Whether it's powdered drink mix laced with something a little stronger than your holiday punch, sneakers meant for sprinting into the afterlife, or, you know, San Francisco, the past century has been really good times for fanatical cults, their leaders, and their fans. In fact, people have been seduced by self-proclaimed demi-gods since the dawn of time — some would even call a few of the world's biggest religions cults if you asked them.
In the new season of Syfy's Helix, which premieres Friday Jan 16 at 10/9c, the CDC discovers a secretive cult whose attempt at a utopian society threatens the world at large. While many of the most notorious cults have posed no real threat to humanity besides filling newspapers and news broadcasts with unbelievable stories, they are almost always built upon the idea that the world is irreparably damaged, and that something radical needs to happen in order to speed up its inevitable end — a radical event that only the leader, or god-figure, can determine. In the case of the cult in Syfy's Helix, however, the stakes are much higher. They may be self-righteous like other cults, yes, but when that leads them to mess with nature and the very food we eat, the true danger of cults is brought to life. Read the histories below, and imagine what would happen if these incidents weren't confined to compounds and remote locations...
Location: San Diego, CA
Years Active: early 1970's - 1997
Leader: Marshall Applewhite, who was a self-appointed relative to Jesus and on an "Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human"
Besides having a logo that wouldn't have been out of place in the graphics package for a peak-MTV era music video, Heaven's Gate were more or less your average UFO-obsessed cult. Founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, the group believed that the earth was about to be "recycled," and that the only way to avoid being obliterated was to leave this planetary plane.
Claim to Fame
In 1997, Heaven's Gate attempted to "evacuate" the earth by donning matching black sweatsuits, black and white Nike Decades, and armbands that said "Heaven's Gate Away Team" and then consuming a cocktail of phenobarbital, applesauce, and vodka. All they took with them on their interplanetary journey (which the rest of the world called a mass suicide) was cash for the toll — $5.75. It's unclear why Applewhite believed that death was the only answer to his need to escape the earth, but could his message have spread further it may have been incredibly dangerous. While there is very little logic behind the details of the mass suicide, they make it a little easier to humanize the events. If one actually begins to think about one man thinking that he has control over whether or not people live or die, the consequences are enormous.
Location: San Francisco, CA
Years Active: 1955 - 1978
Leader: Jim Jones
Sometimes referred to as "apostolic socialism," Jim Jones was essentially preaching communism disguised as religion. The group insisted on communal living and recruited heavily through faith healing. While their main base of operation was in San Francisco, the Peoples Temple operated an agricultural commune, known as 'Jonestown,' in Guyana. While in Jonestown, members would be subject to mind control and were not permitted to leave. There is still a great deal of mystery surrounding Jonestown, and 5,000 pages of material related to the organization remain classified by the U.S. Government.
Claim to Fame
The Jonestown massacre is the single largest loss of American life in a deliberate act besides the September 11th attacks. On November 18th, 1978, Jones ordered his congregants to drink a mixture of cyanide and grape-flavored Flavor Aid. In total, 918 people died, many of them children. Before this notorious mass murder, however, Jim Jones and his followers swelled enormously. Jones would play god through mind and social control in a way that has since never been replicated. By using religious tactics to preach a political ideology, Jones was gearing up to do far more damage than just built a self-sustaining farm community. Could he have had his way, he surely would have had plans for more serious global domination.
Location: Mt. Carmel, TX
Years Active: 1930 - present
Leader: David Koresh
A splinter group of a splinter group (you know that can't be good) — the Branch Davidians were formed after members of the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists — itself a splinter group from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church — broke away in pursuit of a more reform message. The group believes that biblical prophesies signifying the second coming of Christ are indeed coming to pass.
Claim to Fame
The Waco massacre was a 51-day siege of the Branch's compound in Waco, TX, that resulted in 83 deaths, including that of leader David Koresh. It took place from February 28 - April 19, 1993. Since Waco, Koresh's influence has been cited in other crimes, such as the Oklahoma City Bombings — proving that although sometimes a cult can be totally wiped out before getting too dangerous towards the world at large, the danger of the message to larger society still exists.
Imagine if one of these cults could affect the world on a global level — the results would be unimaginable. For a look into the darkest side of cults, tune into Syfy's Helix, which premieres Friday Jan 16 at 10/9c.
Maud Deitch is a Senior Content Producer at Studio@Gawker. She has written for SPIN, The FADER, MTV.com and other publications.