Cult leaders are fascinating with their charming personalities and strange beliefs. But the ones who tend to come to mind first are usually men. That might lead you to wonder: Are there even female cult leaders? Yes, there are . . . and they are gruesome.
10 Anne Hamilton-Byrne
What do you do when you’re convinced that you’re the reincarnation of Jesus Christ? You gather a small following on a remote estate and start a sadistic cult. That’s what Anne Hamilton-Byrne did in Australia in the 1970s and ’80s.
There, she projected herself as a motherly Christlike figure, but looks can be deceiving. In actuality, Hamilton-Byrne was beating children for not showing devotion to her. She was also preparing them for the coming apocalypse by bleaching their hair and giving them identical, creepy haircuts.
She adopted many of these children—often illegally and likely through some kidnappings. In total, she kept 28 children on her property as she prepared them for the apocalypse. In reality, she was on LSD most of the time and forcefully injected the children with LSD, too.
As punishment, she would starve and beat the children viciously, scaring them into submission. She was caught after some children escaped and alerted the authorities, who then rescued the other children.
9 Clementine Barnabet
In the early 1900s, life could not have been easy for a black woman in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is why Clementine Barnabet sought solace in voodoo. As a teenager, she became the leader of a voodoo cult named the Church of the Sacrifice, which quickly gained a following.
Her preaching became deadly when her followers began murdering people with axes as they slept—40 in total. Her followers did this to show their devotion to her as high priestess of the Church of the Sacrifice. Apparently, they believed that immortality could be gained through human sacrifice.
None of them committed these crimes mercifully, either. The victims were all brutally slaughtered and dismembered. Barnabet herself is responsible for 17 axe murders and is considered to be the first black female serial killer.
8 Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the first celebrity preachers. She rose to popularity in the 1920s because she was a beautiful preacher who looked as glamorous as a movie star. She also made her church services seem theatrical, much like some “megachurches” today.
McPherson promoted herself at Foursquare Church as a healer who spoke in tongues and could allegedly cure the blind. She was groundbreaking in her efforts to evangelize as many people as possible by having a popular radio broadcast and doing several on-camera sermons (which you can find online).
Her personality was charming, but she is often criticized for loving her celebrity status a little too much. All of that came to an end when she took a swim in 1926 and did not return. She was found a month later in Mexico claiming to have been kidnapped.
It was a hoax, of course, and McPherson was brought back to the US on criminal charges. She continued preaching in Echo Park until her death in 1944.
7 Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi
Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi is a spiritual leader who is the face of a growing modern meditation cult that is structured a bit like Scientology. The smiling guru seems harmless, but the sari-clad founder of the Sahaja Yoga Movement has been criticized for brainwashing followers and disrupting families.
Her empire is growing, however, with an estimated 30,000–100,000 followers worldwide. Her followers meditate to a picture of her. Although the movement claims that followers are only meditating and are free to go about their daily lives however they want, most followers devote their free time to evangelizing and promoting their great guru.
Former followers claim that they were encouraged to break off ties with family members who disagreed with their newfound enlightenment. Furthermore, children born into the religion are considered “soldiers of Sahaja Yoga.” Parents are asked to send their kids to a Sahaja school in Rome at the tender age of four and then to a school in India.
These practices are currently going on and continue to grow daily as Shri Mataji opens Sahaja centers around the world.
6 Bonnie Nettles
Bonnie Nettles cofounded Heaven’s Gate with Marshall Applewhite, whom she met at a theater school. But she died two years before the cult’s mass suicide. The cult believed in Christianity with a curious mix of alien paranoia. They believed in UFOs and killed themselves to reach a spaceship that was supposedly following the Hale-Bopp comet.
Sadly, Nettles developed cancer. But she believed that it was impossible for her to die because she and Applewhite would ascend to space together. Nettles died from cancer, but Applewhite told his followers that she simply left her Earthly form.
5 Ching Hai
Ching Hai is a spiritual leader who is often depicted in portraits of glowing light. Her estimated 500,000 followers worldwide adore her for starting the Quan Yin Method, which is a meditation cult that promotes inner lightness and peace.
The Quan Yin Method is often praised for its promotion of the self, advocating for women to be independent and seek light from within rather than guidance from a man. Women are also encouraged to seek guidance from Ching Hai herself.
As with most meditation cults, it sounds perfectly harmless from the outside. But Ching Hai has also found a way to monetize the Quan Yin Method’s peaceful practices: by creating a chain of vegan restaurants called the Loving Hut. You can find a Loving Hut location in several places around the globe, giving vegan goodness to anyone who wants to pay for it.
But that’s not all. Ching Hai is also cashing in on her spiritual lifestyle through a clothing line, a jewelry line, and countless books and CDs.
4 Hak Ja Han
Remember the Moonies? Well, they didn’t go anywhere. Reverend Moon may be dead, but the Unification Church (aka the Moonies) was handed down to his wife, Hak Ja Han, and she is making sure things run smoothly.
She changed the name of God from Heavenly Father to Heavenly Parents and revised her own narrative to seem as important as her husband’s. She claims that Satan tried to kill her when she was born and that God chose her specific lineage, the “Han” family, as the chosen people to fight against Satan.
3 Brigitte Boisselier
Brigitte Boisselier may be an unusual choice for this list as her leadership role in Raelianism is more cooperative than others. But she still holds the unusual distinction of being a director of the cloning division of Raelianism, the belief that humans were descended from aliens.
Boisselier is a chemist who claims to have overseen the first project to clone a human with the Raelian project called Clonaid. The current leader of Raelianism was so impressed by Boisselier that he declared her to be next in line to lead the entire cult after he passes.
As the group’s spokesperson, she travels to do speaking engagements about the group’s progressive Raelian beliefs . . . as well as the coming doom of humanity and the salvation that only the aliens will bring.
2 Valentina De Andrade
Brazilian cult leader Valentina de Andrade founded the Superior Universal Alignment cult, which believed she was receiving messages from aliens in space. One message she claimed to receive was that anyone born after 1981 was evil and had to be killed.
That’s when Valentina and her followers began their horrific practice of killing children. They ultimately tortured, raped, and mutilated 13 children. She escaped authorities and managed to find freedom in Argentina, where she continued to preach her beliefs.
1 Silvia Meraz Moreno
Silvia Meraz Moreno is perhaps the most notorious woman on this list because her crimes were so heinous. She was the coleader of the very violent cult of La Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”) in Nacozari, Sonora, Mexico, which made human sacrifices to appease the gods.
But these were not willing sacrifices. Their first victim was Cleotilde Romero Pacheco, Moreno’s 55-year-old friend. Soon, the cult killed two children. Silvia even killed her own grandson by beheading him. The cult buried the bodies outside the city. But the police discovered the bodies while investigating an unrelated crime in 2012.
Stephanie has written for Slate, Atlas Obscura, The AV Club, Refinery29, History Hustle, YackYack, Reductress, and more.