20 Documentaries About Cults That Will Not Restore Your Faith in Humanity

20 Documentaries About Cults That Will Not Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Screenshot: Q: Into the Storm/HBO, Fair Use

I’m addicted to documentaries about cults. I’m generally fascinated by extreme beliefs, and the fact that the genre provides us with filmed evidence of the way even the most obscure swami’s followers feel driven to immortalise their Chosen One’s enlightened teaching provides rich insight into our inherent desire to belong — to feel accepted.

These 20 films are packed with a treasure trove of footage of cult leaders projecting their hypnotic, often inexplicable charisma onto their credulous followers. It’s illuminating. It’s entrancing. It’s informative. It’s just great cinema.

The Source Family (2012)

This hippie cult ran a successful health food restaurant, dressed in nice, clean robes, and made psychedelic music that is actually good. Plus, there was no mass murder or suicide involved — although their leader Father Yod’s “I can do anything” approach maybe shouldn’t have been combined with hang-gliding.

Where to watch: Prime

Wild Wild Country (2018)

Unlike the Source Family, Rajneeshpuram were decidedly not a friendly hippie cult; they were heavily armed and terrifying, plotted murders, and poisoned people at random. This documentary series’ extensive interviews with cult leaders and ex-followers and its wealth of footage make it a must-see for fans of cult documentaries.

Where to watch: Netflix

The Way Down (2021)

Religious leader Gwen Shamblin hit on a perfect belief formula in present day America: Combine weight loss with Jesus.

The Way Down often leans heavily on ex church members pointlessly gossiping, but Shamblin’s amazing hair and a particularly satisfying ending make this doc worth the watch. Plus, you can still join the Remnant Church if you want to lose weight and maybe surrender your will to an authoritarian group that has advocated for truly terrible behaviours, including beating disobedient children with glue sticks.

Where to watch: HBO Max

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (2020)

It’s hard to believe this UFO cult was even real. This series exhaustively documents Heaven’s Gate, from its humble beginning of UFO lectures to its tragic, matching-track-suits-and-Nikes end. It manages to makes the group’s strange members and leaders sympathetic, understandable, and ultimately even likable — which makes the fact that they fell into cult behaviours all the more terrifying.

Where to watch: Foxtel Go

Children of the Stars (2012)

The Unarius Academy of Science is a largely benign UFO group that was founded in 1954 and is still around. This documentary explores its colourful leaders and their conviction that a fleet of Space Brothers will soon arrive on Earth in souped-up UFOs. The clips of the special-effects heavy films Unarius made in the 1970s are unreal.

Where to watch: Prime

Holy Hell (2016)

If you like your cult members attractive and fit, you’ll love Holy Hell. Buddhafield is a “new religious group” whose vision of perfect humanity includes mostly buffed-out folks recruited from yoga classes and Hollywood gyms in the 1980s. Directed by the group’s longtime videographer Will Allen, this movie has an “axe-to-grind” style and a ton of amazing footage.

Where to watch: Prime

Let the Fire Burn (2013)

A terrifying found-footage chronicle of the confrontation between radical separatist group MOVE and the city of Philadelphia, Let the Fire Burn documents the worst possible outcome when fully committed zealots meet an overly authoritarian local government.

Where to watch: SBS On Demand

Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray (2016)

This excellent documentary about James Arthur Ray’s journey from Oprah-approved motivational speaker and self-help guru to ex-convict takes you deep inside an infamous sweat-lodge incident in which three people died. Ray’s monied, educated followers prove that anyone can fall victim to a charismatic, irresponsible leader.

(That’s a short video from Verge about the group embedded above, since I can’t find the actual trailer for this movie online. How very strange that a film chronicling the deaths caused by a rich, connected businessman would not have an easy-to-find trailer.)

The Vow (2020)

The sordid story of NXIVM captured the public imagination with its wild tales of sex slavery, Hollywood stardom, and the endless games of late night volleyball that dorky cult leader Keith Raniere enjoyed. This is an exhaustive documentary (nine hours long!) about the group, but it focuses heavily on three ex-leaders of NXIVM, so the subtext of “We’re not the criminals; we’re the victims here!” is apparent, and the pretentious, artistic flourishes meant to “elevate” this potboiler story are tiresome — just tell us about the branding ceremony already!

Where to watch: Foxtel Go

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (2020)

In my opinion, this is the better (and significantly shorter — though that’s a fact, not an opinion) of the competing NXIVM docu-series. Told from the point of view of India Oxenberg, once a higher-up in the church herself, Seduced is faster-paced than The Vow, and delves deeper into the crimes and perversions of leader Kieth Raniere. To me, Oxenberg is more sympathetic than the “stars” of The Vow. She really seems to have gotten in over her head without realising it, which is what makes cults truly scary.

Where to watch: Stan

The Secret (2006)

This isn’t a documentary about a cult, but rather a movie about the kinds of beliefs cults are built on. The idea of “The Secret” is that hidden knowledge has been passed down through the ages that will allow you to have anything you want, from love, to money, to personal fulfillment, but powerful forces have been preventing its dissemination — until now! The Secret’s combination of almost-history with testimonials from supposedly successful Secret adherents was effective enough to convince many, many people to buy the book.

(Spoiler: The Secret is basically “wish for things and they will happen.”)

Where to watch: Netflix

Holy Ghost People (1967)

This early, influential cult-documentary tells the story of some Pentecostal holy rollers in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia whose church services include handling snakes, speaking in tongues, and other esoteric and exotic expressions of Christianity. Though we know a lot more about them these days, weird cults are definitely nothing new.

Where to watch: YouTube

Synanon (1965)

I can’t make a list involving cults without including my very favourite cult of all time, Southern California’s amazing Synanon. Founded in the 1950s as (perhaps) the first residential treatment centre for drug addicts, Synanon devolved from a group of hip Jazz musicians like Art Pepper trying to kick heroin into a cabal of shaved headed cultists wielding axe handles and attacking their enemies with rattlesnakes. Sadly, no documentary about Syanon has been released widely, but you can watch the fictionalized story of its founding on YouTube for free. It stars Eartha Kitt.

Where to watch: YouTube

Children of God (1994)

The Children of God (aka The Family International) is a very, very bad group, according to ex-members. Started during the “Jesus Freak” movement of the 1960s by cartoonist David Berg, the Children of God has been accused of a raft of crimes, including sexual abuse of children. This documentary explores every abhorrent detail, and is absolutely heartbreaking and terrifying.

Where to watch: Netflix

Kumare (2011)

This is not an inside look at an existing cult, but rather a movie about filmmaker Vikram Gandhi trying to start his own cult. Adopting the name Sri Kumaré and a fake Indian accent, Gandhi preaches a doctrine he make up out of thin air, and manages to attract a flock of believers in Arizona. It’s a little like Borat, but about religion, and not played for laughs.

Where to watch: Prime

Q: Into the Storm (2021)

I find the online phenomenon of “Q Anon” to be tiresome and depressing. Most cults at least start with a sincere desire for religious fulfillment. Not this one. It’s just made up of mean people and gullible people who are being manipulated by terrible people manipulating for their own ends. But Q is by far the most successful modern online cult, so examining the people behind it is a worthwhile exercise. Still, it all makes me want to take a long shower.

Where to watch: Foxtel Go

Welcome to Leith (2015)

Since I’m doing Q Anon, I might as well point to this documentary about racist influencer and neo-Nazi Craig Cobb’s attempt to take over a tiny town in North Dakota. The fear and isolation of the small town’s residents is so visceral it’s practically a horror movie — although the footage depicting the results of Cobb’s DNA test plays more like dark comedy.

Betting on Zero (2016)

Herbalife might not be a cult exactly; it’s either a legitimate business or a pyramid scheme, depending on who you ask, and that distinction is at the heart of Betting on Zero. Bill Ackman, a rich investor, made a massive market short play in 2012, betting on Herbalife to fail. It might have worked too, if rival Carl Icahn hadn’t then invested heavily in the company. While the two billionaires locked horns, the employees (I guess?) of Herbalife were caught in the middle.

Where to watch: Prime

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple

PBS’s even-handed take on the most notorious cult of all time charts the rise and fall of Jim Jones’ People Temple from its start as altruistic non-profit serving the poor of the Bay Area, to its Grand Guignol finale in the jungles of South America, “Kool-Aid” and all. This is an essential cult-documentary for its lack of sensationalism and sympathetic, relatable attitude toward Jones’ victims.

Where to watch: Youtube

Deprogrammed (2015)

After all these cult movies, maybe you need some deprogramming? This documentary details the life “cult deprogrammer” Ted “Black Lightning” Patrick, whose anti-cult activities date back to the 1970s. Patrick is a complicated guy, and Deprogrammed offers no easy answers for whether cult deprogramming is better than the cult-indoctrination it is meant to combat.

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