9 Disturbing Documentaries About Cults and Religion on Netflix Right Now
How far would you go to feel like you belong?
Cult documentaries are all the rage. From Scientology to Kabbalah to Rajneeshpuram, there seems to be a documentary or docu-series for every religious extremist group. But where does one start? We’ve compiled a list of the best (and most disturbing) docs available to stream on Netflix right now because cults are fascinating.
Because, sure, people want to belong to a group they identify with, and maybe it’s this internal quest for acceptance that fuels so many cults. Whether it bases the collective ideology on religion or a more secular and idealistic lifestyle, cults are generally marked by a distaste for critical thinking among followers. They’re also often led by a charismatic and infallible leader.
From there, cults, both secular and religious, get creative. To see what we mean, take a gander at the documentaries and docu-series below.
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Wild, Wild Country, 2017
Nothing in this Oscar-winning docuseries, executive produced by the Duplass brothers, is exactly what it seems. You’d be forgiven for watching only the first episode of Wild, Wild Country and assuming the whole show is about a sex-crazed hippie commune inspired by Eastern religions, but things get more complicated quickly.
This series is actually the story of two very unlike communities — the people of Rajneeshpuram and Wasco County, Oregon — as they rub up against each other on barren American land.
Sure, cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is interesting, but his second-in-command takes center stage after a while. Indian-American-Swiss co-cultist Ma Anand Sheela proves to be a more formidable power in the cult over time, and she was instrumental to the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack. More so than any other series on the list, watching this will leave you shocked that you hadn’t heard this nutso story before.
The Keepers, 2017
The Catholic Church covering up cases of pedophilia in its leadership is such a well-publicized horror story that it’s difficult to imagine a time when people didn’t make pedo-priest jokes. What’s less often discussed is the way women in the church respond to allegations of sexual assault — some investigate tirelessly, a quest immortalized by Meryl Streep in Doubt, but others choose to act complicitly.
In the case of Sister Catherine Anne “Cathy” Cesnik, it’s believed that she was murdered for speaking up against abusive priests. This 2017 docuseries leaves viewers grasping at straws for a possible solution to Sister Cesnik’s murder, which remains unsolved.
One of Us, 2017
There are many reasons a New Yorker might leave the Hasidic community: they might want to go to college, or they discover they’re gay. The stories of Ari and Etty, two of the three characters of focus in 2017’s docu-drama, are perhaps a little darker and more disturbing than those told by average ex-communicated Hasidim.
Ari, a struggling cocaine addict, was assaulted as child and watched as his religious community covered up the attack. Etty was forced into marrying her abuser at 19 and bore 7 children while waiting on him hand and foot. From the filmmakers behind Jesus Camp (unfortunately not available on Netflix anymore), One of Us examines religious faith and orthodoxy with an impressively delicate touch.
Holy Hell, 2017
When 22-year-old Will Allen was kicked out of his house for being gay, he found solace temporarily in the Buddhafield cult. He eventually left and deprogrammed, but lucky for us, Allen is a filmmaker who compiled hours of footage he shot while living with the Buddhafield cultists into a documentary film for CNN. That film, Holy Hell, is available on Netflix, and it’s a sensitive (yet disturbing) look at how cults never appear sinister right away. In fact, Allen benefitted in quite a few ways from joining Buddhafield, though he almost paid with his independence.
The Lost Key, 2014
The Lost Key delves into sexuality in Judaism and Kabbalah, which most of us remember as “the Judaism-adjacent sect that absorbed Madonna”. Like Holy Hell, this documentary tells a specific and personal story, as the filmmaker Ricardo Adler analyzes his spirituality and speaks with a Rabbi after a brutal divorce.
Rabbi Manis Friedman and Adler himself are flawed individuals, and reviews of the documentary called them both somewhat self-involved and prone to navel-gazing. However, if you’re feeling curious about how religious people cope with sexual urges, and their intense drive for intimacy, The Lost Key is a fascinating look into one man’s life.
Witches: A Century of Murder, 2015
Often, the rise of strict religions comes with a body count. In the case of Puritan Christianity in Britain, women were tortured and killed under the suspicion that they were witches, possessed, or were otherwise communing with the occult.
Witch trials are a common subject in creepy pop culture, but Witches: A Century of Murder makes the subject feel freshly disturbing, by setting it outside the American colonies and in rural Britain. Though it’s not technically about a cult, Witches explores what happens to a group of people when their new ideals override their shared humanity.
Once you exit a cult, how do you regain your independence and sense of self? For many people, this process of returning to life outside a cult is called “deprogramming”, and this 2016 documentary tells the story of several people who needed to be removed from cults.
Cults encourage their members to drop out of society completely, to cut off ties with loved ones and change their personality traits and habits. Many cults involve drug use, but even the ones that don’t, according to Deprogrammed use a type of psychological intoxication, born from a charismatic leader and a cult’s developing hive mind.
Enlighten Us, 2016
From CNN, Enlighten Us investigates three murders that occurred within the following of self-help speaker James Arthur Ray. In 2009, Ray ended a meditation retreat by asking his followers to shave their heads and fast without food or water for days in the desert. His followers had each paid $10,000 to attend.
By the time the sun went down on the cult retreat’s finale, followers were screaming for help and hallucinating. Eventually, three people died from heatstroke, and eighteen more were hospitalized.
Enlighten Us doesn’t just tell the story of that fateful night; it dramatizes it and then illustrates where James Arthur Ray is now. The documentary was detested by the victims’ families because it showed Ray in his own dark moments, but it’s worth watching just to experience how far astray people can be led when the man leading them is likable.
My Scientology Movie, 2015
No, HBO’s incredible Scientology documentary, Going Clear, is not available on Netflix. However, a stranger and more personal-feeling documentary is available to stream.
British filmmaker Louis Theroux tries his best to crack the protective shell of Scientology followers, but the cult’s hold on them is so intense that Theroux eventually fails. Watching his subjects, including Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta, avoid certain questions and talk endlessly about themselves is fascinating enough to merit a watch.
This article, originally published on August 22, 2017, has been updated.