Subjects treated remarkably weirdly, the daily life of strangers, unusual intimacy, the actions and consequences of joining a cult are just as weird as watching those within the very organization. Even if news items fascinate us as much as they frighten us, our selection does not only focus on this category but offers you other themes such as the theme of freedom and true independence. Is this what attracts us to documentaries about cults?
18 Gripping Documentaries About Cults That Will Make You Thank Your Freedom!
Documentaries connect us all as we can debate and discuss what we saw on Netflix with our co-workers and friends. Real life depicted through historical sequences, photographs, unpublished audio recordings, and numerous testimonies brings us an undeniable feeling of psychological stress. Whether we enter the intimacy of a group or the sheer violence, love, sex, or manipulation, these documentaries on cults are more frightening than a horror film.
Enjoy this list with great curiosity as there are the atrocities of a murderer, the apocalypse and strange rituals. Cults have always been a source of fascination for anyone seeking to pierce the roots of these indoctrinations. Here are 18 documentaries that cover famous and often tragic documentaries that have this strength to involve us in the story completely. Watch as the dangers of social networks or sport are perfectly exposed in these quality documentaries.
1. “The Vow”
On the evening of August 23, 2020, HBO unveiled its documentary series on the cult that infiltrated Hollywood under the name of NXIVM (which is pronounced as Nexium). “The Vow” takes us behind the scenes of a sex trafficking organization born at the dawn of the 2000s under the leadership of Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman – the latter was in charge of recruiting sex slaves for the former.
It was only in 2018 that the veil was lifted on the actions of NXIVM, which, officially, is a “personal development company” – later on this is laughable!
Several Smallville actresses, including Allison Mack and Kristin Kreuk, are then accused of sex trafficking on behalf of the organization. A few weeks later, Keith Raniere was arrested before being convicted of sex trafficking in June 2019. He enlisted around fifty victims and generated millions of dollars in profits. In the cult documentary archival footage and testimonials from ex-members trace the cult’s history.
2. “Going Clear”
Investigating the Church of Scientology being a feat in itself – it is known to be litigious – this documentary is worth seeing for its subject alone. Moreover, it earned its director, Alex Gibney, to be the target of a defamation campaign, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
If no thunderous revelation is made yet, know that Going Clear highlights the workings of the Scientology sect, and the methods it would employ to keep control over its members, especially the most famous (Tom Cruise, John Travolta). Blackmail, torture and arranged unions are part of the celebrations.
3. “Children of God”
‘Children of God’ takes us into the chamber of secrets of the terrible sex cult , ‘The Children of God’. Founded in 1968 by David Berg under the name ‘Teens for Christ’ now called ‘The Family International’ in Huntington Beach, California, the cult was projected as a harmless religious group. It was inspired by the Hippie Free Love Movement, their teaching was free to love. Founder Berg believed and preached that God loved sex because it was beautiful and Satan hated sex.
The Children of God has been accused of promoting sex with children Other strange beliefs held by the man included that God wanted men to be polygamists
According to them, masturbation was a gift from God, and forcing female followers to recruit new members for the cult through sexual solicitation was okay.
Eventually, sexual intercourse became the focus of the group.
The documentary is based on director John Smithson’s interviews conducted with a family who grew up in “The Family,” a name denoting the cult’s community.
4. “KKK: The Fight for White Supremacy”
‘KKK: The Battle for White Supremacy’ offers a closer look at America’s most notorious supremacist cult group known as the Ku Klux Klan or KKK for short. Until a 21-year-old white man shot and killed nine African Americans who were looting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the world believed that the KKK proclaimed a peace-loving organization. But with the Charleston massacre, ingrained white supremacist ideology exposed its reality and the claws of race war loomed as a future possibility.
Director Dan Murdoch manages to reach the supreme leaders of the Loyal White Knights, one of the largest Klan chapters, and document their secret rituals for “KKK”. He spent several months assuming leadership of the Loyal White Knights and filming their duties.
The documentary reveals the truth behind its members wearing the infamous hood with a ritual solution. In addition, the documentary also features protests by black power groups, including the New Black Panthers, who advocate their counter-ideology to white supremacy, black supremacy. The leaders of “KKK” also claim that “KKK” is going through a period of revival but the documentary ends as a reminder of the dangers of two extreme visions engulfing American society with ‘KKK’ symbolically intersecting their images of the Ku Klux Klan while the New Black Panthers protesters clashed in rival protests in South Carolina.
Get ready to watch some white hoods and cross-burn cases rising across the South!
5. “The Family” by Jesse Moss
“The Family” happens to be a documentary mini-series of five episodes to binge-watch without moderation as the journalists’ investigation into this mysterious sect is fascinating.
Mysterious, yet so powerful a man named Doug Coe is the leader of the Family, a fundamentalist Christian organization, he exerts his influence as far as Washington, as close as possible to politicians – his power is enough to make conspiracy theories shudder.
However, the work of Jeff Sharlet, the author of “The Family” is well documented. It is his book, published in 2008, which is the starting point for the documentary series that is based on cults and how they work. In the first episode, the journalist recounts his stay in Ivanwald, the very place where he first learned of the Family’s allegiance to their God…and to power.
6. “Wild Wild Country”
When ‘Wild Wild Country’ first aired on Netflix, this documentary about cults is said to have thrilled the crowds. It caused quite a stir among cult film lovers and the controversial documentary also attracted those who steer clear of such documentaries. ‘The extraordinary success of ‘Wild Wild Country’ opened doors for a series of fascinating documentaries exploring the hidden secrets of controversial cults around the world.
Not surprisingly, the Way brothers who produced the cult documentary unearthed a story unknown, even to many Americans: the installation, in the 80s, of an Indian guru and his disciples in a town in Oregon.
When Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh moved to the United States from India, he bought a ranch near the town of Antelope. No one thought he would build an entire city from scratch. By building their utopian city on a deserted ranch, the sect of Bhagwan Rajneesh has drawn the ire of the surrounding wildlife, redneck population, and retirees in search of peace. Soon the city was baptized as Rajneeshpuram and opened up for its devotees to live as a community. The community’s chief architect was Osho’s controversial and enigmatic attaché, Ma Anand Sheela. Her name was often associated with the infamous 1984 Rajneshee bio-terrorist attack.
The six episodes of Wild Wild Country address the tensions between the natives and the sannyasins, a real war which will see the craziest events follow one another: attack, poisoning, attempted murder.
The documentary explores the myth behind the orgasmic pleasure attached to “spiritual awakening”. The documentary also highlights the conflict between Osho supporters and the local Oregon community that eventually led to the first bio-terrorist attack in US history. Fascinating, although we would have liked the practices of the sect to be mentioned more.
7. “My Scientology Movie”
With the help of a filmmaker and some ex-members, ‘My Scientology Movie’ details the backstory of one of the strangest religions in history: Scientology.
“Directed by John Dower and written and presented by Louis Theroux, this is another one of those documentaries about cults that unravels a bizarre and greedy organization, using extremely controlling clutches to hold each member down. The Scientology members, who belong to the same family, were allegedly prevented from seeing each other because “one of them is oppressive.” And then there are also allegations that suggest that prominent Hollywood stars have been blackmailed to force them to remain in the cult.
Thankfully, Louis Theroux manages to penetrate the fortress of secrets surrounding some Scientologists in the documentary. But his defense is so strong that he eventually accepts his failure. There are some intriguing images where followers tactically avoid certain questions from Theroux and talk about themselves for hours. In “My Scientology Movie” Theroux digs deep to find the truth behind Scientology’s claim of the world’s leading authority on mental health and its imperative for members to refrain from seeking appropriate psychiatric treatment.
8. “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”
Of the many documentaries devoted to sects, the Jonestown remains the one of most trying documentaries about cults. And for good reason, the delusions of Pastor Jim Jones led to one of the biggest massacres in modern American history, the death of 900 people in an apparent collective suicide. On November 18, 1978, followers of the People’s Temple were administered cyanide syringes, voluntarily or under duress.
The director Stanley Nelson brilliantly describes the rise of the guru, including how he attracted African-American followers with his flights of racial equality. Sensitive souls should at least be warned and abstain: the audio recordings of the fatal day and the interviews of the survivors are heartbreaking.
Very few figures in this world have aroused so much fascination as Charles Manson. The personality of the guru, who had pushed his followers to kill nine people including Sharon Tate (wife of Roman Polanski ), has been dissected in many films and books.
However, this 1973 documentary offers a never-before-seen perspective on the cult’s life at Spahn Ranch and in Death Valley between the end of 1969 and the summer of 1972. You see teenagers devoted body and soul to their guru, their cellmates, former members of “the family”, and the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi who investigated the case. Uplifting yet tragic.
10. “One of Us”
With this 2017 documentary about cults, we can say that Netflix was on a roll with this style of documentary. The controversial series, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, follows three individuals who left Brooklyn’s impenetrable Hasidic community. In addition to exposing hidden truths about the Hasidic community, “One of Us” also reveals the brutal methods such groups use to keep people in and out of the outside world.
Among the three witnesses of “One of Us” is Etty, a mother of seven who broke the bonds of an abusive marriage to escape the community. She had a custody battle with her ex-husband over their seven children. Ari, the second character, is addicted to cocaine and was abused as a child. He reveals that the religious community covered up the attack. Like the other two, Luzer, the third character in the documentary, left the community at the expense of his family.
Creators Ewing and Grady stayed with the siblings Etty, Luzer, and Ari for three years to document their lives and struggles outside of the community. The documentary accurately documents their difficulties in adjusting to life in the outside world, the anxiety generated by coping with everyday situations and the paranoia that haunts them when they have to learn everything from scratch – Google, what is it? Walks? How can one go for walks outside?
“One of Us” is more about what it’s like to deviate from an impenetrable, heavily powerful cult, and the three guys say it’s devastating to the core.
11. “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” by William Galecki
On April 19, 1993, the authorities stormed the residence of the Davidians religious sect. Accused of illegal possession of weapons and sexual abuse of minors, the members of the group were cloistered in their domain of Waco (Texas) to block the police.
After 51 days of siege, the police decided to launch a raid on the farm, finally fearing that the disciples would end their lives. This ended in a fire that claimed the lives of 82 victims, including leader David Koresh. A suicide, accident or death: what really happened? Haunted by this question, the documentary filmmaker William Gazecki confronts the testimonies, and shakes the version of the government. It is then up to everyone to form their own opinion.
12. “The End of the World Cult”
In 2007, journalist Ben Anthony traveled to Strong City (New Mexico) to report on Michael Travesser, a self-proclaimed messiah. A chance of the moment revealed that this one has just received a message from God, announcing the day of the last judgment. The cameras follow the members as the Apocalypse approaches, not really knowing what to expect, but above all discovering the sordid underside of this community.
The self-proclaimed messiah sleeps with his son’s wife, lounges around naked with minors, and can’t stand being contradicted. The teenagers seem indoctrinated to a point of no return: “People say that Michael brainwashed me,” says a young girl to the camera. I say, ‘yes he brainwashed me. He washed away all my sins from me.
13. “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath”
L. Ron Hubbard’s Church is considered a respectable institution. In the United States, the organization has a storefront and is represented by stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Ditto in Spain and Sweden, where it is registered in the register of religions. But in many foreign countries, L. Ron Hubbard and the leaders of Scientology are seen as practicing mind manipulation and extracting money from their financially exploited followers. What do they want? How do they recruit? What does the daily life of followers look like? Can they leave the organization at will?
American actress Leah Remini explains it all through this A&E documentary series investigating the personal experience of herself and former high-ranking Scientologist Mike Rinder, other former members. Remini grew up in a family of Scientologists and was a member of the Church of Scientology from 1979 to 2013, leaving it under very difficult circumstances. Once a vehement supporter who always brought up Scientology in her 90s and 2000’s media interviews, she subsequently became an outspoken critic of Scientology, and in 2015 published a bestselling memoir called Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology.
The first season received two Emmy Award nominations, and this documentary about cults actually ended up winning one of them. The series has also been repeatedly nominated and won other television and film awards.
14. “Boko Haram: Terror in Africa”
On the border of Cameroon and Nigeria, this village lives under constant threat from Boko Haram, the bloodiest terrorist organization on the planet. In an attempt to protect themselves, the residents have formed a militia. But they mainly rely on the soldiers of the Cameroonian army. A documentary by Patrick Forestier, dive into the heart of the fight against the terrorist sect that terrifies Africa.
The bloodiest terrorist organization on the planet ( Boko Haram) has one objective: to establish a caliphate and apply Sharia, Islamic law, in the heart of Africa.
Since 2009, this movement, described as a sect, has already claimed 20,000 civilian victims and caused the exodus of 2.5 million people. Its members commit massacres, abuses, suicide bombings and even sensational kidnappings as in April 2014, when Boko Haram took hostage 276 high school girls, aged 12 to 17, in a village in northeastern Nigeria. Born in northern Nigeria, in one of the poorest regions of Africa, Boko Haram advocates extreme jihad, calling for the murder of all Christians and even moderate Muslims, in short all those who do not rally to its cause, the barbarity is limitless.
15. “The Keepers”
‘The Keepers’ investigates the controversial murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in November 1969. The sister’s body was found in January 1970. ‘ The Keepers ‘ sheds light on the darkest areas of the detective story and the alleged connection between the death of Sister Cathy and the incidents of sexual abuse of teenage students at Archbishop Keough High School.
As the priests have extreme authority here, filmmaker Ryan White investigates allegations that sister Cathy would break the sex abuse scandal and was previously killed. The documentary interviews six victims of Father Joseph Maskell’s sexual abuse scandal, who died in 2001. By the time he died, Father Maskell had denied the allegations. According to the coroner’s report, Nurse/Sister Cathy was hit in the head with a blunt object. CNN reported that Father Maskell’s body was exhumed and his DNA was compared to DNA collected at the crime scene. More confusingly, a few days before the release of The Keepers, the Baltimore County Police Department stated that the DNA samples did not match.
The documentary delves into this contradiction in the case, including a lawsuit brought against Father Maskell by a mysterious “Jane Doe” and Jane Roe, later identified as Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, respectively.
The nun was killed and why ‘The Keepers’ has achieved iconic status during the allegations that the Catholic Church is covering up cases of pedophilia is for its sensitive portrayal of the devastation of the survivors and impressive portrayal of their courage to speak out.
While Sister Cesnik’s murder remains unsolved, in recent reports filmmaker Ryan White reveals there are positive developments in the case. ‘The Keepers’ empowered more victims to speak out and investigators delved into Father Joseph Maskell’s past life.
16. “Siberian Cult Leader Thinks He’s Jesus”
This former Russian policeman claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and calls himself “Vissarion”, “the one who comes from the forest”. In May 1990, at the age of 29, Vissarion claimed to have experienced a mystical revelation and in 1991 he would have been born as Vissarion, the returned Jesus Christ, giving his first public address in Minusinsk on August 18, 1991. And it is precisely in the Siberian taiga that he rallied some four thousand disciples. This community lives in self-sufficiency and self-sufficiency, its members are vegetarians and are not allowed to consume tobacco or alcohol. The community has a population of 4000 in about thirty villages around its headquarters at the “Abode of Dawn” in addition to approximately 10,000 followers around the world.
In reality, cult leader “Vissarion” was born in Krasnodar and after serving in the Red Army he settled in Minusinsk. Before losing his job in 1989, “Vissarion” worked as a state highway guard. Since giving his first public address in 1991, he has since founded and led a movement known as the “Church of the Last Testament” with its headquarters in the Siberian Taiga in Minusinsk, a district of the Krasnoyarsk Territory.
“Vissarion” has cult members called “Vissarionites” and in his system he does not make himself God but calls himself the word of God. Their religion combines the beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church with apocalypticism, Buddhism, collectivism, and even extreme ecological values. The followers of Vissarion observe very restrictive rules, (vegetarians, no smoking and alcohol consumption) where they are even okay with ignoring the use of money. The cult group aims to unite all the religions of the earth.
Since 1992, biographer Vadim Redkin has published an annual volume on Vissarion’s activities. The religious leader attracted a number of followers of the esoteric subculture in Europe like Germany and seven volumes of Vadim’s works have already been translated into German and other languages. In addition to “Siberian Cult Leader Thinks He’s Jesus”, the UK’s Channel 4 TV network aired an hour-long documentary about Vissarion and his followers in March 2010.
“Vissarion” like many cult leaders has shown signs of pedophilia, as he is in love with a girl he knew since she was seven.
17. “Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray”
In 2009, self-help guru James Arthur Ray asked his followers at a ranch outside of Sedona, Arizona to shave their heads and fast for five days in the middle of the desert, even without water! The group consisted of 50 people who each paid $10,000 to complete a five-day seminar title. Spiritual Warrior Ray ended the retreat by assigning the difficult task. The CNN documentary Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray chronicles the fateful night of 50 unfortunate people in the desert and how the shocking incident paved the way for the fall of the Ray cult.
By sundown, the victims cried out for water, their throats parched. Some of them had hallucinations. Eventually, three victims died from heat stroke, and eighteen others were hospitalized with serious mental and physical injuries. A horrific suicide attempt was described from the first witness account of a respondent who reached the scene.
Ray was caught with charges of involuntary manslaughter and he served a two-year sentence, after which he was able to walk free in 2013.
‘Enlighten Us’ follows Ray’s comeback and life after incarceration as director Jenny Carchman uses the exclusive rating he received from the Ray archives and his family. The documentary paints a vivid picture of the self-help guru using found family recordings and photos. Enlighten Us is a terrifying experience because it tells us how far a misguided mob can go if the cult they believe in is strong enough.
18. “Holy Hell”
‘Holy Hell’ begins with Will Allen, a 22-year-old film school graduate, who is kicked out of his home for being publicly gay. He is depressed and dissatisfied with his interactions with society. Raised as a strictly Catholic family boy, he was forced to struggle with contradictions from an early age. Finding his haunting doubts leads him to The Buddhafield, a Los Angeles-based spiritual cult group. They promise him fulfillment, love, and happiness.
While Will Allen finds temporary solace in the hands of the cult, his training as a filmmaker places him in the role of the group’s official videographer. The 22-year-old begins documenting every day-to-day activity within the cult. The footage shows a middle-aged man named ‘Michel’ as the cult leader. Under his direction, a pack of artsy hippies roams the beaches, splashing water, laughing, and happily hanging around the graphic.
In due course, Michel promises them spiritual awakening but this is a promise that eventually turns out to be a hoax. Allen, the documentary maker, leaves the cult and compiles hours of stock footage he shot into a stunning documentary for CNN that we consider “Holy Hell”. The documentary from 2016 is disturbing and informative at the same time. But it’s a must-see for those with a fascination with documentaries about cults under iron curtains, because we learn that we have to pay for our fascination with our independence.