At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
A cult suicide is the mass suicide of a group of people who are members of a cult. Cult suicides have occurred in specific instances throughout history, but they typically do not happen frequently. The mass suicide — after it has been discovered and revealed to the public — usually is shocking because of the reasoning behind the death of the cult members, which is generally mysterious to outsiders. Cults are often viewed in a negative manner, so mass suicides have come to be associated with them, adding to their taboo nature.
To outsiders, a cult suicide typically is disturbing. In general, the mass suicide is not immediately known to the public until an investigation is completed or reliable sources present information about the cult and the death of its members. In some cases, a cult suicide is depicted as a bizarrely gruesome act by a group of people who are psychologically unstable. This adds to the public perception of cults as negative, odd and taboo, especially in societies that are dominated by major world religions as opposed to smaller religious sects.
Cults are an example of small religious sects whose members follow a specific set of principles and beliefs that are often viewed as extreme by followers of common world religion. Many negative characteristics have come to be associated with cults, most of which describe the group as attempting to control its members. For example, one common aspect of a cult is to have one or few leaders who are charismatic and able to draw followers deep into the belief system that they have created. Furthermore, cults might be especially focused on gaining new members and collecting money, and they might discourage association with people who are not a part of the sect. Additionally, some cults might pray to or worship deities that are inanimate objects or made-up personas.
Despite the similarity in structure that some cults share, mass suicide does not necessarily happen within each group. When a cult suicide does occur, it is unique to the cult and generally is used as a means to an end for a specific purpose of the group. For instance, one notorious mass suicide occurred in California in 1997 among members of Heaven’s Gate, a cult that combined Christian ideals with science fiction-based beliefs. In this incident, 39 cult members committed suicide, mostly from alcohol- and poison-ingestion, as well as self-induced asphyxiation. In other widely known instances of cult suicide, the suicides have been committed with variations of self-poisoning and self-inflicted gunshot wounds as the main causes of death.