UFO Cults: It’s not all child’s play

This article was originally published in the “Cults and Gurus” issue of Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience in the app. You can read Tribe now on Android or iPhone.

Is there life on other planets?

It’s an age-old question, and one with very little evidence suggesting the green Martians we see in films or on Halloween exist (let alone that they want to invade our planet and make us their slaves).

So, with that in mind, where on earth do UFO cults arise from?

When we think of the usual cult suspects, Church of the Lamb of God, The Manson Family, The Rajneesh Movement, to name just a few, they all have one thing in common: a leader.

These leaders or gurus are not normal civilians. Indeed, they are exceptional at manipulation and often narcissists but also draw people together and create a sense of belonging.

The people who join cults do so because they believe in the message being spread by the leader, but what’s the driving force with UFO cults?

I’ve always had a fascination with cults–they’re mysterious, and the tactics used to “brainwash” people are impressive, if not scary. However, alien cults aren’t as well known as some of the more popular cult denominations, so I wanted to find out more.

At this point, you might be picturing groups of people dressed in silver or green costumes worshipping UFOs. However, in reality, alien cults are much more in-depth and intricate.

We must first understand why aliens and UFOs are even on the radar. Why are they appealing enough to people to make them join a cult and renounce their entire lives?

The alien attraction

NASA has spent years searching for other life forms. Although there are potential signs of life on Venus, it’ll take years before we can determine what that means concerning life forms as we know them.

While we imagine fully-grown creatures with tentacles, NASA is more focused on finding the smallest microbes suggesting life forms could flourish.

However, that doesn’t mean interest in aliens has wavered. Indeed, the US Pentagon formed a new task force last year to investigate potential UFO sightings. Some would argue that UFOs technically mean any unidentified flying object, so it might not be linked to aliens.

That still doesn’t put people off, as surveys show that over half the American population believes aliens have visited earth.

It doesn’t stop there! UFO task forces have been active in the UK, the former Soviet Union, France, Canada, and Brazil at one time or another. Further, numerous conspiracy theories suggest the notion that aliens are or will soon be among us.

Area 51 is a prime example. Nevada’s secret base has captivated people for years with its high-security warnings, armed guards, and electronic security systems. Many theories surround the area, with people claiming to have seen UFOs. Some even go as far as to say they’ve been abducted and experimented on before returning to earth.

Therefore, it’s not hard to believe that aliens are appealing to people in relation to cults. From pop culture like ET to crazy conspiracies, we’re all a little obsessed with not being the only life form in the universe.

Now, if you add religion into the mix, it doesn’t seem so unrealistic to believe in a force that we’ve never seen before. People of all faiths put their trust and belief in miracles and stories that have no concrete evidence. It makes them feel protected, safe, and a part of something bigger than themselves.

Author and historian Diana Pasulka mentioned this in her latest book, American Cosmic, which documents UFO religions’ growing rise. She notes that there’s an easiness to accepting extraterrestrial life.

This is because, while we can’t prove the existence of God, the fact that scientists and governments alike are working to find proof of UFOs and other life forms makes them seem more likely to be true.

The thought in the back of our minds is often, “If we exist, surely there’s the possibility of life on another planet?”

Therefore, when you combine that with the power of a persuasive cult leader and the chance to be part of a community, it’s easy to see why some people get sucked into the idea that aliens could offer answers to some of life’s biggest questions.

UFO cults 1 UFO Cults: It’s not all child’s play

The UFO cult with a tragic ending

Before we learn more about the most significant UFO cult out there, it’s important to understand that people who follow these beliefs don’t necessarily worship aliens (or UFOs, for that matter). Rather, they obey the leader who claims to control UFOs.

A shining example of this is the Heaven’s Gate cult, founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in 1974. Applewhite and Nettles claimed to be the two last witnesses from the book of revelation. Their purpose on earth was to bring others to a higher level of evolution.

Their followers were diverse people with different beliefs, including Judaism, Catholicism, and Evangelical Christianity. Applewhite and Nettles successfully convinced many people to believe in them and the idea that they could transcend the norms of being a human. At one point, it’s believed they had nearly 1,000 followers.

However, whether you find the idea of reaching a higher level plausible or laughable, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate believed it so much that they took part in a mass suicide in 1997.

Why? They believed they would leave their “earthly containers” (i.e., their bodies) and join aliens to embark on a new embodied life. They also thought they’d travel to their new destination in a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet.

How did Applegate and Nettles convince people that they were the chosen ones? Further, how did they manage to gather such a following who went into hiding with them and later sacrificed their earthly lives for a higher level of being?

The allure of a cult

Well, Applegate and Nettles made a somewhat convincing argument. The Bible mentions that the two witnesses of the book of revelation will be martyred, resurrected, and then transported to heaven on a cloud. They believed the cloud was a UFO.

While most people, the media included, branded them another crazy UFO cult, some people bought into their beliefs. Little has been documented about the actual followers. Still, several factors make people more susceptible to join cults that can be evaluated.

From what we know, people are more likely to join a cult if:

  • They’re extremely vulnerable
  • They crave a sense of belonging and community
  • They want to better themselves and find life’s true meaning

Sometimes, it simply comes down to the timing. A person with no family or friends, who’s just moved to the big city, is more likely to be recruited into a cult than someone who has a stable life and loving family and community around them.

Certain personality types may be more attracted to joining a cult than others. However, we generally see the effect of highly convincing people with great charisma and confidence (the leaders) having vulnerable people seemingly blindly following them.

Therefore, it’s no different when it comes to aliens and UFOs. Nettles herself felt that she was an alien on earth when she, like many of us, simply felt that she didn’t fit in in reality.

She didn’t connect with others easily. She felt like an outsider, and when she met Applewhite, her true calling came to life. People resonated with her, especially those who were also on the social fringes and struggled to find their place in the community.

When we turn the spotlight on Applewhite, it’s believed he might have suffered from schizophrenia episodes, leading him to believe aliens had contacted him. Nettles’s belief in UFOs further fueled this and that they were the chosen ones.

Just like others before and after him, Applewhite insinuated that he was a version of Christ reincarnated to save his followers from eternal doom. We’ve seen similar claims made by other cult leaders, such as Charles Manson declaring he was Jesus or Jim Jones claiming to be a messiah sent from God.

This makes it easier to accumulate followers. Instead of preaching a brand new belief (which can still be effective in some cases), they combined their teachings with something people were already comfortable with: religion.

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Current-day UFO beliefs

So, are we still as obsessed with aliens and UFOs as we once were?

It would seem that we are–the Alien film franchise is a testament to how gripping we find the idea of extraterrestrial life, even when it’s portrayed as an evil force intent on destroying the human race.

Further, we can’t forget that Star Wars is one of the biggest franchises in the entertainment industry. Whether you like the films or not, we all know who Yoda and Luke Skywalker are.

However, while that’s the extent of some people’s interest in the subject, others have continued to develop their beliefs on UFOs and aliens.

The new age religion of Scientology is an example. Although the religion tends to keep its ideas on UFOs under wraps, part of their ideology is based upon the belief that there are alien civilizations and that the planet Venus is where the thetan (the soul) goes after death.

How Scientology attracted several high-profile celebrities, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, is compelling.

Do people truly resonate with the idea that we are complexly connected to other life forms, or is it still the allure of a community, a convincing leader, and a vulnerable follower?

Great Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, said that aliens most certainly exist, and “It’s possible they’re here right now and we simply can’t see them.” Could that mean NASA knows something we don’t?

One thing is clear, finding extraterrestrial life forms is a fascination that we’re not going to tire of anytime soon. It’s simply too mystical and intriguing to close the door on, even with the lack of physical proof.

So, while I still view flying objects and little green creatures as legendary tales, I can’t help but wonder if this pull and attraction toward the supernatural come from somewhere. Could it be that UFO cults have been onto something all along? Maybe we’re not as alone as we think we are.


Picture of Kiran Athar

Kiran Athar

Kiran is a freelance writer with a degree in multimedia journalism. She enjoys exploring spirituality, psychology, and love in her writing. As she continues blazing ahead on her journey of self-discovery, she hopes to help her readers do the same. She thrives on building a sense of community and bridging the gaps between people. You can reach out to Kiran on Twitter: @KiranAthar1

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