Trigger Warning: This list contains mentions of sexual assault, coercive control, conversion therapy, extreme violence, mental distress, body shaming, and abuse.
Cults. The word alone makes me simultaneously curious and terrified. And the public's morbid fascination with cult leaders, their members, the goings on inside these organisations, and just how people manage to get drawn in, makes for endless discussion. Whether it's
documentaries or totally fictional, I'm there. And, luckily for me and all my fellow fascinated friends, the best TV shows and movies about cults on Netflix UK are just a click away.
According to the
Guardian, there are three defining traits to a cult. They are: "A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power." "A process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called 'brainwashing']." "Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie."
Right, so basically a whole lot of seriously scary stuff. And it's so easy to think "meh that would never happen to me!" But that's what everyone thinks at first... which is why these stories are so darn fascinating.
Read on for our picks of the best TV shows and movies about cults on Netflix UK right now.
Love this list? to save these recs to your own watchlist and follow Create a Likewise account Bustle for more. You'll always know exactly what to watch next. 1 'Wild Wild Country' — 2018
Oh my days this Netflix cult documentary is the kind of one you marathon in one sesh because it will make you no longer care about sleep. The story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (AKA Osho) and his organisation, who took over a small rural town called Antelope in Oregon, will shock and fascinate you.
This group had a lot of parties, dancing, matching garms... oh, and they allegedly threatened and poisoned a heap of people. What? Yes.
The members of the group, sannyasins, as they were known, lived a simple life on a huge ranch in Antelope. However, it was reported that Rajneesh lived a pretty insanely luxurious life,
owning an estimated 90 Rolls Royces, the BBC reports.
This is one of those series that will have you shouting "OMG!" every now and again.
Watch here 2 'Three Wives One Husband' — 2017
Is there actually anything more fascinating than people who are part of polygamist organisations? How about adding onto that the fact that they also live in houses carved into cliffs? I know, right?
This series is about the lives of fundamentalist Mormon in polygamist relationships, their families, and how it all works. Sam Wollaston over at the
Guardian hit the nail on the head when he described it as "pretty much one long OMG WTF."
This is one of the more lighthearted among the range of shows about cults on Netflix.
Watch here 3 'Aquarius' — 2016 Aquarius is a fictional crime drama set in '60s America during the rise of Charles Manson and 'The Family.'
David Duchovny stars as an L.A. police sergeant who is investigating Manson and his control over his followers.
Based on The Family and real-life their deeds, this makes for a very interesting take on a very well-known story. Sadly, the show has now been cancelled, but the first two seasons are available for your viewing pleasure right this minute on Netflix UK.
Watch here 4 'The Family' — 2019
Where to begin? This Netflix cult documentary series details a terrifying organisation that alleges they have seats at the tables of global powers and powerful decision making groups, in secret.
Half documentary half dramatisations, this is the story of a group described as having "tentacles around the world." Featuring interviews from both former members and experts on the matter that will leave you reeling.
Perfect for those who love a conspiracy theory.
Watch here 5 'Inside The Criminal Mind', Ep 3 — 2018
OK, so this episode isn't just about one cult but about a whole bunch of them. Looking at leaders from David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, to Charles Manson, to Jim Jones of Jonestown.
An interesting mix of expert commentary, archival footage, and looking at what makes a person become a maniacal cult leader.
Watch here 6 ‘Children of God’ - 1994
Perhaps no other cult documentaries on Netflix can compare to the weirdness of this one. The documentary takes an in-depth look into the California-based cult known as The Family International (later renamed The Children of God, and a few rounds of name changes later, back to The Family International).
One of the Family International’s more controversial methods of evangelicalism was something known as ‘Flirty Fishing’, in which sex was used for proselytizing purposes. The cult is also marred in controversies surrounding abusive sexual practices and abuse of minors - so anticipate some dark stuff. At its peak it had more than 15,000 members around the world, and strangely, have counted River and Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan as former members. Fleetwood Mac founding member Jeremy Spencer left the band to join the cult.
Watch here 7 ‘The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness’ – 2021
If you’re obsessed with true crime and love learning about cults, perhaps this is one for you. This film centres around David Richard Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, who killed eight people during a wave of shooting attacks in the summer of 1976 in New York City.
This four-episode series investigates Berkowitz, as well as the theory that his actions were motivated by his involvement in a Satanic cult. It’s partly based on journalist Maury Terry’s point of view, who interviewed him multiple times during his incarceration and who is convinced by the Satantic cult theory.
Watch here 8 ‘Pray Away’ — 2021
A difficult watch, this documentary opens the lid on religious conversion therapy, especially the promotion of “reformed queers” to falsely convince those struggling with their sexuality of a “cure”. Based on the gay conversion therapy movement that swept (and still sweeps) the US, LGBTQ+ victims and former leaders come together to expose the lies, homophobia, and significant abuses at the heart of this practice.
This documentary is a stark reminder of something that is still gutting the lives of LGBTQ+ people today, even if it is based on past events.
Watch here 9 ‘Midsommar’ — 2019
Now a cult classic, we couldn’t forget this Swedish folk horror. Highly anticipated and met with critical acclaim, Ari Arster’s
Midsommar follows college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) on a group holiday to Sweden for Midsommar festival celebrations. She’s tagging along with her boyfriend and his friends, and it quickly descends into pagan cultdom.
From suicide cliff drops witnessed by unmoved crowds, group sex and virginity loss rituals, hallucinogenic plants to human sacrific rituals — all with a confused Dani at the centre as May Queen — she quietly rises to the occasion in the end.
It’s not a true story by any means, but it’s based on real traditional Midsommar festival activities, just with added cultishness for impact.
Watch here 10 ‘[Un]Well’ — 2020
A six part deep dive into the lucrative wellness industry - and its darker, predatory side that feeds off desperation -
[Un]Well focuses on a different ‘miracle cure’ every episode. Across the season, it covers essential oils, tantric sex, breast milk bulking, fasting, ayawasha tripping, and bee sting therapy. While viewers do hear from advocates of each trend or followers that swear by them, the more gripping viewing lies with the people that were duped, with huge consequences. Watch here 11 ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’ — 2019
An exposing documentary on the (alleged) cult-like yoga movement that picked up steam in Los Angeles, founded by Bikram Choudhury, which include accounts of bullying, extreme forms of control, accusations of sexual grooming, and rape and abuse.
Not so long ago, Choudhury was still hailed by thousands as a spiritual leader that impacted positive change. But underneath it all, the documentary implies toxic practices and narcissistic belief were likely the driving forces all along. In the trailer, he’s described as having “a really ugly side” and “flashes of megalomania”. Despite this, the parts that feature people who still sing his praises loudly are the most unsettling.
Watch here 12 ‘Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story’ — 2021
We were first introduced to
Doc Antle as part of the original Tiger King series, a show that took us all by storm in the dead of lockdown. There were suggestions of cult-like structures at his South Myrtle Beach safari (and commune, of sorts) that revolves around tigers and his many girlfriends.
But this three part limited series focuses on Antle and his rise to leader of his own alternative community, with former women employees that allege they suffered abuse, control, and body shaming at his hands. Coming full circle in a way, some of those featured claim Antle modelled himself on Swami Satchidananda — another yogi leader accused of abuse and cultdom — after being part of Yogaville himself previously.
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This article was originally published on
Aug. 30, 2019