The term cult has traditionally referred to nonmainstream religious groups that practice their own eccentric rituals. In recent years, however, public focus has centered on a number of pathological groups that have come to sensational, violent endings: the mass suicides of 918 followers of the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana in 1878; the 80 followers, including 18 children, of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh who died by fire or gunfire following the FBI siege of their compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993; and the 39 young men of the Heaven's Gate cult who followed leader Marshall Applewhite to their deaths in 1997.

Somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 cults are currently estimated to exist in the United States alone. Surveys conducted over the past two decades ...

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