How does it feel like to grow up in a cult? Why do people fall for such concepts? How is it possible that people follow their leaders no matter what, sometimes even willingly dying in the process? How does undue influence work?
As a cult survivor, it isn’t always easy to convey what it means to have been in a cult. Some things you just cannot explain. You have to have lived through it.
One possibility to get an inkling of what cult life involves is by seeing it through the eyes of gifted moviemakers. I always found films to be a great way of explaining life in a cult to interested people.
That’s why I have put together my personal top 10 of movies that dive into the mindset of cults, illustrate the mechanisms of mind-control groups and show the ill effects of undue influence (some are available on Netflix, others on amazon video or DVD). What are your favorites? Which movies did I miss (apart from The Matrix, guys)? Let me know in the comments!
Tony Robbins – I am not your Guru (2016)
Now let me get this straight: I don’t believe Tony Robbins’ company is a cult. Having watched the Netflix documentary, I am actually pretty sure he means well. His interest in people seems sincere. And if people are willing to pay thousands of bucks for prep talk, be my guest. That said, the documentary is well worth a watch, because it does illustrate pretty good how far-reaching the influence of a charismatic leader can be. The mechanisms at work at his workshops are textbook NLP. And the things he gets his fans to do – like breaking up with their boyfriend right in front of a couple of thousands of people – could be dangerous in the hands of a cult. The documentary is pretty impressive. And while not dealing with cults or religion per se, there is a lot to learn about influencing and changing people. As a cult survivor, I must say it gave me the chills to witness the fanatical devotion of his fans. At least, this is a film about a man who is a guru without wanting to be one.
10. Red State (2011)
A movie as mad as it gets, Red State is a Southern Gothic satire about a redneck radical evangelical group with striking parallels to David Koresh and the Westboro Baptist Church. Three teenage boys get lured into said fundamentalist right-wing Christian church which conducts human sacrifices to please God or something, as you do. They also don’t like gay men and fornicating young delinquents. Bad news for the boys. Enter the ATF who surround the church to save the day. More a pitch-black dark comedy than sociological analysis (or, as the New York Times puts it: “an ideological horror-action movie with abundant bloodshed”), it still illustrates how fanatical religious groups can turn violent when cornered. And what with Trump and his voters, I guess it’s time to rewatch it.
9. Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006)
Great documentary on the story of how over 900 people got involved with cult leader Jim Jones and subsequently died when he ordered a mass suicide to escape a fascist invasion of his commune in Guyana. So what exactly happened? How could one man make nearly a thousand people kill themselves voluntarily? This film tries to answer the questions. You can view it online on Youtube.
8. Truth Be Told (2012)
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a harmless religious group? Or are they a cult? Chances are, you will have formed an opinion following this 2012 documentary by Gregorio Smith. Blending talking head interviews with former Jehovah’s Witnesses members and dramatic reenactments, Truth Be Told exposes the dark side of the worldwide organization. As a former Jehovah’s Witness myself, I can second virtually everything you will see in this movie. Watch it and find out how Jehovah’s Witnesses are “a profit-driven, isolationist culture characterized by fear, totalitarian corporate leadership, intellectual & spiritual intimidation, suspension of critical thinking, failed prophecies, doctrinal inconsistency and improper handling of physical and sexual abuse allegations within the church.” But most importantly, the film illustrates the effect a cult upbringing has on people.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Martha is a young woman who falls for the enigmatic leader of an abusive cult under the guise of a self-sufficient commune called Patrick. Patrick routinely abuses the women in his cult. Despite everything she experiences, Martha has difficulty walking away from this group. And even when she does, it becomes clear how much influence the cult still has on her life. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an impressive, beautifully shot movie featuring amazing performances from Elizabeth Olsen as Martha and John Hawkes as Patrick. It is a haunting psychological drama that fittingly illustrates the dangers of undue influence.
6. Sons of Perdition (2010)
This film really got me. Sons of Perdition is what people are called who have been excommunicated by or left some denominations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, as they are more commonly known. As a former Jehovah’s Witness who is considered an apostate, I can relate to the experiences of the protagonists in the documentary Sons of Perdition. A story about life after a cult, the difficulties of coming to terms with new-found freedom and the inhuman practice of ex-communication in radical groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and said Mormon denomination.
5. Dogtooth (2011)
One of the weirdest films I’ve seen to date, this is a dystopian sociological horror movie about overprotecting and sealing off children from the outside world. So, basically, an illustration of the mechanisms at play with children who grow up in cults. In this greek thriller, a family father tries to protect his children from all harm beyond the walls of their house, telling them they live in a deadly post-apocalyptic world. Creating a sterile biosphere, the father drills the children to follow his commands and peculiar pseudo-religious rituals and instills fear of the unknown world. Dogtooth breaks cultish life down and shows how the people we trust the most can be our worst enemy. An absolute masterpiece, the film is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re looking for a film to illustrate how come children who grew up in a cult often have difficulties leaving, this one is a must-see.
4. Sound Of My Voice (2012)
Two documentary filmmakers infiltrate a cult-like group led by a young woman who claims to be from the future. Their aim: to expose her as a fraud. But as they dive deeper into her commune and experience her every day, it becomes increasingly difficult to not fall prey to her spell. Brit Marling delivers a stunning performance as the leader of her little cult. The movie makes a point about mind-control and how a cult develops and incites people. On top of that, it’s simply a great movie, so you’ll be enjoying yourself and doing research at the same time. Everybody wins!
3. The Village (2004)
Yes, this one is divisive. The Village is one of M Night Shyamalan’s most hated movies. Literally no one thinks it’s a masterpiece. Except for Ex Jehovah’s Witnesses, that is. Yes, in the world of former JW.org members, The Village has gained quite the cult following, pun intended. Why? Well, if you haven’t seen it yet, there are spoilers ahead (so grab a copy and watch it and then come back). If you have, keep reading: It’s the story of a village somewhere in some forest. The population is held together through a common fear: An unknown monster roaming the woods surrounding the village. Nobody is allowed to leave the village, and the village elders ritually offer up a sacrifice to appease the unknown fiends. But then, one day, a young rebel leaves the safe space to find out what lies beyond. To his dismay, he finds out they’ve been lied to all along… Yes, movie buffs won’t be impressed by my explanation but if you in any way have been connected to a cult, you will find this summary oddly familiar. The Village is a mindblowing metaphor for what we experienced as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I am sure many other cult survivors will be able to relate as well. No other movie to date has illustrated the qualms of waking up from a cult as well as The Village does. Please, give it another try.
2. To Verdener – Worlds apart (2008)
Worlds apart is a Danish film and was submitted by Denmark for the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s the story of a girl who grows up as a Jehovah’s Witness. One day, she falls in love with a worldly boy, ie. a boy who is not a Witness. This causes her to face the biggest challenge yet: Losing the boy she loves or losing her family. From a movie buff’s perspective, the film is not a masterpiece, the cinematography is nothing to write home about and being subtitled it didn’t draw a large audience outside of Denmark. But whether you were a Witness or a member of another cult, you will find this film relatable on many levels. The movie does not get all details right and as a former member, you’ll catch yourself saying, no, that’s not at all how it works a few times, but other than that, it’s a must-see.
1. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
Does this documentary need an introduction? Winner of three Emmy awards, Going Clear by Alex Gibney based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name is the must-see movie about cults and cult tactics. It is a masterpiece featuring exclusive insights into a secretive religion some view as the world’s most dangerous cult. Former high-ranking members share their experiences and show how Scientology developed a community built on fear. For Ex Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are many parallels to discover. Other cults will be able to relate as well. And anybody interested in the subject of cults or who is trying to understand what cult survivors went through must take a look at this documentary.
These are my 10 favorite movies about cults, fanaticism, and undue influence. What are yours?