It’s hard to tell when our fascination with cults went mainstream, but we reckon the topic hit its peak in 2018. Numerous Scientology documentaries set the stage in the mid-2010s, before Wild Wild Country, a Netflix series about the Rajneeshpuram community, became a hit for the streaming service that year. It was followed by the media storm surrounding the downfall of NXIVM, with several heavily documented trials leading to several podcasts and a TV series. This is all to say that cults, just like true crime, have become quotidian subjects in our daily entertainment.
Unlike other sub-genres, podcasts about cults are not yet an over-saturated category. The overall quality is high, with most shows commanding impressive reporting and featuring guests with mind-blowing stories to tell. All the shows on this list do one thing very well: illuminating the psychology behind joining a cult without being patronizing or exploitative toward its victims. With a mix of weekly shows and bingeable series, they are the perfect gateway podcasts for the aspiring cult enthusiast. Just be careful not to get too invested.
Synanon began in the 1960s as a recovery center for addicts but became a dangerous cult whose leader, Charles E. Dederich, used experimental rehabilitation techniques to convert his followers. The Sunshine Place tells the story of the lives that Synanon destroyed through moving interviews with those who entered “the miracle on the beach” at desperate points in their lives. (Spoiler: this is not light entertainment.) Executive produced by Robert Downey Jr., the show highlights a common theme amongst cults, namely the way so many violent groups begin as symbols of hope.
In episode one, a survivor tells his story of leaving behind a serious heroin addiction the moment he walked through the doors of Synanon, yet his achievement is overshadowed by what happens next. Although the destructive nature of the group is foreshadowed, the truth is difficult to process when everything is finally revealed. With a tightly woven narrative, The Sunshine Place is easy to listen to in one sitting. The production is excellent, though you wouldn’t expect less from the Peabody-nominated C13Originals. It’s worth noting that there has been some controversy over whether the show borrowed too heavily from an uncredited source, but the lawsuit is still undecided.
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The most lighthearted show on this list, Sounds Like a Cult examines the way cult-like ideology can bleed into the most innocuous places, from workplace culture to enjoying a daily cup of Starbucks coffee. Every week, Isa Medina and Amanda Montell explore a different zeitgeist-y topic to highlight how cultish behavior is not just the reserve of Jonestown. Medina is a comedian and Montell is the author of a book on the culture of cults, which makes them a fitting duo for this novel podcast. While their banter is mostly tongue-in-cheek, the show’s constant pursuit of “bad” behavior can get a bit wearisome at times. At its best, Sounds Like a Cult makes for easy listening — something to throw on while you fold laundry — and will appeal to fans of Guys We Fu***d and Binchtopia.
For fans of: Assuming everything is problematic
If you haven’t heard of NXIVM, you probably have and didn’t know it was spelled like that. One of the most famous cults of the last decade, NXIVM was a multi-level marketing company selling self-development courses whose leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted of human trafficking, sex offenses, and fraud. Women indoctrinated into the cult were branded with the group’s symbol, an image that has become as famous as the group’s most notable perpetrator, actor Allison Mack. Escaping NXIVM is a 2018 podcast that ran concurrently with the New York Times’s exposé, as well as the start of the legal proceedings against the cult’s leaders. Relying heavily on the testimony of whistle-blower Sarah Edmondson, the show weaves a well-plotted and often harrowing account of life inside NXIVM, including Edmondson’s account of being branded by women she trusted and how she came to spend twelve years in Raniere’s circle.
Nearly five years old, Escaping NXIVM is still one of the best cult podcasts. The production is spare, allowing Edmondson’s monologues to take center stage. The result is a podcast that is not only engaging but will make you forget to breathe. We don’t say that about many shows.
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Speaking of NXIVM, the hosts of A Little Bit Culty are survivors of the notorious cult. Sarah Edmondson and Anthony Ames fell in love while in NXIVM and use their strange, traumatic experience to inspire others in similar situations. At least, that’s the pitch. However, a quick glance at the show’s reviews reveals most people seem to be merely curiouus. Either way, you can’t say this show doesn’t have credibility. A Little Bit Culty is an interview-style podcast that highlights stories of other victims, such as Tia Levings, who was featured in the recent Duggar family documentary, Shiny Happy People. It spends over an hour with each guest, delving into childhood experiences and how they finally left their cult or religious sect. If you’re interested in the details that even the documentaries skim over, this might be the podcast for you.
As actors, Edmondson and Ames have a natural delivery. They are instantly likable, an asset that is demonstrable during their interviews. It’s easy to binge three or four episodes while finishing your to-do list. A Little Bit Culty is one of the more accessible shows on this list, with fewer graphic details, but we would still recommend discretion.
For fans of: Second chances
Karina Longworth’s thoroughly researched and captivating exploration of the Manson murders is a must-listen for those interested in cult psychology. “You Must Remember Manson” contextualizes the brutal killings of Sharon Tate and her friends by members of Charles Manson’s cult, drawing on references to 60s politics, The Beatles, and the late Joan Didion. Longworth reconstructs a story that is often considered the unofficial end of the sixties – an event that instilled a sense of paranoia within Hollywood. In her book “The White Album,” Didion argued that the Manson murders marked the end of the summer of love. Longworth explores similar themes, examining how Manson’s cult was, in many ways, enabled by the show business culture of Los Angeles at the time. It’s hard to overlook how many of the cults on this list originated in California. If you want to understand why so many people in Hollywood are ensnared by false promises and manipulative leaders, start with “You Must Remember Manson.”
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Alice Florence Orr is a staff writer and assistant editor for Podcast Review. She is based in Edinburgh. You can connect with her on Twitter or read her work on aliceflorenceorr.com