What to Watch if You’re Cult-Curious
The recent explosion of the true-crime/conspiracy/mystery genre is evidence that the general public’s fear of the unknown has morphed into a bona fide fascination. More specifically, films and documentaries that delve into the covert world of cults and fringe religious sects scratch that itch particularly well. This list of fictional and real-life accounts of cult activity are a great way to get a glimpse inside—from a safe distance.
Film & TV
Martha Marcy May Marlene
What may be most unsettling about this indie film is how its visual beauty—a bright, idyllic, rural New York setting—is in stark contrast to Martha Marcy May Marlene’s (a combination of the character’s real and cult name) deep-rooted darkness and brewing identity crisis post fleeing a cult. The film takes you back and forth between Martha’s days in the cult and her time at her sister’s, disclosing sickening flashbacks to the group’s utter dysfunction. Easily one of the most quietly permeating films out there—it took us days to shake this one.
Sound of my Voice
Much like Another Earth and Netflix’s The OA, this Brit Marling indie (she’s the writer and plays the lead) explores the concept of blind faith in a way that’s equal parts creepy, beautiful, and even a little bit believable. Here, a couple is on a mission to debunk alleged time-traveler Maggie’s claims that she can save a chosen few from a dystopian future. The film is weirdly timely and happens to be one of the few depictions of female cult leaders we’ve seen.
A literal cult-classic, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of famed author Ira Levi’s psychological-horror novel is arguably one of the most bone-chilling films ever. Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is as an innocent newlywed who unwillingly falls victim to an evil cult of Satan-worshiping neighbors. This cult proceeds to hijack her pregnancy in exchange for her actor husband’s success, tapping into every parent’s (and non-parent’s) worst nightmares in the process.
Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick’s final film has also become one of his most acclaimed. Revolving around a seemingly generic, wealthy, and attractive NYC couple (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), it explores marriage, lust, and virtue in a way that’s somehow relatable and cautionary at the same time. And it wouldn’t be a Kubrick movie without a healthy helping of weird, in this case, courtesy of a kinky secret society.
Based on a Tom Perrotta novel, The Leftovers (the final episode aired last month, making now an especially good time to breeze through all three seasons) approaches cults as important pieces of the puzzle that is the Sudden Departure (an unthinkable event when 2 percent of the world’s population inexplicably disappeared into thin air). One is called the Guilty Remnant and requires its members take a vow of silence, wear white exclusively, and chain smoke; the other, a fringe group led by self-proclaimed prophet and healer, Holy Wayne, who claims to relieve people of their pain by hugging them.
In our opinion, one of the most underrated shows available to stream, Hulu’s The Path explores both the eccentricities (tripping on ayahuasca in Peru as a rite of passage) and the humanness of a fictional fringe religious movement called Meyerism. Throughout the first two seasons, we get to see life through the eyes of a second-generation lifer, a strangely virtuous egomaniac leader, a tortured apostate, and a handful of peripheral characters—the overall theme being that things, and people, are never what they seem.
Documented by ex-cult member Will Allen, who uses footage from decades spent as its in-house videographer, the story of Buddhafield starts out harmless, if not downright whimsical, on the pristine beaches of Hawaii. The cult and its charismatic, health-obsessed leader Michel Rostand’s eventual unraveling takes some twisted turns as members become disillusioned with Michel and his sadistic, maniacal tendencies. In addition to painting a disturbing portrait of Michel, the heartbreaking interviews with other former members shine a light on the shattered lives he left in his wake.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple
Jonestown, Guyana has become synonymous with the infamous Kool-Aid assisted mass-suicide of over 900 men, women, and children—though many would argue it’s actually a mass-murder at the hands of the Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. This deeply disturbing documentary transports viewers back to that tragic day in 1978. Using never-before-seen footage alongside interviews with those fortunate enough to survive, it captures the chilling psychology of the cult and offers even-handed, totally non-judgmental insight into how followers were lured into self-destruction.
The Source Family
Operating for less than ten years, while short-lived by cult standards, this hippy-commune-turned-cult left a lasting impression. Under the leadership of Father Yod (real name: Jim Baker), a Hollywood stuntman/body builder who opened the first big-deal health food restaurant in LA, this group lived together in a massive Los Feliz mansion and subscribed to a utopian, free-love-type ideology. As is the rule with self-righteous autocrats, things went south when Father Yod decided to pursue a music career, take on multiple wives, and convince his following to skip town—penniless—to Hawaii.
Truth and Lies: The Family Manson
This brilliantly produced ABC News TV special combines outtakes from Diane Sawyer’s interview with Charles Manson, chilling testimonies from his followers, and expert insights into the mind of one of the world’s most notorious cult leaders. Everything is fair game—starting with Manson’s obsession with fame and the music industry, his diabolical brainwashing abilities, and the gruesome details of the Tate killings. Also important: The program goes to great lengths to pay respect to the Manson family’s victims, most notably Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant at the time of her murder.
Detailing the rise to power and elaborate takedown of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints former president Warren Jeffs, this incredibly insightful documentary is not for the faint of heart: Jeffs—who is said to have up to 80 wives, many way under 18—is a convicted rapist responsible for brainwashing his congregation into submission, arranging numerous marriages of under-age girls, and accused of incest and child-abuse, among other truly evil offences. The scariest part? Jeffs still controls a large number of followers from his prison cell.
Based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, this HBO documentary explores the inner workings and complicated hierarchies at the heart of the Church of Scientology. From its inception by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, to its rise into a suspiciously secretive and influential empire, the filmmakers dissect it all—not to mention, the countless allegations of brainwashing and abuse.
This meticulously researched documentary takes on the colossal task of unpacking the story of Australia’s most terrifying, long-operating cult, The Family. Other than being one of few cults with a female figurehead, yoga-instructor Anne Hamilton-Bryne, it’s also infamous for attracting well-to-do, highly educated disciples to do her bidding, not the least of which was essentially kidnapping children (dozens lived on Hamilton-Bryne’s enormous secluded estate) and subjecting them to years of abuse and forced LSD use.
Related: Conspiracy Theories