a group to be considered to be a cult, the beliefs they hold need to be considered dangerous or extreme by mainstream society. A cult needs to pose a danger, either to normal society or to itself, to its members. 

[00:02:13] And in every example we’ll learn about today, there was plenty of danger, and in the next twenty minutes we will step over plenty of dead bodies.

[00:02:23] Now, there’s one more thing that almost every cult has, and without which it’s hard for a cult to really get started.

[00:02:32] A charismatic leader.

[00:02:34] If you’ve listened to our episodes on Scientology and Mormonism, you will remember the stories of how Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard were incredibly charismatic men and managed to encourage others to follow them.

[00:02:51] The doomsday cults we’ll learn about today have similarly charismatic leaders, men who may well have been insane and in some cases horrendously evil, but certainly men with the ability to persuade others to follow them, to do what they said, which meant killing on their behalf, and even killing themselves for them.

[00:03:15] And when you add in the doomsday element, the idea that the end of the world is imminent, people can clearly be persuaded to do all sorts of slightly unusual things.

[00:03:30] So, let’s just get right into it and kick off with our first doomsday cult, the Branch Davidians.

[00:03:39] This cult had been active since the 1930s, and was based in a large compound called New Mount Carmel in Texas, in the United States.

[00:03:50] The hundred or so members of the cult lived in that compound where they were waiting for the Second Coming, they believed that Jesus Christ would come to Earth and they needed to get ready for it.

[00:04:03] For the first fifty years or so of its existence, nobody knew much about it, but one day in 1993 that all changed.

[00:04:15] The cult had been taken over by a 28-year-old man named Vernon Wayne Howell. 

[00:04:22] Howell changed his name to David Koresh, to suggest that he was a descendant of both King David of Israel and the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and he most certainly suffered from delusions of grandeur.

[00:04:38] He declared that he was the messiah, and that all women living in the compound were his spiritual wives. 

[00:04:47] If you think this sounds harmless and innocent, think again.

[00:04:52] Koresh forced young girls to bear his children, and essentially turned the entire cult into his own private hareem.

[00:05:03] It wasn’t to be the sex abuse that brought the Branch Davidians to the public eye though.

[00:05:09] Instead, the American authorities suspected Koresh of stockpiling illegal weapons in the compound, of buying guns illegally, in preparation for the Second Coming and all of the chaos that would ensue.

[00:05:25] The police certainly had reason to believe that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling weapons because, well, Koresh had publicly stated that God had told him to do so.

[00:05:36] In 1989, shortly after taking control of the cult, he released a piece of audio in which he revealed firstly that God had told him to sleep with all of the women in the cult, and that all of the other men in the cult should be celibate.

[00:05:54] And, importantly, that God had also told him to start building an army to prepare for the Second Coming and the Apocalypse.

[00:06:04] There was also plenty of evidence that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling and modifying weapons - neighbours had heard machine guns going off, delivery people had seen guards with weapons, it seemed pretty clear what was going on.

[00:06:21] So, the US authorities, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to be precise, decided to go and have a look for themselves.

[00:06:31] But they weren’t prepared for what was to come.

[00:06:35] When the authorities raided the compound on February 28th of 1993, the Branch Davidians fought back. 4 government agents were shot and killed, and 6 Branch Davidians lost their lives in the ensuing firefight.

[00:06:53] That wasn’t it though.

[00:06:55] There was a standoff, and the entire compound was under siege for the next 51 days.

[00:07:03] It all ended when the FBI launched a tear gas attack on the compound, there was a huge fire, and 76 members of the cult, including its leader, David Koresh, perished.

[00:07:18] Strangely enough, the Branch Davidians are still active today, they still have a compound in the same area of Texas, but they are keeping a low profile, certainly not publicly claiming that they are building an army and preparing for the Second Coming.

[00:07:36] Our second doomsday cult is The People’s Temple. 

[00:07:41] It might have a fairly innocent-sounding name, but it has gone down in history as one of the most destructive cults ever, and resulted in the needless loss of life of almost a thousand people.

[00:07:55] It all started with a young, charismatic American, a man named Jim Jones. 

[00:08:02] In 1955 he founded “The People’s Temple”, which was a Christian-socialist organisation, meaning a group whose beliefs came in part from Christianity, and in part from communist and socialist thought.

[00:08:18] That was the theory at least.

[00:08:21] In practice, what being part of The People’s Temple meant was that all followers of The People’s Temple had to give all of their property, income and possessions to Jones and the cult.

[00:08:34] Much like the other stories we’ll hear today, Jones also required female members of the cult to be willing to turn over not just their material possessions but also their bodies to him.

[00:08:48] For the first 15 years or so of the cult’s existence, it had bases in California, but after a growing backlash against it, Jones relocated the entire cult to a remote settlement in the jungle of Guyana, the small South American country to the east of Venezuela.

[00:09:09] Approximately 1,000 followers came with him, moving their entire lives from the United States to the Guyana jungle, which gives you some idea of quite how much power he held over his followers.

[00:09:24] This settlement was to be a jungle utopia, a communist Christian heaven where believers could live a true, honest life.

[00:09:35] So, what happened next?

[00:09:37] Well, it didn’t last for long.

[00:09:40] A US Congressman named Leo Ryan came to investigate in 1978, after receiving pleas from concerned relatives of members of the cult. There were now almost a thousand people living in this compound in the Guyana jungle, people who had cut off all contact with the outside world, and this congressman came down to see what was actually going on.

[00:10:07] The congressman arrived in the Guyana jungle, checked out the compound, and as he was on the plane about to leave back to the United States he was murdered with five of his party.

[00:10:21] Meanwhile, back at the compound Jones had convinced all of his followers that they were about to be taken from the compound and converted to fascism, a fate worse than death for anyone subscribing to this Communist Christian ideology.

[00:10:40] So, Jones convinced his followers to line up, one by one, and drink poison, to kill themselves. 

[00:10:49] Men, women, children. 918 people in total died at Jonestown after drinking a soft drink called “Flavor Aid” which had been laced with cyanide.

[00:11:03] This was, until the September 11th attacks, the single event that caused the largest loss of American lives in history. 

[00:11:13] Mad, right?

[00:11:15] It also gave rise to an expression in English that you may have heard of, to “drink the Kool-aid”.

[00:11:22] If you “drink the Kool-aid”, it means you believe everything someone says, no matter whether it is right or not. This expression comes from the Jonestown Massacre, as this event has come to be known, even though it’s not technically correct - the cult members didn’t actually drink “Kool-aid”, they drank something very similar called “Flavor Aid”.

[00:11:47] For our next doomsday cult we actually move away from America and cross the Pacific to Japan.

[00:11:56] Although this is a decidedly non-American cult, we will encounter many familiar themes.

[00:12:03] A charismatic leader. A belief that the end of the world is imminent. Violence. And followers prepared to do anything the cult leader says.

[00:12:15] The protagonist of this particular story is a man named Shoko Asahara.

[00:12:21] He was born in 1955, and when he was in his twenties he became interested in a wide variety of religions, everything from Buddhism to Christianity as well as Astrology, Taoism and yoga.

[00:12:37] Out of this he created his own belief system, which he called Aum Shinrikyo.

[00:12:44] Surprise surprise, he was the head and most important figure in Aum Shinrikyo. He said he was Jesus Christ and was the first truly enlightened being since Buddha.

[00:12:56] Some big claims, right?

[00:12:59] In any case, Aum Shinrikyo was recognised as a real religion in Japan, and it soon started amassing a relatively large following, with tens of thousands of members around the world, most of them in Japan and Russia.

[00:13:16] Part of Asahara’s teaching was that the world was ending, that Armageddon was imminent.

[00:13:23] He believed that conflict between America and Japan was inevitable, it would result in a Third World War and the subsequent end of the world.

[00:13:34] The only way to avoid this, and to achieve salvation would be for people to give up everything and join Aum Shinrikyo.

[00:13:44] Anyone who didn’t join the cult would be doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members of the cult.

[00:13:53] The cult became increasingly violent in the early 1990s, and then on March 20th, 1995, members of the cult went on to commit what would become, and still is for that matter, the most deadly terrorist attack in Japanese history.

[00:14:12] Members of the cult boarded the Tokyo metro, the underground train network, and released the deadly chemical agent sarin.

[00:14:22] 14 people were killed and over a thousand injured.

[00:14:27] It’s still not completely clear why they did it. One theory is that members thought that they were actually saving the souls of members of the public by killing them.

[00:14:38] Another theory is that they were trying to distract attention away from investigations into other crimes that had been committed by members of the cult.

[00:14:48] And another theory is that they thought that this might be a way of triggering the apocalypse and kick-starting the Armageddon that they so fervently believed was inevitable.

[00:15:02] In any case, the world didn’t end, and launching a deadly terrorist attack might be a good way of distracting attention away from something else but it certainly isn’t a good way of deflecting attention away from you.

[00:15:18] In the aftermath of the attack Shoko Asahara and other senior cult leaders were tracked down, arrested, and all either sentenced to lengthy prison sentences or executed.

[00:15:32] Now, doomsday cult number four, our last doomsday cult, is probably the most famous cult in the world, although at least in terms of the number of people who died, it’s far from the most deadly.

[00:15:46] Charles Manson and the so-called “Manson Family”.

[00:15:51] Indeed, there is probably no name more associated with the term cult leader than “Charles Manson”.

[00:15:59] Manson was a failed musician, who started his own cult in the late 1960s in California.

[00:16:07] Like the other characters we’ve come across in today’s episode, he believed that he was the Messiah.

[00:16:14] His cult started simply as a group of friends engaging in a hippie life of drugs and open relationships, but by the late 1960s his views became more and more extreme, and his delusions of his own grandeur had continued to grow and grow.

[00:16:35] His followers numbered around 100, most of whom were middle-class women. Hallucinogenic drugs and sex were a common feature.

[00:16:46] There was a much darker side though. He had become obsessed with the idea that America was on the cusp of a race war between the black and the white community, and that this was going to cause the end of the world.

[00:17:02] He believed that the black community was going to win this race war, and that when the war was won, the black community would need a white person to lead them, and Manson would be that man. 

[00:17:16] At the same time, Manson had been trying to break into Hollywood, he had been trying to make it as a singer. 

[00:17:23] The problem was, he just really wasn’t very good, and although he had managed to make friends with some famous musicians, such as Dennis Wilson, the drummer from the Beach Boys, Manson was continually rejected.

[00:17:39] As a result, Charles Manson wanted revenge on Hollywood, revenge on the people he believed had rejected him.

[00:17:48] He instructed his followers to go to the house that Roman Polanski and his actress wife, Sharon Tate, were renting, and to kill everyone they found there.

[00:18:00] Polanski wasn’t there at the time, but Manson’s followers brutally murdered the five people they found there, including the eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant Sharon Tate.

[00:18:12] The murderers weren’t immediately caught, allowing them to kill again the following night, when they went out and murdered two more celebrities.

[00:18:22] These crimes shocked the nation. 

[00:18:25] They were brutal, unprovoked, and committed in the heart of Hollywood.

[00:18:31] Charles Manson, it turns out, did not personally murder anyone, but the murders were all carried out on his orders. He forced his followers into committing these heinous acts.

[00:18:45] And, of course, he paid the price, or at least he was sentenced to death.

[00:18:51] But he was never actually executed - his sentence was changed to life imprisonment, and he died in prison in 2017 at the age of 83.

[00:19:03] Now, we have evidently just skimmed the surface of these stories, there is so much more to them than we’ve covered today. 

[00:19:10] We could certainly have done an episode on each of these four barbaric but fascinating doomsday cults. Maybe we’ll do just that.

[00:19:19] In any case, the stories of these four cults show quite what people will believe, and what people can be forced to believe, and therefore forced to do.

[00:19:31] Equally interesting, and perhaps even more shocking, is to think about the manipulative, insane and barbaric behaviour of the leaders of these doomsday cults, to think about the men who sought power, sex, and adoration from their followers, only to force them to do horrible things either to themselves, to each other, or to innocent people who had nothing to do with the cult whatsoever.

[00:19:58] The four characters in our story certainly aren’t the only doomsday cult leaders, they weren’t the first and unfortunately they won’t be the last. 

[00:20:08] Perhaps if there’s one thing we can take away from all this, it’s that if a strange man claiming to be the Messiah offers you a glass of Kool-Aid, or should I say “Flavor Aid”, it’s probably time to make a run for it.

[00:20:25] OK then, that is it for this little look into our four creepy Doomsday Cults. 

[00:20:32] I hope you enjoyed it, and that it wasn’t too difficult to listen to - in fact I left out a lot of the bloodiest parts, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys that kind of detail, well you can go and read up on it for yourself.

[00:20:47] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:51] Do you know anyone, either directly or indirectly, who has ever been caught up in a cult? I imagine you might not know anyone who was part of any of these four cults, but perhaps you might have a weird cult story that you would like to share.

[00:21:07] Or are there other chilling stories of cults from your country? Are there similar situations where someone has predicted the end of the world and used that as cover to do terrible things?

[00:21:19] I would love to know. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Doomsday Cults, times when a charismatic person has managed to convince large groups of people that the world is about to end, or at least plunge into chaos.

[00:00:36] And as a result, tragic things have happened.

[00:00:40] I have to warn you, this episode will have plenty of slightly unpleasant stories. 

[00:00:45] There will be sex, drugs, suicide and murder, and plenty of people claiming that the world is about to end. 

[00:00:54] OK, you’ve had your warning. If you’re ready for it, let’s get started.

[00:01:00] Let’s first start with a quick definition.

[00:01:04] What is a cult?

[00:01:07] If you look it up in a dictionary you will find definitions such as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous”.

[00:01:23] For a cult to be a cult, and not simply a “belief”, it really needs to have three things:

[00:01:30] Firstly, it needs to be relatively small. 

[00:01:34] Once a cult becomes too large, well, it becomes mainstream, it becomes normalised, and it isn’t really a cult at all any more. There are plenty of religions that started out being viewed as dangerous cults, and as they grew they stopped being referred to as cults.

[00:01:54] And secondly, for a group to be considered to be a cult, the beliefs they hold need to be considered dangerous or extreme by mainstream society. A cult needs to pose a danger, either to normal society or to itself, to its members. 

[00:02:13] And in every example we’ll learn about today, there was plenty of danger, and in the next twenty minutes we will step over plenty of dead bodies.

[00:02:23] Now, there’s one more thing that almost every cult has, and without which it’s hard for a cult to really get started.

[00:02:32] A charismatic leader.

[00:02:34] If you’ve listened to our episodes on Scientology and Mormonism, you will remember the stories of how Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard were incredibly charismatic men and managed to encourage others to follow them.

[00:02:51] The doomsday cults we’ll learn about today have similarly charismatic leaders, men who may well have been insane and in some cases horrendously evil, but certainly men with the ability to persuade others to follow them, to do what they said, which meant killing on their behalf, and even killing themselves for them.

[00:03:15] And when you add in the doomsday element, the idea that the end of the world is imminent, people can clearly be persuaded to do all sorts of slightly unusual things.

[00:03:30] So, let’s just get right into it and kick off with our first doomsday cult, the Branch Davidians.

[00:03:39] This cult had been active since the 1930s, and was based in a large compound called New Mount Carmel in Texas, in the United States.

[00:03:50] The hundred or so members of the cult lived in that compound where they were waiting for the Second Coming, they believed that Jesus Christ would come to Earth and they needed to get ready for it.

[00:04:03] For the first fifty years or so of its existence, nobody knew much about it, but one day in 1993 that all changed.

[00:04:15] The cult had been taken over by a 28-year-old man named Vernon Wayne Howell. 

[00:04:22] Howell changed his name to David Koresh, to suggest that he was a descendant of both King David of Israel and the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and he most certainly suffered from delusions of grandeur.

[00:04:38] He declared that he was the messiah, and that all women living in the compound were his spiritual wives. 

[00:04:47] If you think this sounds harmless and innocent, think again.

[00:04:52] Koresh forced young girls to bear his children, and essentially turned the entire cult into his own private hareem.

[00:05:03] It wasn’t to be the sex abuse that brought the Branch Davidians to the public eye though.

[00:05:09] Instead, the American authorities suspected Koresh of stockpiling illegal weapons in the compound, of buying guns illegally, in preparation for the Second Coming and all of the chaos that would ensue.

[00:05:25] The police certainly had reason to believe that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling weapons because, well, Koresh had publicly stated that God had told him to do so.

[00:05:36] In 1989, shortly after taking control of the cult, he released a piece of audio in which he revealed firstly that God had told him to sleep with all of the women in the cult, and that all of the other men in the cult should be celibate.

[00:05:54] And, importantly, that God had also told him to start building an army to prepare for the Second Coming and the Apocalypse.

[00:06:04] There was also plenty of evidence that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling and modifying weapons - neighbours had heard machine guns going off, delivery people had seen guards with weapons, it seemed pretty clear what was going on.

[00:06:21] So, the US authorities, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to be precise, decided to go and have a look for themselves.

[00:06:31] But they weren’t prepared for what was to come.

[00:06:35] When the authorities raided the compound on February 28th of 1993, the Branch Davidians fought back. 4 government agents were shot and killed, and 6 Branch Davidians lost their lives in the ensuing firefight.

[00:06:53] That wasn’t it though.

[00:06:55] There was a standoff, and the entire compound was under siege for the next 51 days.

[00:07:03] It all ended when the FBI launched a tear gas attack on the compound, there was a huge fire, and 76 members of the cult, including its leader, David Koresh, perished.

[00:07:18] Strangely enough, the Branch Davidians are still active today, they still have a compound in the same area of Texas, but they are keeping a low profile, certainly not publicly claiming that they are building an army and preparing for the Second Coming.

[00:07:36] Our second doomsday cult is The People’s Temple. 

[00:07:41] It might have a fairly innocent-sounding name, but it has gone down in history as one of the most destructive cults ever, and resulted in the needless loss of life of almost a thousand people.

[00:07:55] It all started with a young, charismatic American, a man named Jim Jones. 

[00:08:02] In 1955 he founded “The People’s Temple”, which was a Christian-socialist organisation, meaning a group whose beliefs came in part from Christianity, and in part from communist and socialist thought.

[00:08:18] That was the theory at least.

[00:08:21] In practice, what being part of The People’s Temple meant was that all followers of The People’s Temple had to give all of their property, income and possessions to Jones and the cult.

[00:08:34] Much like the other stories we’ll hear today, Jones also required female members of the cult to be willing to turn over not just their material possessions but also their bodies to him.

[00:08:48] For the first 15 years or so of the cult’s existence, it had bases in California, but after a growing backlash against it, Jones relocated the entire cult to a remote settlement in the jungle of Guyana, the small South American country to the east of Venezuela.

[00:09:09] Approximately 1,000 followers came with him, moving their entire lives from the United States to the Guyana jungle, which gives you some idea of quite how much power he held over his followers.

[00:09:24] This settlement was to be a jungle utopia, a communist Christian heaven where believers could live a true, honest life.

[00:09:35] So, what happened next?

[00:09:37] Well, it didn’t last for long.

[00:09:40] A US Congressman named Leo Ryan came to investigate in 1978, after receiving pleas from concerned relatives of members of the cult. There were now almost a thousand people living in this compound in the Guyana jungle, people who had cut off all contact with the outside world, and this congressman came down to see what was actually going on.

[00:10:07] The congressman arrived in the Guyana jungle, checked out the compound, and as he was on the plane about to leave back to the United States he was murdered with five of his party.

[00:10:21] Meanwhile, back at the compound Jones had convinced all of his followers that they were about to be taken from the compound and converted to fascism, a fate worse than death for anyone subscribing to this Communist Christian ideology.

[00:10:40] So, Jones convinced his followers to line up, one by one, and drink poison, to kill themselves. 

[00:10:49] Men, women, children. 918 people in total died at Jonestown after drinking a soft drink called “Flavor Aid” which had been laced with cyanide.

[00:11:03] This was, until the September 11th attacks, the single event that caused the largest loss of American lives in history. 

[00:11:13] Mad, right?

[00:11:15] It also gave rise to an expression in English that you may have heard of, to “drink the Kool-aid”.

[00:11:22] If you “drink the Kool-aid”, it means you believe everything someone says, no matter whether it is right or not. This expression comes from the Jonestown Massacre, as this event has come to be known, even though it’s not technically correct - the cult members didn’t actually drink “Kool-aid”, they drank something very similar called “Flavor Aid”.

[00:11:47] For our next doomsday cult we actually move away from America and cross the Pacific to Japan.

[00:11:56] Although this is a decidedly non-American cult, we will encounter many familiar themes.

[00:12:03] A charismatic leader. A belief that the end of the world is imminent. Violence. And followers prepared to do anything the cult leader says.

[00:12:15] The protagonist of this particular story is a man named Shoko Asahara.

[00:12:21] He was born in 1955, and when he was in his twenties he became interested in a wide variety of religions, everything from Buddhism to Christianity as well as Astrology, Taoism and yoga.

[00:12:37] Out of this he created his own belief system, which he called Aum Shinrikyo.

[00:12:44] Surprise surprise, he was the head and most important figure in Aum Shinrikyo. He said he was Jesus Christ and was the first truly enlightened being since Buddha.

[00:12:56] Some big claims, right?

[00:12:59] In any case, Aum Shinrikyo was recognised as a real religion in Japan, and it soon started amassing a relatively large following, with tens of thousands of members around the world, most of them in Japan and Russia.

[00:13:16] Part of Asahara’s teaching was that the world was ending, that Armageddon was imminent.

[00:13:23] He believed that conflict between America and Japan was inevitable, it would result in a Third World War and the subsequent end of the world.

[00:13:34] The only way to avoid this, and to achieve salvation would be for people to give up everything and join Aum Shinrikyo.

[00:13:44] Anyone who didn’t join the cult would be doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members of the cult.

[00:13:53] The cult became increasingly violent in the early 1990s, and then on March 20th, 1995, members of the cult went on to commit what would become, and still is for that matter, the most deadly terrorist attack in Japanese history.

[00:14:12] Members of the cult boarded the Tokyo metro, the underground train network, and released the deadly chemical agent sarin.

[00:14:22] 14 people were killed and over a thousand injured.

[00:14:27] It’s still not completely clear why they did it. One theory is that members thought that they were actually saving the souls of members of the public by killing them.

[00:14:38] Another theory is that they were trying to distract attention away from investigations into other crimes that had been committed by members of the cult.

[00:14:48] And another theory is that they thought that this might be a way of triggering the apocalypse and kick-starting the Armageddon that they so fervently believed was inevitable.

[00:15:02] In any case, the world didn’t end, and launching a deadly terrorist attack might be a good way of distracting attention away from something else but it certainly isn’t a good way of deflecting attention away from you.

[00:15:18] In the aftermath of the attack Shoko Asahara and other senior cult leaders were tracked down, arrested, and all either sentenced to lengthy prison sentences or executed.

[00:15:32] Now, doomsday cult number four, our last doomsday cult, is probably the most famous cult in the world, although at least in terms of the number of people who died, it’s far from the most deadly.

[00:15:46] Charles Manson and the so-called “Manson Family”.

[00:15:51] Indeed, there is probably no name more associated with the term cult leader than “Charles Manson”.

[00:15:59] Manson was a failed musician, who started his own cult in the late 1960s in California.

[00:16:07] Like the other characters we’ve come across in today’s episode, he believed that he was the Messiah.

[00:16:14] His cult started simply as a group of friends engaging in a hippie life of drugs and open relationships, but by the late 1960s his views became more and more extreme, and his delusions of his own grandeur had continued to grow and grow.

[00:16:35] His followers numbered around 100, most of whom were middle-class women. Hallucinogenic drugs and sex were a common feature.

[00:16:46] There was a much darker side though. He had become obsessed with the idea that America was on the cusp of a race war between the black and the white community, and that this was going to cause the end of the world.

[00:17:02] He believed that the black community was going to win this race war, and that when the war was won, the black community would need a white person to lead them, and Manson would be that man. 

[00:17:16] At the same time, Manson had been trying to break into Hollywood, he had been trying to make it as a singer. 

[00:17:23] The problem was, he just really wasn’t very good, and although he had managed to make friends with some famous musicians, such as Dennis Wilson, the drummer from the Beach Boys, Manson was continually rejected.

[00:17:39] As a result, Charles Manson wanted revenge on Hollywood, revenge on the people he believed had rejected him.

[00:17:48] He instructed his followers to go to the house that Roman Polanski and his actress wife, Sharon Tate, were renting, and to kill everyone they found there.

[00:18:00] Polanski wasn’t there at the time, but Manson’s followers brutally murdered the five people they found there, including the eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant Sharon Tate.

[00:18:12] The murderers weren’t immediately caught, allowing them to kill again the following night, when they went out and murdered two more celebrities.

[00:18:22] These crimes shocked the nation. 

[00:18:25] They were brutal, unprovoked, and committed in the heart of Hollywood.

[00:18:31] Charles Manson, it turns out, did not personally murder anyone, but the murders were all carried out on his orders. He forced his followers into committing these heinous acts.

[00:18:45] And, of course, he paid the price, or at least he was sentenced to death.

[00:18:51] But he was never actually executed - his sentence was changed to life imprisonment, and he died in prison in 2017 at the age of 83.

[00:19:03] Now, we have evidently just skimmed the surface of these stories, there is so much more to them than we’ve covered today. 

[00:19:10] We could certainly have done an episode on each of these four barbaric but fascinating doomsday cults. Maybe we’ll do just that.

[00:19:19] In any case, the stories of these four cults show quite what people will believe, and what people can be forced to believe, and therefore forced to do.

[00:19:31] Equally interesting, and perhaps even more shocking, is to think about the manipulative, insane and barbaric behaviour of the leaders of these doomsday cults, to think about the men who sought power, sex, and adoration from their followers, only to force them to do horrible things either to themselves, to each other, or to innocent people who had nothing to do with the cult whatsoever.

[00:19:58] The four characters in our story certainly aren’t the only doomsday cult leaders, they weren’t the first and unfortunately they won’t be the last. 

[00:20:08] Perhaps if there’s one thing we can take away from all this, it’s that if a strange man claiming to be the Messiah offers you a glass of Kool-Aid, or should I say “Flavor Aid”, it’s probably time to make a run for it.

[00:20:25] OK then, that is it for this little look into our four creepy Doomsday Cults. 

[00:20:32] I hope you enjoyed it, and that it wasn’t too difficult to listen to - in fact I left out a lot of the bloodiest parts, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys that kind of detail, well you can go and read up on it for yourself.

[00:20:47] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:51] Do you know anyone, either directly or indirectly, who has ever been caught up in a cult? I imagine you might not know anyone who was part of any of these four cults, but perhaps you might have a weird cult story that you would like to share.

[00:21:07] Or are there other chilling stories of cults from your country? Are there similar situations where someone has predicted the end of the world and used that as cover to do terrible things?

[00:21:19] I would love to know. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]