Skip to Content

The 10 Best Documentaries about Cults

The 10 Best Documentaries about Cults

Cults are morbidly fascinating. They unite like-minded people, but not in the beneficial ways mainstream religion or hobbies do. When a cult gets together, someone’s going to get victimized, and usually that someone is a whole lot of people all at once. What’s insane is that we all think we’re immune to that kind of brainwashing, but, as we learned putting this list together, all it takes to bring someone into a cult is having the right one come along. These are the best documentaries about cults.

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

Children of God

It’s almost unfathomable how many cults end up abusing kids. Yet it seems like any time children are brought into a cult, they’re brought in as future victims, not people. Children of God follows the Padilla family as they describe their time with the Children of God, a cult that specialized in pedophilia, abuse, and prostitution. Their experience seems standard, as sad as it is to say, with their four daughters experiencing plenty of trauma in their time with the cult and one meeting an untimely death. Netflix

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

Enlighten Us

Anyone who has trouble understanding the hold a cult can get on your mind only needs to think about self-help sessions, gurus, and books, and how crazily intense people can get about those. Everyone knows someone who reads some shittily titled, delusional book that’ll claim to fix everything for them, then get way too into it. People like James Arthur Ray are exactly like that. They can get people to pay ten grand to not drink water for two days, not eat for a day and a half, then cram themselves full of food at breakfast and sit in a sweat lodge. It’s a minor miracle only three people died. Ray went to jail afterwards and Enlighten Us shows some of how he’s seeking redemption, but mostly it asks difficult questions of both Ray and the people who followed him. Netflix


Part of the reason so many people stay in cults is the simple fact that leaving them is terrifying, even verging on literally unthinkable. This is the life they know and coming back to society takes almost superhuman amounts of courage. Deprogrammed explores the support system in place for helping ex-cultists rejoin the rest of the world. It’s a system pioneered by Ted Patrick, who’s adopted the nickname “Black Lightening,” and he claims he and his network have helped upwards of 1,600 people ditch their connection to cults. Though, don’t completely buy into his system, as there are those who wonder if he’s doing as much good as he claims. Netflix

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

The main cultural context we have for the Galapagos islands is Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos, which is remarkably similar to the subject of this documentary. A small community forms on the island chain and explores their humanity. In Vonnegut’s case, it was because of an apocalypse. In this documentary’s case, it was a quest to start over in an idyllic setting. Obviously, because humans usually can’t keep themselves from stirring the pot, things start to go wrong, which is exactly what the documentary explores. There was a string of disappearances in the community, which you wouldn’t think would be possible on a small island community, but life finds a way. Netflix

Dark Net

If you really want to understand what the dark web is, beyond the alarmist reports on cable news, ridiculous commercials about identity theft, and the detached musings of older relatives, watch Dark Net. It’s a docuseries that does good, honest work in trying to convey the kind of activities enabled by the dark web, good, bad, and very bad. There are episodes about online cults, pornography, pedophilia, social media, robots, politics, and anything else the dark web covers. It’s not a cult per se, but there are enough cult-like elements (as well as actual cults on the dark web) that we think it fits on this list as well as any other pick. Netflix

Waco: Rules of Engagement

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’ll defend any aspect of the siege in Waco in 1993. But that doesn’t mean we get to forget about it. There’s a lot left to learn about the incident, from the federal government’s role in events like it, a cult’s responsibility to its members, and people’s tendency to accidentally escalate tense situations. There’s also something to be said for people’s willingness to die for a cause, or, alternatively, a cult’s ability to force people to die. Amazon Prime

The Source Family

Maybe this says a lot more about us than anything else, but we’d have a really hard time trusting someone named Father Yod. That said, he and his cult fit perfectly into what we imagine of 1970s L.A. There was crazy clothing, health food, rock n roll, and hot ladies, which all fit with the era. But then, so does their conflict with the local authorities. The documentary uses archival footage and interviews with former band members to flesh out what they experienced and piece together their lifestyle.  Amazon Prime

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

Do Not Sell My Personal Information