Must-Watch Shows and Movies About Cults
We tend to watch cults from afar, cringing in disbelief. We can’t imagine what it’s like to be in one, yet we also can’t help but wonder. The driving forces behind a cult can be as complex as religion, or simply determined by the desires of a single leader. In either scenario, they require their followers to give all of themselves to serve the cause. From marriage to taking one's own life, the sacrifices made by cult members can often be significant. Yet somehow we still hear real stories in which people feel as though they were tricked into them.
As subversive as cults may be, we also seem to be kind of obsessed with them. At least that’s what years of TV and Film programming leads us to believe. So in honor of the latest episode of Soulmates, where Kurt and Martha find themselves in what seems to be a cult, we’re looking at some must-watch cult stories from recent years.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
This critically-acclaimed film, which doubled as Elizabeth Olsen’s debut performance, will make you feel as though you’ve been given a Cortisol drip... for the entire 120 minute run time... and likely a few more hours after it ends. It begins with a young woman named Martha who has become involved with a cult in the Catskills. There’s no obvious cause for this cult beyond its leader, Patrick. The story doesn’t follow the typical path you might imagine, as Martha flees the cult pretty quickly, escaping to her sister’s in Connecticut. Once there, Martha struggles to adapt to normal life. She has flashbacks of awful things the leader made her do, which ultimately led to her departure. After a number of episodes, Martha's sister and brother-in-law begin to consider admitting her to a psychiatric hospital. What her sister and brother-in-law don’t realize, is that Martha has been seeing members of the cult watching her. Whether they’re real or just another example of her dwindling mental state is unclear, but it doesn’t change how terrifying it is to watch it all unfold.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it’s no surprise that this film was received well by fans and critics alike. The story focuses on a WWII veteran, Freddie Quell, who is struggling to adjust to post-war life. After a series of bad episodes at different jobs, Quell finds himself in San Francisco, trying to hide out on a yacht. This is how he comes to meet Lancaster Dodd, the leader of “The Cause,” a philosophical movement on the rise. Dodd takes Quell in quickly. He begins to do “Processing” with Quell, asking him disturbing questions that lead Quell to reveal some of the deepest and darkest parts of his life. Quell joins Dodd on his journeys to spread “The Cause,” but Quell acts out violently any time Dodd is questioned. Both of these things begin to happen more frequently—Quell’s violent acts and Dodd being questioned—leading the two to to develop an unstable relationship. Eventually, Dodd gives Quell an ultimatum that either ties him to “The Cause” indefinitely, or makes him an enemy of it.
Back in 1993, a group called the Branch Davidians would stand off against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Waco, Texas. The events lasted 51 days and resulted in the death of 76 Branch Davidian members. The six-episode miniseries attempts to retell this true story, beginning nine months before the siege of the FBI and ATF. We see leader David Koresh in his prime, acting as a teacher, father, and companion to his members. We learn that Koresh has many wives, and doesn’t stop there—he also impregnates the wife of his right-hand man. Koresh finds out about the impending siege when an agent’s cover is blown, but it’s too late to stop it. And thus began a nearly two month long exchange of gunfire, media manipulation, and one-on-one negotiations.
This documentary series from HBO premiered last month and has sparked a lot of conversation as it coincided with the criminal sentencing of its main subject, Keith Raniere. The series tells the story of the cult NXIVM, led by Raniere, which operated under the guise of a personal and professional development company. By the early 2000s nearly four thousand people had taken part in the company’s classes. The short version: the company essentially became a recruiting platform for women, who would ultimately be branded with the initials of Raniere and his partner, actress Allison Mack... and then forced into sexual slavery. Since 2018 a number of people, including Raniere and Mack, have been convicted of federal charges. Season One of the series features former members, as well as journalists who had led the early reporting on the crimes in question. The intention for Season Two is already in the works, with much of the focus being on Raniere’s trial, which lead to a sentence of 120 years in prison.
Soulmates, Episode 5
In the latest episode of AMC’s anthology series, Soulmates, we get a firsthand look at how vulnerability can play a key role in joining a cult. When it comes to Kurt and Martha, we wouldn’t even use the word “join,” since they end up where they do based on an ad that promises them a reunion with their deceased soulmates. While it may seem like a given that everyone would meet their soulmates on a show called Soulmates, it’s not. The show breaks all stereotypes when it comes to love. While some might move on and find themselves in an “old fashioned" relationship, Kurt is a hopeless romantic that can’t get his soulmate out of his head. Meanwhile, Martha has had too many failed relationships with the wrong men to have the heart to attempt anything else. This brings them to a group that feels a lot like a religious cult, except the cult's focus is on reunions with dead soulmates—after of course they transfer all their money to the cult.
Watch what happens as Kurt and Martha's reality unfolds, and discover if they go through with meeting their soulmates on the other side.
Soulmates airs Mondays 10/9c on AMC. You can watch full episodes on amc.com, and the AMC app for mobile and devices. Check out the on-air schedule for encore viewings and upcoming episodes of Soulmates on AMC.
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