Why are we obsessed with cults right now?
Sometime in late April, a new docuseries popped up in my Netflix suggested list.
Called “Waco,” it’s about the 1993 siege on the compound of a religious group called the Branch Davidians by various federal and local government agencies. On day 51 of the siege, which included tanks, firearms and a lot of incendiary tear gas, a fire broke out in the compound that killed 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children. Ever since, it’s been hotly debated whether the government or the Branch Davidians’ charismatic and controversial leader, David Koresh, is to blame. I was seven-years-old in 1993 and I remember my parents — people who normally might be quick to write off groups like the Branch Davidians as too extreme — being horrified by what happened. The Branch Davidians’ religious views may have been extreme by mainstream standards, but did they really deserve to die the way they did? I didn’t think so, and that stuck with me (I ended up majoring in religion in college, focusing on cults).
So it took me all of five seconds to click “watch now” on the “Waco” series.
I wasn’t alone — while Netflix declined to provide viewer data for the series, “Waco” remained in the Top 10 for weeks after debuting. At the same time, “Wild Wild Country,” a Netflix original docuseries that originally debuted in 2018, reappeared in the “Trending Now” section. That series is also about a controversial religious group and its clashes with the government and the surrounding community.
Then, earlier this month, an episode about Heaven’s Gate, a group that sensationally met its end in Rancho Santa Fe in 1997, debuted in the “Deadly Cults” series on Oxygen.
All of which points to the idea that cult documentaries are enjoying broader popularity during stay-at-home orders.
First things first, though: Dr. Pam Fox Kuhlken, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University, takes issue with the word “cult.”
“It’s inaccurate to use the pejorative label ‘cults’ since all religions are cults in the broadest sense, that is, systems of beliefs and practices with histories, teachings, and communities,” explains Kuhlken. She says the term “new religious movements” (NRMs) is more appropriate.
Kuhlken is not surprised that people would be drawn to such content about NRMs right now. She says that extreme, committed groups like the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate are interesting not just for sensationalism but are “part of a legitimate search for meaning.”
“In quarantine, people have time to think about deeper issues now that life has halted to a stand-still, so they question what, if anything, they’re willing to die for,” Kuhlken says.
Annette Porter, director of The Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University, notes that the draw towards this type of programming isn’t new.
“There’s always been a sort of morbid fascination with cults/new religious movements; making them compelling subjects for documentary films,” Porter says. She adds that the fascination is powered by a group’s charismatic leader and their deep character flaws, which viewers wouldn’t get to see off-camera.
She also says that religious groups’ worldviews defining who is “in” and “out” is a classic exemplification of the “good vs. evil” battle that naturally enriches storylines.
“Mainly, cult/new religious movement documentaries provide an outside-in look at a culture from a safe distance. That is normally inaccessible to those who avoid membership,” she explains, and it provides compelling, binge-able content for exactly those reasons.
More than entertainment, she says that films about fringe religious groups also offer viewers an opportunity to think about things they frequently avoid confronting themselves. Questions like: What is good? What is evil? What is the nature of free will? Why would you give up certain freedoms? Which freedoms would you be willing to give up for a cause? How does a single person exert control without physical force? Where do people turn when they feel left out and like society has forgotten them?
These aren’t new questions. Religion, philosophy, politics and myriad other thought systems have attempted to answer them for centuries.
These stories that are being turned into TV shows all took place over 30 years ago, so why bring them up now? “These are questions that are part of the quarantine zeitgeist,” Porter says.
She adds, “Watching these documentaries can be very self-revealing. You ask yourself, where do I fall on the questions laid out in these films?”
As an example, she notes that during WWII, films about valor and heroism were popular. “It’s only natural that films about feeling isolated and wanting to belong to a group that provides clear ‘answers’ to confusing dilemmas would be popular today, considering the uncharted territories we are living in.”
Natalie Feinblatt, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with people who have exited extreme religious groups, offers a lighter take.
“Like true crime,” she says, referring to another popular genre, “cult documentaries can make people feel a little protected and superior in regard to thinking, ‘Well, I would never fall for that nonsense.’ The truth is that everyone is vulnerable to being preyed on by an unhealthy group, but it feels nice to think you’re different and protected from that sort of thing.”
Feinblatt also thinks stories like this are popular now because they allow people to be absorbed into an even weirder and more extreme situation than the one we’re already facing.
Whatever the personal motivation — be it escapism, a moral high-horse, soul-searching, commiseration or something else — fascination with new religious movements will always be something people are drawn to. Porter says two people could enjoy the same documentary but leave with a different perception of who in it they identify as heroic.
For many, “these groups put forth legitimate criticisms about society and people are angry about a lot of failures of our systems,” she says. “So I suspect there will be cheering on both sides of the clash.”