The Wild, True-Life Stories of the Cult Leaders That Inspired 'American Horror Story'

american horror story cult
This story contains spoilers for Episode 9 of American Horror Story: Cult.

The latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult, “Drink the Kool-Aid,” opens with a sequence that chronicles the rise of three different real-life cult leaders: Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, and Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple. Evan Peters steps into the acting shoes of all three men, whom we meet through what resembles old found footage (but is really carefully created by director Angela Bassett, a frequent AHS actress, as excellent behind the camera as she is in front). Evan Peters’ Kai narrates the footage, giving a brief rundown of the accomplishments each of these dangerous men and the various ways they were able to influence their followers.

The manic and maligned Kai is so obsessed with the sort of individual power afforded to these messiah-like leaders that he airbrushes their stories from something utterly horrific (all of them were responsible for massive loss of life) to something aspirational. And though he gives a quick history lesson, he doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of the horror these men wreaked on their devoted. So we’ll do it for him.

Here's a deeper look at the men who inspire Kai Anderson: how they got their start, how many people they were able to sway, and, ultimately, how many lives they eventually claimed. We’ll also get into how, specifically, they’ve influenced the AHS cult, and how their stories might foretell what’s in store for Kai and crew.

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Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

Marshall Applewhite, Heaven's Gate

Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian minister, which acquainted him with Biblical prophecy from an early age. He met a woman named Betty Nettles in a psychiatric hospital (she the nurse, he the patient) in 1972, and the two joined forces to create their own doctrine of prophecy, believing they were brought together by extraterrestrials. Together, Applewhite and Nettles -- who went by the nicknames Do and Ti -- researched almost every corner of theology and scripture. They were influenced by everything from the King James Bible to science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, and movies likeStar Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ultimately, they came to believe that they were beings from the “next level” who experienced revelations that they would be witnesses to the Biblical apocalypse. Applewhite also believed he was the direct descendant of Jesus Christ.

Applewhite and Nettles traveled the United States recruiting followers whom they called “the crew,” eventually calling their cult Heaven’s Gate. They attracted everyone from far-left hippies to Republican politicians.

When Nettles passed away from cancer in 1985, Applewhite revised much of the group’s doctrine. They became more and more reclusive and hive-minded; they left their families, started dressing exactly alike, and many followers willingly castrated themselves so as not to be tempted into sexual situations. They believed that the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet would help them ascend into heaven, an idea they circulated on their website, which still exists to this day. Eventually, they established a headquarters: a home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, that they called “The Monastery.”

Though their beliefs evolved and relied on a wide range of influences, most salient is that they were convinced the world was about to be “recycled,” and they needed to leave it immediately. In March 1997, Applewhite convinced 38 followers that a spaceship trailing Hale-Bopp was coming for them, and they needed to vacate their bodies.

Those 38 members, plus Applewhite, consumed a mixture of phenobarbital and apple sauce, which they washed down with vodka, then secured plastic bags around their heads and went to their bunk beds. They died over the course of three days (March 24, 25, and 26). Infamously, every member was dressed in a black sweatshirt, black sweatpants, and Nike Decades sneakers (the shoes were quickly discontinued, and are now collectors items, going for thousands of dollars on eBay).

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Koresh's Waco compound after ATF raid | Shelley Katz/Getty Images

David Koresh, The Branch Davidians

Koresh had a difficult childhood: he was born to a 14-year-old single mother, bullied incessantly through much of his life, gang-raped by older boys when he was 8, and grew up between homes. His tough life led him to the church, and in his 20s he became a born-again Christian. He eventually joined the Branch Davidians, a sect of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Like Applewhite, Koresh believed he had the gift of prophecy, which helped him ascend to a leadership role in his church. After travels in Jerusalem, Koresh returned to Texas, believing the Mount Carmel Center in Waco would be the site of the new Davidic kingdom he hoped to establish. After much in-fighting among other Branch Davidians, Koresh rose as their central figure.

Koresh established a wide net of followers who lived in the Mount Carmel Center compound. He believed in polygamy, and that he was entitled to “at least 140 wives.” One of these brides was a 13-year-old girl, whose parents -- lifelong Davidians -- consented to their marriage. In February 1993, the Waco Tribune-Herald caught wind of the statutory rape and childhood sex abuse going on at the compound, and published a series of articles seeking to expose Koresh. In addition to the abuse, the paper also alleged that the compound was stockpiling illegal weapons.

On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived at the compound to execute a search warrant, in what become a notoriously bungled and confusing raid with disastrous results: Four ATF agents and five Branch Davidians were killed, and dozens more injured. Federal agents, including the ATF and FBI, surrounded and effectively laid siege to the compound for 51 days, until April 19, when several fires broke out around the Mount Carmel Center. Several members perished in the fires, and several more -- including Koresh -- were killed by gunshot wounds in a chaotic shootout. In total, only 11 people left the compound, while 76 perished.

jim jones
Wikimedia Commons

Jim Jones, Peoples Temple

Perhaps the most magnetic and interesting cult leader in history, Jim Jones is also the deadliest. Born in 1931, Jones began his religious quest at the age of 10. He attended several different churches in his home state of Indiana, using what he learned at different parishes to craft his own ideologies. In 1952, he became a minister, and gained a reputation as a healer. He was also known for integrating his services so that no one was ostracized because of race, which was a radical notion in 1950s America. In 1955, he created his own church, eventually known as the Peoples Temple.

Jones relocated to California in the 1960s, opening up several different Peoples Temple branches. His beliefs were centered in socialist politics and racial equality, and in time moved away from scripture, and centered on Jones as its central Christ-like figure. Constituents were asked to spend holidays with the church instead of their family, and worked together as mini-communities. Jones was influenced by men like Fidel Castro and Karl Marx, and used Marxist lingo like, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” in his doctrine. He urged followers not to participate in sex and romance, although he had several affairs.

In 1974, Jones bought land in the South American nation Guyana, and moved a large number of his followers there to establish a new community named Jonestown. Though conceived as a tropical paradise, it was anything but. Followers could not leave the compound, were given very little food, and were watched over by armed guards. An increasingly paranoid Jones made them practice suicide drills, in the event that they were ever discovered. The drills would prove fateful. On November 18, 1978, Leo J. Ryan, a congressman from California, came to Guyana to investigate Jonestown after reports of abuse and inhumane treatment on the compound. Upon his visit, he invited anyone who wished to leave to come with him. At the Port Kaituma airstrip, Ryan and four others were shot and killed on Jones’s orders.

That same day, Jones ordered the mass suicide of everyone left on the compound. They all drank a mixture of cyanide, valium and Kool-Aid (which popularized the phrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid), while Jones urged them to “die with a degree of dignity.” (A recording of Jones’s final speech -- with the sounds of screams and suffering in the background -- was later released.) In total, 909 people died on the Jonestown compound, including Jones and 276 children. It was the largest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the September 11 terrorist attacks.

What has Kai Anderson taken from these leaders, and how will it affect what happens next?

Kai has a lot in common with his three personal heroes. Like Applewhite and Koresh, he believes he’s a prophetic Christ-like leader who either is or will spawn a messiah. As we learn in “Drink the Kool-Aid,” he’s given his followers new names, which was common in Heaven’s Gate (the Manson family also renamed all of their members). His members also dress in uniform and are forced to eat healthy to rid their bodies of toxins, something Heaven’s Gate members did as well. Though he hasn’t been seen with anyone underage, Kai is similar to Koresh in that he takes lovers at will and seems entitled to them: he wanted Winter to carry his child, and convinced Meadow to die for him after a sexual relationship. Like both Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians, his followers live in a house compound.

But Kai has the most in common with Jones, who mixed politics into his ideologies, and who was known for his excellent public speaking skills. As Kai rises through local government, he sounds more and more like the impassioned and smooth-talking Jones, whose ability to influence large swaths of people is what resulted in one of the largest-ever mass suicides. Kai is already working towards a similar goal. He tests his followers with a Kool-Aid drill not unlike Jones, and his ideas are generated from a larger figure -- like Marx steered the wheel for Jones, President Trump is Kai’s guy. Is all of this building towards a large-scale death event? We’d certainly bet on it.

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.