A Brief History of L.A.’s Most Notorious Cults

From turn-of-the-century sun worshippers to a WeHo cult with a “god king”

Los Angeles Magazine/April 23, 2018

The first Church of Scientology opened in L.A. in 1954, four years before the founding of Synanon, the Santa Monica-based drug rehab that evolved into a dangerous cult. Both fall in line with L.A.’s long history as a hotbed of new religions, cults, and the alternative philosophies that exist between them.


Years before founder Otoman Zar-Adusht Hanish moved to L.A. from Chicago in 1916, the Los Angeles Times described Mazdaznan as a “cult of sun worshippers” who fasted and engaged in “self-torture…to drive out devils.” Mazdaznan published neo-Zoroastrian literature out of a mansion in Arlington Heights for more than 60 years. It died after moving to Encinitas, though there are still said to be members in Germany.


Known as a love cult, Helios was the Jazz Age creation of Edith Maida Lessing, who presided over a ramshackle compound of tents and shacks in Glassell Park that she called Mount Helios. Lessing declared free love would replace marriage, believed in communal ownership of property, and boasted that she had control over more than 1,000 men. She was imprisoned in 1922 for sending obscene material through the mail.


Guy Ballard started the movement after arriving in L.A. during the Great Depression. His claim? That during a hike on Mount Shasta he met a stranger named St. Germain who wore a bejeweled robe and gave him the power to create wealth and energy. He had more than a million devotees, and his books about St. Germain were best-sellers. Followers still visit the organization’s temple in downtown L.A.

Aetherius Society

In the 1950s George King claimed he was in his apartment when an alien spoke to him and shared transmissions from an all-star cosmic dream team that included Jesus and Buddha. Setting up his HQ in Hollywood, he gained a following, promising to save the world using “radionic energy” gathered from Mt. Baldy on pilgrimages that disciples carry on to this day.


A self-described clairvoyant and prophet, Southern-born Ann Ree Colton blended Christianity with metaphysics and dream analysis. In 1966 she built a compound in Glendale where visitors can still hear recordings of her lectures on reincarnation, past lives (she said she’d been a maiden in Atlantis), and ESP. Colton died in 1984. Her husband hanged himself in 1991 amid accusations that he fleeced followers.


While studying anthropology at UCLA in the early 1960s, Carlos Castaneda traveled to Arizona, where he he said he found the Mexican sorcerer “Don Juan” at a bus stop. The elderly man shared his knowledge of shamanism, yoga, kung fu, and peyote, which Castaneda wrote about in several books. Female disciples said Castaneda subjected them to cult tactics; the movement outlives its founder, who died in 1998.

The Source

Funded with proceeds from a Sunset Strip health food café of the same name, the Source was Father Yod’s tribal community of more than 100 white-robed seekers who moved into a Los Feliz mansion in 1972. Some jammed in his rock band, Ya Ho Wha 13. Vice called Yod “part guru, part father, part pimp.” He died in a hang-gliding accident in 1975.

Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness

Roger Hinkins was a high school English teacher who fell into a coma in 1963 and said he awoke as John-Roger, with the power of the “mystical traveler consciousness.” His beliefs combined elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. More than 50,000 took his Insight seminars, and he was accused of financial and sexual improprieties. Today the group operates the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens in West Adams.

Peoples Temple

Promoting racial equality and economic fairness, the group was headquartered in San Francisco but operated a large church at Alvarado and Hoover (see main image), where founder Jim Jones sometimes preached. About 150 Angelenos were among those who left California in 1978 for Guyana, where 909 people died after drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at Jones’s urging.


Started by the ballet dancer/charismatic leader “Michel” in the West Hollywood of the 1980s, Buddhafield mixes Eastern religions with, according to former members in the documentary Holy Hell, sexual shenanigans. Given to wearing Speedos, Michel eventually became “Reyji” (aka “God King” in one language or another) and moved to Hawaii, where he’s been spotted being carried on a throne and massaged by followers.

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