The Best Cult Stories in Pop Culture
Take me to your leader.
Hulu’s newest original drama The Path is about an upstate New York cult (see: it’s definitely not about Scientology) going through some involuntary leadership changes while its founder is secretly dying in Peru. It’s a fairly compelling show with solid performances by Hugh Dancy, Aaron Paul, and Michelle Monaghan. But it’s also a reminder of how difficult it is to present a fictionalized version of religious extremism. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been done all that often. But cults have been the subject of some noteworthy popular culture offerings, and here are our favorites:
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The titular protagonist of Tina Fey’s Netflix comedy series was released after 15 years captive in a bunker of an apocalyptic cult, believing the world had ended. Apocalyptic cults are a real thing— you’ve probably heard of The Children of God, so read the Vulture essay from a woman who also escaped the cult like Kimmy did.
Big Love is popularly associated with Mormonism, but the Hendrickson family at the center would not be considered Mormons at all by today’s Mormons — which the HBO series pretty much got across. Before 1890, polygamy was fair game among all Mormons, but the same law that gave Utah statehood also outlawed plural marriage, a practice mainstream Mormons condemn today. But the show also featured Bill Hendrickson breaking away and forming his own small religion (aka a cult) and the Juniper Creek compound housed a polygamist cult. Anyway. This was a great show.
In the months leading up to The Master’s release, we were all waiting anxiously for Paul Thomas Anderson to give The Church of Scientology the epic takedown it so deserved. But that’s not exactly what happened. Though The Master was clearly inspired by Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard’s life, those pesky Xenu lawyers must have gotten to the production, because it didn’t really do much to really educate its viewers about Scientology’s truly dark side. It was a portrait of an eccentric, influential man, is all. Great performances though!
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene will probably be best remembered for its impossible to remember name, which is too bad, because it might be the most chilling cult movie of all time. Elizabeth Olsen showed the world she was not just another Olsen twin with a deeply affecting and disturbing performance about a paranoid cult escapee trying to get back to normal under the care of her sister (Sarah Paulson before the whole world knew she was brilliant; except for me; I knew). That’s all we’re going to say.
The upwardly mobile are the real enemies in the creepy AF (and rather muddled) 1987 movie starring Martin Sheen as a recently widowed police psychiatrist investigating a string of child murders. The truly creepy part of this movie is that it is believed to have inspired a real cult, in Mexico, that preyed on American tourists.
Sound of My Voice
You can always count of Brit Marling (Another Earth, The East) to write and/or star in slightly off-the-wall movies, and Sound of My Voice is no different. Marlin plays a charismatic cult leader who claims to be from the future and whose obsession with a young student of one of her (fake) devotees nearly tears a marriage apart. Very memorable ending, not unlike Another Earth.
Back at the turn of the millenium, NBC produced a handful of made-for-TV “period pieces” that examined a particular decade by stringing together a bunch of easy stereotypes. Naturally, in The 70s, a cult is featured heavily, as Amy Smart’s dippy, scantily glad teenager gets sucked in. This is a terrible movie.
Sure, you could say that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had some of the ingredients of a cult, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Because it had to happen to someone, in Mad Men‘s final season we saw Roger Sterling lose his once people-pleasing daughter Margaret to a hippie cult. He should have given her husband that business loan!