Are all cults as frightening as Heaven's Gate? Frightening. Eerie. Dangerous. It can begin with an enticing smile from a stranger or a message on the Internet.
That, at least, is what we're told about cults - insidious groups that seduce and brainwash innocent people and lead them down a path of destruction.
But most cults are not as extreme as the Concerned Christians, whose members were arrested in Jerusalem for plotting acts of violence including a mass suicide.
"The notion that somehow new religions are seductively slurping people into their orbit on the streets or through the Internet is absolutely bizarre," says Professor Jeffrey Hadden , an expert in New Religious Movements at the University of Virginia. "We constantly have new religions appear on the scene," he said. "Most don't make headlines. They come and - after a short while - they go."
So what defines a cult? The following are rituals from two New Religious Movements. Read both and decide which sounds more like a cult. In the first, a new member is blindfolded and forced to act out the part of a murdered master in a legend of the building of King Solomon's temple. Like the murdered master, the initiate must refuse to divulge the secrets and is murdered (hit down) and wrapped in a sheet.
In the second, members are taught that The Heavenly Kingdom is not simply spiritual, but literal. The method of transportation to this Kingdom is a spacecraft. The price one paid for a "boarding pass" to this higher level is a disciplined life which includes celibacy, abstinence from drugs and alcohol and limited contact with the outside world.
The first ritual is part of the initiation of a freemason - a widely respected international brotherhood that claims William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Charles Lindbergh and Peter Sellers as members to name just a few.
The second is the philosophy of the notorious Heaven's Gate cult, which left 39 people dead after a mass suicide in California in 1997.
Professor Hadden says that the word cult is no longer valid: "The cult hype has so permeated culture with negative ideas, it is not useful for popular discourse."
Former Unification Church Member (Moonie), Allen Tate Wood, agrees. He says it is essential to distinguish between good and bad cults.
Anybody who gets together for any common purpose is in a cult," he told ABC News after the Heaven's Gate suicides. "Guys playing basketball, people in a chess club, is a cult. They share a common purpose, a common language, a common metaphor. "When you talk about a destructive cult, you're talking about a group of people who've been gathered together by some leader or leaders, and the purpose of the group is actually hidden from the members."
But what about brainwashing?
But anti-cultists disagree, embracing theories on the use and power of brainwashing to control young converts to cults. They also support countering the "mind-controlling effects" of cult leaders with "deprogramming." Anti-cult campaigner Rick Ross says whatever the semantic argument, many cults are dangerous. He says people from both healthy and dysfunctional families, with and without psychological histories, the wealthy, poor and middle class are all susceptible to cults. "Potentially unsafe and destructive groups are very good at persuasion and indoctrination; it's their stock and trade. Most people simply are not prepared to withstand this process or are not aware such things exist," he writes on his Web site.
In recent years, anti-cult groups have been on the defensive. Mr. Ross and the American group, the Cult Awareness Network, were sued after Mr. Ross attempted to forcibly deprogram an adult male who was a member of the United Pentecostal Church International.
Both were found guilty of conspiring to violate the victim's constitutional right to religious freedom. The damages awarded to the victim forced CAN into bankruptcy.
But as the millennium approaches, expect to hear more of the same anti-cult rhetoric. The search for answers at the dawn of a new century has brought new - some would say dangerous - spirituality, not to mention warnings of apocalypse.
And millennium or no millennium, brainwashing, programming and deprogramming are sexier than tolerance and understanding.