Every so often the veil lifts and, for an instant, the dark matter in the spiritual universe becomes visible. Jim Jones and more than 900 followers die by their own hands at Jonestown, Guyana. Charles Manson's murderous "family" slaughters pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others in Southern California. Then this February, a bloody shoot-out at the Waco compound of David Koresh and his Branch Davidians claims the lives of four federal agents. It is comforting to imagine that such tragedies always happen somewhere else, and that the groups responsible couldn't possibly be living next door. But sometimes they are.

According to J. Gordon Melton, author of Encyclopedic Handbook of Culls in America, there are at least 700 cults active in the U.S., a number that has been rising steadily since the turn of the century. Though it is difficult to say what constitutes a cult, such groups have several features in common. Chief among them is the members' dependence on a single, messianic leader who frequently makes all the decisions that govern their lives. Rational thought is discouraged, often by mind-numbing rituals and sensory deprivation. Recruits are smothered with "love," then manipulated through guilt.

From the outside, the lure of these fringe groups can be difficult to understand. Indeed, many former cult members can't explain it either. Generally, says Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and author of the book Churches That Abuse, cult leaders "reach out to the disaffected in our society, people who have been marginalized, who don't fit in. [The leader] tells them, 'We're God's special people.' " What follows is a look at five such groups—and how they work.

A renegade swami in custody

Keith Ham is the kind of guru who gives cults a bad name. Back in 1987 the international Hare Krishna governing body expelled Ham—who prefers to be called His Divine Grace Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada—on the grounds that he was a "greedy megalomaniac." The verdict of the federal courts is even harsher: In 1991 Ham was sentenced to 30 years in prison for authorizing beating, kidnapping and murder to cover up his personal sect's illegal multimillion-dollar activities, which included counterfeiting and selling trademarked products such as Snoopy T-shirts, bumper stickers and caps.

But neither the convictions, which Bhaktipada is appealing, nor allegations of neglect and sexual abuse of children in the sect have discredited him in the eyes of more than 300 faithful at New Vrindaban, the 4,000-acre commune near Moundsville, W.Va., which he founded 24 years ago. "There's a feeling that it's legalized religious persecution," said commune spokesman Gadadhar Das. Devotees of the 55-year-old swami, a Baptist minister's son from Peekskill, N.Y., continue to seek fusion with God through chanting Krishna's name hundreds of times a day, refraining from eating meal, from gambling and from sex—except for procreation within Bhaktipada-sanctioned marriage. Meanwhile the schismatic Krishnas run one of the state's largest tourist attractions. Each year more than 60,000 of the curious pay $5 to see Prabhupada's Palace of Gold, a glittering gold-domed monument to the founder of the Hare Krishna sect, and its gardens featuring 1,000 varieties of roses.

A victim of childhood polio, Bhaktipada walks with canes and is confined to an apartment in Wheeling, some 12 miles from the commune. It is not his disability that keeps him there, but a federal court order—plus the electronic ankle bracelet he must wear pending the outcome of his appeal.

The guru who calls herself Ma

In 1977 Deborah and John (these are pseudonyms) traveled at the suggestion of their marital therapists to a 47-acre ranch in Roseland, Fla., near Palm Beach, run by an obscure religious group. Soon after their arrival, the couple found themselves in the thrall of Ma Jaya Bhagavati Cho (known simply as Ma) and her Kashi Church. Ma, explains Deborah, is "brilliant. She can know your innermost secrets, and people see this gift and think she must be divine."

In reality, Ma is Joyce Green Difiore Cho, a 52-year-old former Jewish housewife from Brooklyn who says that in 1973, while meditating as part of a weight-loss program, she had visitations from Christ, whose word she began spreading, and later, visions of Hindu leader Neem Karoli Baba, who is still her gum today. Daily life on her ashram, says Ma's spokesman, John Evans, emphasizes service to the community, and Ma does, in fact, spend a great deal of time visiting local nursing homes and AIDS patients. Deborah, however, insists that many ashram activities are aimed at "stopping your mind" and consuming all free time. Among them, she says, are early morning meditations, all-night meetings and long hours of work on or off the ranch. Members are not allowed to have sexual relations except for purposes of procreation.

According to Deborah, Ma also allegedly persuaded her and others to give their children to Ma to raise. In 1981, when John and Deborah had a baby, Deborah says Ma induced her to forge Ma's name on the birth certificate—a charge Ma has denied. Then, says Deborah, she was permitted only limited contact with her daughter. John and Deborah left the ashram in 1982 and returned home to Colorado, leaving their daughter behind. "My daughter was to succeed Joyce," explains Deborah. "I believed it, as ridiculous as it sounds." With the help of a court order and a SWAT team, they retrieved the child in 1989; she is now in sixth grade in Colorado.

Ma has a few hundred followers, some 150 of whom live at the ashram. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who keeps a room there, has been a member for seven years. Two of his four children attend the ashram school. Says Guthrie: "I love Ma. She has never asked me for money for herself—only to help other people. She serves God by serving man." Deborah, of course, disagrees. And she worries about the children who have grown up on the ashram. "They haven't seen much of the outside world," she says. "They think she's God. That horrifies me."

A cult for the computer age

He promises six-figure salaries, fancy cars and enlightenment through his peculiar blend of Buddhism and capitalism. But life inside the decade-old group nicknamed the Computer Cult, run by Frederick Lenz III, 43, also known as Zen Master Rama, is very different, former followers say.

Almost all the money his 300-plus disciples on the East Coast and in California earn from their jobs in the computer field—an estimated $4 million to $10 million a year—is reportedly tunneled back to the so-called Yuppie Guru through required monthly meditation and computer-programming seminars. While the San Diego-born guru enjoys a sumptuous lifestyle at mansions in Santa Fe, Malibu and on Long Island, Lenzites live in Spartan apartments wherever they work. Instead of enlightenment, say disaffected former members, there is constant fear.

"He teaches that the rest of society is evil," says Mark Lurtsema, 32, a New York City computer programmer who followed Lenz for six years. According to Lurtsema, Lenz convinces followers that only his occult powers can shield them from demons and other dark forces. Lurtsema says the blond six-footer rules over every aspect of his followers' lives, from clothing (red and black are power colors) to cars (owned or leased Mercedes—but not the 500 model, which only Lenz is allowed to drive). Female erstwhile cult members claim Lenz pressures them into sex. (Lenz declines to be interviewed. But his press kit accuses those making "false and defamatory statements" about the group of "bias, unreliability and bad faith.")

"I realized I was looking for an easy answer," confesses Lurtsema, who left the group three years ago with his wife-to-be. "He formats people like floppy disks. I didn't have my own game plan, so I played his game."

An elusive pastor reborn

In 1982, when Betsy Dovydenas was 30, she was searching for a new spiritual path. Heir to the Dayton-Hudson department store fortune, Dovydenas joined the Bible Speaks, a Lenox, Mass., group headed by Carl H. Stevens Jr., a onetime bakery-truck driver. "I was sleep-deprived, food-deprived," says Dovydenas. "They worked on me night and day." The mesmerizing Stevens urged Dovydenas to leave her husband and two children, she says, and to donate $6.6 million to his group over three years. But in 1986 Dovydenas's husband, Jonas, her parents, and a "cult deprogrammer" managed to pry her away from the group. In 1987 she sued the church for her money—and though she won, it was a moral victory alone, as the Bible Speaks had already declared bankruptcy. Soon afterward a police raid on the Lenox headquarters turned up $60,000 worth of weapons and electronic surveillance equipment.

Meanwhile the sect was reincarnated—Carl Stevens now preaches his version of Christianity to some 1,400 faithful at the Greater Grace World Outreach headquarters in Baltimore. Michael Marr, Stevens' attorney, points out that Stevens does not even collect a salary (though some followers do pay him fees for business consulting). "He's a genius when it comes to understanding the word of God," says Marr. "To call him a cult leader is a lie from the pit of hell."

Michael Gray, 33, a Bel Air, Md., automotive sales consultant, lakes a darker view of Stevens. He stopped attending Greater Grace services after six months, concerned by "the constant messages that Stevens was being persecuted because he was 'God's man.' " The pastor often arrived at church flanked by armed bodyguards. Gray feared "what could happen when levels of paranoia reach such a heightened state." He didn't wait to find out.

The Piecemakers: Blessed—or abused?

The Piecemakers Country Store in Costa Mesa, Calif., offers everything a crafts lover could ask for: quilts, sewing classes, an old-fashioned candy counter—and a chance to walk with Jesus. "It was really neat in the beginning," says Marion Simonds, 62, about Piecemakers, a booming retail business cum Christian sect that began 20 years ago as a Bible-study group in the home of Marie Kolasinski. "We all came and fellowshipped together." But soon, say estranged members, Kolasinski, 72, began preaching communal living, no sex and limited communication among family members in order to bring her followers closer to God. "Marie used to say, 'If you're not miserable, if your flesh isn't being put to death, then God isn't dealing with you,' " recalls Paula Foster, 44, who after 11 years broke away from Piece-makers in 1982. Kolasinski, for her part, is said to deal with her flock by cursing at and humiliating members in front of the group. "She believes God is very intense," explains Foster. "He's a God that kicks you in the ass all the lime." Kolasinski's hold over her members is such that Simonds and her husband, Harold, 63, signed over the title to their home to Piecemakers in 1986 and only won it back in 1992 after a yearlong legal battle. "We're totally harmless," insists Kolasinski, who says that the Simondses gave up their house freely. "We're people that love the Lord. You don't find that too much in this country."

ELIZABETH GLEICK and PAM LAMBERT
STEPHANIE SLEWKA in Washington, MEG GRANT in Miami, MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City, TOM NUGENT in Baltimore and NANCY MATSUMOTO in Costa Mesa

  • Contributors:
  • Stephanie Slewka,
  • Meg Grant,
  • Maria Eftimiades,
  • Tom Nugent,
  • Nancy Matsumoto.