Cults are a fascinating phenomenon that rarely fail to intrigue us.
While the word “cult” can be frequently misused or assigned to something that loads of people subscribe to (certain exercise trends, for example, or even the QAnon movement) the true definition of a cult is a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. The allure of a cult is that they typically claim to hold the solution to a universal problem that scores of individuals can relate to, and offer solutions for those willing to follow the rules and instructions of the leader.
While on the surface this could sound fairly innocuous, the reality is that cults often prey on the most vulnerable of people and slowly strip them of autonomy and their ability to think critically while isolating them from friends and family, usually for the personal gain of a select few.
Over the course of history, there have been several cults that have captured our attention, with Charles Manson and his “Manson Family” coming immediately to mind, thanks to the massive amount of media attention their horrendous crimes received.
Similarly, if you’ve ever seen the aerial footage of Jonestown after over 900 people drank cyanide-laced cordial after being convinced by their leader Jim Jones to do so, you were probably equally fascinated and horrified.
Recently, the NXIVM sex cult has been in the headlines when US actress Allison Mack was sentenced to three years in prison for her role in the organisation, which involved brainwashing and even physically branding women for leader Keith Raniere.
Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison in 2019 for creating a pseudo-religious movement that served ultimately to supply him with ‘sex slaves’.
If you are keen to learn more about some of the most (literally) captivating cults of all time, then here are the documentaries you need to know about.
Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult
NXIVM marketed itself as a safe haven for self-improvement (for those who could afford the hefty fees) and a community that fostered friendship, healing, growth and emotional progress.
Hundreds of people were swept up in the craze thinking they were on the path to operating at a “higher frequency” when they were actually becoming further indoctrinated into the cult of Keith Raniere.
Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult examines how Raniere was able to groom and manipulate several women into master/slave relationships, with some adherents even going so far as to allow themselves to be physically branded by the cult.
Watch it on: Stan
If you want to learn even more about Raniere’s NXIVM cult and the way he was able to ensnare so many people, you can also watch The Vow.
The series follows a number of people deeply involved in NXIVM over the course of several years and is ultimately a story of indoctrination and the step-by-step journey of NXIVM members defecting and outing Raniere while exploring the emotional toll of unfolding events on these individuals.
Watch it on: BINGE
Wild Wild Country
Wild Wild Country is one of those documentaries you just can’t stop thinking about long after you’ve watched it.
The series tells the incredible story of a guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who, with the help of his trusty 2IC Ma Anand Sheela, transplanted his ashram from India to a town called Antelope in Oregon with the goal of becoming a self-governing city in which his disciples could carry out his vision and be free of other religious and societal constraints.
The only problem was, the locals of Antelope were vehemently opposed to these “weirdos” taking up residence (which they acquired rather questionably) in their town and the whole affair devolved into a “you can’t make this stuff up” affair involving murder plots and the single largest bioterrorist attack in United States history.
Watch it on: Netflix
In Going Clear, eight former members of the Church of Scientology, whose most prominent adherents include A-list Hollywood celebrities, are profiled shining a light on how the church cultivates true believers, detailing their experiences and what they are willing to do in the name of religion.
The film highlights the Church’s origins, from its roots in the mind of founder L. Ron Hubbard to its rise in popularity in Hollywood and beyond. Going Clear explores a series of shocking revelations by former insiders, including high-ranking and recognisable members who describe the systematic history of abuse and betrayal by Church officials, including the current leadership of the Church.
Watch it on: Apple TV, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video
The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple
On November 18, 1978, over 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in the largest mass suicide/murder in history. The horrific incident was the culmination of a cult started by a man named Jim Jones who was able to convince his adherents to move to remote jungles of Guyana, South America in order to create a utopian society.
Jones offered spiritual fulfilment and preached a world in which everyone could be equal. On the surface, it seemed as though “Jonestown” was the way society should be, but the truth was far more disturbing as defectors and cult members gave accounts of physical, sexual and drug abuse, financial corruption, and members being held against their will.
Watch it on: YouTube
Children of God
Children of God sees a former member of The Family, examine the lingering effects of being raised in a cult whose disturbing practices include the sexual abuse of children.
The cult gained followers in the ’60s under the watchful eye of persuasive leader David Berg who encouraged sexual acts with children.
Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix are two of the famous personalities who were born into The Family, but were fortunately about to flee with relatives when they were children.
Watch it on: Netflix
Will Allen spent 22 years as a member of Los Angeles’ Buddhafield cult, after his mother learned of his sexuality and he was invited to an “alternative” community up in the Hollywood Hills.
Led by Michel Rostand (real name Jamie Gomez) who believed himself to be God and encouraged his followers to think of themselves as God as well, Holy Hell uses footage Allen shot during his time as the group’s videographer and new footage of interviews with former members and of the group in Hawaii — of which there are around 100 or so who live with Rostand on his compound.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime Video
Prophet’s Prey follows Warren Jeffs, the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints church who was tried and jailed for the sexual assault of teenage girls.
Incredibly, Jeffs is running the religion from behind bars, where he is serving a life sentence for the rape of young girls.
In addition to being labelled a polygamous cult, FLDS has also been categorised as a hate group due to Jeff’s opinions on Black people, gay people and women.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime Video