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After The Vow Part II, take a deeper dive into the eerie world of cults

NXIVM cult

If Keith Raniere and the story of NXIVM didn’t creep you out enough, consider our picks for some of the past decade’s best documentaries about cults

The Vow Part II, premiering on HBO Max this week, still doesn’t make it any easier to believe that a professional bullshit artist like Keith Raniere, based on such outrageous lies as claiming he had the second highest IQ in the world, was able to create his own “executive success” cult, with an all-female inner circle who committed sexual assault and branding rituals to prove their devotion to him. Nothing about a cult seems believable from the outside, which is perhaps what makes documentaries about cults both so intriguing and chilling to watch – how can something so bizarre make perfect sense to some people? 

With that, here’s some suggestions for additional documentaries based on real life cults, covering both the infamous and the lesser known:

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO Max): If there was ever a King of Bullshit, then surely L. Ron Hubbard would have worn the crown. A self-proclaimed “philosopher, explorer and humanitarian” who wrote over 5,000 books (one of which he claimed would drive readers insane), Hubbard was the founder of Scientology, an extremely complicated philosophy/religion with recruiting techniques and an insistence on secrecy that quickly rendered it a cult. To try to explain the tenets of Scientology would require more room than allowed here, and Going Clear, while still being a deeply fascinating watch, barely scratches the surface of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, which goes deep on the baffling details of Hubbard’s life, the founding of Scientology, and its current state, which employs Mafia-like methods to ensure that former members don’t reveal its secrets.

Wild Wild Country (Netflix): If someone made up the events in Wild Wild Country for a movie, no one would buy it. An attempt to create a remote Oregon commune for the followers of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh resulted in an ugly years-long battle between the nearby townspeople and the guru’s followers, involving angry, profanity-laced press conferences from Rajneesh’s right-hand woman Ma Anand Sheela, and even an attempt at mass poisoning. Sheela is a particularly fascinating interview, breezily unrepentant and even amused about her numerous convictions for several counts of attempted murder. As far as she was concerned, she was doing it all in the name of Rajneesh, which was no different than doing it in the name of God.

Wild Wild Country
Wild Wild Country (Netflix)

LulaRich (Amazon Prime): While not a cult exactly, Mark and Deanne Stidham, the founders of MLM giant Lularoe, once inescapable if you’ve spent more than five minutes on Facebook, used similar recruiting techniques to draw in new salespeople, namely appealing to lonely, unfulfilled women who wanted to be a part of something bigger than them. Despite the fact that barely a fraction of Lularoe’s salespeople broke even with their investment, the founders demanded an all-or-nothing devotion to the brand that put many individuals hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. Like Ma Anand Sheela in Wild Wild Country, the Stidhams are proudly unrepentant about the damage they’ve done, believing that the massive financial losses many of those who bought the golden picture of success they were selling simply didn’t want it bad enough.

Heaven’s Gate: the Cult of Cults (HBO Max): Clay Tweel’s unexpectedly poignant documentary recounts the Heaven’s Gate cult from the inside, using never before seen footage and interviewing some of its most devout members, who managed to escape before the shocking 1997 mass suicide. Cult leader Marshall “Ti” Applewhite is portrayed not as a megalomaniacal monster, but a troubled, lonely man who seemed quite sincere in his belief that he could communicate with extraterrestrial beings, and who was utterly lost after the death of his partner and co-leader Bonnie “Do” Nettles. As opposed to many other documentaries in the same genre, less time is spent on the lurid details of the suicide, in favor of illustrating the emotional devastation inflicted when someone leaves behind their loved ones to join a cult, as well as, in this case, what happens when a tragedy become a cruel pop culture joke.

Heaven's Gate: the Cult of Cults
Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (HBO Max)

Keep Sweet, Pray and Obey (Netflix): While Mormonism isn’t itself a cult, the renegade sect which broke off and formed its own community in Colorado City, Arizona, based largely on a refusal to pay taxes and abide by the Mormon Church’s ban on polygamy, embraced the most insidious aspects of one – namely isolation, keeping members in line with physical and sexual abuse, and demanding that its followers treat their leader as a God-like figure who cannot be questioned. Sect leader Warren Jeffs, after conveniently inheriting the position from his father, took full advantage of that third one, amassing a collection of up to 78 wives, many of them underage (and even a few related to him in some way or another), and is currently serving 20 years for rape and sexual assault on a child. As with Lularich and Wild Wild Country, the most chilling thing about Keep Sweet is Jeffs’ unrepentance, as well as the fact that many of his followers, even some of those he victimized, believe he did nothing wrong, and still consider him their leader  As a warning, this documentary graphically recounts the abuse Jeffs inflicted on his young victims, and includes audio of one such assault.

Q: Into the Storm (HBO Max): The first cult created entirely on the internet, not to mention the rare one that wasn’t founded upon some religious or philosophical basis (save perhaps for worship of Donald Trump initially), QAnon, powered on conspiracy theories, no small amount of antisemitism, and a supposed crusade against child sex trafficking, seemed like kind of a joke, until suddenly it wasn’t. Originally started to troll internet message boards, Q quickly turned into its own uncontrollable beast, eventually culminating in relentless harassment, murder-suicides, and the January 6th Capitol riots, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. Its global reach, not to mention its appeal to the worst, darkest instincts of humanity (causing harm while still believing you’re on the side of “good”) might make QAnon the most dangerous of the cults featured on this list.

If you prefer dramatized or fictional takes on cults, consider: Under the Banner of Heaven, Midsommar, Hereditary, The Empty Man, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Endless, The Master, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, season 1 of True Detective.

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Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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