Without a doubt, there’s something fascinating about cults. That’s, of course, the draw of series like LuLaRich and The Vow. While the cult-centric docs and podcasts we’re covering in this list are varied, they all aim to unravel that magnetism cults are known for — that thing that draws victims into these groups and glues viewers like us to our screens (or headphones).
Editor’s Note: Although the content of these podcasts and documentaries is only referenced and not discussed at length, some readers may still find the material triggering or upsetting.
“The Vow” (2020) | HBO
Chances are you’ve heard about NXIVM, the self-proclaimed multi-level marketing company — but you probably know it as a dangerous, Albany-based sex cult, not as a self-help and professional development group. But before the horror stories of abuse emerged, NXIVM billed itself as a means of helping members find community and getting their lives back on track through its “Executive Success Programs”. All of this was outlined in The Vow, HBO’s nine-part docuseries.
Toward the end of 2020, NXIVM’s leader, Keith Raniere, was sentenced to 120 years in prison when he was found guilty of sex trafficking and racketeering. Other high-ranking members of the cult, including former Smallville actor Allison Mack, were also convicted of abuse-related crimes. While The Vow certainly had a moment a few years ago — it was released ahead of Raniere’s conviction — it’s still worth the watch. Knowing what we know now, it’s difficult to imagine why the women who were abused by NXIVM and its leader would join up in the first place (or not spot the red flags); The Vow helps to unravel some of that cult mentality.
“The Way Down” (2021) | HBO
For eventual cult leaders, there’s nothing quite like preying on a person’s guilt or perceived self-worth — a worth that’s often shaped by the toxicity, pressures and limitations of society at large. In HBO’s The Way Down, you’ll learn how Gwen Shamblin combined diet culture with religious and moral scrupulosity to create the incredibly harmful Remnant Fellowship Church. Put plainly, the Remnant is a religious weight-loss cult, one that encourages its members to practice disordered eating with the mantra ‘pray yourself thin’.
For Shamblin, being thin makes you closer to God of godliness; the Remnant, which is based in a small town in the South, seduced folks of all ages and genders into joining. Soon enough, the congregation swelled in size — not unlike the height of Shamblin’s hair, which seems to become more clownish as the interview footage progresses. Since the Remnant Fellowship is still operating, The Way Down makes for a particularly chilling (and infuriating) watch.
“LuLaRich” (2021) | Amazon Prime
If you’re looking for another very contemporary cult doc, it’s worth delving into Amazon’s four-part series LuLaRich, which traces the bizarre story of LuLaRoe. If you’re familiar with the name LuLaRoe, you might recognize the business’ signature leggings — patterned with a variety of randomly selected images and bright colors.
The owners of the company, married couple DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham, grew LuLaRoe from a small enterprise with a few sales reps — mostly stay-at-home moms who wanted to earn some extra money or pursue work that fit with their schedules — into an outright clothing empire. Looking at it now, it’s clear that the sellers were pulled into a pyramid scheme. A scheme that had a start-up fee of roughly $5000, no less. (Of course, DeAnne and Mark still refuse to call it a pyramid scheme.)
As the company grew and the clothing gained a rabid following, there was more supply than demand; sellers who were in on the game early on did see a pretty penny in some cases, but others lost their savings, homes and more. The quality of clothing also suffered, buckling under the pressure to (needlessly) keep a massive amount of sellers stocked.
So, what was so seductive about LuLaRoe? The leggings were given to sellers at random, creating a Beanie Baby-like frenzy; sellers would unbox their shipments on Facebook Live, essentially auctioning them to the highest (or quickest) bidder. The only thing more unbelievable than the wild rise of LuLaRoe might just be that folks actually believed the leggings were cute. Tune into LuLaRich to see just how controlling and strange the $2.3 billion-scheme became.
“Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult” (2020) | Starz
Even after nine hours of The Vow, you might be left wanting more about the NXIVM scandal. After all, The Vow isn’t perfect: There’s certainly some bias — the series’ director, Mark Vicente, clearly didn’t want to paint himself in an irredeemable light, even though he was a pretty high-ranking NXIVM member — and some of the darkest truths about the sex-trafficking cult’s secret society aren’t delved into in earnest. That’s why the much more digestible four-part docuseries Seduced makes such a solid follow-up.
Seduced traces the story of India Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg and one of the cult’s most high-profile members. Like the folks spotlighted in The Vow, India was roped into a master-slave secret sorority that abused and branded its members. But, unlike the folks in HBO’s series, India stayed in the cult until the bitter end — and she has an interest in examining not just her status as a survivor, but her culpability as well, despite the indoctrination. Other former cult members share their experiences too and, unlike The Vow, Seduced is punctuated by interviews with cult experts, therapists and deprogrammers, all of whom help to paint a fuller, more honest picture of NXIVM’s abusive secret sorority and the ways in which Keith Raniere’s insidious, misogynistic doctrine shaped all facets of the alleged self-help organization.
“The Gateway: Teal Swan” (2018) | Podcast
In 2018, Gizmodo launched a podcast called The Gateway, which delves into still-active cult leader Teal Swan. For those who haven’t heard of Swan, she’s an internet guru of sorts; her highly popular YouTube page is littered with alleged self-help videos, targeting folks who are living with depression and suicidal ideation. In the series, the podcast’s host hopes to explore whether Swan is “a cult leader or the target of a witch hunt.” Compelling, right?
Sure, Swan has a “retreat center” (not unlike a commune) in Costa Rica, but the scariest part might be her virtual presence. Across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram she has hundreds of thousands of fans who are taken with her dangerous messages about mental health. Besides the fact that Swan’s alleged cult is still drawing in new followers to this day, it’s also one of the first high-profile cults to harness the power of social media and virtual followings. And that’s horrifying, to say the least, especially since Swan has been accused of promoting death by suicide.
“The Source Family” (2012) | Amazon Prime Video
Premiering at South by Southwest, The Source Family recounts the story of Father Yod; his experimental, cult-staffed psychedelic rock band Ya Ho Wha 13; and his titular cult. Founded in the ’70s amid the counterculture movement, the Source Family is perhaps one of the strangest cults on our list. It all started when Jim Baker, owner of a health food restaurant on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, founded a spiritual commune in the Hollywood Hills.
His influences? The teachings of Yogi Bhajan and the astrological age of Aquarius — insert that popular 5th Dimension song here. The cult eventually grew to nearly 150 members, all of whom were supported by Baker’s restaurant. Although the group kept their doctrines a secret, they famously followed an organic vegetarian diet and believed their communal home to be a sort of utopian ideal. Cobbled together from photos, diary entries, cassette tapes and film recordings from former member Isis Aquarian’s personal collection, The Source Family is a thorough look into this bizarre cult.
“I Got the Hell Out” (2017) | Podcast
The Pittsburgh-based pod I Got the Hell Out (IGTHO) is hosted by Laura and Debby — no last names. And for good reason. After all, the podcast centers on Debby’s 10 years living as a member of an “Old Testament, polygamous, doomsday cult.” Although she removed herself from the cult around 17 years ago, it’s clearly still got her rattled, hence the anonymity.
From gas masks to animal sacrifice, this podcast has it all, but what makes it stand out from the plethora of heavy, investigative podcasts on our list is that Debby provides a more intimate look into the day-to-day happenings of the cult. Writing for the Pittsburgh City Paper, Alex Gordon perhaps said it best, noting, “It may sound heavy topic-wise, but IGTHO works so well because it’s like eavesdropping on a couple friends getting tipsy while they tell fascinating stories.”
“Transmissions From Jonestown” (2016) | Podcast
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” then you know something about the tragedy of the Jonestown Massacre. Led by Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, which was based in Guyana, Jonestown, is perhaps most well-known for its end. Dubbed a “revolutionary suicide” by Jones, he created a cyanide-and-valium-laced drink — made less bitter by Flavor Aid — and encouraged his followers to drink it. At the time, the mass death by suicide at Jonestown left a staggering 909 followers dead in 1978, making it the largest loss of American civilian life.
It’s the huge loss of life — the fact that so many people drank the poison — that makes this cult so deeply disturbing. And that’s what Shannon Howard delves into in Transmissions From Jonestown, for which the host and creator digitizes tapes recovered by the U.S. military from Guyana. “To simply compartmentalize Peoples Temple as a brainwashed cult is a logical impossibility in light of what is captured on these recordings,” Howard wrote. “Though that might make understanding why so many people may have chosen to die more complicated, it clearly expresses something far more important. These were people just like you or me, and their lives mattered.”
“Wild Wild Country” (2018) | Netflix
A few years ago, Wild Wild Country made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival, which secured its release on Netflix — and even more popularity. The six-part documentary series tells the story of the controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho; his assistant Ma Anand Sheela; and the community of followers they established in Wasco County, Oregon.
Known as Rajneeshpuram, the Oregon-based community stemmed from a movement in India; in the late ’60s, Osho would fill entire stadiums and speak on capitalism and spirituality. Eventually, the group moved to the United States, setting up a commune on 80,000 acres. Although it sounds benign enough, the community is perhaps best known for its 1984 bioterror attacks and the 1985 Rajneeshee assassination plot — so, yes, things do get wild, wild.
“The Lost Women of NXIVM” (2019) | Hulu
Still haven’t heard enough about NXIVM? The Lost Women of NXIVM documentary came out before The Vow or Seduced and rode the wave of publicity that surrounded Keith Raniere and Allison Mack’s arrests. Instead of focusing all of its attention on the “self-help” organization and its tenants, Lost Women delves into a then-active investigation that aims to find out what happened to four disappeared (or potentially murdered) women who had connections to the group and Raniere.
In the two-part special, former NXIVM member Kristin Keeffe tells her story: a 24-year relationship with Raniere and his twisted web of abuse and control. “I left my house with nothing but my pocketbook. And I took a taxi to the police station,” Keeffe recalls in the documentary. “And while I was at the police station, the NXIVM attorneys found out and the NXIVM attorneys called there, and said, ‘We know she’s there.’ And I said, ‘That’s it. I can never go back.'”
“Heaven’s Gate” (2018) | Podcast
Based in San Diego, Heaven’s Gate was a UFO-obsessed religious cult founded in the mid-’70s by ex-minister Marshall Applewhite and his student Bonnie Nettles. An avid reader of sci-fi, Applewhite combined his interest in fiction with a foray into Biblical prophecy, all of which led to a doctrine that mashed up the Book of Revelations and UFOs. (Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but you’ll have to listen for all the intricacies.)
If you’ve previously heard of Heaven’s Gate, it’s likely due to the cult’s mass death by suicide, which occurred in a ritualistic manner in 1997. According to the group’s website and videotaped “farewell” messages, the act was committed because the members were “shedding their earthly bodies in order to meet a UFO they believed was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet — a UFO that would transport them to the kingdom of heaven” (via NPR). The Heaven’s Gate podcast gathers insight from former cult members, and, of course, breaks down what led to this tragic moment.
“Children of God” (1994) | Netflix
The 1994 documentary Children of God might be a bit older than some of the others on our list, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating — and truly horrifying. For those who don’t know, the Children of God, or “The Family,” is a religious cult that was founded in Huntington Beach, California, in the late ’60s.
Its founder, David Berg, considered himself a prophetic leader, and, initially, the cult spread messages about salvation, apocalypticism and “revolution and happiness.” The communal cult also taught its members to distrust the outside world, or “The System,” and started engaging in “Flirty Fishing,” a highly controversial kind of evangelism that uses sex to show God’s love. Additionally, some of the children who were raised in the cult include Rose McGowan and brothers River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix, making this older doc feel ever-relevant.
“IndoctriNation” (2018) | Podcast
Looking for something a little more clinical and slightly less heavy? The IndoctriNation podcast might be for you. Hosted by therapist Rachel Bernstein, the weekly podcast delves into “cults, manipulators and protecting yourself from systems of control.” And let’s just say it’s a little more thorough than My Favorite Murder‘s comical refrain of “You’re in a cult — call your dad.”
Bernstein has worked with victims of cults for nearly three decades and believes that, given the right environment, any one of us can fall prey to cult leaders, abusers and manipulators. “I wanted to start a show that gives survivors a chance to tell their stories and for experts to teach us what they know,” Bernstein states on her website. “My goal for IndoctriNation is to empower our listeners to protect themselves and those they love from predators, toxic personalities and destructive organizations.”