Drinking the Kool Aid: Extreme Cult History
cw: cult extremism, mass suicide, child abuse, brainwashing, murder, violence, gas warfare, poisoning, racism, kidnapping, non-consensual drug use, terrorism
Kool Aid, the Beatles, and Jesus; all things that centre around devotion, collectivism, and an intense drive towards a shared goal. Cults, along with everything else, come with their own form of extremism.
Our investigation begins with the cult that originated the popular phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool Aid”. The People’s Temple Agricultural Project, more commonly known as Jonestown, is one of the most extreme cults and boasts the largest mass suicide in modern history. Jonestown, named after its founder Jim Jones, was established to realise his vision of an autonomous, socialist colony separate from the American mainland where adherents would live according to their own code. The People’s Temple’s beliefs centred on biblical teachings and Christian revival movements, and followed a practice they termed ‘apostolic socialism’. Yes, it is as dodgy as it sounds.
At its peak, Jonestown’s peculiar kingdom was populated by just under 1,000 people, including a considerable number of women and children. By Jones’ own admission, his eight-to-eight work and study time split was modelled after that of North Korea, and eventually the Temple began to incorporate mind control and behavioural modification techniques from Mao’s China. ‘White Nights’ were regularly held to ‘rehearse’ what would happen in the event of colony being invaded, and votes would be taken to determine the fate of the colony. These White Nights came to a head in mid-November of 1978, with 907 members of Jonestown drinking a fatal cocktail of cyanide, Valium, Phenergan, and chloral hydrate — all flavoured with sweet, sweet Kool Aid.
Although definitively extreme, The People’s Temple’s fanaticism was insular and only really impacted its members. To get an idea of the differences in extremism between cults, we look to one based in Japan. Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) gained notoriety as one the most violent and extreme cults in Japanese history and was formally dubbed a terrorist organisation by both the US and Russia. Supreme Truth was founded in 1984 as a doomsday cult by Shoko Asahara, a man who believed himself to be the “Lamb of God”. A hybrid of Asahara’s interpretations of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, Supreme Truth rapidly gained a large following among university-aged students. Before long, it started to exhibit signs of extremism.
Having initiated members through the use of hallucinogens and extreme ascetic practices, Supreme Truth had a predilection for violence. They began to attract controversy in the late 80s with accusations of deception, false imprisonment, and finally murder in 1989. As cult members became indoctrinated, they began to act as a single organism, eliminating threats to the survival of the cult. Supreme Truth is known to have murdered figures who publicly denounced them, and also conspired to work through an extensive assassination list.
The true extremism of Supreme Truth came to light when they unleashed their own chemical weapons on the Matsumoto subway. Having developed in Western Australia strains of sarin and VX (deadly nerve agents), Supreme Truth released these for the first time in June 1994. The experiment was repeated in 1995 in Tokyo subway. Strangely for a doomsday cult, the reasoning behind these attacks was not to herald the apocalypse, but to distract authorities from raiding their warehouses. It’s no Kool Aid, but sarin gas gets a tick for cult extremism.
Returning to mainland America and one of the most notorious cults of the 60s, we investigate the Manson Family. Led by ex-con Charles Manson (no relation to Marilyn), the Manson Family capitalised on the radical attraction to the Free Love movement of the late 60s in their recruitment. Like Asahara of Supreme Truth, Manson thought himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus, and fittingly his preaching echoed biblical teachings with incorporated elements of Scientology. The Manson Family attracted a large number of members — primarily white and female — who then became indoctrinated.
The Manson Family was responsible for a number of murders and attempted murders including the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford in their waning years, however it was a dangerous obsession with The Beatles that secures the Manson Family a spot on our list. The ‘poison’ in this instance was an album being created by the Manson Family (in their yellow house, the Yellow Submarine) to begin an apocalyptic war. Named Helter Skelter, after The Beatles’ song, the apocalypse envisioned by the Mansons was one of brutal eradication of whiteness by Black rage. Supposedly, Black people would murder whites to extinction in retribution for centuries of maltreatment, allowing the Mansons to return from their underground city in Death Valley to rule over the remaining Black population. Needless to say, this never eventuated, and investigations into the Manson Family’s graphic murders eventually put the leadership of the cult behind bars.
The final leg of our investigation brings us home to Australia, and yet another bastardisation of a sacred family. Our final featured cult is The Family, a New Age group formed on the outskirts of Melbourne in the mid 1960s. Founded by Anne Hamilton who — surprise, surprise — believed she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, The Family practiced an eclectic mix of Christianity, Hinduism, and other Eastern and Western religions; they were truly staunch believers in the universality of a spiritual truth. They were also staunch believers in their family unit, and went to great pains to indoctrinate Family members from the local community. By ‘great pains’, we mean dosing susceptible psychiatric patients in the local hospital with LSD and recruiting those of value. Hamilton was effectively operating a hazing syndicate to extort large sums of money from her victims, and her winnings were estimated at $50 million. However, this was only the tip of the iceberg.
The Family also owned and operated a rural property at Kai Lama where they obtained 14 children. Taken from members of The Family, kidnapped from local hospitals, or illegally adopted, these children were seen as the ‘chosen ones’ by the adult circle who believed they were tasked with saving children from the apocalypse following the ‘imminent’ World War III. All were dressed identically, and their hair was bleached blonde and cut into identical bobs to dupe them into thinking they were biologically related. The children were often subjected to severe beatings and starvation, and were regularly drugged with a variety of psychedelics to ‘draw out’ their spirituality.
Cults have been a central aspect of human history since its beginning, and are no doubt here for the long haul. Luckily for us, they don’t get much more extreme than this. So remember, stick to Cottee’s, folks!