11 Documentaries Profiling Cults & Controversial Religions to Stream

The Vow HBO Participants in NXIVM programs
Courtesy of HBO
'The Vow'

We’ve seen countless scripted shows about cults, including The Path, The Following and the aptly-named Cult. But truth is stranger than fiction—and often, judging from the accounts of former members, far more disturbing.

The star-studded NXIVM saga, for example, inspired back-to-back docuseries last year, one of which is returning for a second season soon.

Read on for more about those shows and other streaming docuseries and documentary films that center on deadly and scandal-ridden groups.

(Content warning: Many of these documentaries, their trailers and their synopses describe instances of suicide and abuse.)

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Children of God

This documentary—which aired on Britain’s Channel Four in 1994—chronicles the one family within the titular organization, “a cult whose disturbing practices include the sexual abuse of children,” according to Netflix, where it’s streaming.

Cults and Extreme Belief

With firsthand accounts from former members of cults and other organizations, 20/20 alum Elizabeth Vargas “goes on a search to uncover how these sects use their influence to prey upon people’s desperation to create powerful and often destructive belief systems,” per the synopsis of this 2018 A&E docuseries streaming on Hulu.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

For this 2015 HBO documentary, now on HBO Max, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney profiled eight former Church of Scientology devotees—including, notably, Crash director Paul Haggis—as they “describe the systematic history of abuse and betrayal by Church officials,” says the network.

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults

How did a cult that started with the disappearance of 20 people in 1975 end with the deaths of dozens of members two decades later? Find out in this four-part documentary, which hit HBO Max in 2020.

Holy Hell

With footage captured from more than 20 years inside the religious movement Buddafield, this 2016 documentary has director Will Allen “showing how his idealism began to unravel as more is revealed about the true nature of this cult,” according to IMDb TV, where it’s currently streaming.

Jonestown: Paradise Lost

Airing on History in 2007 and now streamable on YouTube, this documentary blended interviews with reenactments to show the final days of Jim Jones’ settlement in Guyana, before more than 900 men, women and children died of cyanide poisoning in 1978.

Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath

Former King of Queens star Leah Remini went from one of Scientology’s most famous members to one of its biggest enemies. In this Emmy-winning A&E series—which concluded in 2019—she recounts her own experience, with frightening detail, and interviews other ex-members. It’s now streaming on Netflix, Hulu and Discovery+.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult

India Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty alum Catherine Oxenberg, starred in this 2020 Starz docuseries as she detailed her escape from NXIVM, the “self-help” organization that led to a 120-year prison sentence for leader Keith Raniere and a three-year sentence for Smallville alum Allison Mack.

The Vow

Ending its first season on the same day that Seduced premiered, this HBO documentary, now on HBO Max, also covered NXIVM but featured commentary from former members Sarah Edmondson, Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse. Season 2 premieres later this year.

Waco: The Inside Story

Dozens of members of the Branch Davidian religious sect died in 1993 when the ATF raided its compound outside Waco, Texas. This 1995 Frontline installment “probes the untold story of the fierce political infighting inside the FBI’s Waco command center and in the corridors of power at the Justice Department in Washington,” says PBS, where it streams.

Wild Wild Country

With Mark and Jay Duplass on board as executive producers, this 2018 Netflix docuseries shows how Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh moved his thousands of faithful followers from Pune, India, to Wasco County, Oregon, and clashed—sometimes violently—with local Oregonians.