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Cult documentaries are kinda my thing.
I was two years old when 909 followers of Peoples Temple committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. I don’t remember the news coverage, although I do recall the shadow of that tragedy haunting my ‘80s childhood with routine talk of poisoned Kool-Aid and a much-too-early awareness of suicide.
In high school, I watched live coverage of the siege of the Branch Davidians compound by federal authorities in Waco, Texas, which culminated in a horrific fire that killed 75 followers, including 25 children, and the charismatic leader, David Koresh.
It wasn’t until I was 42 that I would experience false guru ideology in my own life in the yoga world.
I’ve always been curious about why people hand over so much power and control to a leader who claims to have all the answers. And so a contented evening, for me, is curling up with my dog and cult documentaries or docuseries that explore false yoga gurus and other “spiritual leaders,” the people who believe them, and how truth truly is stranger than fiction.
5 best cult documentaries to watch now
1. The Deep End
Yes, women can be cult leaders, too. Directed by Australian-Indian filmmaker Jon Kasbe, The Deep End is a four-part docuseries profiling YouTube guru Teal Swan. The series takes you deep inside Swann’s tight inner circle of sycophants, spilling lots of tea along the way.
Swan is a millennial spiritual leader for the internet age with more than 1.3 million subscribers and 650,000 Instagram followers The author of multiple books on personal development, Swan is neither a licensed therapist nor a college graduate, but she’s famous for doing deep therapy sessions with severely depressed, even suicidal, people in front of a live audience of paying customers. The episodes explore the suicide of one of her followers.
Swan has asserted that she is half-alien and was the victim of satanic ritual abuse when she was six years old. Swan’s therapist, Barbara Snow, helped her recover the alleged memories of abuse. Snow was a central figure in multiple high-profile satanic ritual abuse cases in the late ‘80s. Unfortunately, the series doesn’t delve too deeply into the roots of Swan’s “recovered” memories.
Swan does not come off looking innocent in this series. Instead, she’s portrayed as a power-hungry narcissist who can do no wrong in the eyes of those who believe. She has said some problematic things about suicide, calling it a “reset” and a bridge to reincarnation. Swan and several followers have asserted that the editing in this series is misleading, creating misrepresented timelines and editing together disparate footage to create a false narrative, which has been partially corroborated by witnesses.
The truth is complicated. Watch with a skeptical mind.
2. True Believers
This series covers multiple bizarre cults and organizations in fast-paced, one-hour episodes. I focused on the first episode, “Empire of Yoga,” which is about the low-key, not-quite-a-cult Kundalini Yoga indoctrination taught by Yogi Bhajan.
Yogi Bhajan came to the United States in 1969 during the heyday of celebrity Indian gurus, including Swami Satchinanda Saraswati (“The Woodstock Guru”) and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (“The Beatles’ Guru”). Based in Los Angeles, Bhajan started teaching hippies and other seekers who were disillusioned with psychedelic drugs a unique type of yoga that, it was said, could get you naturally high.
What happens next is typical fallen guru behavior: There’s financial abuse of followers, brainwashing in the form of changing followers’ names and the way they dress, and sleep deprivation (forcing them to wake up every morning at 4 a.m. for two and a half hours of meditation). This culminates in numerous allegations of sexual abuse of followers, including children.
“The Empire of Yoga” provides a succinct overview of the main issues, but there is much that remains to be explored. Yogi Bhajan had been dead for 18 years before this doc was made, so it’s almost impossible to prove what he did or did not do or to hold the right people accountable. This episode features some long-time devotees who don’t believe the allegations of abuse.
Other episodes in True Believers feature the aforementioned Teal Swan, One Taste, and the Modern Mystery School.
3. Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults
The four-episode docuseries Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults dives deep into what is arguably one of the weirdest cults of the last century. It was led by a clinically depressed opera singer named Marshall Applewhite, known as Do, and his former nurse, Bonnie Nettles, Ti. The cult mixed UFOs, aliens, and new-age spirituality with the Book of Revelation to form a religion that promised everlasting life to its followers by transforming them into immortal extraterrestrials. Yeah. Wild.
Unlike the sexual coercion and abuse that goes on in a lot of high-profile cults, Ti and Do imagined a sexless, genderless alien population, and deeply discouraged sensuality of any kind.
Sound familiar? Heaven’s Gate was the inspiration for an episode of The Simpsons, aptly called “The Joy of Sect,” which aired roughly a year after the members of the Heaven’s Gate Cult committed mass suicide in a San Diego mansion in 1997. In the episode, Simpson joins a cult called “The Movementarians” whose leader promises followers a ride in a spaceship to the planet Blisstonia if they move to a compound and serve him.
The docuseries includes interviews with members who left the cult, including one who still believes in the teachings of Ti and Do and others who were dedicated to Heaven’s Gate for decades, some of whom gave up their children to participate in it. `
4. Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey
Polygamy has not been encouraged by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for more than a century. However, some fundamentalists still ascribe to the religion’s early teachings, specifically, that a man can only be exalted to heaven if he has multiple wives. The 2022 documentary series Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey focuses on a Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community in Short Creek, Utah, led by Warren Jeffs.
Under Jeff’s leadership, women were trained to be obedient wives from birth, behavior that was believed to be their true path to salvation, and they were married off as soon as legally allowed or, as the documentary shows, sometimes before then. At the time of Jeffs’ arrest for rape in 2007, he had 78 wives, 24 of whom were under the age of 18. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
This four-part miniseries illustrates the grooming of young girls, brainwashing of followers, and absence of outside influence that led to rape and alleged incest, pedophilia, and financial abuse in this still-active community that numbers around 10,000.
5. Wild Wild Country
An Indian guru named Bagwan Shree Rajnesh had a plan: Build a self-sustaining, independent commune on empty ranch land in north central Oregon. What he was able to create out of nothing in just three years is astonishing: a mall, police force, public transportation system, and housing for 7,000.
In that time, the cult also made headlines for the leader’s bizarre crimes, ranging from the largest marriage immigration fraud case in American history to a bioterror attack on a neighboring town.
Part of what makes Wild Wild Country, the six-part docuseries about Rajnesh, so captivating is that the narrative is supported by archival footage shot by the Rajneeshpurim community and clips of the extensive national and local news coverage of the cult.
What you see is an all-out war between an Oregon hippie commune filled with immigrants and other “undesirables” led by Rasjnesh, known today as Osho, and its neighboring far-right Christian ranching town. My only complaint is the documentary lacks details about everyday life on the commune and the goals of the organization.
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