It’s safe to say that cults are having a bit of a moment in popular culture right now. That is thanks, in part, to the influx of miniseries, true crime documentaries and real life cult mysteries entering the cultural consciousness.
In 2016, there was Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, a fictionalized account of the Manson Family, told from the perspective of the women in the cult. And now there’s even more of an influx of cult content, with the upcoming film The Haunting of Sharon Tate, in which Hilary Duff will play the actress and victim of murder at the hands of Charles Manson; Charlie Says, the Mary Harron directed film about the Manson family with Matt Smith in the title role; and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the next highly anticipated Quentin Tarantino film, which takes place in 1969 Los Angeles and will feature Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, will be released exactly 50 years after the Manson Family murders. Even season two of the critically acclaimed and criminally underrated TBS series Search Party worked in a subplot wherein the accidental sleuth Portia (played by Meredith Hagner) acts in a play about the Tate-LaBianca murders.
The true crime trend on Netflix has now expanded to include documentaries about cults (not to be confused with documentaries with a cult following, which would be Making a Murderer or The Keepers). Once you’ve made your way through Wild Wild Country, the streaming giant’s six part docu-series about a community of followers in Oregon led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s, you’ll likely find yourself salivating for more tales that are stranger than fiction. And there are some great fictional narratives about cults (some of which are even inspired by the real deal) to watch as well that should be required viewing. Whether you are just beginning to dip your toes into the world of cults or find yourself to be a connoisseur of the subject, here is your syllabus of recommended content to consume.
Wild Wild Country
The Duplass Brothers executive produced this documentary about an alleged sex cult formed by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho), an Indian guru who owned multiple Rolls-Royces yet moved to a small town in Oregon in an attempt to create the most enlightened and free city in the world. Through archival footage, talking head interviews with members of the Rajneesh and former leader Ma Anand Sheela, directors Chapman and Maclain Way weave a fascinating web of some of the most twisted true stories to be given the Netflix treatment. Immigration fraud, orgies, attempted murder, the founder of Nike, bioterror—this documentary really does have it all. Citizens of Rajneeshpuram also only wore the color red, which admittedly makes the cult kind of accidentally stylish. One of the craziest parts of this story is that this community was constantly making national and local headlines in the 1980s, but seems to have been forgotten by the rest of the United States.
The Source Family
This documentary is a relatively tame one (compared to some of the other stories on this list). It follows the spiritual commune known as the Source Family and the psychedelic band Ya Ho Wha 13. Both were led by Father Yod (James Edward Baker), who is also the founder of the Source Restaurant, a health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. But before he founded the restaurant, he was convicted of murdering actress Jean Ingram’s husband in 1963, so Father Yod doesn’t get off scot free.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Whether or not you define the Church of Scientology as a cult, this Emmy winning HBO documentary based on Lawrence Wright's book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief will open your eyes to a whole host of issues surrounding Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and his Hollywood disciples, from John Travolta to Tom Cruise, and some lesser known ex-members of the Church and their stories of abuse. Of course, once you finish watching Going Clear, ex-member Leah Remini’s award-winning A&E series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath is required viewing.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
The Jonestown Massacre, or mass poison-assisted suicide, took place in 1978, just 3 years before Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh settled his community in Oregon, and in an early episode of Wild Wild Country, an interview with Oprah Winfrey shows the media maven asking the followers of Rajneeshpuram if they are concerned they have another Jonestown on their hands, an inquiry they adamantly reject. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is an award winning 2006 documentary that uncovers the truth behind the motives of cult leader-slash-reverend Jim Jones and his 900 followers known as The Peoples Temple in Guyana.
American Horror Story: Cult
In his seventh season of American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy tackled the 2016 Presidential Election and its aftermath along with clowns and cults. In other words, he did way too much. But the exploration of the groupthink and paranoia, and what constitutes a community of leaders and followers (plus a cameo from Lena Dunham as Valerie Solanas) makes this season worth watching.
Friday Night Lights and True Detective star Taylor Kitsch plays David Koresh in Waco, a miniseries based on the 1993 siege and massacre of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. This fictionalized account outlines how the religious sect and the FBI engaged in a 51-day-long standoff between February 28 and April 19, 1993, until the FBI attacked the compound with tear gas, and culminated in a fire (some dispute this and believe members of the Branch Davidians started the fire themselves) which killed 76 people. Rory Culkin, Melissa Benoist, Michael Shannon and Julia Garner co-star in this six part series on the Paramount Network.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, this film follows a young woman’s attempt to re-enter society and rehabilitate herself after escaping from an abusive cult. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, an escapee of a cult in the Catskills, Sarah Paulson plays her older sister Lucy, and John Hawkes plays a cult leader. Christopher Abbott (Charlie from Girls) and Julia Garner co-star in this thriller.
Joaquin Phoenix joins Philip Seymour Hoffman’s religious group “The Cause,”, which drew many comparisons to the Church of Scientology in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film. Also, another Friday Night Lights alum, Jesse Plemons aka Landry Clarke, is in this one so that should be motivation enough to give this a try if you haven’t seen it by now.
Why do people exercise their free will to join cults when there have been so many examples of why you probably shouldn’t join them? The Invitation gives a tragic, almost reasonable answer to that question, when a man and his girlfriend are invited to his ex-wife’s dinner party in the Hollywood Hills (side note: why are so many cult goings-on happening in the Hollywood Hills?), but once they arrive, everything and everyone seems a bit...off. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation isn’t necessarily about a cult, per se, but it does showcase a fictional spiritual philosophy group called “The Invitation,” which offers a good example of how cult-ish communities can appeal to even the most levelheaded.