The Best Cult Documentaries to Leave You Shocked and Bewildered

Wild, Wild Country, 2017

Nothing in this Oscar-winning docuseries, executive produced by the Duplass brothers, is exactly what it seems. You’d be forgiven for watching only the first episode of Wild, Wild Country and assuming the whole show is about a sex-crazed hippie commune inspired by Eastern religions, but things get more complicated quickly.

This series is actually the story of two very unlike communities — the people of Rajneeshpuram and Wasco County, Oregon — as they rub up against each other on barren American land.

Sure, cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is interesting, but his second-in-command takes center stage after a while. Indian-American-Swiss co-cultist Ma Anand Sheela proves to be a more formidable power in the cult over time, and she was instrumental to the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack. More so than any other series on the list, watching this will leave you shocked that you hadn’t heard this nutso story before.

5. The Lost Women Of NXIVM

NXIVM is one of the latest cults to make headlines. Founded by Keith Raniere in 1998, NXIVM was originally marketed as a ‘personal development company’. However, it has since been revealed that NXIVM was actually involved in human trafficking, forced labor, and other illegal activities. The Lost Women Of NXIVM centers around four women who were part of the cult who have since died or disappeared under unusual circumstances.

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2. Wild Wild Country

When Wild Wild Country was released on Netflix in 2018 it quickly took the world by storm. The documentary told the story of Rajneesh who started a religious community in Oregon called Rajneeshpuram. Although the organization initially appeared to have created a legitimate real-life utopia, things eventually started to change.

8. The Source Family (2012) Directors: Marie Demopoulos Jodie Willie

It is generally alluded that the hippie movement e

It is generally alluded that the hippie movement ended with the Manson family murders in August 1969. But some of the impressionable young hippies of early 1970s followed the megalomaniac and miracle-performing guru, Father Yod. Born James Edward Baker, Father Yod (served in the Marine Corps during World War II) armed himself with the knowledge of esoteric spiritual teachings and was a follower of Yogi Bhajan, an American-Sikh spiritual leader. By late 1960s, Baker opened Source restaurant in Los Angeles, which served organic vegetarian food (celebrities like John Lennon, Brando were said to be the restaurant’s regulars). Then he metamorphosed into a cult leader, promising a life of pleasure, wisdom, and love.

Maria Demopoulos and Jodie Willie’s The Source Family documents the ‘family’ unit of Yod by relying on archival footage and interviewing ex-members. The Source Family wasn’t the source of any tragic killings or suicide, and for the large part, the documentary portrays Yod as a strange, but not a sinister person. Although Marie and Jodie touch little about the emotional trauma and sexual abuse caused by Yod, there have been numerous painful accounts of the leader’s authoritarian attitude, especially towards women. Although the cult dissipated after the death of Yod (in 1975), his psychological and physical abuse of power has scarred his victims for life.

Witches: A Century of Murder, 2015

Often, the rise of strict religions comes with a body count. In the case of Puritan Christianity in Britain, women were tortured and killed under the suspicion that they were witches, possessed, or were otherwise communing with the occult.

Witch trials are a common subject in creepy pop culture, but Witches: A Century of Murder makes the subject feel freshly disturbing, by setting it outside the American colonies and in rural Britain. Though it’s not technically about a cult, Witches explores what happens to a group of people when their new ideals override their shared humanity.

3. Holy Hell (2016) Director: Will Allen

Buddhafield was a little-known West Hollywood cult

Buddhafield was a little-known West Hollywood cult which was founded in the 1980s by Jamie Gomez, who went by the name Michele and now known as Andreas. Buddhafield seemed to exude the picture of a perfect commune with young people dancing around and its leaders mixed philosophy focused on physical fitness and healthy living.  Michele or Gomez was a former small-time gay porn star who also trained as a hypnotherapist. His commanding figure also cultivated a greater influence upon his devoted followers. The tyrannies and sexual abuse followed later when he overdosed on his followers’ veneration.

Will Allen’s Holy Hell chronicles the director’s own experiences with the cult. Allen, who left his family after coming out as gay, first encountered Buddhafield in 1985, and was happy to live with like-minded, creative young people (for nearly 22 years). He became the group’s in-house videographer and that footage forms the crux of this cautionary tale. Allen sprinkles his footage with present-day interviews of other longtime group members to provide a detailed, intimate insider’s perspective. Though a bit of an objective look would have made this documentary more interesting, Holy Hell does show how people well indoctrinated into a subculture may never discern the point at which it turns abusive and insidious.

Holy Hell

The stereotypical cult exists somewhere on the literal edge of society. It’s set up in the woods or on an island or somewhere else that’s hard to reach. Buddhafield was (and technically still is, since the active members moved to Hawaii) a cult that shirks that stereotype. During the time Holy Hell covers, Buddhafield was based in Los Angeles, though it maintained the kind of isolation cults favor. Members would be forced to abstain from just about everything good about modern society, including family, friends, relationships, sex, alcohol, and even red meat. On top of that, there are allegations that rape and sexual abuse were widespread in the cult, all of it hinging on the almost magical charisma of Michel, the man at the center of it all. He brought good, normal people down in his cult and Holy Hell puts it all on display. Netflix

3. The Jonestown Massacre: Paradise Lost – Documentaries about Cults

The Jonestown Massacre: Paradise Lost is a special documentary about cults displayed on the History Channel. It talks about the last days of Jim Jones, the People’s Temple, and Jonestown. According to the survivor accounts and eyewitnesses, this documentary shows the final week before the mass murder-suicide of the residents in Jonestown, which has happened on 18 November 1978.

The show displays how erratic and paranoid was Reverend Jim Jones was at that time, maybe because of the pressures he received. Jones was the one who ordered his followers to commit mass suicide. One of the members who survived that insane order was Hyacinth Thrash. Aside from her, Jones’ son also survived the massacre.

2. The Immortals

The foothills of the Himalayas are home to a cult whose leader is known as God. Ziona Chana is the leader of a polygamous sect where his family numbers 163, of whom 38 are his wives. Followers believe that Ziona is immortal. The New Generation cult is put under the microscope in the RTD documentary The Immortals.

Inside a Cult: Messiah on Trial

What’s the only thing better than a good cult documentary?

A cult documentary sequel!

That’s exactly what Inside a Cult: Messiah on Trial is – a follow-up to The End of the World Cult (so watch that one first!).

The documentary tracks the fallout of crimes Michael Travesser admitted to in the first documentary. This includes the trial and sentencing, something you rarely get to see in the world of cults.

In addition to footage of proceedings, you meet former members of the cult that have come to see their one-time Messiah finally pay for his crimes.

If you were captivated by The End of the World Cult, then you will love this follow-up. Add it to the queue!

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

One of the unique aspects of Scientology is how big it’s getting.  Most cults never get out of the early stages of membership drives, and even if they do, they’ll usually flame up and flare out with some kind of Waco-esque confrontation. Scientology is too big for that kind of end, which puts it in territory that’s uncharted outside of major religions. The best thing we can do from here is try and understand it. Going Clear is a documentary that picks apart the church, its history, and how it brings people into its congregation.  It’s a sort of preliminary defense against being brought into a cult, which is good practice for everyone. HBO

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