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11 Documentaries About Cults From 'Heaven's Gate' to 'Wild Wild Country'

2022-05-18 Source:Collider.com Author:JONATHON NORCROSS

There are no firm rules when itcomes to establishing a cult. Some of them are essentially drug-fueled “freelove” parties that go on for years. Others are celibate ultra-conservativecommunes filled with people detaching from the modern world. Some teachsalvation, others dread the apocalypse. Whatever the specific tenets of a cultmay be, they are all exceptionally bizarre spectacles of human psychology andgroupthink. In the best-case scenarios, a cult may be an odd blip on thetimeline of someone’s life. In the worst-case scenarios, a cult can ruin livesand inspire mass suicide. Cults are not confined to the history books or just aquirky phenomenon of the 1960s counterculture. They are still alive and welltoday. These mind-bending, surreal documentaries about cults run the gamut frompsychedelic adventurers prancing through a field to multi-billion dollarcorporations influencing society’s most elite institutions. These are the 11best documentaries about cults.

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults

As the subtitle of this HBO Maxdocuseries suggests, this is one of the most iconic cults in all of cultdom.The Heaven’s Gate cult preached salvation via a UFO journey up to heaven. Thisvoyage never materialized and instead resulted in a tragic mass suicide. Heaven’sGate has the signature hypnotizing effect of the best cultdocumentaries. As the series sucks the viewer deeper and deeper down the rabbithole of bizarre personalities and New Age pseudoscience, it’s impossible not tobe drawn in and repulsed at the same time. Anyone seeking a quintessential cultdocumentary would be wise to start here.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

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The source of the phrase “Drinkingthe Kool-Aid,” the Peoples Temple cult led by Reverend Jim Jones resulted in acataclysmic mass death event (some victims of suicide, some murder) that killednearly 1,000 people. Preaching an ideology of Christianity mixed with extremistleft-wing views, Jones (like almost all cult leaders) believed he was a sacredfountain of divine wisdom. His “wisdom” bewitched thousands of people, many ofwhom became his victims. This PBS documentary about the Peoples Temple isfairly conventional in terms of style but is helmed by the supremelytalented Stanley Nelson.

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

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Waco, Texas, now the sleepy home ofAmerica’s favorite home renovators Chip and Joanna Gaines,was once the site of an intense standoff between the Branch Davidian cult andthe ATF. This supremely engaging documentary is more about that siege than thetenets of the cult but the debate surrounding the event still provokesdiscussion and controversy. At what point does a cult cross the threshold frompotentially dangerous to actually dangerous? And when is law enforcementjustified in taking action? These questions and many other issues are exploredin Waco: The Rules of Engagement, which is not just one of thebest documentaries about a cult, but one of the all-time great documentariesperiod.

Wild Wild Country

Image via Netflix

This stylish Netflix docuseriesfrom Maclain and Chapman Way chronicles the beliefsand exploits of the Rajneeshpuram community/cult located in the wilds of Oregonin the 1980s. This group is a bit less threatening than the more radical cultsfeatured on this list, but they nonetheless conspired to commit a couple ofacts of domestic terrorism. The Way brothers imbued this series with a uniqueaesthetic and story structure that help it stand apart from more conventionaldocumentaries with a similar subject. Wild Wild Country alsodoes a remarkable job of conveying the appeal of the perceived spiritualenlightenment and radical freedom of the Rajneeshpuram community. Just when theaudience is almost sympathetic to the group, the Waybrothers pull back the curtain and expose the fraudulent puppet master pullingall the strings.

The Source Family

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This is the definitivecounter-culture hippie commune cult story, with a mystical bearded leader, hispsychedelic rock group, and his many wives all living together in a mansion inthe Hollywood Hills. The Source Family is probably the least insidious cult onthis list. Although its members are, to some extent, under the spell of theusual charismatic male leader, they are more eccentric than harmful. It doesn’thurt that the 1960s counter-culture inspired some new and odd ways of living,some of which were adopted into mainstream culture. Whatever one might think oftheir tenets, it cannot be denied that the Ya Ho Wha 13 band had a few genuinebangers. The Source Family may very well be the mostunderrated cult documentary and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

Holy Hell

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Many cult documentaries are creepy,but Holy Hell might be the creepiest of all. The lingeringshots of Buddhafield cult leader Jaime Gomez (another mortal man who believeshe is divine) staring deep into the camera lens might give you a few nightmares,but it’s worth it. The archival footage in this film must be seen to bebelieved. While most of the cults on this list have either disbanded orsuffered a tragic end, the Buddhafield cult still continues to this day, oftenrecruiting new members at yoga studios. It’s a rare instance of a celebrateddocumentary being unable to put a stop to a cult leader’s abuse. But that maybe all the more reason to watch this film and be aware of Gomez’s continuedthreat to vulnerable people searching for enlightenment.

Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief

Image via HBO

Alex Gibney has madedocumentaries about almost every subject under the sun, but GoingClear may be his most dangerous film, as the Church of Scientologystill enjoys a devoted, widespread, and notoriously vengeful following.Scientologists do not take kindly to criticism, however valid it may be, andresent being categorized as a cult. Nonetheless, it’s hard to hear the storiesof psychological manipulation in this film (not to mention many instances ofpseudoscientific nonsense) and not come away with the impression thatScientology is either a full-blown cult or, at the very least, very cult-ish.Gibney is a master of non-fiction storytelling, and he pulls absolutely nopunches in his efforts to expose Scientology for what it really is.

The Vow

Image via HBO

This HBO docuseries is largely told fromthe perspective of ex-members of NXIVM, an odd multi-level marketing companywith a secret sex trafficking cult lurking inside it. Members are conditionedto become “slaves” with a “master” who controls nearly everything in theirlives, including what they can and can’t eat. The “slaves” must even go so faras to literally brand themselves as if they were cattle. Unraveling thepsychology behind NXIVM’s leader, currently serving a lifetime sentence inprison, reveals a disturbing pattern of psychological manipulation pretendingto be motivational self-help. The ex-members of NXIVM attempt to understand howthey could’ve fallen prey to some pretty obviously disturbing behavior and thenuse their newfound understanding to help save current members. TheVow is totally engrossing and has more of a conventionalinvestigative approach to its subject. It’s the most recent film on this listand demonstrates that the allure of cults has certainly not subsided with time.


Image via AmericanInternational Pictures

This film is not as widely availableas the others on this list, but it’s worth seeking out. Released in 1973, justa few short years after the infamous and horrifying Tate-LaBiancamurders, Manson is essentially a time capsule of the Mansonfamily, featuring interviews with several of Charlie’s most prominentfollowers, footage of Spahn Ranch (immortalized in QuentinTarantino’s Once Upon aTime…In Hollywood), and an original score composed by actualManson family members. The film desperately deserves a proper release anddigital restoration if for no other reason than its remarkable historicalvalue. Until then, seek out the less-than-pristine versions of this filmlingering on the internet and be transported back to one of the most notoriouscrimes in American history.

Prophet’s Prey

Director Amy Berg hasdeveloped a special talent for adeptly and compassionately telling storiesinvolving sexual misconduct and abuse. Her 2006 debut feature DeliverUs From Evil is a masterpiece and this film about Warren Jeffs, aformer leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-DaySaints, is nearly as good. While it’s always been a hotly debated issue as towhat exactly separates a religion from a cult, it’s pretty much impossible todescribe the actions of a convicted criminal such as Jeffs as being spiritualin any sense of the word. Berg’s unique talent for exposing criminality whilealso exploring the complexities of the criminality in question is certainly ondisplay in Prophet’s Prey, a film that serves as a potent warningagainst trusting authority figures merely because they are authority figures.


Image via KinoLorber

This is the most unorthodox film onthis list and is perhaps best described as a more serious version of Borat.Director Vikram Gandhi poses as a New Age spiritualguru in an attempt to gain actual devoted followers. The ethics of this premisecan certainly be debated, but it’s hard to argue that the film doesn’t make acompelling point. Literally anyone with enough charisma and knowledge of NewAge jargon can become the leader of a spiritual movement and/or cult. To seethis in action, unfolding before our eyes, is simultaneously amusing andalarming. Gandhi is unafraid to embark on a filmed social experiment that shedsnew light on how we think about both cults and spirituality.

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