I think it’s safe to say that we, as a society, are weirdly fascinated by – dare I say obsessed with – cults. And since I clearly watch A LOT of TV shows about cults, I’m clearly not immune to said obsession.
So what is a Cult?
There isn’t really an official definition. Some sources define cults as extreme religious devotion that deviates from the norm, but others say it involves any worship or devotion or a specific object or figure. And in case you missed it, that last one is literally any religion.
And, like, I don’t E N T I R E L Y disagree there…
Am I saying ALL religions are cults? I mean… kind of?
I know not all religion is bad. I get that it helps lots of people. And I’m equally annoyed by Atheists as I am of Christians when it comes to pushing their beliefs on others. Extremism and fundamentalism in ANY religion is bad. And, in my opinion, pretty cult-ish.
All I’m saying is consider whether or not your religion “makes” you be a bad person, do questionable things or just doesn’t allow for any wiggle room in terms of questioning your faith. If you can’t ask questions, if you can’t leave, or if you just flat out think some dude in the sky wants you to be a bigot, consider finding a less extreme house of worship.
Cult worship can also refer to anything particularly trendy, and I’ve included an example of this towards the bottom with the cult of wellness. However, while this is a trend that can actually lead to death, there are also benign cult trends like “cult followings” of popular bands or TV shows. Although if your favourite guitarist tells you they’re God, or to start killing people in their name, that might be an actual cult…
For clarity, I’m gonna define it here as the first definition: an extreme veneration of something outside of the norm.
Now, without further ado, I present you with the best TV shows about cults. And yes, there were ones that didn’t make the cut. There are some godawful TV shows about cults, just FYI.
PS: Where possible, I’ve put where to watch and/or buy the show, but I don’t even know what all the available networks even are now and I probably don’t live where you do, so it’s worth checking if the show is available on Netflix or Hulu or whatever where you live, as well. Likewise, I apologise if it’s not available in your area where listed; I’m doing my best.
RELATED: Best Podcasts About Cults
Best TV Shows About Real Cults
This section includes mostly documentaries or investigative TV shows, however there is also one (Waco) fictionalised account of a real event.
What’s it about? Waco follows the events of the infamous 51 day standoff in 1993 between the US government FBI and ATF and the Branch Davidians cult at their Mount Carmel Compound.
Who was involved: The cult was run by charismatic leader, David Koresh. Although contrary to popular belief, the cult was not named for David. In fact, it was founded in 1955 by Benjamin Roden, and was itself an offshoot of another religious sect. The cult had over 100 members at the time of the siege.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: The miniseries tells the story of some of the key players on both sides, including Koresh, his first wife, Rachel, several other members of his inner circle, an ATF agent and several members of the FBI team involved. The whole cast is fantastic, with Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon playing leads – David Koresh and Gary Noesner (lead negotiator) respectively. Supporting cast includes Melissa Benoist, Julia Garner, Rory Culkin and John Leguizamo.
Although some liberties were taken, the showrunners did their best to get things right and historically accurate, even rebuilding the compound from photographs. One reason for this level of accuracy is because it drew heavily from two memoirs written by people actually involved in the 1993 siege: Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) and A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story by David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin). David Thibodeau also consulted on the show and said seeing the set transported him back to his time at Mount Carmel. Thibodeau, who has been very critical of other media representations of the events, has said that Waco is by far the most accurate depiction.
Did you know: The show Waco finished airing (February 28, 2018) on the 25th anniversary of the day the siege started (February 28, 1993)?
Leah Remini: Scientology & the Aftermath (2016)
What’s it about? Leah Remini quite publicly left Scientology in 2013. She’s now using her celebrity and voice to stand up to the church by telling her story and the stories of other former members.
Who is involved: The Church of Scientology was invented by fantasy and sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1953. The belief has some outrageous classified elements to it about aliens, but is also based on dianetics, which is a set of practices designed to improve the relationship between mind and body. Leah Remini is an actor and former member of Scientology who now speaks out against the church.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Honestly, this show is so good at exposing just how sinister and dangerous the Church of Scientology really is that I’m a little scared to include it on this list in case it somehow gets back to them and they begin to harass me. That is to say, if you’re looking for shows about cults – real or otherwise – this NEEDS to be on your watch-list.
Leah Remini and Mark Rinder, another former member who was high up in the religion/organisation, go around the USA interviewing other former members who have since been “disconnected” from Scientology and experts on cult organisations and behaviour. These stories reveal the harassment they have been subjected to since leaving with many additionally losing their families to the church. The show is 3 seasons and in the final season they also speak to former members of other cult-esque groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses in some of the episodes.
Read Leah Remini’s memoir: Troublemaker
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle (2018)
What’s it about? 40 years after the horrific Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle seeks to understand why it happened.
Who was involved: Jim Jones was the leader of the People’s Temple, which he founded in Indiana in 1955. The church later expanded and moved first to California and then to Jonestown, Guyana in South America. They were a Christian sect, and believed in faith healing. The commune also implemented elements of communism, socialism and racial equality, at least in theory. On 17 November 1978, following a visit by Leo Ryan, a US politician who was following up on a complaint of abuse at the compound, several members expressed a desire to leave and followed Ryan to a local airstrip. However, they were intercepted: Ryan was killed and later that night Jones forced his entire congregation to consume cyanide-laced drinks.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Like Charles Manson, Jim Jones is a household name when it comes to cults, and there are also a lot of films and TV shows and books about the Jonestown Massacre. This is one of the better ones, in my opinion. It does a good job of covering the basics for anyone unfamiliar with the cult, but also provides new insight. It’s based on the book Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, and Guinn is interviewed throughout the documentary, as are some of the few survivors of the massacre. If you’re at all interested in Jonestown or how Jim Jones managed to not only gain the following he did, but also convince hundreds of people to knowingly kill themselves, you’ll be unable to look away.
FYI: Did you know that even though we get the term “drinking the Kool-Aid” from the Jonestown Massacre, the members actually drank cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, NOT Kool-Aid.
Also: Leo Ryan’s daughter, Shannon Jo Ryan, actually joined the Rajneeshee Cult mentioned below in Wild Wild Country.
Helter Skelter (2020)
What’s it about? 6-part documentary about the rise of Charles Manson and the Manson Family.
Who was involved: Charles Manson is one of the most infamous cult leaders in history. He led a doomsday cult that believed an apocalyptic race war that he called Helter Skelter was coming. And yes, he DID get the name from the Beatles’ song. He believed that Black people would rise up and kill all the white people, but that they were too inherently ignorant to lead themselves, so would look to the Manson Family, the only white survivors of the war, to be their “masters.” Basically, he was a massive fucking racist. So to speed up this foretold race war, he ordered his members to kill a few people, planning to blame it on Black people in hopes of precipitating the war.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: People are kind of obsessed with Manson. And as a result, there have been A LOT of films, TV shows and documentaries about him and the Manson Family. Honestly, most of the TV shows aren’t great. Actually, some of the films are pretty awful, as well. There’s a fictionalised cop procedural called Aquarius that I gave up on after a few episodes because everyone in it sucked.
But this one is pretty comprehensive, especially if you don’t really know much about Manson. And even if you do there’s still some new ground covered in Helter Skelter. It includes never-before-seen interviews from former members, journalists, and others involved in the case. The documentary takes a look at his childhood, how he became a charming, yet sadistic cult leader, and, of course, the murders.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
What’s it about? In Wild Wild Country the Rajneeshee cult build a commune utopia in rural Oregon, took over a town, and become embroiled in one of the largest wiretapping cases and poisoning cases in US history.
Who was involved: The Rajneeshees were followers of Bhagwan (later called Osho), and Indian spiritual leader and godman (in India this refers to a guru that has been elevated to godlike status by their followers). However, for many years the cult was at least partially run by his secretary, Ma Anand Sheela. The cult originated in Pune, India, but was moved for many years to Rajneeshpuram, a town they founded in rural Oregon.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: This 6 part documentary methodically unfolds the twisty, unexpected tale of the Rajneeshee cult and their leader, Bhagwan, from their inception in Pune, India to their utopian commune, Rajneeshpuram, back to India. The cult became well-known across the USA during the 1980s thanks to a good deal of press coverage regarding several scandals with nearby locals, homeless people, fraud and more! It is a fascinating and infuriating deep dive into the cult, and almost no one comes out of it looking good!
Several key players take part in the documentary, including Bhagwan’s right hand woman, Ma Anand Sheela and his personal attorney, Swami Prem Niren (aka Philip Toelkes). It is almost entirely comprised of interviews with a few members from the 1980s and footage from the time. I couldn’t get over how much footage there was from this cult!
Note: I thought this documentary was good, but it wasn’t my favourite on this list. I knew a lot of the big stuff about this cult going in, and because of that, I think, it dragged a bit for me towards the end. I also thought the episodes were unnecessarily long.
Not mentioned in the show: Bhagwan was a bit of a doomsayer, and predicted many apocalypses. One such prediction was that two thirds of the world’s population would die from HIV/AIDs. Rajneeshpuram was created at the height of the HIV/AIDs crisis, so because they were a free love cult, every member was ordered to wear a condom and gloves for any sexual encounter and to avoid kissing. The press had a field day with this as it was considered excessive, but by all accounts, they had a very low HIV/AIDs transmission rate.
Deadly Cults (2019)
What’s it about? Crime reenactment documentary TV series about cults who have killed.
Who was involved: Each episode focuses on a different killer cult (many of whom don’t have official names). So far they’ve covered a diverse range of cults, including a vampire cult from Eustis, Florida, an alien reptile cult from Pennsylvania, and some seemingly less out-there groups like the Ervilites, a fundamentalist Mormon sect.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: To be sure, Deadly Cults won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you appreciate shows like Deadly Women or Snapped with dramatic reenactments of the crime shown alongside real photographs and interviews with those involved (journalists, police, perpetrators, survivors, etc) then you’ll probably get something out of Deadly Cults. What I particularly like about the show is that so far it has covered mostly lesser known cults. How a cult that believes in reptile aliens ruling the world isn’t more well known, I’ll never know, but I definitely couldn’t stop watching.
People Magazine Investigates: Cults (2018)
What’s it about? Documentary TV series about well known cults, and a few lesser-known ones.
Who was involved: Like Deadly Cults, all the episodes are focused on a different cult, and many infamous ones are covered, such as the Manson Cult, the Jonestown Massacre and the Army of God.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Although it has the generic narration you might expect, People Magazine Investigates: Cults is also a fascinating look at some of history’s most brutal cults. There’s a bit of reenactment of scenes, but as much as possible is done through actual footage and photos. The show also includes interviews from former members and survivors, family members, journalists, lawyers, and other experts.
RELATED: Best Dark History Podcasts
TV Shows About Cults: Fundamentalist Mainstream Religious Sects
This is going to be the most controversial section here, and I’m sure it will piss off plenty of people. But look, if you’re super religious and you DON’T think you’re in a cult, you MIGHT want to examine the actions of your religious leaders and those around you.
I said what I said.
What’s it about? 19 year old Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas) is part of the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Jewish community in Williamsburg, NY. After she finds herself in an unhappy arranged marriage, she escapes and flees to Berlin.
Who is involved: It’s been a while since I watched it, so I actually can’t remember if it says the specific Haredi community in the show (I think it does, though). But as it is based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, it is at least based on the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, NY. The Satmar Hasidic Jewish community originated in the Hungarian town of Satmar (also called Szatmárnémeti and Satu Mare) in 1905, but they emigrated to the US following WWII. They are one of the largest Hasidic communities in the world. The Satmar Hasidic Jews are extremely conservative, following the Torah to the letter. If they had a motto it would be “change nothing” since they believe that life in 19th century Eastern Europe should be adhered to as strictly as possible. Women in the community must remain completely covered at all times. This does not include their hands or faces, but does include their feet, full legs, full arms and necks. Following their weddings, they also must shave their heads.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Unorthodox is a brilliant portrayal of the risks one woman takes to do the impossible and escape from a community that refuses to let her leave. But even when she is ready to take the plunge, there are still religious prejudices she must confront, such as LGBTQ+ people, and come to terms with her faith and what she believes versus what she’s been told to believe her whole life.
One of the driving forces for Esty going to Berlin is because she finds out she is pregnant and does not want her child to grow up in this community. Which should tell you a lot. The fact that her husband also flies to Berlin with some friends – by order of their rabbi – to track her down and bring her back, just feels like the plot of some stalker thriller. And when you add in the fact that IRL, Deborah Feldman is STILL being stalked by her former community, many of them often try to discredit her in the media and relentlessly post negative reviews online about her book saying it’s all FAKE NEWS, it all starts to seem pretty, well, cult-ish, don’t you think?
Shira Haas is also super short (different sources have her as between 4’9″ and 5’2″), and as a fellow short girl I love to see it.
What’s it about? Three different Muslim women’s lives intersect amidst a potential terrorist threat in Sweden.
Who is involved: Islamic State (also called ISIS, ISIL and Daesh in Arabic). IS is a fundamentalist branch of Islam that believes killing non-believers is justified under Islamic law. They frequently recruit members for jihad (a term that refers to military action in Islam, and while not inherently bad is often used to refer to terrorist actions). The show is based loosely off of the Bethnal Green Trio, three British teenage girls who were recruited at their college in London in 2015.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: IS use many of the same tactics cults use to recruit and brainwash members, including things like gaining and then exploiting trust, radicalising propaganda, love bombing, and exploiting psychological and economic vulnerabilities. In Caliphate the character we follow that is responsible for recruiting new members uses all of these methods. This show focuses on the women’s lives within IS, showing both the difficulties of trying to get out, and how someone vulnerable might get drawn in.
The Family (2019)
What’s it about? What exactly does this fundamentalist Christian group have to do with some of the most influential people in the world?
Who was involved: The Fellowship (also called The Family) is a fundamentalist Christian organisation in the USA that essentially grooms young men for greatness and leadership by telling them they are chosen. Founded by Norwegian immigrant Abraham Vereide, the Fellowship is dedicated to a country with leadership led by God. They are – purposefully – shrouded in secrecy, but seem to have their fingers in everything in US politics, and are also responsible for starting the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Although they are right-leaning, The Fellowship has been involved with politicians all across the board in the US, so long as they believe in Jesus.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: It’s terrifying to see how much control a religious organisation can have – and currently does have – in a supposedly secular country. If you’re American, I would say it’s definitely a must-watch. However, in general, it’s just a fascinating insight into the psyche and behind the scenes workings of a powerful and influential cult hiding in plain sight.
Three Wives, One Husband (2018)
What’s it about? In Three Wives, One Husband we travel to Utah to meet some fundamentalist Mormons who live in some remote caves (“The Rock”) and practice polygamy.
Who was involved: Mormons are a branch of Christianity. They believe Jesus was the literal son of God and is the Messiah. Children are very important to Mormons as they believe children are part of God’s plan and having them will bring them closer to Christ. Because of this, some fundamentalist sects also embrace polygamy. The show focuses on two of the families: Enoch and his wives Catrina and Lillian; and Abel and his wives Suzie, Beth and Marina.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Everyone involved in this show has been raised in this community and has literally no idea that any other life exists. But despite the fact that in both families there is at least one woman who seems absolutely miserable, they soldier on because it’s what the religion calls for. Everything revolves around the husband, and in that way it’s like a double cult: the religion itself and the submission to the husband who several of the wives refer to as being their whole world. And, like cult leaders, they are incredibly manipulative. There are so many instances of the husbands asking for their family’s opinion and then just doing what they want or bullying everyone into agreeing with them if the vote/discussion doesn’t go their way. Although it’s only four episodes long, there are so many instances of just wanting to scream ‘What are you doing?’ at the screen.
Escaping Polygamy (2014)
What’s it about? Reality TV show about 3 half-sisters (Andrea, Jessica and Shanell) who have escaped polygamy and now help others to get out.
Who is involved: The focus is on The Order (this is how it is predominantly referred to in the show, but is more commonly known as The Latter Day Church of Christ or the Kingston Clan). The Order is a fundamentalist Mormon group in SLC. One of the biggest controversies about The Order is that they frequently allow intra-family marriages, including between cousins, uncles and nieces and half-siblings. The Order is also extremely dangerous to get out of, having beaten a woman nearly to death for trying to escape her marriage to her much older cousin as his second wife.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: I mean, I can’t watch much of it because it’s over-the-top reality drama, but a lot of people eat that shit up. A lot of it is VERY obviously staged – they’ll say they need to meet someone alone and will show up “alone” (read: with the camera crew) and the other person won’t be remotely surprised there’s a camera following them around. BUT all that aside, the show does delve into issues like how they brainwash younger members, the effects that has on them, the difficulties of getting out, and how the female members in particular are treated (spoiler: it’s pretty awful). Even if you’re not sure about sitting through four seasons, it’s worth watching an episode or two just to see how truly predatory The Order really us.
Big Love (2006)
What’s it about? Follows a polygamous family in Salt Lake City as they work through everyday family issues and also try to navigate a married life with multiple wives.
Who is involved: Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is the patriarch of a fundamentalist Mormon family living in SLC who practice polygamy. His wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), and Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) learn to love and live together as sister wives. There’s also mention of a fictional fundamentalist group the United Effort Brotherhood (UEB), which is modelled after the very real United Effort Plan created by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: I have mixed feelings about Big Love; it took me awhile to get into it, but many people love it, so don’t let my experience stop you (after all, I can’t stand Breaking Bad, and that’s very popular). And regardless of how I feel, it’s a great representation of the pressure polygamy puts on sister wives and social pressures to appear normal. Later in the show, it depicts the difficulties Mormons face trying to get out, and the coercion tactics used to keep people in the faith. If you prefer a fictional look at Polygamy rather than harsh reality, Big Love is for you.
The Keepers (2017)
What’s it about? A true-crime Netflix series that tries to uncover the truth behind the 1969 murder of nun Catherine Cesnik.
Who is involved: Archbishop Keough High School and the Catholic church. And yes, yes I AM saying this is a cult.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: I think the sexual assault and abuse stories from the Catholic church are pretty well-established by now. After all, who hasn’t heard a joke about how all priests are pedophiles, or all nuns are evil? And isn’t there a similar joke about cult leaders marrying their 14 year old followers? How different, really, are some of these mainstream religions from so-called cults? Just because we all seem to know it’s happening in the church, do we really know how deep it goes? The Keepers seeks to examine the massive cover-ups by the Catholic church and understand why no one ever seems willing to break the silence. Like less mainstream cults, many leaders of the church are often afforded a degree of devotion by their followers, while also wielding a certain amount of power and fear over everyone in the church, which enable these abuses to continue – even if everyone knows it’s happening.
Best TV Shows About Fictional Cults
These are fictional, but some of them are definitely based on real cults, just saying.
Save Me (2017)
What’s it about? Sang-mi (Seo Ye-ji) and her family move to a small town, but after tragedy occurs, her parents are drawn into the local cult, Goseonwon. Three years later, a chance encounter with a former school friend, Han Sang-hwan (Ok Taec-yeon) leads him and his friends to do everything they can to save Sang-mi.
Who is involved: The Goseonwon followers believe in “The Mighty New Sky” where they will sail on the Ship to Salvation when they die, as will their whole family if they all pray and donate enough of their worldly possessions. Goseonwon is led by The Spiritual Father (Jo Sung-ha) and his two right-hand people, Apostle Kang (Park Ji-young) and Apostle Jo (Jo Jae-yoon). Kang is one of Goseonwon’s most devout believers, while Jo is seemingly just muscle.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: This show is so good, and it does the perfect job of showing how and why people get manipulated by and pulled into cults, how it can tear families apart, and how incredibly terrifying and difficult it can be to get out of one. I got so immersed in Save Me that I started to yell at the screen (something I rarely do), which I’m fairly certain is also how some of the characters feel. But that’s because everyone in this is absolutely fantastic. Definitely a must-watch TV show for anyone interested in cults.
However, k-dramas can be… a lot, especially if you’ve never watched one. They’re hyper-realistic, and somehow simultaneously over-the-top. In some cases, as with Save Me, this can make them relentlessly depressing. Without reservation this is now one of my favourite TV shows about cults, possibly even just a new favourite show in general. But just… be aware.
Note: Save Me was originally listed as a miniseries, but is now an anthology show. The second season is nearly impossible to find outside of South Korea, so I’m hoping it eventually finds its way onto Netflix, as well! From what I can tell it is also about the negative effects of religious groups/cults.
Did you know: There’s a Doomsday Cult in Daegu, South Korea that has been accused of causing the South Korean outbreak of the c-virus? See, cults are dangerous!
Sacred Lies (2018)
What’s it about? One night Minnow Bly walks out of the woods and beats a young man nearly to death. But what happened to the commune Minnow lived in that’s been burnt down? Who killed their leader? And more importantly, what happened to Minnow’s hands?
Who was involved: The fictional cult depicted are the Kevinians. Twelve years ago they followed their leader, The Prophet (aka Kevin Groth), into the woods to build “The Community” and wait instruction from God, whom they know as “Charlie.”
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Sacred Lies follows Minnow Bly after she’s escaped from the cult she grew up in, and wound up in Juvie for nearly killing a teenage boy. What makes this show unique is that it shows Minnow’s struggle to un-learn her cult upbringing, and come to terms with this. Minnow is a smart, resilient woman who just wants answers, but has to accept that sometimes there aren’t any. Sacred Lies does a good job of showing the disorientation of leaving a cult and trying to reintegrate into society.
I really enjoyed Sacred Lies; it is a solid teenager drama and I would definitely recommend it. I also liked that it interwove in aspects of fairy tales throughout. There is a season 2, but as this is an anthology series, it is not connected to season 1, nor does it seem to be about cults.
Note: The show is [currently] only available on Facebook Watch (free streaming with FB), and they still have some issues to work out. I experienced several audio inconsistencies (and based on the comments, I was not the only one), with episode 2 being by far the worst. I still think Sacred Lies is worth a watch if you are interested in TV shows about cults, plus you might not even have issues! Just go in with low expectations. And at the end of the day, this is a FREE streaming service (even if it’s not a particularly user friendly one).
Or you can also read the book.
Did you know? The series creator, Raelle Tucker, grew up in the Rajneeshee cult from Wild Wild Country. So she both used the source material, and also drew on her own experiences in a cult for Sacred Lies and the characterisation of Minnow.
The Path (2016)
What’s it about? Following a shocking vision during a trip to Peru, Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) begins to have a crisis of faith and questions Meyerism, the Movement he has dedicated his life to. While he tries to hide his doubts from his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), an FBI agent (Rockmond Dunbar) becomes suspicious after the Meyerists show up to the scene of a tornado before anyone else.
Who is involved: Meyerism is a fictional cult (called a ‘Movement’ in the show) cobbled together from a mixture of several real life cults and religions. Although there are definite similarities, Jessica Goldberg, the creator of The Path, has denied basing Meryerism on Scientology. Meyerism was created by Steve Meyer and is all about universal truth and spiritual development. Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy) is currently the unofficial head of the Meyerist Movement.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Although the Meyerists adamantly deny being part of a cult (it’s a Movement), it’s clearly a cult, even if it isn’t the most dangerous one out there. Although the kids go to school until they’re sixteen, they call anyone not in the Movement an ‘I.S.’ (Ignorant Systemite) or ‘nonbeliever’, they shun those who choose leave the Movement, and banish anyone who questions Steve’s teachings.
This makes for an engrossing show with complex characters who struggle with their faith and their relationships, some of whom go to extreme lengths to protect the Movement. The cast is great. I mean, who doesn’t love Aaron Paul? And between this and Hannibal, High Dancy truly knows how to play a man coming apart at the seams.
It’s also really hard to dislike the Meyrerists sometimes. They might be a cult and some of them do some truly questionable things, but on the whole they are good people. For starters, unlike a lot of cults, this one is against racism and homophobia, and Meyerists see everyone as equal. But that’s the problem with cults; not all of them are spewing hatred and trying to get you to drink the Kool-Aid. The Meyerists believe in a doomsday, but as many point out, with climate change on the rise, maybe they’re not the irrational ones…
Orphan Black (2013)
What’s it about? Petty criminal Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) sees another woman, seemingly identical to herself, commit suicide. She assumes her identity and suddenly finds herself wrapped up in a world of conspiracies, secret organisations, bioengineering, and a whole lotta people who look like her.
Who is involved: The Neolution Movement and the Proletheans. The Neolutions are led by Dr. Aldous Leekie; they believe in science and eugenics and want to alter human evolution. Many of them work for the Dyad Institute, a biotech company that they use as a front to conduct experiments. The Proletheans are a fundamentalist, old school Christian group that believe what the Neulotions are doing is creating abominations and they seek to kill all of them. Also, there are a lot of clones (all played brilliantly by Tatiana Maslany), their friends and family, and a whole bunch of former military.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: I mean, really it’s kind of cult central. I’m not sure the term is ever used in the show, but there’s definitely a lot of cult behaviour going on here. There’s eugenics, murder, religion, worship… Orphan Black kind of has it all. There are several characters throughout the show who also show signs of brainwashing and several instances of trying/needing to deprogram people. It might not be super realistic to real deprogramming, but it’s not not inaccurate given the premise.
Marvel’s Runaways (2017)
What’s it about? Six teens discover their parents might be involved in a cult with ritualistic sacrifice. Oh, and it takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), so there’s also superpowers, aliens and possibly time travel involved.
Who is involved: The Church of Gibborim is a public church that believes in light and truth (from what I can tell) but also probably gives live force to the Gibborim, an alien race. All the members wear special bracelets they’re never supposed to take off, semi-abduct young people and are definitely quite cult-y. The Church of Gibborim is run by Leslie Dean, and to a lesser extent her husband, Frank, and daughter, Karolina. In addition to the Church of Gibborim, all of the main characters’ uber-successful parents are involved in ‘the Pride’ a “charity organisation” where they dress up and ritually sacrifice people.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: If you love cults, but don’t love the gritty realism that tends to come with TV shows about cults, then Runaways might be what you’re looking for. Of course, if you also hate teen dramas and fantasy, it still probably isn’t the show for you. If I have to be more specific, it’s a good example of a scary cult hiding in plain sight and how people aren’t always what they seem – even those closest to you.
Note: Although it technically exists in the MCU you do not need any prior knowledge of the MCU films or shows to enjoy this show. It honestly doesn’t even feel like it’s in the same universe most of the time.
The Leftovers (2014)
What’s it about? After the “Sudden Departure” disappears 2% of the world’s population in an instant, those left behind must learn to cope. The shock and the anger has resulted in major religions going into decline while several cults start to emerge and grow in number.
Who is involved: The Leftovers focuses on the Garvey family, all of whom were left behind. Kevin (Justin Theroux) is chief of police and lives with his angry, rebellious teenage daughter, Jill. Meanwhile, his wife Lorelai and son, Tommy, have both joined two of the prominent cults in the USA. The cults: The Guilty Remnant (GR) run by Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) are chain-smoking nihilists who don’t speak, and Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) is a charming, but sadistic cult leader who can “hug away” anyone’s pain, but claims to need sex with young, Asian women to recharge.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Many people join cults – or religion in general – because they are looking for answers, or feel like a part of them is missing. And if 2% of the population – your loved ones, friends, neighbours – vanished in an instant for absolutely no reason, you’d probably feel the same. When religions that have been around for thousands of years don’t have answers, it isn’t surprising people turn to cults, or find solace in them. Perhaps, like the GR, they find comfort in thinking none of it matters anyway. But The Leftovers also shows us just how manipulative, controlling and comforting these cults can be, and how they can rip apart families. This one personally wasn’t for me even though I loved the premise, but I get why people love it. If it sounds like something you might enjoy, I still recommend giving it a go.
The Following (2013)
What’s it about? Former FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), returns to the field to track down Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a serial killer, recently escaped from prison, who has a cult of followers willing to kill for him.
Who is involved: Joe Carroll is a former English literature professor who was imprisoned for brutally killing several of his former female students. He was particularly obsessed with the romantic period and Edgar Allen Poe. When he escapes from prison, it turns out that he has a bit of a cult following, and they’re willing to do anything to help him.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: You’ll find that most cults depicted in the media are religious, and while this does make up the majority of cults, they aren’t all! One of the main aspects of a cult is extreme worship or devotion towards a specific person or object. And Joe Carroll’s followers definitely worship him to a fairly radical degree. The Following isn’t really my cup of tea, but it is an interesting representation of an alternative (i.e. non-religious) cult.
Note: This show never worked for me (despite me being the target audience). I watched it back when it first aired, and tried it again before writing this article in case younger me just “didn’t get it” but yeah, no. This cult TV show has a total cult following, though, so I thought it was worth including. Plus this is a good example of a non-religious cult. Anyway, for me this show never rang as true. It’s an interesting promise, but I never bought into it and just found it less plausible the more I watched. It definitely felt like a precursor to Hannibal for me, which I also thought was a bit ridiculous. So, I guess what I’m saying is that if you like Hannibal, you’ll probably like The Following.
Best TV Shows About The Cult of Wellness
Before anyone comes for me, I’m not saying none of this alternative, holistic, ayurvedic, etc stuff works. In fact, I was raised around it and honestly, I’m pretty sure a lot of it does work. But as the saying goes, even too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Vitamins and ice baths and decluttering your brain are all things that I can sincerely say have worked for me to an extent. But also, c’mon guys, take an interest in science!
The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow (2020)
What’s it about? Gwyneth Paltrow talks alternative wellness treatments and subjects herself and her employees (mostly her employees) to increasingly outrageous people over the course of six episodes.
Who is involved: Gwyneth Paltrow uses her wellness company, Goop, to bringing in ‘experts’ in a variety of alternative treatments to discuss the benefits (only the benefits) of these procedures. She also sends her staff out to get involved and demonstrate their efficacy, and occasionally gets involved herself.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Admittedly, this isn’t the best TV show, but if you’re interested in the growing cult of wellness trend, it’s worth a watch. Plus with only six 35 minute episodes, I easily finished it in less than a day.
The first 3 episodes of The Goop Lab are actually okay, topics wise. The first two are about treatments and studies that have actual ongoing science behind them (psychedelics and cold exposure). However, the show fails to convey any of the downsides to these treatments (of which there are a few), and also falsely relays some of the study’s findings. So just, you know, fact check anything you hear. Nevertheless, these treatments do have some merit. And the third episode, about female sexuality and body positivity, is more or less totally fine and a good message.
BUT THEN the show completely loses the plot. While it may start out with science on its side, the last half of The Goop Lab show is pure insanity. The progression of this show feels a bit like the actual progression of cults: reel them in with a bit of off-the-wall logic, convince them it’s not absurd with totally sound logic, then test them to see what you can get away with.
What’s it about? A well-balanced deep dive into the medicine behind some of the biggest health trends of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Who is involved: Looks at multiple industries and examines positive, negative and even outright fraudulent aspects of the practices. A few of the industries included are tantric sex (got your attention now, don’t I?), bee sting therapy and fasting. Each of the episodes has advocates on both sides, for and against, and examples of parts of the industry just going too far.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: People’s desperation to get healthy and live forever can be all-consuming. There’s nothing wrong with being healthy, and many of these health trends are fine in moderation, or if you understand the science behind them. But some are outright dangerous and the way people talk about them, or try to sell them to others, can be very unhealthy, and pretty damn cult-y. Even in the show, they refer to the semi-devotion of different alternative health practices as a cult multiple times.
Note: Although a lot of people in this show suck, I actually think the worst was “Dr Z” in the first episode. There are honestly few people in ANY of these TV shows about CULTS that I wanted to punch in the face more. First he claimed that Christianity “cured” his depression, and then went on to say that essential oils could cure cancer, and anyone who “stumbled” upon his site was directed there by God (yup, it has NOTHING to do with SEO and paid advertising). THEN he said even people on food stamps could afford his masterclasses if they just skipped Starbucks for a few weeks. My dude… c’mon.
TV Shows About Cults: Honourable Mentions
These shows aren’t strictly about cults, though they do lurk on the periphery of the show. After much internal debate, I’ve decided to include them because they still provide insight into cult behaviour and just how easily everyday, vulnerable people can be roped in by insidious, but charismatic people with power.
The Umbrella Academy (2019)
What’s it about? Seven young children with extraordinary powers are adopted by a mysterious billionaire and raised to be superheroes.
Who was involved: On 1 October 1989, 43 women simultaneously gave birth despite not having been pregnant beforehand. Sir Reginald Hargreeves was able to adopt seven of these children and raises them at ‘The Umbrella Academy’. Each one has unique powers, and they grow up known as superheroes who fight crime. The show starts when they’re older and their father has died.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: If you’ve seen The Umbrella Academy you’re probably wondering wtf I’m on about. Also, if you haven’t seen The Umbrella Academy, stop everything and go watch it RIGHT NOW. Anyway, the show is an honourable mention for two reasons (well, three if you include the fact that we’re both just obsessed with it and want everyone to watch it). One, for the more obvious fact that one of the siblings, Klaus, accidentally starts a cult in season 2, because of course he does. This isn’t exactly a spoiler as it’s sort of just… a thing that’s happening. But, two, if we’re being honest, the Hargreeves “family” are kind of a cult. While they don’t worship their adopted father in the traditional sense, they have been broken down and built back up as kids to kind of just obey him, especially Luther, and to a lesser extent Diego. He manipulates them all, emotionally abuses them, and even incites them to kill at times. So, uh, yeah, it’s a cult.
FYI: I know it sounds like it is, but this really isn’t a superhero show!
Surviving R. Kelly (2019)
What’s it about? Despite years of abuse and sexual assault scandals, R. Kelly’s career continued to thrive while his victims voices were silenced. This documentary seeks to fix that.
Who was involved: R. Kelly was one of the biggest names in music in the 1990s and early 2000s. Although multiple allegations of sexual abuse and rape of minors continued to come out throughout his career – including video footage of him peeing on a 14 year old girl – he seemed untouchable. In 2017, several parents accused Kelly of keeping their daughters hostage in a sex cult.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: I’m not 100% sure I would really classify this as a TV show about cults, however it does really dive into R. Kelly’s systematic abuse, manipulation and control of his victims, which is certainly common behaviour amongst most cult leaders. It also provides insight into how these types of charismatic people can have so much power over other people. So I am including it, but as an honourable mention.
Surviving R. Kelly looks at the evolution of R. Kelly from a young boy to one of the most successful musicians in the world, and the damage he left in his wake. The whole documentary is told through interviews with numerous survivors, family members, important names in the music industry, former R. Kelly employees, social movement founders, journalists and more. I was a bit apprehensive when I saw that this was made by Lifetime, but Surviving R. Kelly is an excellent documentary that has a lot to say about abuse of power and society, and I hope more people watch it.
What’s it about? Several lives intersect and intertwine at an Australian immigration detention centre.
Who was involved: Stateless tells the story of many people, but one of them is Sofie Werner (played by Yvonne Strahovski), a German-Australian national on the run from a cult – she is based on a woman named Cornelia Rau. The fictional cult depicted is called GOPA (Growing One’s Potential Achievement), and it is based on a real cult called Kenja. Sofia (like Rau) wound up illegally detained in an Australian immigration detention centre while on the run from the cult. GOPA’s leaders Gordon and Pat are played by Dominic West and Cate Blanchett (who also created and produced the show). In fact, the entire cast is superb.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: Although the cult, and Sofie’s story, play only a small part in this miniseries, it is hard to deny what a profound effect the cult had on her. She is on the run, pretending to be someone else and terrified of being found even though she is on the other side of the world from GOPA. This clearly establishes just how strong a hold cults can have on their members, no matter how many years or miles are between them.
But I also chose to include it because of the behaviour of the guards at the detention centre. It is well documented that when given positions of power, people will more often than not abuse that power and punch down. This quite often happens after being broken down and assimilated into the organisation’s hive mind/status quo. One of the most famous studies regarding this is the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, which was cut short after just six days due to severe abuse of the prisoners. The point is, powerful groups like prison guards, police, or soldiers often resort to violence and cruelty, encouraging others to do so through intimidation and pressure. And often times, even those with the best of intentions can succumb to bullying and oppression. They might not be the same as cults, but they’re definitely in the same family, and Stateless demonstrates this in spades.
What’s it about? Following a tragedy, Matilda Grey (Lydia Wilson) is pulled into a 23 year old missing person’s case in a small Welsh town.
Who was involved: An unnamed occult group trying to summon angels.
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: While not really an official cult, all the ridiculous, weird occult stuff and the unexpected storyline just makes for a different kind of TV show about cults. If you’re more interested in a supernatural horror thriller, you might enjoy Requiem. It’s also a good representation of the kind of influence cult-like groups can hold in small communities (also seen in Save Me). Throughout there are instances of gaslighting, keeping tabs, devotion of a higher power, sacred rites and just lots of lives ruined.
Tiger King (2020)
What’s it about? An exposé on the big cat “conservation” industry and its key players in the USA. And man is it a rollercoaster ride: Big cat breeding, murder-for-hire, conspiracies, polyamory, drugs, politics… You name it, Tiger King probably has it.
Who was involved: The main focus is on Joe Exotic. He is the previous owner of the G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma and is currently in prison for his failed murder-for-hire plot against long time rival, Carole Baskin who runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Because of course some of it takes place in Florida…
Why it’s one of the best TV shows about cults: I mean, if nothing else the way viewers and the media glommed onto Tiger King after its pandemic-friendly release was definitely cult-y. I couldn’t go an hour on social media without seeing something related to this show. And it seemed like in addition to reporting on the global health crisis, suddenly every single news source also had an opinion on Joe Exotic. There is definitely some cult-y behaviour going on, though. Joe is a charismatic leader, er, boss with the ultimate authority who believes he’s above the law – or did, at least. And people really seem to worship Joe, which might have something to do with the coercive drugs he provides. He sleeps with potentially unwilling partners who are part of the fold. There’s no transparency about most of the inner workings, and there’s a serious culture of silence surrounding all of it. Plus Bhagavan Antle is DEFINITELY running a cult.
Are you as fascinated by cults as we are? Have you watched any of these TV shows about cults? Are there any other TV shows about cults that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments below!