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Wild Wild Country
Wild Wild Country is the inspiration for this article and chances are most of you have already seen it. For those of you who haven’t, let’s see if we can explain the documentary in a way that makes sense. A charismatic but controversial guru establishes a community in the Oregon desert. Constant sex and drugs result, which sounds good and was probably fine for some people. But then the darker side of the cult (and government) showed up with bioterrorism, chemical warfare, wiretapping, and general politics mixed in. It’s the kind of cult that earns the bad reputation we already associate with them. Netflix
9. Sons of Perdition
The 2010 documentary Sons of Perdition provided an interesting look into the lives of teenage boys who have been kicked out of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon). However, being exiled from the church also meant being cut off from their families and everything they’d ever known. The film is heartbreaking yet insightful, and it will definitely open your eyes to the not-so-nice side of church culture.
7. The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter (2009) Director: Michael Dorsey
On August 8 & 9 in 1969, the ‘Manson Family’, a group of followers of cult leader and criminal Charles Manson, murdered in cold blood seven people, including the pregnant actress and wife of film-maker Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate. It is said that Manson often spoke to his ‘family’, comprised mostly of young woman, about an apocalyptic race war – which he referred to as ‘Helter Skelter’ – and the frenzied killings in Hollywood were done to incite a race war. Of course, there are different theories to why the killings were committed (some disturbingly pragmatic than the belief in ‘race war’) or on who controlled whom. Nevertheless, Charles Manson is the infamous American bogeyman (although he didn’t actually kill the seven) still haunting the nation’s collective psyche 50 years after the killings (or at least continues to capture the attention of American film-makers and writers).
There have been many movies and documentaries on this particular subject, from the Oscar-nominated documentary Manson (1973) plus the true-crime drama Helter Skelter (1976) based on Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book to the recent Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Yet Michael Dorsey’s The Six Degress of Helter Skelter offers a fascinating albeit slightly exploitative take on the Tate/Labianca murders. The documentary led by Hollywood historian and tour guide Scott Michaels follows the footsteps of the Manson family, visiting more than 40 locations related to the infamous August 1969 killings.
Dorsey’s documentary not only focuses on the detailed knowledge of Michaels on the Manson case but also explores Michaels’ own fascination or obsession with the crime (the man shows off some of his unique death memorabilia). This is may not be the right documentary to watch if you have never heard of Charles Manson, but those who have already read about the Manson family can find this to be a distinct take on one of the grisliest chapters in modern American history.
If you really want to find out how unsuspecting, normal people get sucked into cults, then The Vow is the cult documentary for you!
This mind-blowing series follows a group of adults that spent years inside NXIVM, filming almost all of their interactions for their then pro-NXIVM film plans.
It took years for them to realize what was going on…followed by years to truly get out.
Even if you followed the NXIVM trials closely, you’ll still be shocked by this series. The amount of detail provided is mind-boggling! From the seemingly good intentions to the truly disturbing acts going on behind closed doors, you’ll get to see every piece of the puzzle that led to the ultimate fall of one of the most notorious modern-day cults.
This is definitely one of the best cult documentaries out there and a perfect addition to your queue!
Oftentimes when people think about cults, they don’t consider how difficult it can be for former cult members to overcome the brainwashing and manipulation they’ve endured. The 2015 documentary Deprogrammed follows Ted ‘Black Lightning’ Patrick’s fight against cults through his method known as reverse brainwashing. Over the years, he has inspired other people to join in o the deprogramming movement and he has successfully helped countless people unlearn what was taught to them in cults.
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
Enlighten Us, 2016
From CNN, Enlighten Us investigates three murders that occurred within the following of self-help speaker James Arthur Ray. In 2009, Ray ended a meditation retreat by asking his followers to shave their heads and fast without food or water for days in the desert. His followers had each paid $10,000 to attend.
By the time the sun went down on the cult retreat’s finale, followers were screaming for help and hallucinating. Eventually, three people died from heatstroke, and eighteen more were hospitalized.
Enlighten Us doesn’t just tell the story of that fateful night; it dramatizes it and then illustrates where James Arthur Ray is now. The documentary was detested by the victims’ families because it showed Ray in his own dark moments, but it’s worth watching just to experience how far astray people can be led when the man leading them is likable.
One of Us, 2017
There are many reasons a New Yorker might leave the Hasidic community: they might want to go to college, or they discover they’re gay. The stories of Ari and Etty, two of the three characters of focus in 2017’s docu-drama, are perhaps a little darker and more disturbing than those told by average ex-communicated Hasidim.
Ari, a struggling cocaine addict, was assaulted as child and watched as his religious community covered up the attack. Etty was forced into marrying her abuser at 19 and bore 7 children while waiting on him hand and foot. From the filmmakers behind Jesus Camp (unfortunately not available on Netflix anymore), One of Us examines religious faith and orthodoxy with an impressively delicate touch.
2. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) Director: Alex Gibney
Ron Hubbard was a pulpy sci-fi author who took the easy way out for establishing a billion-dollar business: religion. He founded the Church of Scientology in 1954 which over the years covered itself under the aura of deceptions and mystery. But starting from the early 2000s, the Church’s dark secrets came under the spotlight, its former members began to give a clear picture of the alleged intimidation, mind control, and abuse. The most damning account on Scientology came in 2013 with the release of Lawrence Wright’s book, ‘Going Clear’. The book was made into a documentary by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (‘Taxi to the Dark Side’, ‘Enron’, ‘Zero Days’, etc).
As expected, the doc explores how the Church gained popularity by cultivating Hollywood stars like John Travolta, Tom Cruise. Gibney interviews some of high-level Scientology members who are more than willing to denounce it. Marty Rathbun, who was the right-hand man to Hubbard’s successor David Miscavige and who left the Church in 2004, gives an unsettling account of white-collar crime, carried out in the name of belief system. The most fascinating subject of the documentary, however, is Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and a Scientology member for 34 years. More than offering a disturbing chronicle of the Church’s blackmailing, fear-mongering, and blatant profiteering tactics, Gibney’s Going Clear questions how these intelligent, educated people bought all this gibberish as the path to enlightenment, making it one of the must-see documentaries about cults.
Children of God: Lost and Found
Children of God: Lost and Found may be somewhat of an amateur production (the producer, Noah Thomson, was a former member of the cult), but the perspective he provides makes it all worth it.
The details Noah provides about the essentially pedophile-run cult will sit with you for a long time.
Through countless interviews with himself and other former cult members, you realize just how devastating this environment was for them. With no education and a truly traumatic upbringing, they are left with little hope of a normal life.
If documentaries about cults interest you, then Children of God needs to make your list!