Every person on earth wants to feel like they belong, to feel like they’re recognized and valued by their peers. We socialize in groups often, comparing our proclivities and desires to those of our friends. We socialize in groups often, comparing our proclivities and desires to those of our friends, always trying to confirm whether we’re normal and well-adjusted.
Maybe that internal quest for acceptance is what fuels so many cults, some of which base their ideology on religion, and others that perpetuate a secular, but 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.
For more information on cults, both secular and religious, check out our list of Netflix documentary films and docu-series. From Scientology to Kabbalah to Evangelical Christianity, there’s something uncomfortable and persuasive for everyone.
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 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
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.
Jesus Camp, 2006
Jesus Camp has been on Netflix for a long time, and it’s generally considered one of the most shocking and disturbing documentaries ever made. The film, by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, follows several children as they attend a Charismatic, Evangelical Christian summer camp, to find their spiritual gifts and train for an impending war.
What makes the film so disturbing is that its subjects, mostly children ages 8-13, are clearly being manipulated by adults who feel like outcasts. In one scene, a female preacher tells a group of excited kids that if Harry Potter had existed in the Old Testament, he would have been put to death, because “warlocks are an enemy of the Lord.”