Why Are We Suddenly All Obsessed With Cults?

Cults seem a distant, almost historical phenomena – but according to author Beth Lewis, that couldn't be further from the truth.
Andrew Merry via Getty Images

Cults are fertile ground for endless documentaries, movies, TV shows, books, so much so that there seems to be a new Netflix show about one every month. But why?

Our fascination with cults comes from the same place as our fascination with serial killers and true crime, we love to gawk at the extremes of humanity from a safe space behind a TV screen or page of a book and think, that could never happen to me.

These cult leaders become macabre celebrities. Charles Manson. David Koresh. Keith Raniere. It’s incredible to think these leaders have brainwashed thousands of people into giving everything they have to one person under the guise of a community.

In some cases, these cults do actually create entire communities by themselves.

Rajneeshpurum was a city built in Oregon, US by the Rajneesh movement led by Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh (otherwise known as Osho). The hit Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country details their rise, expansion, and collapse, including the largest instance of domestic bioterrorism in the USA.

For a writer, it’s hard to resist the pull of a cult narrative and for viewers, hard to not binge just one more episode, especially when the cult in question features recognisable faces.

NXIVM is one of the most talked about cults of the moment. It has so gripped the world that, since its demise in 2018, a record number of documentaries, movies, books, and podcasts have been made about it. The Vow and Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult are the two most popular docuseries and give different perspectives on the cult. Both do, however, mention the leader Keith Raniere’s strange obsession with late-night volleyball.

What began as a self-improvement MLM (multi-level marketing system, a modern equivalent of a pyramid scheme and classic fronting for cults) ended with FBI raids, arrests and a 120-year prison sentence for Raniere.

NXIVM had secret manuals, exclusive sub-groups, collections of ‘collateral’, and of course celebrity members. Celebrities lend credibility to cults and aid in recruitment, and with NXIVM that came from Alison Mack. She played Chloe Sullivan in Smallville and used her status to recruit women into DOS, a secret group Mack touted as a ‘feminist empowerment group’ but in reality was a master/slave sex group for Raniere.

The price of entry was extreme. Members had to hand over embarrassing or incriminating materials and most shockingly, be branded with a symbol made from Raniere and Mack’s initials.

NXIVM tried to recruit from the upper echelons of Hollywood, but with the exception of Mack, NXIVM had little in the way of Hollywood clout.

When it comes to cults, for me there is none more fascinating than Heaven’s Gate, who served as inspiration for the Golden Door Group in my novel Children of the Sun. A recent documentary, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults explored the group and its beliefs, trajectory, and ultimate end by mass suicide in 1997.

They were founded in 1974 by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite. They were Star Trek fans and believed if they died they would ascend to live forever on a spaceship trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

Heaven’s Gate didn’t follow the path of a traditional cult by continuing to expand, becoming more extreme and eventually imploding. In 1976 they stopped recruiting and lived a monastic lifestyle. No drugs, no sex, no recruitment. What kind of a cult was this?

Cults seem a distant, almost historical phenomena. But they aren’t. Right now, there is an extreme cult in Kenya where over 200 people have died by starvation, believing they would get to Heaven quicker.

Recently, via the BBC documentary A Very British Cult, The Lighthouse life-coaching group has been exposed as a dangerous cult and it seems that many dangerous cults started innocently enough.

Beth Lewis’ latest novel, CHILDREN OF THE SUN, was published by Hodder Fiction in May 2023.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Scientology has ′secret manuals, exclusive sub-groups’ and ‘collections of collateral’.