When good gods go bad: 10 cult-related shows to stream
From scripted drama and comedy, to reality competitions, to documentaries, Showmax has launched eight Original series in the past eight months – and there’s plenty more to come in 2021, including a fantasy series, a telenovela, a rom com, and a sitcom.
The one in particular that has South Africa talking is the shocking docu-series, Devilsdorp. It’s jaw-droppingly excellent, with a cast of characters and a complex plot that are impossible to make up. Set in Krugersdorp between 2008 and 2019, it’s a story of brutal murders, two sides of religion (Christianity and Satanism), a cult leader who was able to manipulate her members and convince them to kill on her behalf, a lone wolf police detective, a cold-hearted mother, traumatised survivors, jailhouse romance, and mysterious loose ends.
As much as Devilsdorp – which is brilliantly constructed – keeps you on the edge of your seat and thoroughly engrossed, it leaves the viewer with plenty of questions that will fuel discussions with friends and random members of the public for months to come. (I happened to mention it to the staff at PostNet and we got into a spirited conversation.)
It’s easy to judge people, or victim shame, from the comfort of our armchairs, but cults can suck anybody in, whether it’s through religion, the promise of power, riches and success, to cure the afflicted, or to assure physical beauty. A cult, Very Well Mind tells us, is most often referred to as an “organised group or solitary person whose purpose is to dominate other cult members through psychological manipulation and pressure strategies.”
There are various “criteria” for defining a cult; “one thing most people can agree on is that cults have a leader. And the leader (or group of people who serve as leaders) are responsible for the rules that guide the members,” says the article.
Preying on the weak, the vulnerable, the insecure and the unsophisticated, cult leaders promise their followers their greatest earthly or heavenly desires. Are those who purport to speak on behalf of gods and entities legitimate? Or are they taking advantage of their disciples and believers for their own nefarious purposes? Here’s a list for you to sample.
Children of God (Netflix)
Originating from the 1960s hippie era in California, the Children of God, aka the Family, was notorious for its polyamorous practices, “flirty fishing” in which members would do whatever it took to win souls for Christ, and sexual abuse of children. This is an old film, made in 1994, when founder David Berg died; since the cult believed Jesus would return in 1993, a lot of it has changed over the decades, and its spokesperson at the time of filming denied all the allegations. In this documentary, narrated by Helen Mirren, we learn the story of the Padilla family, who spent 18 years in the cult, and even nearly 30 years later, it’s chilling viewing.
“Joker star Joaquin Phoenix had an unconventional early childhood, living in Venezuela, Florida, and eventually Hollywood with his peripatetic parents and siblings Summer, Liberty, Rain, and late fellow actor River. But until Phoenix was around three years old in 1977, the family were followers of the Children of God, a cult helmed by a rogue preacher called David Berg that would later become notorious amid allegations of child sexual abuse. And he’s not the only celebrity who spent some of their early years in the group – Rose McGowan also spent part of her childhood in the cult.” – Esquire.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (Netflix)
In the 1970s, Kolkata-born Bikram Choudhury emigrated to the US, already riding on the back of false claims. He put together 26 poses to be carried out in a room heated to 40 degrees C. You have to be a special kind of devotee to tolerate that, a widely accepted practice still.
Like Madonna, Lady Gaga and David Beckham. There have been claims on this particular style of yoga (Bikram didn’t want anyone else teaching it unless they were authorised by him); and besides being rude to unattractive or overweight people, he also faced lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, assault, racism and homophobia.
“Becoming a Bikram teacher was like joining a cult – and the cult grew and grew and grew. Choudhury was their leader, and a revered yoga guru,” says Decider.
Inside The Criminal Mind (Netflix)
If you’re still not sure how evil cults are, in this series, cult leaders have an episode (episode 3) dedicated to them, along with serial killers, kidnappers and crime lords.
“While the episode doesn’t look at certain cults – such as UFO cults (like the fascinating Heaven’s Gate) or cults with relatively benign characteristics – it does a pretty good job of showing how cults manipulate people,” says Show Snob. In this case, the cult leaders are Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh and Warren Jeffs, who between them commanded murder, mass suicide, and a lot of sex.
John of God: The Crimes Of A Spiritual Healer (Netflix)
Portuguese with subtitles, John of God, or João de Deus, combines apparent miraculous faith healing with sexual abuse, perpetrated over decades by João Teixeira de Faria. He claimed to be a medium through which entities would perform the healing. The testimonies of those whose cancer disappeared or had their crutches flung aside by Faria, are as compelling as the stories told by the beautiful (always beautiful, always young) women who were sexually assaulted.
Hundreds of women, including Faria’s daughter, alleged the healer regularly engaged in abuse ranging from groping to rape during private sessions, says Sydney Morning Herald. Even Oprah herself went to see him before the allegations came to light in 2018. It took a while and caused untold pain and suffering, but “Today, Faria is 77 and imprisoned at the Aparecida de Goiânia Complex in the Brazilian state of Goias, where he will remain for the rest of his life,” says Bustle.
One of Us (Netflix)
Unlike Michael Stipe, not everyone is there in the corner, choosing their religion. Many are born into it, brought up in it, and continue to live in it. And then there are those who make the choice to leave it all behind. Hasidic Judaism is a subgroup of Orthodox Judaism, by which you can glean it is noted for its religious and social conservatism and social seclusion.
This film is about three ex-members of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community: Ari Hershkowitz, Luzer Twersky, and Etty Ausch. It’s nothing as simple as waking up one morning and deciding “oh this isn’t for me after all”; it is ripping yourself apart from everything you’ve ever known – and also dealing with being ostracised and threatened.
“Employing intimate, evocative aesthetics to amplify their material’s heart-wrenching power, the filmmakers craft a harrowing portrait of trauma, bravery and insular societal oppression,” says Variety.
Pray Away (Netflix)
Among the many atrocities committed in the name of “God”, conversion therapy holds its own vile place. In other words, “pray away the gay”, sometimes known as “reparative therapy,” is a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, says Human Rights Campaign.
“Such practices have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organisation for decades, but due to continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ people, some practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy. Minors are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.”
In this documentary – Ryan Murphy is an executive producer – we hear from survivors and former leaders, who were brainwashed into believing this barbaric practice. “No force is more powerful, and easier to use against someone, than faith. In this case, Pray Away focuses on a slew of Christian messengers who used to preach and embody gay conversion therapy ideals, leading various organisations with their destructive, heteronormative idea of family, faith, and freedom,” says Roger ebert.com.
The Family (Netflix)
Apparently, an enigmatic conservative Christian group known as the Family wields strong influence in Washington, DC, in pursuit of its global ambitions. “Based in large part on the 2008 book of the same name by Jeff Sharlet, The Family draws a line from the Fellowship to President Donald Trump,” says The Atlantic, in an article that uses the most delightful phrase: moral incontinence.
“The Fellowship, also known as the Family, is a highly secretive group of evangelical Christian men who meet for Bible study and prayer meetings; it’s best known for serving as the organiser of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of diplomats and world leaders in Washington, DC,” says Rolling Stone. “Based on author Jeff Sharlet’s book of the same name, the Netflix docuseries highlights a secret (homoerotic) Christian cabal that you’ve never heard of.”
The Vow (Showmax)
Many cults have their roots in religion of some kind or another, or religion is exploited as a form of control, but that’s not always the case. The Vow insidiously taps into the self-improvement industry, in particular the group NXIVM – whose leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted of sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy, among other crimes. Because a smidge of celebrity scandal is always titillating, Smallville actress Allison Mack played a part in recruiting new members. No Jesus, but a cult nonetheless, “the nine-hour season, now revealed to be the first of two, hinges on years’ worth of recordings compiled by documentarian Mark Vicente, a former member of NXIVM’s executive board who spent more than a decade in its ranks,” says The Ringer.
“The series, directed by film-makers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (The Square, The Great Hack), is the rare true crime series to mostly justify its length,” says The Guardian. “It effectively if sometimes confusingly winds through a remarkable trove of primary source footage and recordings to demystify the insidious appeal of NXIVM’s devil’s bargain – how you could feel empowered while being ground down to mistake manipulation for self-improvement, to see abuse as self-control, how one ends up in a sex cult bound by forced hot iron branding and starvation diets.”
Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
The six-episode series focuses on controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho), his one-time personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers in the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon, US, established in the early 1980s. Osho later threw Sheela under the bus for a series of serious crimes; he was deported and in 1986 she pleaded guilty to attempted murder and assault for her role in the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack. Sheela’s own story is just as enthralling, and the 2021 documentary Searching For Sheela follows her first journey home to India in more than 30 years.
“Rajneesh was just one of many cult leaders who have captivated – and horrified – people throughout history. In 1978, cult leader Jim Jones urged more than 900 of his followers to kill themselves by drinking poison in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1993, in a standoff with government officials, more than 75 Branch Davidians died in a building fire in Waco, Texas, together with their leader David Koresh,” says The Verge, in an article which delves into a discussion about how cult leaders seduce and control their followers.
Looking for something a little lighter?
While these are all fairly heavy going, thought-provoking documentaries, sometimes you just need to take a step back and see the humour in the situation. On Becoming a God In Central Florida (Showmax) is about how people simply hoping for a better life and the allure of easy fortunes are sucked into pyramid schemes by charismatic kingpins.
“Creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky originally set out to make a series about cults, but when they looked into the (now illegal) pyramid schemes of the 1990s, stuffed full of money-sucking exploitation, and the misguided belief in manifest destiny, they realised the biggest cults were these schemes. So they invented FAM, a cultish pyramid organisation that sells household products,” SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) Australia.
The series stars Kirsten Dunst as a minimum wage water park employee who inherits her late husband’s FAM debt, and through scheming and conniving, makes the scheme her bitch. Season 2 was unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic.
When it comes to religious schemes, the Righteous Gemstones (Showmax) is a hilarious and irreverent look at a megachurch family who are anything but holy. The lead characters are televangelists leading lavish lifestyles thanks to their followers, and it’s all about the bottom dollar, as the greedy siblings bicker and blackmail each other.
John Goodman stars as Eli Gemstone, patriarch of the obnoxious bunch. Covid has interfered with a second season here as well, but filming is happening, according to this article by Thrillist: “‘I just picture this show as something a little bit bigger and wilder and more epic in the sense that we’re not calculating what the audience’s final thoughts are about these characters yet,’ series creator Danny McBride told Thrillist in the wake of the Season 1 finale.
“We’re just now introducing the audience to these characters. And, if I have my way, we’ll be exploring these characters for a few years to come.”