Who among us doesn’t love a good cult story? In the wake of the high-profile trial and conviction of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, numerous high-profile documentaries about the self-improvement-scam-turned-sex-cult have been released. So, too, have online guides to other documentaries and exposés for anyone who wants to know more about similar cults — and there’s no shortage of stories to fill them with.
It’s tempting to wonder why, with all our modern knowledge about how cults operate, groups like NXIVM, Scientology, and various cultish MLMs can continue to spring up, gaining so much power and control over their followers. But in truth, the abusive tactics of such organizations remain effective at manipulating unsuspecting and well-meaning people, no matter which era we’re in. Chronicling the realities of cults can perhaps help us avoid the traps and manipulations they set for their victims. The list below contains some of the most jaw-dropping stories about cults that I’ve encountered — the extreme, wacky, and the murderous.
Many of these cults have been covered in multiple places, so I’ve also included multiple sources about each cult in question. Here are nine macabre, yet hopefully enlightening, rabbit holes for you to fall into.
Conscious Development (a.k.a. The Texas Hypnocult)
I’m baffled that this cult has gotten relatively little mainstream media attention, given that a) it’s bizarre and b) it encompasses the mysterious deaths of numerous people, including a young girl who was very probably murdered by her own mother — all in the service of cult leader Terri Hoffman.
In the ’70s, Hoffman developed a mostly nonsensical cult revolving around her belief in faith-healing, new age occultism, and “Black Lords,” energy-sucking alien entities who supposedly walked among us. These were all old cult staples, but they allowed her to bilk millions of dollars from her followers. Where things got seriously creepy was when her followers started dropping like flies — conveniently right after they’d signed their inheritances and their insurance payouts over to Hoffman herself.
What to read and listen to: The main source for most information about this cult comes from the 1982 D Magazine article “The Rise and Fall of a North Dallas Cult.”
The Dollop, a comedy improv podcast about real history, isn’t for everyone, but it’s where I first heard this story. The added comedic element highlights just how absurd so much of this story is — particularly the fact that, because Hoffman’s most disturbing crimes were crimes of persuasion, she could never truly be brought to justice.
See also: The Crimelines podcast recently thoroughly covered the case and its many offshoot mysteries. The Cults podcast has a two-part series on Hoffman (Part 1 and Part 2); The Trail Went Cold podcast episode covered the unsolved disappearance of cult member Charles Southern; this r/Unresolved Mysteries thread sums up Hoffman’s alleged victims and related deaths.
Knutby Filadelfia (a.k.a. Knutbydramat)
This cult gave rise to one of Sweden’s most famous true-crime cases, but it’s gotten relatively little attention in US media, despite its many astounding — and heartbreaking — elements. It begins with an isolated cloister of the Swedish Pentecostal movement. In the small town of Knutby in the early 2000s, the church, known as Knutby Filadelfia, evolved into a bizarre cult, revolving around the worship of a woman claiming to be the bride of Christ and a manipulative, predatory pastor named Helge Fossmo, who exploited multiple women in the congregation.
Among the many women who became victims of Fossmo was a young woman named Sara Svensson. Vulnerable and easily influenced, Svensson became Fossmo’s mistress after he convinced her it was God’s will for her to do so. Later, after Fossmo grew tired of her, the cult punished Svensson for her infidelity with Fossmo, who was already married to another member of the congregation — but directed Fossmo to carry out her punishment, which he did by locking her in a bedroom for months and subjecting her to gut-wrenching abuse at his hands.
Fossmo’s torture of Svensson, carried out before an indifferent and silent church, might have gone on indefinitely had his plans not changed. He decided to manipulate Svensson into carrying out a series of murders for him — and once again, he claimed to be speaking to her on behalf of God. The story gets much wilder and still sadder from there, but it’s worth discovering for yourself.
See also: Because of the language barrier, most of the media on this story is inaccessible in English. There is one excellent, open-access academic essay on the church that is free to download and contains fascinating interviews with former and current church members — because, it turns out, the church is still active today.
The self-help guru who believed his own hype
The Secret is perhaps one of the most pernicious bestsellers in history. It’s a dubious 2006 self-help book and “documentary” that claims humans can change their reality through the power of positive thinking. Based on a nonscientific, quasi-religious, 19th-century movement called New Thought, this false “positive thinking” rhetoric has been used to peddle everything from Scientology to CrossFit. In the case of The Secret, numerous celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, latched onto it and promoted its magical thinking — as well as one of its biggest proponents and his beliefs.
James Arthur Ray preached the “law of attraction,” a variant of New Thought that landed him on The Secret documentary as one of its hosts, and later as a guest on Oprah. His ideas had been challenged for years, particularly because he had a habit of turning his self-help workshops into grueling, physically dangerous marathon sessions. But he was unstoppable — and so was the growth of his cult of following — until one day in 2009, when he forced dozens of them to endure his bogus version of a Native American “sweat lodge.”
The events of that day led to the deaths of three members of Ray’s cult and the hospitalization of 18 more people — along with Ray’s fall from grace, a trial, and his ultimate sentence for murder. Astonishingly, however, Ray served just two years in prison, and he’s currently carefree, apparently unrestricted, and still peddling his dangerous thinking to his followers on the internet.
See also: “The Death Dealer,” a 2013 article and YouTube short from The Verge, examines Ray’s attempts to reestablish himself post-prison. Wondery’s eight-episode Guru podcast, hosted by Matt Stroud, author of The Verge article, dives even more thoroughly into Ray’s personality, life, and crimes. You can also check out the “Spiritual Warriors” episode of Oxygen’s Deadly Cults series, currently available on Amazon Prime.
In the ’80s, a unique thing happened: Hundreds of Indian immigrants moved to a tiny rural Oregon community in order to practice their religion. The Rajneeshpuram was a commune created by followers of Osho Rajneesh, an Indian mystic who emphasized meditation, and whose teachings are still in wide circulation today. By all accounts, unlike many of the cults herein, Rajneeshpuram was a peaceful community, whose extremes were exacerbated by one small group of tyrannical leaders who constantly clashed with the local populace — and each other.
These tensions escalated throughout the decade and finally culminated in a heinous climax: One commune leader and her loyalists wreaked vengeance upon the surrounding locals of Dalles, Oregon, in what would become the largest bioterrorist attack in US history.
But hey, many of the surviving cult members still say the experience was one of the best times of their life!
What to watch: Netflix’s engrossing six-part documentary series Wild Wild Country put this story on the radar of true-crime fans, and it’s definitely worth the watch.
So much has been written, filmed, and discussed about NXIVM, Keith Raniere’s pyramid scheme turned self-help seminar turned cult turned sex ring, that it may feel redundant to mention it here. Still, it’s such a fascinating, disturbing story that more angles on it only serve to further our understanding and empathy — and now that Raniere has been sentenced to 120 years in prison for his crimes, there’s a flood of new information about the cult for obsessives to explore.
What to watch: The most popular documentary on this case is HBO’s nine-part series The Vow, but you should also check out two other excellent documentaries that have been overshadowed by HBO’s show. The first, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, is an acclaimed, four-part Starz series that allows several of the women Raniere victimized to tell their stories. Watch it on Starz through your local cable provider or on Amazon Prime or Hulu with a Starz bundle.
The other documentary, The Lost Women of NXIVM, is a 90-minute Investigation Discovery exploration of four women who lost their lives while involved with the cult — which may have indirectly or directly played a role in their deaths. Find it on the Investigation Discovery website or Amazon Prime.
See also: If podcasts are more your style, there are several good resources. Uncover Season One: Escaping NXIVM explores the cult in depth over nine episodes; the Cults podcast has a four-part series on NXIVM; and in NXIVM on Trial, the Times Union devotes 18 short but thorough episodes to the cult, including interviews with former members and trial analysis. For a psychological exploration of Raniere and his many victims, Real Crime Profile recently began a series on the cult, featuring extensive interviews with the showrunner and host of Seduced, Cecilia Peck and India Oxenberg, who herself is one of the cult’s more high-profile escapees.
The cult that abducted tourists for ritual sacrifices
All cults are to some extent horrifying, but there are some cults that are seriously lose-your-lunch frightening, like real-life horror movies. This particular cult even inspired several actual horror movies in its wake. It also fueled decades of xenophobic American fear-mongering about Mexican border towns, as well as the Satanic Panic of the ’80s — even though its leader was originally a Catholic kid from Miami.
Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo was a powerful Mexican drug lord with a very large following of family members and minions who believed he had magical abilities. Constanzo was drawn to the Afro-Cuban religion of Palo Mayombe but distorted its tenets to justify his abuse. As part of his warped belief, he required his followers to abduct young men, upon whom he enacted sadistic rites in order to replenish his magic. Constanzo carried out this gory practice for years as an open secret on his Mexican compound Rancho Santa Elena — until he ritualistically dismembered the wrong man.
Mark Kilroy was a plucky, average Texas college student who vanished off the street while partying over spring break in 1989, in the Mexican border town of Matamoros. While his baffled friends searched for him, Kilroy, kidnapped by one of Constanzo’s followers, was quickly herded to an unspeakable death. The subsequent border-crossing hunt to find him ultimately revealed Constanzo’s nightmarish commune — and his dozens of serial murders — and led to a dramatic global manhunt for Constanzo himself.
What to watch and listen to: The Casefile true-crime podcast has an excellent episode on this case, as did the true crime podcast Red Handed. Oxygen’s Deadly Cults also covered it in the season one episode “Palo Mayombe,” currently available on Amazon Prime.
See also: Two 1989 longreads, one in Rolling Stone and one in Texas Monthly, both go into detail about the case and the cult. And this 2004 San Antonio Express profile looks at Constanzo’s main supporter Sara Aldrete, who served at least 25 years of a 50-year sentence in Mexico for her role in the crimes.
The white supremacist who turned his rural cult into a slaughterhouse
Another cult arose in the mid-80s thanks to Michael Wayne Ryan, a raging white supremacist who first joined one radical fundamentalist cult and then left it to pursue his own distorted neo-Nazi spin on evangelical Christianity. He used this doctrine, which he dubbed the “Christian identity” movement, to terrorize his followers for years.
Often known as the Yahweh cult because of Ryan’s claim that he himself was Yahweh, or the Rulo cult because of the tiny Nebraska town where they eventually settled, Ryan’s commune became a hellscape of torture, sadomasochism, child abuse, and sexual abuse. Ultimately, after one cult member escaped and authorities closed in on the group, Ryan and his followers enacted a double homicide so gruesome that court documents summarizing the details are too graphic for us to even link to.
What to read and watch: A 1986 article in the Chicago Tribune sums up the cult and its bizarre practices, including an erratic fortune-telling tool using the bogus ideomotor effect to hoax people into believing God was speaking to them. More recently, Oxygen’s Deadly Cults series profiled the cult in “Killers of Rulo,” available on Amazon Prime, and the Cults podcast dedicated a two-part episode to Ryan: here’s Part 1 and Part 2.
See also: Investigation Discovery’s series Evil Lives Here devoted an episode, “Son of the Prophet,” to the perspective of Michael Wayne Ryan’s son Dennis Ryan, currently available on Amazon Prime. Then still a teenager, Dennis was manipulated by his father into participating in the cult’s abuse and in the murders; he served 12 years in prison before his release in 1997. A 2015 Omaha Magazine profile chronicled his attempts over the decades since to build a normal life for himself.
The homeless ex-con who turned his daughter’s dormitory into a sex cult
A 2019 article in New York Magazine, “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence,” alerted the world to the gobsmacking story of a controlling, charismatic ex-convict, who moved into his daughter’s dormitory and proceeded to utterly brainwash, psychologically torture, and abuse her and all of her friends — even to the point of turning the group into a sex ring.
Lawrence Ray was apparently a would-be kingpin, with friends in high and low places all over New York, from the mayor’s office to the mob. He allegedly held an indescribable sway over the college dormitory where he came to rule, bilking them of almost $1 million, manipulating them into false confessions to nonexistent crimes for which he then blackmailed them, and grooming them into sexual abuse. According to prosecutors, he forced at least one of his victims into performing sex work for him — and even reportedly encouraged some followers toward suicide. He was ultimately indicted and is currently awaiting trial — and even from jail he’s still a chilling figure.
What to read: Beyond news reports, there’s currently very little about this cult in the wild (Blumhouse is adapting the story for Amazon), but what’s out there makes for bonkers reading. The authors of the original New York Magazine piece did a lengthy follow-up this year with additional interviews in the wake of Ray’s arrest, while the New York Times delved deep into his background and his bizarre range of claims and connections.
A religious denomination near you
At what point does mainstream religion take on aspects of a cult? This is a question countless documentaries have raised over the years, but it’s arguably more urgent than ever thanks to the current trend of ideological polarization sweeping the globe (and the US in particular). Lest you think any particular religion is immune to such dogmatic extremism, let these stories remind you that anything can become cult-like if abuses of power go unchecked.
What to watch: The Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary Jesus Camp was a seminal film that raised questions about the extremities, coercive techniques, and potential abuses of Protestant fundamentalism — and it’s currently free to watch on Vimeo.
In 2017, the creators of Jesus Camp returned with yet another profound look at extremist religion: the documentary One of Us, currently available on Netflix, which explores the rigid orthodoxy of Hasidic Judaism, and the struggle members of the community face as they try to leave it.
Another excellent series about the extreme overreach of the church is Netflix’s The Keepers, about the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnick. The crime is now widely believed to have been done at the behest of a Catholic priest who was attempting to cover up widespread sexual abuse in the Baltimore Catholic school where Cesnick taught. (Sound familiar?) If one story of Catholic authorities going to extremes to cover up years of systemic abuse isn’t enough, have a few more: the double murders of Dan O’Connell and James Ellison, as covered in the Casefile podcast, and the mass graves of an Irish Catholic orphanage, revealed in 2014 and covered in the hour-long documentary Children of Shame, now on Amazon Prime.
Three more fictional stories of cults that might as well be real
Each of these films and series was deeply researched, and each one unfolds almost like a documentary.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
This acclaimed 2011 film, starring Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes, plumbs the terrifying aftermath of a cult and the fragile psyche of an escaped cult member fighting to be free once and for all.
This gripping drama series about a woman escaping her Hasidic Williamsburg community after she’s forced into an arranged marriage manages to be both utterly respectful of Jewish culture and religion and starkly critical of the extremist variants of Hasidic practice.
Where to watch: Netflix
You might not think of radical Islamic sects as being cults, but this eight-episode Swedish series dramatizes the process of recruitment and radicalization in a way that might change your mind. Caliphate (no relation to the recently heavily disclaimed New York Times podcast of the same name) follows five normal Swedish girls as they encounter — and then succumb to — the lure of Isis. It’s a meticulously researched, powerful show that vividly illustrates how a belief system can become all-consuming.
Where to watch: Netflix