5 Podcasts About Cults That Will Leave You Captivated & Unsettled

What exactly is it that prompts your neighbour, your auntie, your primary school friend to join a cult? What makes a leader, or a belief system, so unnervingly compelling to their followers? And why, when the group accelerates into crime, or self-injury, or alienation from the wider world, don't its followers leave? With every new cult comes a barrage of questions; little wonder, then, that we're all so completely fascinated by them. Already barrelled through Netflix's Wild Wild Country, or exhausted every book on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple? Turn to a new source: these five podcasts about cults are as absorbing as they are disturbing.

Cults are the perfect podcast subject, ideally suited to the contemplative, inquisitive nature of the medium. How did 39 everyday people, with families and friends and unremarkable interests, come to believe they'd be picked up by a UFO after their mass suicide, Heaven's Gate asks? Uncover: Escaping NXIVM explores: how did NXIVM convinced women to brand themselves with the cult leader's initials? How did a rising musician with close ties to Hollywood insiders end up leading one of the 20th century's most notorious cults, You Must Remember Manson wonders? Turn to these podcasts for answers — and a whole host of new questions to puzzle over.

1Heaven's Gate

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Glynn Washington's Heaven's Gate is my Serial: the podcast I fervently consumed, mulled over for weeks, and doggedly evangelised about to my friends. The podcast explores the titular cult of which 39 members killed themselves in 1997, believing a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet would transport them to the "Next Level." Washington employs archival audio and speaks to family members of the deceased; what's more, he incorporates his own experience of growing up in a cult, known as the Worldwide Church of God.

Listen to Heaven's Gate on Stitcher.

2Uncover: Escaping NXIVM

Keith Raniere's supposed self-improvement programme, NXIVM, made headlines recently when several members (including Smallville actor Allison Mack) were charged with sex trafficking, and the "movement" was publicly exposed as a cult. Uncover: Escaping NXIVM presenter Josh Bloch's childhood friend, Sarah Edmondson, was a high level member of NXIVM; her account offers a uniquely personal insight into the cult, its leader, and why its many followers elected to stay.

Listen to Uncover: Escaping NXIVM on iTunes.

3Cults

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Cults hosts Greg Polcyn and Vanessa Richardson unpack some of the most well-known cults across the world, from Jim Jones' Peoples Temple to Shoko Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo. But they also delve into groups you might not have encountered: Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo's Narcosatanists, Jimmie T. Roberts' Brethren, Arthur Bell's Mankind United. Polcyn and Richardson's delivery is a little less conversational, a little more direct than other podcasts, but their accounts are thoroughly researched, insightful, and easily digestible.

Listen to Cults on iTunes.

4You Must Remember Manson

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Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This is a podcast dedicated to the true history of 20th century Hollywood — the history publicists ignored, or attempted to conceal. In 2015, Longworth devoted an entire series to Charles Manson and the Manson Family, tracing Manson's rise and the terrible culmination of his cult — as well as his often overlooked connections to Hollywood (did you know he was associated with Doris Day's son?) The series is an incomparable exploration of '60s celebrity culture through the lens of one of the 20th century's most notorious cults.

Listen to You Must Remember Manson on iTunes.

5Dear Franklin Jones

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Jonathan Hirsch grew up in a family devoted to the spiritual leader Franklin Jones, or Adi Da Samraj, who was subsequently accused of sexually assaulting and brainwashing his followers. Dear Franklin Jones is Hirsch's deeply personal attempt to make sense of his childhood: why did his parents worship Franklin Jones? Why was the family subsequently cut out of the community? Did he really grow up in a cult?

Listen to Dear Franklin Jones on Stitcher.