Cult documentaries about cults

Expand your consciousness and go #tripping with humanity's most out-there sects

Arts+Culture Top Ten
The Source Family

All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on dazeddigital.com/tripping. Right now, however, open your third eye and take a spiritual journey with these top documentaries on the world's most infamous cults, communes and extreme sects.

The Source Family (2013)

The late Jim Baker – ex-Marine, founder of one of America's first vegetarian restaurants and self-confessed killer – created a platonic ideal of the hippy-dippy, 70s Californian cult. The bearded mystic, who later went by the name Father Yod, was devoted to attaining enlightenment with his family of followers through sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Unlike other docs about cults, The Source Family acknowledges the positive mental and spiritual effects Baker had on his followers, to interesting effect: are all cults necessarily bad, or only the more infamous ones?  

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006)

Jim Jones was the archetypal cult leader: charismatic, manipulative and deadly. At his behest, 909 members of his temple killed themselves at his Peoples Temple commune in Guyana, informally known as Jonestown. What's most startling in this doc is the genuine happiness displayed by his members and the fondness which ex-members have for their time there: Jones had created a utopian paradise where people of all ethnicities and creeds lived and worked in peace. Until, of course, it all ended in tragedy.  

Marjoe (1972)

The mass hysteria and dramatics associated with the worst of evangelist churches can often verge on cultish - and none more so than the theatrics of 70s fraud pastor Marjoe Gortner, who created a cult of personality around himself and swindled thousands, all while looking like an android replicant of Matthew McConaughey. Marjoe won the Oscar for best documentary in 1972, in the process exposing Marjoe as an arch manipulator and non-believer. As he puts it: "You go into the business and you work it like a business."

American Commune (2012)

Not all communes are breeding grounds for wackos, of course – The Farm, a community in rural Tennessee, was once America's biggest commune, drawing between 1200 and 1600 members at its height. Unfortunately, the real world soon intruded: rising debts and a baby boom among residents forced many members to leave in a traumatic fall from grace known as the Exodus. Made by two docuentary-makers who grew up on The Farm, American Commune explores the rise and fall of this utopian ideal.

Frat House (1998)

If American Commune was about people coming together in the spirit of free love and utopianism, Frat House is about one thing: "Find[ing] the people that you enjoy getting fucked up with the most." Todd Phillips, better known for directing The Hangover and Project X, got his start with docs like this: an up-close look at the cult of college-age masculinity, with its hazing rituals, sexist objectification and jocks who enjoy punching apart tables for fun – although its alleged that its depiction of humiliating initation rites was staged for the cameras.   

Join Us (2007)

Ondi Timoner's 2007 follow-up to masterful rock doc Dig! is a look at four South Carolina families attempting to extricate themselves from an extremist Christian sect and bring their self-appointed prophet to justice. Almost painfully intimate at times, Timoner films these ex-members undergoing treatment at America's only live-in cult rehab centre, discussing their past trauma with an almost painful degree of self-awareness. 

The Cult: Heaven's Gate (2002)

Filmed for the BBC series Inside Story, this eye-opening doc investigates the 1997 mass suicide of 39 Heaven's Gate members. Founders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles combined an intoxicating mix of 80s sci-fi utopianism and Christian apocalyptic theory: members believed that the planet was going to be wiped clean and the only chance for survival was to leave their earthly bodies behind.

A (1998)

The Aum Shinrikyo cult is best known for its 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, which killed 13 people. After its leaders were arrested for the attack, director Tatsuya Mori was allowed exclusive access to Aum's headquarters to make this startling look into Japan's most infamous cult. Weirdly banal and even more disquieting for it, Mori follows unassuming Aum PR spokesman Hiroshi Araki as he is thrust into the centre of a media storm.

Scientology and Me (2007)

Sinister cult or a vehicle for Tom Cruise's career suicide? Whatever Scientology claims to be, it was dealt a major PR blow by this BBC Panorama doc by John Sweeney. Best known its the viral YouTube clip of Sweeney's full-on shouting match with the Church's spokesperson, Scientology and Me shows members spying on and harassing Sweeney in the street, constituting a remarkable document of a modern cult prepared to go to any lengths to protect its reputation.

Sons of Perdition (2011)

Probably the sweetest, oddest coming-of-age documentary there is: Sons of Perdition follows the lives of teenage boys who've fled the clutches of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an extremist polygamist sect that split from mainstream Mormonism 120 years ago. Struggling with homesickness, culture shock and the threat of eternal damnation, the exiles learn to adapt to 21st century life and independence.    

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