"A cult is a religion with no political power" (Tom Wolfe)

    Tragically, all religions justify violence, but so-called "cults" tend to be very harmful to society as well as their own members.  Cult violence is a form of collective behavior characterized by progressive escalation of conflict, internal radicalization, and the impossibility of escape or retreat from the inevitability of extreme violence (Bromley & Melton 2002).  In short, cults are inherently dangerous.  In fact, few things are more dangerous and destructive.  Witness the well-known media cases of them, such as the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, Solar Temple, or Aum Shinrikyo, and one will quickly surmise that they are indeed dangerous, at least as dangerous, if not more so, than terrorism.

    Little is known about the causes and dynamics of cult violence.  Many people assume that "authorities" have them under surveillance (not true).  Infiltration is about the only law enforcement technique that works, and cults are highly sensitive to this.  Many people think they aren't a problem as long as they kill their own members (the so-called "somebody else's religion" syndrome).  Many people are tolerant of cults because they see them as start-up religions that simply haven't acquired enough real estate yet.  Some people are tolerant of cults because they don't see the dangerousness aspect to them.  Others avoid talking about them out of political correctness or because they fear getting sued for insulting them.  It is time to start paying serious academic attention to cults.

    There are similarities and differences between sects and cults.  Both sects and cults tend to be quite dogmatic with coherent ideologies, and both tend to believe they hold the "one true way" to truth and salvation (Wallis 1976).  However, a sect simply encourages thought reform among its members.  A cult systematically engages in mind control, in a way that jeopardizes the health and safety of its members.  For example, a sect encourages its members to go without food (fast) for several days.  A cult deliberately malnourishes its members (for their own good).  Technically, a sect is an offshoot of an established religion.  Its leaders tend to come from the lower classes, and they sympathize with the lower classes.  In fact, one of the common characteristics of a sect is a disdain for the habits of the wealthy.  Cult leaders tend to come from the upper classes, and they hate the lower classes.  Sects either die off or expand into established denominations, depending upon how well they embrace or try to play politics.  Cults tend to reject politics except for when the ultimate showdown comes with outer-worldliness.  Sects get violent progressively while in political manipulation mode (we call this sectarian violence).  Cults get violent suddenly and without warning in a kind of rabid, feverish outbreak that someone will undoubtedly say we should have seen coming (we call this lunatic fringe violence).  

    Cults, to be fair, tend to mostly produce low-level, small-group violence.  They can also produce lone wolf violence.  Their pattern is difficult, but not impossible, to predict.  They may be most violent when they claim to have invented something completely new and fantastic OR when they claim to have discovered something lost and forgotten.  They may come to a sudden demise when their leader dies OR they may remerge stronger and more dangerous under a new leader.  Leadership succession is critical, but most cults don't prepare for it.  The inability to groom successors is the proverbial downfall of all megalomaniacs and narcissists.  Some cult leaders have more serious psychological problems; they can also be a sadist.  In other cases, they will manipulate their followers and audiences by playing the role of weak, helpless victim.  When the cult has a doomsday orientation, it may be unclear whether they have more suicidal than homicidal tendencies, or vice versa.  It may very well be when the group is at its most uncertain when they are most dangerous and destructive.  However, standard warning signs exist.

The Four Warning Signs of a Dangerous Cult

(1) apocalyptic thinking, or eschatology, that the world is coming to an end, and true believers will enjoy unique rewards at endtime
(2) charismatic leadership where the leader dominates the followers spiritually, emotionally, and sexually
(3) paranoia and demonization of outsiders, accompanied by intellectual isolation within a cloistered community
(4) preparations of an unusual nature, usually indicated by a buildup of guns, poisons, and/or weapons of mass destruction

    Arguably, the most dangerous stage is the paranoia warning sign.  This is usually a highly visible stage.  Many cults publish some book or treatise by the leader, usually rich in paranoia.  When they publish, they transform into what are called "audience cults" and membership may enlarge to those who have read the book, but never met.  This is often when "lone wolf" radicalization takes place.  The "book" may imply a call for the establishment of leaderless cells or some kind of criminal action, but it will definitely produce a marketable and measurable effect among the membership.  A splinter group or spin-off group may also emerge in response to publication of a book.  In what is the more usual pattern, an audience cult usually becomes a "client cult" which describes a group of regular customers who seek to purchase more products, goods, books, or services that are associated with the cult.  The group becomes mobilized, one individual at a time, and the membership becomes ready for preparations.  This is how a cult movement gets momentum besides word of mouth and family indoctrination.

    Kimball's (2003) book, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, is quite informative. His five warning signs include the following which are curiously similar to what terrorist groups do:

(1) absolute truth claims
(2) blind obedience
(3) establishing the "ideal" time
(4) the end justifies the means
(5) declaring holy war

    It's often said that something "evil" is something that's disrespectful of other beliefs and all the moral customs and principles of society.  By establishing absolute truth claims, a group sets itself up as separate from regular society and lays claim to a "higher moral authority."  At this point, they have managed to convert evil into something which looks good.  Blind obedience characterizes an authoritarian-like, unquestioning attitude inside the group; rebelliousness and subversion characterize activity outside the group.  Discipline is established, almost like a rigid chain of command, with strict rules on how to behave toward insiders and outsiders.  Establishing the "ideal" time for total rebellion may or may not be tied to the group's vision of an ideal utopia (if the name and place of the utopia can be named).  The exact timing of something is usually a secret kept to the leaders themselves while all the other group members are expected to be in a state of perpetual readiness.  Corruption and even more evil become possible with warning sign #4 because this means that the group will do ANYTHING -- even violate its own precepts -- in order to "get back" at the world.  At this stage, the group is mobilized for action.  Terrorist activity occurs in Stage (5), but by this time, the declaration of war is usually only an after-the-fact event.


    There's lots of money to be made in cult deprogramming, and the work tends to be similar to work in the VIP protection field.  Wikipedia has a rather unusual (and long) entry on cult deprogramming.  Evidently, there are a lot of self-made "experts" in this field, and I understand the more accurate term nowadays is "cult counseling" or "exit counseling."  Public opinion and the law have not been good for deprogrammers.  None of their "expertise" holds up as a forensic science in court, and certain cult groups, like Scientology, have been quite successful in winning court cases when they have sued a deprogrammer.  Many cult groups have no shortage of money and/or legal resources.  Thus, modern deprogramming is best done under the following safeguards:

1. First, obtain a conservatorship (court order over someone who is mentally ill or financially irresponsible). These are usually only good for 30 days or so.
2. Make sure your deprogrammer establishes rapport.  It is best if they are an ex-cult member themselves (the same or similar cult), but being well-versed in the group's doctrine is essential to establish credibility because these people are great intellectualizers.
3. In a secure location, try to establish "illumination" by getting the poor, brainwashed person to focus on their initial contact with the cult.  Don't focus on recent events or the middle years.
4. Some deprogrammers recommend a full-fledged discrediting of the cult leader, but this has resulted in some legal liability, so a safer step is to try to get the member to recognize that part of the group's doctrine is inconsistent or hypocritical with the actual brainwashing procedures they use.
5. Expect a mourning stage.  Once the member seems ready for recovery, they will need grief counseling, and also a lot of unconditional love.


    One of the largest, richest, and most powerful groups in the world are the so-called "Moonies", named after Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church.  Like many cult leaders, he believes he is Jesus (or the second coming of Jesus), and like many cults (where it all goes back to Jesus), his "religion" claims that the original Jesus didn't finish the job of producing "perfect children."  Thus, he performs mass weddings in athletic arenas and places like Madison Square Garden pairing up hundreds and thousands of couples a year.  Each "arranged" marriage is designed to alleviate original sin and remove the curse from Adam and Eve's fall from grace.  Some 40,000 "weddings" are performed every year, but the thing about them is that they are illegal, and further, nothing prohibits someone who is already legally married from marrying again in a "celestial" or "blessed" wedding.  Even further, once a man has been married to someone by Rev. Moon (or his wife), they can then carry out or officiate wedding ceremonies themselves.  According to Wikipedia, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan (as well as lots of self-made imams in the Muslim world) have participated in Moonie weddings and claim the power to officiate such weddings.  It is a religion which claims to promote family unity and world peace thru arranged marriage.

    The Rev. Jim Jones (of the Jonestown, Guyana massacre - "Don't drink the Kool-Aid" fame) led the world's largest mass suicide and carried out the only assassination of a U.S. Congressman in the line of duty.  His doctrine consists of the idea that Jesus was demon-possessed and Mary was a whore.  This, to him, meant that mankind was cursed by homosexuality (either manifest or latent), and that He (the Messiah) was the planet's "only true heterosexual."  Therefore, all the boys and men in his cult had to be forcibly sodomized (by him usually) to point out to them their curse of homosexuality.  All the girls and women had to have regular sex with him in order to remove any tendencies toward lesbianism.  There's a lot more nuance to this group's doctrine, but I think I've fairly described the "sex cult" aspect.  Toward the end of his reign, Rev. Jones started believing that the world was coming to an end, and that only a mass suicide would carry his "chosen people" to another planet.

    David Koresh (of Waco, Texas Branch Davidian fame) likewise managed a "sex cult" which involved 140 wives in the group, all ranging in age from 12 to 73.  Evidently, he preferred older women because his lover, who indoctrinated him into Branch Davidianism in the first place was Lois Roden.  Her doctrine involved the idea that God could be female, or that a female-figure at least co-existed with God.  Koresh did not necessarily think he was the Messiah, but he did think he had to randomly have sex with as many members of the group as possible because any one of the offspring could turn out to be the "chosen one."  He was also into storing and stockpiling as many guns and weapons as he could get his hands on.

    Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon church) believed an angel of God commanded him to become a polygamist, and that all secular government was demonic.  He had 49 wives, ranging in age from 14-53.  He was also into guns. After the forced move to Utah, he connected with Brigham Young (then governor of the Utah territories), who was also a polygamist (with 27 wives), and the two of them carried out a scheme to pay the Indians (Native Americans) to massacre and kill any settlers coming into the area.  Eventually, the U.S. military had to take action.  Mormons believe in stockpiling commodities for the upcoming Armageddon.

    Mohammed (founder of Islam - and yes, I know, it is regarded an insult to Islam to talk about this, but I mean no insult) had 11 wives and 2 sex slaves, ranging in age, and all with which (according to legend) he had sex with every night.  The beating of a wife was permitted if she did not want to have sex, and also, "temporary marriages" were permitted in times of war (a justification used by the invading Iraqis in Kuwait and also the Pakistanis in Bangladesh).  When he first "received" his revelations, he initially thought they were the voices of Satan (hence, the "Satanic Verses" storyline), but this was quickly re-interpreted to be the voices of God or his angel.  So, the Prophet carried out his commandment to engage in a 10-year war of terror against the "infidels" in Mecca and Medina, where he established "holy places" by getting rid of all idols, except for one, the meteorite stored in the Kaaba in Mecca.

    Joseph Franklin Rutherford was the founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mary Baker Eddy was the founder of the Christian Scientists.  Similarities and differences exist, but one of the common themes is that there are no "souls" but there are "minds" which inhabit people, similar to the minds of entities which groups like Scientologists and Heaven's Gate believe in.  The Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe Jesus is the son of God, but the adopted son of God.  They also believe that all other Christians are agents of the devil.  They despise the pagan origins of Western history and civilization -- things like Egyptian, Greek, or Roman influence.  They do not celebrate Christmas, Easter, or birthdays.  Their religion forbids military service and blood transfusions.  They believe the "end days" have already happened; Satan won, and we walk a "cursed Earth."

    Aum Shinrikyo, headed by a self-made Buddhist guru named Shoko Asahara, carried out a devastating, sarin-gas attack on Tokyo's subway system in 1995.  They hold the distinction of being one of the few terrorist groups that successfully pulled off a Weapons of Mass Destruction attack.  Known nowadays as Aleph, they are still quite a large group, even though most of their first-generation members have gotten the death penalty.  Their membership consists in good part of former scientists, college professors, and well-educated people.  Their doctrine involves a belief in "Lamb of God" sacrificial action (to purge society of sin), and that no heaven and hell exist, but there are several "planes" or "realms" or "dimensions" or "continuums" upon which different beings live.  Paradise consists of the realm inhabited by the 33 Gods.  Degree of "enlightenment" determines which realm one is headed for.  Anyway, their ideology involves a strong streak of anti-government feeling, and they especially dislike the U.S. government (who continually put them on a terrorist watch list -- for good reason). 

    Others in no particular order:  Aleister Crowley (the founder of a thousand different types of magic and astrological cults), Gerald Gardner (founder of Wicca), and Anton LaVey (founder of Satanism).


    Demonology is a word that sometimes pops up in discussions on this topic.  It is a word that has an unfortunate connection to the early history of criminology.  One reason is that the study of criminals has long attracted many who are "on Satan's trail" such as the Catholic Church's leading exorcists: Gabriel Amorth and Jose Antonio Fortea.  Another reason is because much religious writing is about spiritual warfare which requires belief in demons or at least demonic powers or evil schemes.  Unfortunately, evil isn't something that can be studied and measured scientifically, and even more unfortunate (or fortunate) is the fact that demons don't exist.  Nonetheless, a lot of people believe in at least demonic possession, even though that doesn't exist either.  The Catholic Church, however, thinks demons exist, and doesn't undertake an exorcism lightly.  The procedure requires approval of the local bishop, usually after medical or psychiatric tests show no rational explanation for the symptoms, which include vomiting, violent headaches, stomach cramps, signs of superhuman strength, fits and extreme aversion to holy symbols, knowledge of a language they do not know, "voices" speaking thru them, and the extrusion (often thru vomiting or skin) of foreign objects such as nails or glass.

A Close-Up Look at the Demons of Demonology

      Demons are either considered "fallen angels" or "malignant spirits." Many of them, for which names are known, are involved with various temptations toward lust, mischief, and crime. If these notions were to be taken seriously, the key research question would be whether demons work by temptation or possession.  The more basic scientific question is to ask whether evil exists (Lyman 1973).  The word "evil" is sometimes used in discussions of some criminals, particularly psychopathic or sociopathic offenders.
     Asmodeus was believed to be the most active demon, and he could take male or female form to fill people with an insatiable lust and desire for adultery, buggery, and child molestation. Belphegor, identified in the Jewish Kaballah, operated much the same way, but concentrated on breaking up romances and about-to-happen marriages. Beelzebub (not to be confused with Satan or Lucifer) was believed to be associated with murder, cannibalism, and anything to do with dead bodies (because of the flies he attracted). His favorite sin was gluttony whereas Lucifer's was pride. Sammael, the bat-winged demon, was also associated with the joy of taking life, or murder. Rakshasas, the vampire demon known mostly in India, also was associated with murderlust, reanimation of dead bodies, and perverting the holy.
     Modern demonology (as it might be called) is less concerned with identifying (and exorcising) the likes of specific demons and more concerned with eliminating the influence of the Devil himself.  Bloom (1997), for example, is representative of the modern approach which holds that the Devil is holed up in every single one of us.  According to Bloom, the desire to brutalize, murder, pillage and destroy, and to revel in the weeping of our enemy's women is hard-wired into our makeup.


    There are many different kinds of Satanist cults.  The main varieties are: (1) theistic - aka conservative, which worships Satan as a diety; (2) atheistic - aka agnostic or individualism, which regards Satan as a symbol of opposition; and (3) pseudo- or casual -- which involves adolescent use of symbols and imagery.  Holmes & Holmes (2009) assert that there has been a rise in cult activity and Satan worship since the 1960s, and they base their claim on the reported rise of animal killings in Western United States.  Morneau & Rockwell (1980) have commented upon the sadistic nature of these animal killings: "the sadists are thought to be involved in some kind of satanic cult killings where the animals are ritualistically slaughtered and either the udder or external sex organs are removed. At the same time all the blood of the animal is drained, apparently into some kind of container that is then taken away because no spilled blood is found at the scene of the mutilations" (Morneau and Rockwell 1980: 79).

    "Ritualistic crime is an unlawful act committed with or during a ceremony.  Investigate the crime, not the belief system.  Cult or ritualistic crimes include vandalism, destruction or theft of religious artifacts, desecration of cemeteries, the maiming, torturing, or killing of animals or humans, and the sexual abuse of children." (Bennett and Hess 2007).  Please note that merely being a devil worshipper in and of itself is not a crime, but the activities of such practitioners may constitute a crime: vandalism, animal cruelty, homicide, grave desecration, etc.

    Bennett and Hess (2007) state that the term "cults" refers to a system of religious beliefs and rituals as well as its body of adherents or believers.  It often "denotes a group of people whose beliefs and rituals may appear to be similar to those of mainstream society but which the majority of society would view as socially deviant, or even violent and destructive.  Such cults are commonly connected with the occult, paganism, witchcraft, demonism, and satanism or devil worship (Bennett and Hess 2007).  Holmes & Holmes (2009) do an excellent job of describing in general the nature and history of satanistic cults, and they offer the following suggestions for profiling related criminal activiity. 

    First, recognize that there is a difference between a ritual and a ceremony in devil worship.  A ceremony is a unique happening to celebrate an important event, but a ritual involves much more as it is repetitive, transitional, and has a certain prescribed set of behaviors.  Notice that elements of rituals and ceremonies may both be found at a crime scene. These include cowled or hooded black robes as vestments, altars approximately 4 feet tall and six feet in length, pentagrams, candles (particularly black and white ones), bells, chalices, an elixir, swords, a phallus, and gongs (Holmes & Holmes 2009).  There may also be the presence of satanic symbols such as a Swastika, a pentagram with one point upward, a pentagram with two points upward, the numbers 6, 9, 13 or the Roman numeral XIII (13), AC/DC, the letter S, FFF, 666, or the crescent sign.  There are two types of sacrifices: the blood sacrifice and the burning sacrifice.  Therefore there may be the presence of blood, either human or animal, at the scene.  An important point here is that in the bloodletting ceremony the body is removed and hidden, while the burned body is left at the scene.  If a body is found it may be eviscerated (cut from the pubic area to the upper chest, with organs such as the heart, intestines, eyes or other parts removed). The body may be anointed with oils and incense, or it may be covered with fecal matter.  Human sacrifice is rare, and animal sacrifice occurs more often.  Typical animals sacrificed are dogs, cats, frogs and rabbits.  The desired animal of sacrifice is the goat.  Salt may also be present at the scene.  Another regular sign of satanistic cult activity is the presence of and desecration of Christian symbols such as statues, crosses, chalices, and so forth.

    Of the following indicators, not all are necessary to indicate a cult-related crime, although the presence of several should certainly make the investigator consider such an event.  Note these are listed in alphabetical order, not in any order of importance or frequency of occurrence.

Indicators of a Satanic-related Crime

Altars, stone or metal
Animal parts or organs
Ashes, Bells, or Blood
Body paint; Body parts
Bones taken from graves
Books on Satanism
Bottles of blood
Bowls with powder
Candles, candle holders
Circles, pentagrams
Colored strings, cords
Daggers, knives
Effigy-like clay figures
Flash powder
Flash powder, firecrackers
Hypodermic needles
Inverted Crosses
Jewelry, amulets
Martial arts weaponry
Non-discernible alphabet
Occult game boards
Painted rocks, paint
Parchment paper
Pillows, robes
Smoke bombs
Tarot cards
Unusual drawings
Wooden stands

    Some additional detail on occult scene indicators:

Altars:  May be permanent or entirely portable.  Sometimes an occultist will carry his equipment inside a box that also serves as his altar.  Such a box may provide drug evidence, serological evidence, and more.
Black plastic (drop cloth)
:  Check for blood - plastic drop cloths are reported to be used to catch blood during sacrifices.
Body parts (or lack of body parts)
:  Body parts are often used for magical purposes.  Some satanists will remove an animal's legs, as they believe the devil uses them to walk around.
:  Animal bones may yield information as to the type of animal and methods of death.  Human bones may also be found.  Skulls may or may not have wax on them.  Bones may have runic symbols on them.
Booby traps
:  Meant to either frighten intruders and warn occultists or to harm or eliminate law enforcement/intruders.  These may consist of trip wires, a board with spikes laid in the footpath, barbed wire, animal traps, etc.

Book of Shadows:
  aka grimoire; Can be very simple or very fancy.  Basically it is a journal detailing spells, incantations, success/failure of various magic, etc.  May provide information of illegal activity.
:  May contain salt, water, blood, etc.
Burnt trees, animals
:  Check for accelerants.  Identify.
Cages/stakes:  Sometimes these are found at the scene.  Used to secure animals prior to sacrifice.
Candles:  Although it is rare, some occult literature calls for candles to be made with human baby fat.  The colors of candles are always significant, which may get somewhat confusing.
Chalice:  Check for blood, urine, drugs, etc.
Circle or triangle:  Magic is often practiced inside a circle or triangle.  Note any salt.   Note flammable substance.
Knife/sword:  The ceremonial knife (athame) may be a source of blood.
Mortar/pestle:  May hold evidence of drug use, the use of poisons, or blood.
Pentagram:  A five-pointed star.  Check for presence of salt.  Note size and direction.  A hexagram (six-pointed star) is also used as a powerful magical symbol.
Potions:  Check for drugs, poisons.  These may also be used to sedate victims pending sacrifice.
Rune stones:  Cloth bag of 25 "stones," 24 with runic writing.  Used as an "oracle."  Other oracles include Ouija boards, tarot cards, crystal pendulums, etc.
Syringe:  Check for drugs, poisons, blood.
Unusual signs, symbols, alphabet:  Look for symbols mocking Christianity.  Occult alphabets are numerous.  They may also be made up by the individual or group.

Animal Death Scene Human Death Scene
1. Usually no blood left at scene
2. Carvings or burn spots left behind
3. Daggers, knives often left behind
4. Inverted crosses
5. Evidence of a surgical procedure
1. Usually no blood left at scene
2. Pentagrams or drawings left behind
3. Jewelry, chalices, etc. may be left behind
4. Wax drippings, colored string, paint
5. Semen, urine, bodily fluids present


    Sacrificial murders are always done to appease a god or deity.  A "Muti" (Zulu for medicine) murder is done for the purpose of obtaining body parts for ingredients.  Satanistic murders are usually sacrificial murders, as are some voodoo murders, but voodoo, African witchcraft, and certain types of Asian folk medicine do involve the use of body parts for medicine.  In African tribal medicine, for example, the murder is never carried out by the witch, but by a third party who acts as a go-between between the witch and a client.  All around the world, in traditional medicine like this, human body part ingredients are considered much stronger and faster-acting than non-human ingredients, such as roots, herbs, and animal parts.  Traditionally, the victim must be alive when the body parts are removed because this best preserves the person's life essence Labuschagne 2012).  Victims of muti-murder can be any age or sex, but the elderly are not generally targeted.  Sometimes, a morgue is broken into or recent graves are robbed in order to get body parts.  Storage is accomplished in a variety of ways, ranging from being intricately wrapped in colored paper (red and white being "good" medicine and blue and black meaning "evil" medicine) to simply being stuffed in coffee cans.  Victims are typically not hidden or buried (some even manage to stay alive) because it is believed that the longer the victim stays alive (or is quickly discovered by authorities), the more effective will be the medicine made out of their body parts.  Exactly which body parts make for specific kinds of medicine is a long-lost secret passed down from generation to generation, but characteristically involves the following:

Perlmutter's summary of occult religions
Wikipedia Entry for Satanic Ritual Abuse

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Perlmutter, D. (2004).
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Last updated: Apr. 07, 2012
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
Citation: O'Connor, T.  (2012). "Cult Crimes and Satanic Rituals,"
MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from