11 Documentaries About Real-Life Cults That Will Blow Your Mind

by Julie Sprankles
May 15, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Collage of real-life cult documentaries
Image: Netflix; CNN/Design: Ashley Britto/SheKnows

With Netflix’s new docu-series Wild Wild Country, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of the Rajneesh movement. Then, once you’ve made it through the entire six-part series, it’s impossible to stave off your curiosity about other cults. What is it that makes certain people susceptible to such polarizing pedagogy? What leads a person to the “calling” of a cult leader? And, most pressingly, can binge-watching documentaries about real-life cults offer any insight into the bizarre worlds inhabited by such people?

The lives of members of infamous cults, like the one chronicled in Wild Wild Country, make compelling fodder for limited television series and TV movies. So, you be the judge. Thanks to streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, it’s easier than ever to take a psychedelic trip into the belief systems of cult leaders and their followers.

We’ve gleaned 11 mind-blowing examples to get you started. But be forewarned, the following documentaries may leave you with more questions than answers.

1 /11: 'Wild Wild Country'

Cult Documentaries 'Wild Wild Country'
Image: Netflix

1/11 :'Wild Wild Country'

An oft-forgotten piece of American history, the Oregon cult formed by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the '80s made it abundantly clear why separation of church and state is so important (read: poisoning people to win an election is always a bad idea). The personalities examined in this jaw-dropping docu-series are so unfathomably eccentric that you almost forget that they're real, not fictional characters.

2 /11: 'Children of God: Lost and Found'

Cult Documentaries 'Children of God: Lost and Found'
Image: Netflix

2/11 :'Children of God: Lost and Found'

This documentary won’t just blow your mind — it will break your heart, too. Filmmaker and reformed Children of God cult member Noah Thompson bravely seeks out other families whose lives were fractured by sexual abuse and bondage that children endured as part of “The Family.” Interesting fact: Both Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix were born into this cult but escaped with relatives before any lasting damage was done.

3 /11: 'The Source Family'

Cult Documentaries 'The Source Family'
Image: Amazon Video

3/11 :'The Source Family'

Father Yod: That’s how Jim Baker was known to his followers, who subscribed to their founder’s hippy-dippy, hedonistic principles. In real life, he was a restaurateur and rumored bank robber — a man who accumulated people in an attempt to validate his bizarre delusions.

4 /11: 'Enlighten Us'

Cult Documentaries 'Enlighten Us'
Image: Amazon Video

4/11 :'Enlighten Us'

At what point does devotion to a self-help “evangelist” cross over into cult territory? This is the unspoken question explored in CNN’s Enlighten Us. The documentary takes a long, hard look at the meteoric rise and fall of self-professed guru James Arthur Ray, who went to jail for two years after several of his followers died during a sweat lodge ceremony in 2009.

5 /11: 'Waco: The Rules of Engagement'

Cult Documentaries 'Waco: The Rules of Engagement'
Image: Amazon Video

5/11 :'Waco: The Rules of Engagement'

Could the 1993 tragedy in Waco, Texas, have been prevented? William Gazecki’s Oscar-nominated 1997 documentary immerses viewers in the Branch Davidians cult formed by David Koresh, as well as the standoff that resulted in the death of federal agents and 76 members of the religious sect.

6 /11: 'Going Clear'

Cult Documentaries 'Going Clear'
Image: Amazon Video

6/11 :'Going Clear'

Considered the definitive Scientology documentary, Alex Gibney’s examination of the religion’s history and controversial founder will leave you dumbfounded. The fact that several high-profile celebrities still openly identify as Scientologists? That may be just as mysterious as the tenets discussed in Going Clear.

7 /11: 'Heaven's Gate: The Untold Story'

Cult Documentaries 'Heaven's Gate: The Untold Story'
Image: Amazon Video

7/11 :'Heaven's Gate: The Untold Story'

Arguably one of the best-known cults, Heaven’s Gate was a religious sect based out of San Diego that believed in, well, aliens. Confident that a UFO would save them all from certain death and deliver them to some existential plane of existence, 39 members participated in a mass suicide. Spoiler alert: The extraterrestrials didn't show.

8 /11: 'The Cult at the End of the World'

Cult Documentaries 'The Cult at the End of the World'
Image: YouTube

8/11 :'The Cult at the End of the World'

A case study in psychological manipulation, The Cult at the End of the World revisits the New Mexico community of Strong City, where sailor-turned-guru Michael Travesser had convinced his followers that life as we knew it would end during an apocalyptic event in 2007. Clearly, the world didn’t end for society as a whole. But did it end for the members of Travesser’s Lord Our Righteousness Church? Tune in.

9 /11: 'Holy Hell'

Cult Documentaries 'Holy Hell'
Image: Netflix

9/11 :'Holy Hell'

Watch Will Allen’s documentary about the Buddhafield movement, and you’ll walk away with a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. A member of the cult for 22 years, Allen provides a chilling behind-the-scenes glimpse into life under founder Michel Rostand — who was eventually found to be guilty of forcing young men to have sex with him.

10 /11: 'Jamestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple'

Cult Documentaries 'Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple'
Image: Firelight Media

10/11 :'Jamestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple'

Ever hear someone described as "drinking the Kool-Aid"? The saying comes from the story of polygamist fundamentalist Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. In 1978, the cult leader and almost all of his 900 followers committed mass suicide at their Guyana settlement by sipping poisoned drinks. Amy Berg’s documentary includes interviews with former members as well as survivors of that fateful day.

11 /11: 'Manson'

Cult Documentaries 'Manson'
Image: IMDB

11/11 :'Manson'

If your skin doesn’t crawl while watching this chilling 1973 documentary about Charles Manson, you’re made of stronger stuff than us, friend. Go inside the Manson Family’s Devil’s Canyon compound with filmmakers Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick for an unforgettable look at this murderous cult.