Cult-like behavior (read, religion) is one of humankind's oldest preoccupations. Whether centered on God, gods, aliens, or energy forces, people have always been willing to believe and subsequently sacrifice for what they believe in. Here are a few of the strangest yet on record:
1. Heaven's Gate
A monastical, secretive society, dedicated to the belief that the Planet Earth was on the verge of recycling itself, and therefore it was important to evacuate it as soon as possible. Based on leader Marshall Applewhite's near death experience, and his attending nurse's instability, the cult began searching for ways to disconnect from or to leave Earth, including "hating this world, even our flesh body", selling all worldly possessions, castration of males, and most famously, leaving on a spaceship trailing comet Halle-Bop. Well known (and criticized) among UFO groups, Heaven's Gate was propelled to infamy in 1997, when thirty nine members committed mass suicide, in attempt to jump on a spaceship that Applewhite alleged was following the comet. Apparently, the UFO would pick up the kamikaze souls, and take them to another level of existence. To prepare, the group allegedly first completed a citrus cleanse of the impurities in the body, and then ingested a cocktail of applesauce or pudding, phenobarbital, and a vodka chaser, then tied plastic bags around their heads to induce asphyxiation. The thirty nine were found on March 26, 1997, in matching black sweatsuits, brand new matching Nikes (in case they were running a little late?), with five dollars in quarters and a purple armband reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team."
It's almost impossible to leave the state of Utah without seeing one of the enormous temples, or to turn on the television on Sunday mornings without being offered a Bible from the Church of Latter Day Saints, Masquerading under a guise of only mild delusion, the reality of this religion is a little less beneficent. Focused on a God who came from another planet, and now lives in heaven with his goddess wife, continuously birthing all souls, the first of which was Jesus and the second the devil, Mormonism began in the 1820 with founder Joseph Smith Jr.'s writing of the Book of Mormon. Ignoring the evolution of Christian doctrine, Mormonism retreats back to primitive Christian beliefs, considering other factions as corrupted from the real 'truth". Jesus and Satan are spirit brothers, who both proposed a plan for saving humanity. Jesus won out, but was unable to completely cleanse all sins, so it is still necessary to prove yourself to get into heaven, Each member of the church is given a special piece of underwear, a "garment" that he or she must wear at all times, representing the "religious conviction" of the wearer. The church leaders are considered as receiving direct communication from God (which comes in handy when LDS philosophy becomes outmoded, such as the outlawing of polygamy in the late 19th century and the admission of African American members in 1978). All people carry a memory of everything they have ever done in their bodies, and this will be used by God to judge which level of heaven they will enter. Each male member may eventually, through "good" behavior, such as tithing, not drinking coffee or alcohol, not eating a lot of chicken, and having a bunch of babies, become a god himself. Women are allowed the dubious honor of bearing their husband's spirit children forever.
lthough general medicine, common sense, etc. would generally place people who don't eat within the confines of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, Breatharians are led to depriving themselves of food by "spirituality". Led by Jasmuheen (aka Ellen Greve), a housewife with a refrigerator loaded to the gills (for her husband, of course), and Wiley Brooks, a man who could lift ten times his body weight in 1980 (shown on the TV show "That's Incredible!"), the Breatharians believe that a person can "live on light"--eating nothing but air, and allowing the divine to feed them, using chi, prana, or energy from sunlight, depending on the extent of immersion in New Age mumbo jumbo the individual Breatharian is. Eventually, your body turns into your "light body" in a miraculous ascension to a divine plain--Jasmuheen claims to have stretched her DNA from a mere 2 strands to a whopping 12 to absorb more hydrogen--although she refused to undergo genetic testing to prove this miraculous development. Breatharians quickly go on to clarify that they eat because they want to, not because they have to. Of course! This explains Jasmuheen's full fridge, and the 1983 sighting of Wiley Brooks exiting a gas station with a Slurpee, hot dog, and Twinkies (because his environment is so full of junk, he also must fill himself with junk--this also from the guy who thinks Diet Coke is "liquid light"). Jasmuheen, in a 60 Minutes interview in 1999, stated, of the practice: "I don't advocate it--in fact I've spent three years traveling the world telling people that it's completely unnecessary." Jasmuheen's beliefs were put to the test, and she attempted to prove her beliefs to the world. She was put in a hotel room, under guard, for four days, at the end of which she was extremely dehydrated, and headed towards kidney failure. Yet, these travels have racked up, as she goes on to claim, about a hundred million supporters, and over 6000 active participants in her own personal plan. The 60 Minutes interview goes on to quote Dr. David Millikins, who put the point quite bluntly: "If people believe it, then they're going to die". Unfortunately, this is too true, with at least three documented deaths reported thus far.
4. Dionysian Mysteries
Who would have thought that a cult could arise out of a group of women waking up and thinking : "I was so wasted last night...what happened?" The cults of Dionysus, cloaked in mystery due to their secretive nature, and mostly comprised of women members, did just that. Attaching the god of wine to their drunken escapades, the Ancient Greeks formed an astonishingly bizarre set of ritualistic, orgiastic practices to hide their burgeoning alcoholism. Essentially, these Dionysians would drink themself into a stupor ("trance" or "spirit possession") and proceed to really get wild, engaging in group sex and role playing. They also were initial proponents of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls from body to body, during their group sessions. The bestial possession of their bodies by the spirit of Dionysus supposedly caused their wanton behaviors. Comprised of secret and public rites, the Dionysians made a religion out of their debauchery (literally--the word derives from the Roman name for Dionysus, Bacchus). A.E. Waite, in the New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, writes of the alleged rituals of the cult: "Whatsoever may have remained to represent the original intent of the rites, regarded as Rites of Initiation, the externalities and practice of the Festivals were orgies of wine and sex: there was every kind of drunkenness and every aberration of sex, the one leading up to the other. Over all reigned the Phallus, which - in its symbolism a rebours - represented post ejaculation the death-state of Bacchus, the god of pleasure, and his resurrection when it was in forma errecta. Of such was the sorrow and of such the joy of these Mysteries."