For as frightening as cults and cult-like groups can be, there’s also something fascinating about them. How do people get sucked into these often disturbing and sometimes dangerous belief systems? What makes so many influential cult leaders so magnetic? What shifts a group from a like-minded community of believers into something more sinister? This could never happen to us…right?
Recent Netflix hit Wild Wild Country, about a cult that gained popularity in Oregon in the ’80s, has us asking so many of these questions (as do the various reports about Allison Mack’s sex cult, which be turned into a TV series). It’s got us wanting to dive even deeper into the mysterious rabbit hole that a cultish scenario always seems to present. Lucky for us, Netflix’s library is well stocked with other unsettling documentaries, shows, and movies that explore just what can happen when devotion goes too far.
1Wild Wild Country
The double “wild” usage is more than fitting in the title of this six-part documentary series. The show follows the rise and fall of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s community of followers in Antelope, Oregon in the 1980s, and things get pretty crazy. What was initially billed as a utopian community eventually evolved into something much darker, and news footage, law enforcement officials, and former members paint a vivid picture of what happened and why.
Like a lot of cult stories, the one filmmaker Will Allen tells about his own experience in the Buddhafield group in this doc centers on a captivating leader who turned out to be all kinds of troubling. In this case, it’s a vain, controlling, failed actor known as Michel. Allen left the group several years ago, but the movie he made gives an extensive inside look at Buddhafield’s inner workings as Allen made films *for* the cult when he was a part of it, too, meaning he had access to a lot of intimate, exclusive footage.
3The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden
In 1929, a German man and woman left their lives behind and relocated to the tiny, remote island of Floreana in the Galapagos Islands to start fresh. This historical documentary from 2014 traces what happened in the years after when others heard of this modern “Adam and Eve” starting a new civilization and decided to join them. Hint: It involved disappearances, a baroness, and plenty of other surprising turns and mysteries. The doc also brings its players to life with the voiceover help of big-name celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, and Josh Radnor.
4Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray
Self-help star James Arthur Ray got a lot of street cred when his inclusion in the hit book The Secret made him one of Oprah’s go-to spiritual experts. The problem was Ray’s guidance eventually led to the infamous 2009 sweat lodge incident on one of his $10,000+ “Spiritual Warrior” retreats that killed three people and hospitalized 18 others. This CNN Films doc profiles Ray, who spent time in prison for his actions, and it shows just how things took a turn for the horrifying.
Between the news of Charles Manson’s death in November and the approaching 50th anniversary of the gruesome murders he orchestrated, the Manson family story has seen a resurgence in recent years. In Aquarius, a scripted and fictionalized NBC period drama that was canceled in 2016 after two seasons, David Duchovny plays an L.A. police sergeant who starts looking into Manson and the terrifying pull he seems to have over his impressionable teenage followers (who would eventually go on to kill for him). Both seasons are now streaming.
While the Christian summer camp this Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary profiles doesn’t necessarily fall under the traditional definition of a cult and the filmmakers insist they’re not pushing one point of view, much has been said about the often unsettling conviction the young campers portrayed in the film demonstrate and how intense belief systems can raise questions about manipulation, particularly when it comes to child and teen followers.
7American Experience: Ruby Ridge
This PBS special explores the factors that led to the deadly, highly publicized standoff between federal agents and the heavily armed Weaver family in northern Idaho in 1992 that’s been called the catalyst for the modern American militia movement.
8Children of God
A former member opens up about being raised in the sexually abusive cult known as the Family in this upsetting 1994 documentary.
Okay, yes, this one doesn’t quite fit in with the scary tone the rest of these. But the set-up of this Ellie Kemper comedy *is* about Kemper’s character Kimmy and her “sisters” being freed from a cult run by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). While the show doesn’t explore the cult idea very deeply, and makes light of the real-life abusive experience it’s spoofing (in addition to some other problematic representations), it hits the familiar idea of a charismatic con man having the power to destroy people’s lives on the head and also offers a hopeful message about life after surviving that kind of trauma.
And there’s more on the way: Season 4 Part 1 hits Netflix on May 30th.
10My Scientology Movie
This British documentary follows Louis Theroux as he tries to learn more about the controversial Church of Scientology some have likened to a cult. Theroux runs into roadblocks when he tries to meet with church officials, so he relies on former members’ accounts, actors, and a dose of humor.
11Welcome to Leith
In a small town in North Dakota, a white supremacist sets out to take over the government and create a haven for white separatists in 2012.
This 2016 Netflix original psychological thriller about a suburban dad (Fran Kranz) who joins an old friend (Adam Goldberg) at a vague weekend self-improvement seminar gets real messed up real fast as promises of a fresh start give way to an inescapable nightmare.
Ted Patrick has dedicated his life to “deprogramming” people who’ve been brainwashed by cults. Patrick, who calls himself “Black Lightening,” says he’s saved more than 1,600 people from cults, though this documentary also features people who say he’s caused more problems than he’s solved.
You’re in for some fascinating watches.