From Charles Manson to Jim Jones via the rather gentler guru known as Osho, cults capture our attention not least because, looking into a cult leader's eyes, we wonder if perhaps - just perhaps - we might find ourselves caught by their charisma. Documentaries about cults allow us to do exactly that, while experiencing the emotions of former cult members driven to extreme lengths - even murder - to satisfy those that they idolised. There's also the question of how cult members can be "deprogrammed", to use the jargon of the anti-cult activists, and if life can ever be ordinary again. Our 10 best cult documentaries tackle these questions and more - and are themselves compulsive viewing.
Best cult documentaries of all time
Jonestown: Paradise Lost (2007)
The last, dark days of a doomed cult. Jim Jones believed he was the source of divine wisdom. His Jonestown set-up in the jungles of Guyana attracted hundreds of devotees to his mixture of religion and politics sourced in admiration for the likes of Stalin and Hitler. Mass murder and suicide by cyanide poisoning killed 918 people at Jonestown, as the cult imploded. Jones's son Stephan Jones is one of those interviewed, and survivors' accounts are mixed with staged re-enactments.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
Acclaimed account of a little-known 1970s cult. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, attracted tens of thousands to stadiums in the US in the 1970s, eager to hear his message of dynamic meditation, spirituality and sexuality. An 80,000 acre ranch in a remote part of Oregon was the setting for what was supposed to be a utopian commune, outraging locals. Followers and insiders tell what happened next, including allegations of poisoning and illicit riches. Osho himself is said to have fled by Lear Jet.
My Scientology Movie (2015)
Is Scientology a cult? Decide with the help of Louis Theroux, here teaming up with the Oscar-winning producer of 'Waiting for Sugarman' for this innovative feature-length investigation. Dramatic reconstructions were co-directed by ex-Scientologists, and the film also includes the Church of Scientology's incensed response, which includes surveillance of the production. The film reveals its own structure in recruiting actors to play a variety of roles, including a portrayal of Tom Cruise.
Life After Manson (2014)
Chilling insider account from former Manson Family member Patricia Krenwinkel, whose adulation for Charles Manson and his Californian cult led her to participate in the Family's mass murder in 1971 of nine people, including the actress Sharon Tate. Krenwinkel was just 21 at the time, and her reflections at the age of 66 reveal her as a broken woman, struggling with that fact that she loved Manson and sought his approval.
Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (2020)
NXIVM was billed by its founder, Keith Raniere, as a self-help organisation for women. In practice, it was a front for sexual abuse, here documented by former follower India Oxenberg who enrolled in one of NXIVM's so-called "Executive Success Programmes" which were offered around the world. 'Seduced' has won awards for its unflinching treatment of its subject, which includes Oxenberg's mother and her fight to free her daughter, along with other former cult members.
Holy Hell (2016)
Rare story of an alleged cult that still continues today. Buddhafield was - and is - led by Jaime Gomez, who calls himself The Teacher, drawing largely on New Age ideas, in a movement riven with allegations of abuse. This documentary takes us behind the scenes through the eyes of Will Allen, who became a follower and filmed what happened over a 20-year period. Gomez himself speaks directly into the camera lens and Allen explains how gradually he became disillusioned.
A unique approach from film-maker Vikram Gandhi, who sets himself up as a fake guru in India - and gains real followers. Can they experience true enlightenment despite the self-evident fraud? And how easy is it to set up your own cult? Intriguing questions answered in this fast-paced, always entertaining and intriguing documentary. The cameras follow Gandhi every step of the way, not shying way from questions of dubious integrity.
Waco: Madman or Messiah? (2018)
A no-holds-barred examination of the charisma of Branch Davidian sect leader David Koresh, with testimony from nine former Branch Davidians who fell under his spell. First of two parts sets out the rise of Koresh as devotees from around the world travel to hear him speak - and as Branch Davidian teachings become increasingly apocalyptic. Part two documents the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the stand-off with the FBI.
The Source Family (2013)
Complete with its own thumping soundtrack from psychedelic rock band Ya Ho Wha 13, The Source Family set up home in the Hollywood Hills in the heyday of the counter-culture in the 1970s, led by an eccentric guru known as Father Yod. His mansion was home to his many wives and children, and his former followers here tell the colourful story of what they saw as an idealistic commune, setting out new ways to live. A gentler cult perhaps, but a cult nonetheless.
How do you persuade someone out of a cult? Meet Ted "Black Lightning" Patrick, who devoted many years to "deprogramming" cult members in the 1970s. Filmmaker Mia Donovan has a personal interest: her step-father asked for Patrick's help when her brother became involved with a cult when she was a teenager. Here she documents the sometimes questionable tactics he used, and says of her subject, "he was the first person to advocate that there was a potential danger with these kinds of groups."
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