'Cult' is a word that gets thrown around casually a lot to describe everything from Mormonism to Soul Cycle. But here in the Bay Area there's been a special affinity for cultism, and cult-like organizations, this being one of the nation's epicenters of hippie-dom, freedom of expression, and the various after-effects of the 1960s that took on an air of religiosity. In some cases, these have been somewhat benign if weird groups that help lend our region some of its beloved, ingrained kookiness. In other cases, they've led to violence and mass death. Let's dig in, shall we?
The Manson Family
Two years and about two weeks from now will be the 50th Anniversary of the infamous Manson Family Murders, a drug-fuled, three-day spree in Los Angeles that left seven dead and basically ended the 1960s counterculture movement. A bunch of other people (up to 35 individuals) died thanks to Charles Manson and his cult of hippies but all anyone seems to care about are the Tate/LiBianca Murders of August 1969. A great long-form article detailing the Manson Family can be found in LA Magazine (recommended over the book Helter Skelter, even). Anyway, Charles Manson lived at 636 Cole Street in the Upper Haight for a time during the Summer of Love, in fact and famously rounded up a rag-tag collection of local street kids on a beat up school bus to relocate to the wilds Los Angeles. Manson Family member and murderer Susan Atkins was one of those kids, and worked for a time as a stripper in North Beach. When Manson didn't become a famous rock star in LA, he channeled his energies into brainwashing his young followers with drugs, orgies, and endless lectures in the desert. Eventually he incited them to kill a collection of people, including some they'd had dealings with and others, like Sharon Tate, at random, under the auspices of starting a much-needed race war. Tate, the actress and stunningly beautiful wife of director Roman Polanski, was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed to death during the second scariest home invasion I've ever heard of (this is the first). Abigail Folger, a coffee heiress, was killed alongside her as was Wojciech Frykowski, Jay Sebring, and Steve Parent. Two nights later, the cult went to the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, tied them up, and stabbed them. On the walls at both crime scenes, Manson's followers wrote words like "Pig" and "Helter Skelter" in the victims' blood, ostensibly to incite a race war. Manson Family members went on to do nuts things like try and kill then-President Gerald Ford, shave their heads for court (official cult activity), and carve swastikas into their foreheads. Most of Manson's followers were in their late teens and early 20s and most those involved in the murders remain in jail to this day or, in the case of Atkins, dead. Every so often they come up for parole, and even if a parole board recommends it, all CA governors up to now have denied it, as was the case last month with both Bruce Davis and Patricia Krenwinkel. Beth Spotswood
What began as an idealistic, multi-racial, utopian community and religious movement bent on equality morphed over two decades into the evil grandaddy of all Bay Area cult stories. It was called The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, and charismatic leader the Rev. Jim Jones started it in 1955 in Indiana before relocating his flock to Northern California and ultimately establishing his church in San Francisco. He had anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 parishioners at its peak, preaching about love, socialism, and racial equality, and serving in his parishioners' eyes as a healing force after the tumult and racial violence of the 1960s. But by the early 1970s, Jones had almost entirely shed Christianity and began referring to himself as a god, and under the sway of a barbiturate addiction and intense paranoia about the government shutting down his church, he established what he said would be a utopian community beyond the federal government's reach in Guyana, dubbed Jonestown. (The best telling of the story may be this 2006 PBS documentary that you can watch in full on YouTube.) The most die-hard of Peoples Temple members (though defectors from the church were treated to intense manhunts and intimidation) gave up their possessions and followed him there, over a thousand of them, much to the dismay of some of their families here in the Bay Area. And on November 18, 1978, the day after Bay Area Congressman Leo Ryan and his aide Jackie Speier arrived in Jonestown with an NBC News crew to investigate what was going on, Jones led what would become the largest mass suicide in US history, with 909 Peoples Temple members and their children dead after drinking cyanide- and Valium-laced Flavor Aid not Kool-Aid, as the popular phrase would have it. Speier, who survived a shooting that same day that killed Ryan, has continued to rail against the way the Jonestown story has been popularly understood. "There was nothing about it that was a suicide," Speier has said. "They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there."
Spiritual Rights Foundation
Unlike most of the organizations described on this list, the hypnotism-based Spiritual Rights Foundation appears to still be up and running albeit under aliases like Academy for Psychic Studies, the International Spiritual Hypnosis Institute, and Health and Wealth Incorporated. The foundation’s formula of hardcore Christianity, hypnotism, and New Age mysticism has not landed them in any legal hot water in the last 15 years. But there was a period in the late 1990’s when (now deceased) multiple wife-toting leader and 1-900 psychic hotline proprietor Rev. Bill Drury and the Spiritual Rights Foundation were facing allegations of hypnotizing young children, multiple custody lawsuits from parents whose children were being kept on the Berkeley property, and at least one statutory rape charge, earning them cult status from multiple media outlets. Joe Kukura
Booking photo of Winnfred Everett Wright: Marin County Sheriff's Department
Winnfred Everett Wright's 'The Family'
Near the rolling hills of Lucas Valley lies Marinwood, an unincorporated area of the county that for years was the home of a pseudo-religious vegetarian sect led by Winnfred Everett Wright called "The Family." From the late 1980s to early 2000s, Wright fathered more than 19 children with multiple women, four of whom ended up sharing a home with him and at least 13 kids. According to an SF Chronicle report from 2003, Wright subjected the kids "to a catalog of beatings, forced fasts and psychological abuse outlined in a 'book of rules.'" An investigation into the family began in 2001, after the starvation death of 19-month-old Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright, leading to revelations that another infant Wright had fathered had in 1990 died at a home in San Francisco's 18th Avenue and was left there, rotting, for days. That same Sunset District home was where Wright made some of his early recruits, subjecting them to "a mishmash of Rastafarianism and karma and white guilt, telling women brought to the home that they "had to work off the white mistreatment of black people. It was their responsibility to work off their karma." In court to face charges in Ndigo's death, Wright follower Deirdre Hart Wilson testified "I was terrorized into hating my parents, trusting no one... and not respecting the rules of society." Wright received a 16-year, eight-month sentence in 2003 for his crimes in 2003, but was released on parole in 2010 and at last report was living in Ventura County. — Eve Batey
Newsweek magazine's cover from their March 29, 1976 issue
The Symbionese Liberation Army
The United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) is most famous for kidnapping 19-year-old heiress Patty Hearst and keeping her in a closet until she was brainwashed enough to help them rob banks and extort money from her parents to feed the poor. The SLA was an early 1970s extremist organization of young people who were aggressively feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist. Before kidnapping Hearst from her Berkeley home, two members of the SLA killed Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster because they thought Foster was going to introduce ID cards into Oakland schools, a plan Foster was actually opposed to. So when two of the organization's members were arrested for Foster's murder, the SLA decided to kidnap Hearst in an attempt to trade her for their captured comrades. The whole story is really fascinating and complicated, but basically, Hearst is kept in a NoPa apartment closet, renamed Tania, and forced to record audio messages calling her parents fascists until she dons a beret and helps rob banks, including one on Noriega Street in which two civilians were killed. Hearst was arrested in San Francisco and sentenced to seven years in prison. Her sentence was later commuted by President Jimmy Carter and she was eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton. She now appears in John Waters movies occasionally and shows her prized dogs, including one named "GCH Hallmark Jolei Rocket Power" in dog shows. The SLA went on to engage in a violent shootout with Los Angeles police before returning to the Bay Area where the robbed another bank before being (mostly) arrested. One must read Patty Hearst: Her Own Story to fully bask in the 1970s insanity of her experience. American Heiress is another fantastic book about the SLA and Patty. And (here goes your whole afternoon,) you can watch a 2-and-a-half hour documentary about Hearst's kidnapping on YouTube. Beth Spotswood
Hua Zang Si
Back in 2011, the International Art Museum of America opened its doors on mid-Market Street, and SFist was kind of baffled. Clearly funded with a healthy budget, the museum turned out to exhibit mostly works by a man known as H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III, the spiritual leader of a sect of Chinese Buddhism called Hua Zang Si who in a few short years went from selling artworks for between $200,000 and $300,000 to selling one ink drawing for $16.5 million in a 2015 auction the price likely driven up by his loyal followers, as LAist noted at the time. Followers say Buddha can move inanimate objects with his mind, heal people, and "conjure nectar," but he's also been wanted by the Chinese government for fraud, claiming that he stole $7.32 million. His representatives deny this and say this is just the Chinese government trying to "persecute him as a result of his religious activities," and a worldwide arrest warrant was subsequently overturned by Interpol. Meanwhile, he lives in a multi-million-dollar home in Pasadena, and his sect, Hua Zang Si, operates a large temple in SF's Mission District (Uptown Almanac once went inside) and one in the San Gabriel Valley, as well as a second museum of his works, and dozens of other non-profits and businesses. The weirdness around Hua Zang Si, the multi-million-dollar art collections, and their talk of "birds, aquatic animals, land animals, flowers, grass, trees, tiles, and stones [having] all expressed respect for His Holiness’s dharma" landed the group on Listverse's 10 Craziest California Cults, even if they may only be cult-ish. Jay Barmann
'THX 1138', Warner Bros.
If you’ve seen George Lucas’ THX 1138, you’ve seen members of the Church of Synanon because Lucas needed hundreds of bald extras, and many Synanon members were required to shave their heads. Though initially meant as a drug rehabilitation program, the 60s and 70s-era Synanon grew far more radical, forcing abortions and vasectomies on enrollees, and eventually attempting to murder an attorney prosecuting them with the old rattlesnake in the mailbox trick. By then the group was powerful enough to buy a giant headquarters in downtown Oakland, but a slew of criminal activities exposed by the Point Reyes Light brought the church down and won that paper a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Joe Kukura
Berkeley Psychic Institute
It's one modern day organization that continues on despite many public indictments of its cultiness including this first big one by Mother Jones in 1979, and continuing more recently with multiple Yelp reviews and this 2014 piece in the Chronicle in which the writer went to get his aura "scrubbed" and ended up having his balls "drained." The Berkeley Psychic Institute bills itself as a "school for spiritual development" focused on clairvoyance, more recently conducting training programs they call Psychic Kindergarten. If you believe in psychic powers and auras, you may be less inclined to see BPI as cult-like, but Mother Jones suggested nearly 40 years ago that founder Lewis S. Bostwick had created the affiliated Church of Divine Man as a religious "cape" to protect the org's non-profit status, and the church continues to this day holding services for "psychic Christians." The BPI now has four locations in Northern California offering pricey training sessions and aura "scrubbings," and it is run by Bostwick's widow, Vr. Rt. Rev Dr. Susan Hull Bostwick. So they believe in the occult, but are they a cult? You can decide, but Listverse recently included them in a list of California's 10 Craziest Cults. Jay Barmann
Your Black Muslim Bakery
Once known simply as a place with great vegan bean pies, Your Black Muslim Bakery, an Oakland-based bakery slash real-estate-empire, began to gain a different sort of attention when the son of its founder began racking up arrests in 2005. At first, Yusuf Bey IV's crimes seemed almost laughable: an aggressive argument with a movie theater manager here, a liquor store rampage there. By 2006, he'd allegedly tried to run down a couple bouncers who'd just thrown him out of the New Century strip club in SF, and by 2007 he stood accused of coordinating the kidnapping of two women. On August 2, 2007, Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, who had been investigating the Bakery, was shot to death as he walked down an Oakland street, a hit ordered by Bey in an effort to cover up what a subsequent investigation revealed was a compound filled with guns, a pattern of sexual abuse of women and children, and assorted other crimes committed by true believers of the senior Bey's. In 2011, Bey IV was convicted in Bailey's death. Presently serving three life sentences the maximum security unit at Salinas Valley State Prison, he's reportedly now leader of an organization called "Your Black Resurrected Nation," and promised in 2012 that "there is a surprise in store for both friends and enemies." The whole story's even stranger and more intense than our space here allows, so if you want to know more, check out Thomas Peele's Killing the Messenger, which gives an exhaustive and detailed look at the rise and fall of Bey and his Bakery bad guys. — Eve Batey