Book Review - Killer Cults

Cultic Studies Review, 1, (2), 2002

Book Review - Killer Cults: Murderous Messiahs and Their Fanatical Followers

Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.

Center for the Study of the Self

Gloucester, Virginia

The author of this 310-page paperback volume is Brian Lane who has written books mainly on crime and informs us his background is in “fine art, theatre, and experimental music.” The nine, unnumbered chapters of the book are actually short, anecdotal-reportorial essays and case studies about “killer cults.” I’ll briefly review each chapter.

  1. This grouping of essays offers an historical overview of the Hashishin cult in the Middle East, the Thuggi cult in India, and the Khlysty and Skoptsy sects in Russia. The Judeo-Christian examples here are less cult-like than the other groups and are limited to mob violence and group hysteria. No Asian cults are included in this section.

  2. Identified as “20th Century Christian cults,” this set includes essays about the Fountain of the World sect, the Yahwehs, and the Christian Science (the Church of Christ, Scientist) religion. Lane considers the latter sect a “killer cult” presumably because of its belief in faith healing, what the author calls “death by faith.”

  3. This section discusses the “Armageddon cults”: the Branch Davidians, the Peoples’ Temple, Aum Shinri Kyo, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), the Ant Hill Kids, the Solar Temple, and the Great White Brotherhood -- a strange assortment. The author concedes that Mormon violence arose mainly from breakaway groups.

  4. This group consists of three examples of “Eastern and Asian cults”: Hare Krishna, Bhagwan Rajneesh, and Black Thai. The Reverend Moon’s Unification Church is not included.

  5. The seven articles about Satanism in this section refer to murders involving diabolical belief or justification.

  6. This group of four articles about political and social cults covers the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Posse Comitatus, Move, and the Death Angels.

  7. Voodoo cults follow in this section. Cults discussed here include the Abaqua, Santeria, Palo Mayombe, and Voodoo, with the usual case studies. A heading of Afro-Caribbean would have been more appropriate than Voodoo for these movements.

  8. In this group, the author includes descriptions of exorcism using examples from Christian and Muslim settings.

  9. Finally, this grouping includes five articles about “witch cults.” Ritual killing and witch trials are the central focus. Wicca and neo-Paganism are excluded from the group except for a reference to the “stereotypical witches of the 17th century being vastly different from those of the 20th century.” Further separation of such harmless “new religions” from “killer cults” would have been helpful.

The book concludes with a “webography” of Internet Websites; a “select bibliography” of relevant books published from 1807 to 1996; and an 11-page, two-column, combined name and subject index.

The value of this book is mainly in its many case studies. Its major weakness is a lack of information about the psychology and personality dynamics of cult leaders and their followers.