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Why We Can’t Get Enough of Cult Documentaries

Nobody joins a cult. They just joined an exciting group of people trying to change the world. They just wanted to empower themselves, to feel better, to know Jesus, to do drugs with interesting people, to be different from their parents, to live off the grid. Then things got hairy and now here they are, sagely describing this process to a dutiful filmmaker.

Our current cult documentary boom has been going strong for years now, beginning in earnest with 2018’s “Wild Wild Country” and not really letting up. There has been “Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle,” “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” “The Way Down,” “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,” “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence,” “Waco: American Apocalypse,” “Shiny Happy People,” “The Deep End,” “In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal.” There were two Nxivm documentaries — “The Vow” and “Seduced: Inside the Nxivm Cult” — and two more on the online romance group Twin Flames Universe: “Desperately Seeking Soulmate” and “Escaping Twin Flames.” In the past month or so there has been “Love Has Won” on HBO and “Born Into Synanon,” on Paramount+. This is nowhere near a comprehensive list.

So what’s to account for our apparently bottomless appetite for such tales? (Streamers wouldn’t keep making them if nobody was watching.) Well, on a purely craven level, these stories are juicy as hell — sex, love, murder, redemption, ecstatic connections and a rending of the social fabric. Money, money, money. You’d be crazy not to make a documentary about all of it, about all the weird hairdos and strange lingo, all the anguish and absurdity.

But the volume and repetition perhaps reflects a broader, persistent sense of unease, a need to ask, over and over: How in the world do people believe things like this? Why do people worship lies? Is there a way to show them the light?

Oh, gosh, if anyone knew the answer to that, we’d be living in a very different world. Individually, these documentaries demonstrate that lots of people believe lots of garbage. Taken as a whole body, though, they suggest that, actually, nearly everyone believes at least a little garbage.

Some of the better documentaries stress the relationship between high-control groups and general social ills: “Seduced,” the shorter but more perceptive Nxvim documentary, highlights the misogyny that drove much of the organization. “The Way Down” traces an Evangelical leader’s message from intense body shaming to even more intense advocacy for corporal punishment.

The less curious instantiations, which present the leaders’ hectoring and philosophizing at length, can start to feel misguided. They’re like those 1990s girls-magazine articles about the dangers of eating disorders that also doubled as how-to guides for budding anorexics.

But even as quality and particulars vary, there is a sameness to a lot of these shows. Subjects ready themselves and chat to off-camera producers. We see joyous footage of the early days, and then usually an ex-member says, “Or that’s what I thought,” or sometimes, “But then things started to change.” Some former members are horrified by what they’ve done, and others want to make sure the story includes the good parts, too, or they even still believe. Sometimes family members describe their heartache.

Many of these groups have already been the subjects of at least one podcast or article before making the leap to television. If you’re interested in high-control groups in general, this can make the TV documentaries feel even more repetitive.

In format, perspective, style and distribution, the contemporary cult exposé nestles in comfortably with two other recent booms: true crime and scam sagas. Cults are also adjacent to conspiracies, another growth industry — both are forms of tribalism defined by their distance from reality. Synanon and the like sit alongside stories of Theranos, crypto frauds, pyramid schemes and QAnon not just on streaming services, but also within the greater misinformation and disinformation diaspora.

“Wild Wild Country” was a hit for Netflix in 2018.Credit…Netflix

There’s a gawking appeal to this programming, of course, and a reasonable desire to hold people accountable for causing so much despair. But after spending hundreds of hours hearing from all sorts of devotees, what becomes clear is that participation in a cult is often a response to the sorrows of the world, to its shortcomings and capricious cruelty, to being stuck or maligned or afraid. No, we are not all equally susceptible to undue influence, but if you’ve ever bought something because of advertising, easy does it on that high horse.

In “Escaping Twin Flames,” a former member says her deconstruction occurred when the leader told her to write a report on the two Nxivm documentaries to affirm the ways he was not a cult leader. “Every point we were coming across when we were doing this research was pointing to the fact that he was, in fact, a cult leader,” she says. “Things started to churn at that point.”

Perhaps things start to churn for viewers, too. The drive to understand others is also a drive to understand ourselves. Could it be that the appeal of cult stories partly reflects a desire to deconstruct pernicious control in our own lives? Or to at least reconsider the extent to which we’ve substituted the standards of capitalism, patriarchy, diet culture, consumerism, improv comedy, whatever, for our own? If we can nail down how other people get fooled and then unfooled, then maybe we’d know what to do when something seems not quite right.

It is scary when you begin to think that the institutions, leaders and premises that define your life and way of thinking may be corrupt and illegitimate. But maybe if you could watch, oh, hundreds of people in a variety of smaller contexts on every streaming platform and cable network go through that process, the path forward would become a little clearer. You would have some idea of where to head. You might feel less isolated. Actually, maybe we could watch together. In fact, we could form a little group.

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