10 Documentaries About Cults That Will Shock and Fascinate You
Over the past several decades, the exploration of cults has become a phenomenon for curious documentarians. Whether religious or spiritual, rich or poor, open or private, these groups usually have a few things in common: a morally questionable leader, mysterious goals and practices, and a body of members who strongly believe in their way of life. It's these things in particular that make these groups fascinating, but as interesting as cults may be, they can sometimes be dangerous, and even deadly. For those who foster a curiosity about these groups, here are 10 documentaries — including HBO's recent docuseries The Vow — that get to the bottom of life inside a cult. Note: many of these groups wouldn't identify themselves as a "cult," but each group is categorized by some type of extreme belief system and/or way of life.
— Additional reporting by Maggie Panos
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
Based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same name, HBO's Going Clear provides a detailed examination of the founding of Scientology, the life of its leader L. Ron Hubbard, the relationship between the church and Hollywood celebrities, life as a dedicated member of the church, and the documented exploitation and mistreatment of those who choose to leave it. Winner of three Emmy awards (including best documentary), a Peabody Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award, the critically acclaimed film strives to answer all the questions you've ever had about the mysterious organization.
The Source Family (2012)
The Source Family was a utopian living community created by restaurateur Father Yod in Hollywood during the 1970s. After opening a wildly popular health-food restaurant on the Sunset Strip — often frequented by celebrities such as John Lennon and Marlon Brando — Father Yod led a beatnik cult that claimed to be all about living a loving, natural lifestyle. However, the spiritual Source Family had its secrets. The SXSW film festival documentary uses home movies, personal photos, voice recordings, and interviews to give an insider look at life as a member of The Source Family and expose the truth about its demise.
Holy Hell (2016)
Young film student Will Allen was shunned from his home after his family learned that he was gay. With nowhere else to go, he joined his sister at an alternative community/meditation group in West Hollywood, CA. While the group changed locations, he remained a part of their community — now known as the Buddhafield cult — for decades, acting as a personal documentarian to leader Michel Rostand. When Allen left the group, he took with him hours and hours of footage that eventually became Holy Hell.
Prophet's Prey (2015)
Inspired by the book of the same name by Sam Bower, Showtime's documentary Prophet's Prey investigates the life and crimes of Warren Jeffs, the currently incarcerated leader of the FLDS Church (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). With interviews from church members, as well as victims of his crimes, the documentary strives to understand how an abusive predator such as Jeffs could maintain the loyalty of over 5,000 followers, as well as leadership of the fundamentalist religious group.
An Academy Award best documentary feature nominee, 1973's Manson details the rise of the Manson clan, their heinous crimes, and their eventual capture. The real-life footage of their compounds, hideouts, and crime scenes — as well as interviews with Manson and his followers — make for a chilling, yet captivating, narrative.
Sons of Perdition (2010)
Sons of Perdition follows the lives of a group of teenage boys who were exiled from their families and community by Warren Jeffs, the former leader of the FLDS Church (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). After violating minor, yet strict, rules of the church — such as communicating with girls or listening to music — the boys were shunned. The documentary showcases how they struggled to adjust to life outside of the religious community they had known their whole lives; many faltered, even turning to drugs, alcohol, and crime.
The Vow (2020)
HBO's 2020 docuseries The Vow looks into Keith Raniere's now-infamous NXIVM organization. What seemingly began as a self-help group took a disturbing turn when allegations surfaced that within the group, there was a smaller group of branded women who were enslaved to Raniere.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix's Wild Wild Country caused quite a stir when it came out in 2018. The six-episode docuseries reaches all the way back to 1968, when Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh first rose to fame as a guru. The really intriguing character, however, is Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan's assistant who facilitated in their group's takeover of a small town in Oregon.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997)
If you have a passing fascination with cults, you've probably already watched Waco, but what about the disturbing and powerful documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement? Using real footage, the filmmakers capture what really happened in Texas on the days leading up to the FBI's standoff with David Koresh and his followers.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)
Jim Jones was the infamous leader of the Peoples Temple, a religious cult founded in 1955. In 1978 in Guyana, over 900 of his followers (including 276 children) died in a mass murder/suicide. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, uses interviews of Jonestown survivors and former Temple members, news footage, and more to paint the disturbing picture of Jones's life, his impact on thousands, the beliefs and practices of Peoples Temple, and the shocking turn of events that led to an American tragedy.