The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
I recently heaped praise on The Vow, HBO's documentary series on the NXIVM cult. It's a gripping series full of compelling detail, but there's just one problem: it's airing only one episode per week, which leaves viewers drumming their fingers as they wait between installments.
Whether you're watching episodes as they drop, or holding off until they're all available so you can treat yourself to the entire series at once, there's plenty of top-notch content about cults available to tide you over. While you've likely heard of many of these, they each offer a fascinating look at notorious "sects" or events that have flown under the radar.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (Netflix). Bikram Choudhury was at the head of a hot yoga "movement" in the United States, complete with celebrity adherents like Madonna and Lady Gaga — and allegations of bigotry, sexual harassment, and sexual and verbal abuse. If you enjoyed 30 For 30's podcast on Bikram, or meant to listen but didn't have time, Netflix's doc will catch you up in just an hour and a half.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO Max). Alex Gibney's Emmy-winning docuseries based on Lawrence Wright's equally outstanding book, Going Clear made it common knowledge that Scientology would stop at nothing to silence the "suppressive persons" it considered enemies (including Scientologist Tom Cruise's ex-wife Nicole Kidman, among others)... while exposing the fundamental tenets of the L. Ron Hubbard-founded "religion" as a cynically absurd pyramid scheme designed to fleece believers. Come for the weird details about the Sea Org; stay for actor Jason Beghe's disgusted and profane talking-head interviews.
Helter Skelter (Epix). Charles Manson isn't necessarily the first name you think of in a conversation about cults, but there's little question that he exerted a cult leader's influence over his "Family" — and by digging into Manson's childhood and background, the Epix docuseries Helter Skelter (read my review) is really strong on how and why a guru can come to be... as well as illustrating via interviews with former Family members how a guru's spell is (sometimes) broken.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Kanopy). This one's hard to find — and quite disturbing to watch, particularly towards the end, so watch with care — but it's stayed with me ever since I saw it on American Experience in the aughts. From the painstaking history lesson on Jim Jones' humble, and well-intentioned beginnings, to the horrifying audio of the massacre, the film builds from a sense of foreboding to a heavy grief. It's excellent, and you'll never want to watch it again.
Marjoe (Sundance NOW; Tubi). Marjoe Gortner was a tent-revival preaching prodigy as a child. As an adult, though he kept preaching, he wasn't a believer. The Oscar-winning 1972 documentary that bears his name isn't technically about a cult (although I guess it depends on how you feel about organized religion). But prospective cult leaders could learn — and perhaps have learned — a lot from Gortner basically blowing the whistle on his entire industry, and how preachers and televangelists work people, crowds, and their wallets.
Prophet's Prey (Showtime). Director Amy Berg (The Case Against Adnan Syed, West Of Memphis) turns her focus to the crimes of former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader Warren Jeffs. Another film whose survey of sexual and financial abuses is revolting, but it's instructive about extreme and isolated sects whose members — born into a "church" or cult and knowing no other way — may find themselves even more powerless against the predations of leadership.
Wild Wild Country (Netflix). A spiritual guru relocates his ashram to Oregon. When the commune — and particularly the guru's secretary, Ma Anand Sheela — starts trying to establish itself as a local power, the locals react poorly. But is their reaction narrow-mindedness? Or are Sheela and the Rajneeshees legitimately dangerous? The only true-crime property to combine bioterror and ranch dressing, Wild Wild Country taps into everything we fear about cults, and hits all the right notes as a buzzy, true-crime docuseries.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.