The 13 Most Terrifying Films About Cults, Both Real and Fictional
Midsommar, a 2019 horror film by Ari Aster, depicted the inner workings of a fictional cult in Sweden with a horrific secret. Unsettling and one of the best horror films in recent memory, it achieved what so many contemporary horror movies have failed to do: terrify without the use of jump scares or blood (or, at least, a lot of it).
In recent years, cults have been featured in a number of contemporary docuseries and films based on true stories, such as Waco on Paramount and Heaven’s Gate on HBO Max. Perhaps our want to belong and feel part of something, and what some are ready to do to keep that sense of belonging, however violent or self-harming, has something to do with our interest with the subject.
Here are 13 cult-related films and television shows. A few of the stories are true. Others are based solely on true events. Several of these stories are based solely on fiction, but they nonetheless have a resemblance to reality. You won’t be able to look away, any way.
Is there anything left to say about Ari Aster’s timeless Midsommar? Pugh shines as Dani, a grief-stricken young lady who visits a Swedish commune pretending to be having a good time. You won’t have to worry about spoilers.
2. Wicker Man
The 1973 British film, not to be confused with the 2006 Nicolas Cage remake, tells the story of a sergeant dispatched to investigate a mysterious disappearance on a distant island. The island’s residents are followers of a violent religious cult.
3. Rosemary’s Baby
It’s the scariest of the scariest. After moving into a New York City apartment, a couple discovers their neighbors are members of a satanic group.
4. Wild Wild Country
A utopian community in the Oregon countryside was a goal of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s in 1981. They attempted serious criminal crimes to influence an election based on a very true scenario following encounters with local and state officials.
5. Going Clear
The seven-time Emmy-nominated documentary combines interviews with actual former members of the Church of Scientology and their experiences of their recruiting, their time as followers, and charges of sexual assault.
6. Jesus Camp
Jesus Camp, an Oscar-nominated documentary on an actual Christian summer camp in North Dakota, was a disturbing look into the camp itself. The camp’s leaders were accused of using cult-like methods to influence the children, leading to concerns about possible child exploitation and abuse.
It’s Ari Aster at his best again. When tragedy strikes again and again, a mourning family begins to realize that there may be a higher power at work in their life. Not based on any actual events, but it’s still terrible.
8. Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults
Almost everyone over the age of 25 has heard of the 1997 Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. In the HBO show, former members and family members of Heaven’s Gate relate the narrative of the cult from their perspective.
9. The Vow
HBO will air The Vow, a documentary series about the NXIVM sex trafficking group and its charismatic leader Keith Raniere, in August 2020. Allison Mack, the actress who played NXIVM on Smallville, was arrested for her involvement in the NXIVM scandal in 2018. As recently as October 2020, Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking, conspiracy, and other charges, and sentenced to 120 years in jail.
It recounts the 51-day standoff in six episodes and the circumstances that lead to the fatal fire that killed 76 people based on the true tale of the Branch Davidian cult siege in Texas in 1993.
11. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Jim Jones, the head of the Peoples Temple cult in Guyana in 1978, is the subject of a 2006 documentary. It’s definitely unsettling.
(It isn’t available on major streaming platforms, but you can see clips on YouTube.)
12. My Scientology
Another Scientology documentary, but this time with the help of documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux to sort through the confusion. Former church members reunite with Theroux to reenact scenes from their time there.
13. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Though it isn’t an accurate depiction of a cult, the film’s makers were definitely influenced by cult leaders in other films on this list. The film, which stars Elizabeth Olsen, tells the story of a lady who leaves a cult and returns to her family after a long absence.