Cults. They’re ~so hot right now~, probably because we’re all a bit tired of true crime and the mystery of murder has now been taken from us c/o a million podcasts and doco deep-dives.
The next wave of obsession for the true crime fans will be cults, let me tell you. I’m already well on this train – I froth a cult doco, so I figured I’d round up some primo cult docos for you.
Some of these are incredibly hectic, some are more fascinating minus too much horror. But they’re all based on cults that are really, really intense.
This one comes first, because this cult was actually based in Australia. Yep, started in rural Victoria by yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne in the 60’s, the formation and development of her New Age group is wild. Think a psychiatric institution owned by the group that used LSD on patients, and 14 children – some from families in the group, some adopted – kept in seclusion and home-schooled, as well as suffering horrific abuse at Anne’s hand, like forced drug use and starvation punishment.
It’s obviously heavy-going and many of the children give incredibly moving and harrowing interviews, but as far as documentaries go, this is phenomenal in it’s depth and detail.
THE SOURCE FAMILY
The Source Family was led by Father Yod, a charismatic musician and owner of one of the most popular restaurants in LA during the 70’s – and the first vegetarian/health food one to boot.
At first, they were simply a commune based in Southern California, but as always with cults, things went south – culminating in a wild and terrifying move to rural Hawaii. This is hands-down my favourite cult documentary – The Source Family had such an incredible influence on California, and this film really showcases the hey-day of the commune, right through to the dark final days of the cult.
Holy Hell is a fascinating documentary because the cult involved still exists. They’re based in Hawaii, and as of 2016 when the film was released, had around 85-100 members.
The documentary was created by an ex-member, Will Allen, who was deeply involved with the cult for 22 years. He became the documentarian for the group, which means there’s tons of footage from his time there, making this a true deep-dive.
Christianity isn’t a cult, but as someone who grew up in a Pentecostal church environment, there are definitely some elements, depending on the church and/or denomination you are a part of, that can border on cult-like. This acclaimed doco looks at the fine lines between agency and manipulation.
It’s an amazing look at all the grey areas, and you’ll likely finish it feeling conflicted as to whether these children are simply making their own life choices, or if they’re too young to really understand what’s going on.
SONS OF PERDITION
Don’t watch this if you don’t want to cry. Sons Of Perdition follows a group of boys exiled from their community and families by Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed prophet of the Colorado-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for offenses like dating or listening to music that isn’t allowed in the community.
Because their childhood involved very little education, and almost complete insulation from the outside world, they’re often unable to adjust to normal life, and many turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and an important watch.
JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PEOPLES TEMPLE
The Peoples Temple was one of the most horrific cults in history. Let by Jim Jones, they eventually moved to Guyana, South America to form Jonestown, and you’d have to have lived under a rock to not be aware of the mass ‘suicide’ that led to 909 deaths 1978.
This documentary is fascinating because the subject matter is gripping – but it’s also phenomenal because it has so much first-hand footage from Jonestown itself.
THE MOST HATED FAMILY IN AMERICA
This amazing doco looks at Westboro Baptist Church – again, not exactly a cult but definitely a group that displays some concerning, cult-like traits.
Listening to the zealous members struggle in discussion with the inimitable Louis Theroux is uncomfortable viewing, but seeing evidence that these people are not simply evil nightmare demons – they’re real folks who obviously do some terrible things and have some questionable beliefs, but have “likeable” elements to them – makes for incredibly uncomfortable viewing given the terrible acts Westboro commits.
GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY
Again, Scientology isn’t officially classed as a cult (sorry, there’s a lot of not-cults in here but I think my vibe is on point) but this doco is worth a watch for it’s incredible reveal of the ins-and-outs of Scientology.
To give you an idea of how good it is, it was nominated for 7 Emmys and won 3, including Best Documentary, as well as winning a Peabody Award and Best Documentary from Writers Guild Of America.Image: The Source Family