Cults, as we understand them, have always been a fascinating subject matter to behold. Secret societies, exclusive and isolated social organisations helmed by charismatic leaders that so often go pear shaped when the need for power and control takes over. In their stripped-bare forms, cults can make up a range of social organisations. From destructive, violent, historically famed cases like The People's Temple, The Manson Family, and NXIVM, to internet conspiracy-led groups like the modern day Q-Anon, to multi-level marketing organisations promising health and wealth all in one, cults play in the space between the unchartered and discoverable, and the familiar, human need for connection, no matter what the cost. Below, are some of the best cult documentaries that focus on the most famous cults in history for those who are ready to sink their teeth into the dark mechanisms of the cultic group.
JONESTOWN: The Life and Death of The Peoples Temple
JONESTOWN: The Life and Death of The Peoples Temple transports viewers to Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 where one of the largest mass-suicides in history took place at the hands of the Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. The documentary casts a light on those who were fortunate enough to survive the massacre, and tells the story of how over 900 men, women and children were lead down such a dark path in the first place.
Q: Into the Storm
Focussing on perhaps the most well-known internet cults of the modern paradigm, this HBO original docuseries takes an in-depth look at the origins of the conspiracy-driven forum Q-Anon, and the havoc that it has already wreaked on many lives, as well as drawing interesting revelations around leaderless cults emerging in the internet age.
Prophet's Prey details the story of Warren Jeffs, a former president of Mormon fundamentalist denomination The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - an organisation underpinned by extreme conservative beliefs, sexual assault, child abuse and forced polygamy. Praying on young women and having them serve under Jeffs, “The Prophet,” has this documentary gripping you like a thriller.
Wild Wild Country
While many Osho devotees will ironically still assure most people that his Oregon Rajneeshpuram commune was not a cult, Wild Wild Country does well at unfurling the dynamics that skyrocketed the guru to cult-like status. A look into the world of Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh's Rajneeshpuram and the power imbalances that fuelled (and funded) the disaster that it came to be.
Told from the perspectives of some of the most high-profile ex-members of NXIVM, The Vow dives into the self-help program turned sex-slave cult at the hands of NXIVM leader, Keith Raniere. From branding women to life long contracts, The Vow explores it all, and the life-destroying tactics Raniere employed to lure women in.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright, this documentary looks at Scientology's recruiting tactics as one of the biggest celebrity driven cults in the world. Featuring compelling interviews from eight ex-members of the Church of Scientology, Going Clear focuses on the power faith can hold and the ways it can compel people to do things completely out of the ordinary.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
This 1997 documentary goes inside the devastating 51-day standoff between the fringe christian group, Branch Davidian Church in Waco, Texas and the FBI that culminated in the death of 76 people.
Created by ex-cult member Will Allen, a pastiche of archival footage, narration and interviews paints a picture of the origin story of health-obsessed leader Michel Rostand (born Jaime Gomez) of Buddhafeild, the new age cult based on the beaches of Hawaii. Documenting a euphoric beginning and a disturbing end, Allen was there for the entire unravelling, and with the stories of other former members heartbreaking testimonials, we come to see just how bad it all was.
Truth and Lies: The Family Manson
Inside the harrowing story of Charles Mansons killer-cult, Truth and Lies combines outtakes from Diane Sawyer’s interview with Charles Manson, harrowing testimonies from his followers, and insights into the mind of one of the world’s most feared and famed cult leaders who took things to a dark level. It investigates Manson's narcissistic tendencies and relentless campaign for fame while paying attention not to glamorise his harrowing legacy and pay respect to the victims families.
An interesting take on what it takes to become a cult leader and gain followers from an investigative, dark, and insightful lens. Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi documents a social experiment in which he poses as a yoga guru in an attempt to gain followers, and shines a light on what it really takes to make a cult.