Best Cult Documentaries From Heaven’s Gate to Wild Wild Country
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to establishing a cult. Some of them are basically drug-fueled “free love” parties that go on for years. Others are single ultra-conservative communes filled with people detached from the modern world. Some teach salvation, others fear the apocalypse. Whatever the specific principles of a cult, they are all exceptionally bizarre displays of human psychology and groupthink. At the best of times, a cult can be a strange anomaly in someone’s life timeline. In the worst-case scenarios, a cult can ruin lives and inspire mass suicide. Cults are not confined to the history books or just an eccentric phenomenon of the counterculture of the 1960s. They are still very much alive today. These mind-bending, surreal cult documentaries run the gamut, from psychedelic adventurers prancing through a field, to multi-billion dollar corporations influencing society’s most elite institutions. These are the 11 best cult documentaries.
Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults
As the subtitle of this HBO Max docuseries suggests, this is one of the most iconic cults of all cults. The Heaven’s Gate cult preached salvation via UFO travel to heaven. This trip never materialized and instead resulted in a tragic mass suicide. The Gate of Paradise has the mesmerizing effect characteristic of the best cult documentaries. As the series sucks the viewer deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of bizarre personalities and New Age pseudoscience, it’s impossible not to be drawn in and repelled at the same time. Anyone looking for a quintessential cult documentary would be well advised to start here.
Jonestown: The Peoples Temple of Life and Death
The source of the phrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid”, the Peoples Temple cult led by the Reverend Jim Jones resulted in a cataclysmic event of mass death (some suicide, some murder) that killed nearly of 1,000 people. Preaching an ideology of Christianity mixed with left-wing extremist views, Jones (like almost all cult leaders) believed he was a sacred fountain of divine wisdom. His “wisdom” bewitched thousands of people, many of whom became his victims. This PBS documentary on the People’s Temple is quite conventional in terms of style but is directed by the very talented Stanley Nelson.
Waco: Rules of Engagement
Waco, Texas, now the sleepy home of America’s favorite home renovators Chip and Joanna Gaines, was once the site of an intense confrontation between the Branch Davidian cult and the ATF. This hugely engaging documentary is more about that siege than the tenets of the cult, but the debate surrounding the event still sparks discussion and controversy. When does a cult cross the threshold from potentially dangerous to actually dangerous? And when are law enforcement justified in acting? These questions and more are explored in Waco: Rules of Engagementwhich is not only one of the best cult documentaries, but one of the greatest documentaries of all time.
wild wild country
This elegant Netflix docu-series from Maclain and Chapman Way chronicles the beliefs and exploits of the Rajneeshpuram community/cult located in the Oregon wilderness in the 1980s. This group is somewhat less threatening than the more radical sects on this list, but they nevertheless conspired to commit some acts of domestic terrorism. The Way brothers imbued this series with a unique aesthetic and narrative structure that helps it stand out from more conventional documentaries dealing with a similar subject. wild wild country also does an outstanding job of conveying the appeal of perceived spiritual enlightenment and radical freedom of the Rajneeshpuram community. Just when the audience is almost sympathetic to the group, the Way brothers pull back the curtain and expose the fraudulent puppeteer pulling all the strings.
The Source Family
This is the cult story of the common hippie counterculture, with a mystical bearded leader, his psychedelic rock band and his many wives all living together in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. The Source Family is probably the least insidious cult on this list. Although its members are, to some extent, under the spell of the usual charismatic male leader, they are more eccentric than harmful. It doesn’t hurt that the counterculture of the 1960s inspired new and strange lifestyles, some of which were adopted into the mainstream culture. Whatever one might think of their principles, there’s no denying that the Ya Ho Wha 13 band had some real bangers. The Source Family may very well be the most underrated cult documentary and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
Many cult documentaries are scary, but Good heaven might be the scariest of them all. The lingering shots of Buddhafield cult leader Jaime Gomez (another mortal who believes he’s divine) staring deep into the camera lens might give you a few nightmares, but it’s worth it. The archival footage of this film must be seen to be believed. While most of the sects on this list disbanded or suffered a tragic end, the Buddhafield sect continues to this day, often recruiting new members from yoga studios. It’s a rare example of a famous documentary failing to put an end to the abuse of a cult leader. But that may be all the more reason to watch this movie and be aware of Gomez’s continued threat to vulnerable people in search of enlightenment.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Alex Gibney has made documentaries on almost every subject under the sun, but go clear is perhaps his most dangerous film, as the Church of Scientology still enjoys a devoted, widespread, and notoriously vengeful following. Scientologists do not appreciate criticism, no matter how valid, and do not appreciate being branded as a cult. Still, it’s hard to hear the stories of psychological manipulation in this film (not to mention numerous examples of pseudo-scientific nonsense) and not feel like Scientology is either a cult in its own right, or, at the very least, very cult. ish. Gibney is a master of non-fiction storytelling, and he makes absolutely no effort to expose Scientology for what it really is.
This HBO docuseries is largely told from the perspective of former members of NXIVM, a bizarre multilevel marketing corporation with a secret sex trafficking cult lurking within. Members are conditioned to become “slaves” with a “master” who controls almost everything in their lives, including what they can and cannot eat. The “slaves” must even go so far as to literally mark themselves as if they were cattle. Unraveling the psychology behind the NXIVM leader, who is currently serving a life sentence, reveals a disturbing pattern of psychological manipulation claiming to be motivational self-help. Former NXIVM members try to figure out how they may have fallen prey to some rather obviously disturbing behavior, then use their new understanding to help save current members. The wish is utterly captivating and has a more conventional investigative approach to its subject matter. It’s the newest film on this list, and it demonstrates that the cult appeal certainly hasn’t faded over time.
This movie isn’t as widely available as the others on this list, but it’s worth seeking out. Released in 1973, just a few years after the infamous and horrifying Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson is essentially a Manson family time capsule, featuring interviews with several of Charlie’s most prominent followers, footage from Spahn Ranch (immortalized in Quentin Tarantinoit is Once upon a time… in Hollywood), and an original score composed by real members of the Manson family. The film desperately deserves a proper release and digital restoration, if only for its remarkable historical value. Until then, search for the less-than-pristine versions of this movie lying around the internet and get back to one of the most notorious crimes in American history.
The Prophet’s Prey
Director Amy Berg has developed a special talent for skillfully and compassionately telling stories of sexual misconduct and abuse. His first feature film in 2006 deliver us from evil is a masterpiece and this film about Warren Jeffs, former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is almost as good. Although the question of what exactly separates a religion from a cult has always been hotly debated, it is virtually impossible to describe the actions of a convicted felon like Jeffs as spiritual in any sense of the word. Berg’s unique talent for exposing crime while exploring the complexities of the crime in question is certainly visible in The Prophet’s Preya film that serves as a powerful warning against trusting authority figures just because they are authority figures.
It’s the least orthodox movie on this list and is perhaps best described as a more serious version of Borat. Director Vikram Gandhi poses as a New Age spiritual guru in an effort to gain genuine, dedicated followers. The ethics of this premise can certainly be debated, but it’s hard to argue that the movie doesn’t make a compelling point. Literally anyone with enough charisma and knowledge of New Age lingo can become the leader of a spiritual movement and/or cult. Seeing this in action, unfolding before our eyes, is both amusing and alarming. Gandhi is not afraid to embark on a filmed social experiment that sheds new light on our thinking about sects and spirituality.
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