True crime has become an inescapable genre of pop culture, and one of the most popular facets of that genre are deep dives into the dark world of cults and their leaders. The voyeuristic appeal of these documentaries make sense, and go with the whole "learning manipulators' methods so you can avoid them" argument for why true crime is important. (You can sub out manipulators for serial killers or scammers for other subgenres.) However, many of the best cult docs are also notable for their focus on the survivors, offering recovery stories of people who have left those groups and are now unlearning years of brainwashing.
From must-watch watercooler hits like Wild Wild Country to buzzy new releases like Escaping Twin Flames, read on for a selection of cult-focused docuseries that are a must-watch.
'Escaping Twin Flames'
Netflix's jaw-dropping doc introduces the world to Jeff and Shaleia Ayan, the leaders of a Facebook group called "Twin Flames Universe" that claims to help people find their eternal soulmate or "twin flame." In the three-part series, former members of the group explain out how the alleged cult leaders preyed on lonely singles' vulnerabilities and fears under the guise of helping them in discover their match, all while setting up a coaching pyramid scheme and encouraging clients to stalk their potential love interests.
'Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God'
This three-part docuseries covers the life and death of Amy Carlson Stroud, who led a quasi-religious group that promised an escape from the “3D” world. Through her live-streamed spiritual sessions and wellness products, the former McDonalds manager and self-proclaimed "Mother God" gathered a group of vulnerable followers who, following her death, remained faithful and enshrined her mummified body in their home. Love Has Won chronicles this harrowing tale of idolatry via archival footage and interviews from the remaining believers.
HBO's gripping multi-part docuseries tells the disturbing story of the self-help corporation NXIVM and its leader Keith Raniere, who's now serving a life sentence in prison after being convicted of crimes including sex trafficking. The series shows viewers how Rainere disguised psychological manipulation as motivational self-help, eventually conditioning members into becoming sex slaves. (Starz's Seduced is another biting take on the NXIVM cult, if you are really invested.)
'The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin'
This five-part doc examines the cult-like Remnant Fellowship Church founded by Gwen Shamblin Lara following the massive success of her Christian weight loss program "The Weigh Down." During Shamblin's tenure as leader of Remnant, the church faced multiple accusations of exploitation and emotional and psychological abuse, including an alleged culture of physical abuse against children. The thorough docuseries also looks into the fate of the church following Shamblin's untimely death in a plane crash, along with her husband Joe Lara, their son-in-law Brandon Hannah, and four other Church leaders.
'Wild Wild Country'
This six-part doc tells the story of Rajneeshpuram, a commune established in rural Oregon in the 1980s by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his lieutenant Sheela Birnstiel. The extensive series dives deep into the commune from all angles from Rajneesh's followers to law enforcement officials, to the residents of the adjacent tiny town of Antelope, Oregon, who eventually reached a standstill with the "free love" community.
'Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey'
One of the many documentaries that looks into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, this four-part series examines the polygamous cult via its treatment of women, which used forced marriage and family separation as means of psychological control. Jeffs—who was eventually found guilty of two sexual assaults of a child—married 78 women within the community (24 of whom were underage children) before he was eventually sentenced to life in prison.
'Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets'
This jaw-dropping documentary about reality TV alums the Duggar family touches heavily upon the fundamentalist Christian cult to which they belonged, the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), and its homeschooling curriculum, the Advanced Training Institute. It lays out how parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar were influenced by founder Bill Gothard's teachings, with testimony from their friends and family, including a heartbreaking interview with Jill Duggar Dillard.
'Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence'
In the fall of 2010, Larry Ray began sleeping over at his daughter's student housing near Sarah Lawrence College, and he soon captivated several of the impressionable students who also lived there. For years after, the previously-incarcerated 50-year-old and these young people lived together in a cramped apartment as Ray demanded money, forced labor, and sometimes sexual acts from them. This three-part doc depicts what went on leading up to Ray's 2022 conviction for 15 federal counts—including extortion, sex trafficking, and racketeering conspiracy.
The Deep End
Teal Swan, the controversial spiritual influencer at the center of this four-part miniseries, has been accused of gathering a hyper-loyal community of followers through cult-like methods. This doc gives an inside look at Swan's personality and her operation, with interviews from her detractors.
'Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults'
Even someone with a cursory knowledge of cults has likely heard of Heaven's Gate, the extreme religious group whose leaders Ti and Do brainwashed followers into believing they could "chemically and biologically transform" into "next-level aliens." This four-part docuseries details the history of the infamous cult and the events leading up to their tragic 1997 mass ritual suicide.
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