What is it about cults that so fascinates us? Is it the lure of community, of a group of people who will love and accept you and never turn you away (provided, of course, that you agree with every word they say)? Is it the cool robes and rituals? Or is it the fear that we too might accidentally get swept into some situation far beyond our control and find ourselves in thrall to some group of people who we believe can lead us out of our dull, placid existence, into something more beautiful, the kind of life we believe we were destined for?
Whatever the reason, cults touch something deep and fearful in the human imagination. They speak to our desire for meaning and certainty, for the comfort of family and community and tradition in an increasingly fractured world. They also make great fodder for horror films.
Without further ado, here are my favorite fictional films about cults.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The movie begins with Martha (in a mesmerizing performance by Elizabeth Olsen) escaping from a cult and calling her sister (the always brilliant Sarah Paulson) to come and pick her up. The rest of the film flashes between Martha’s shell-shocked reentry into reality to flashbacks of her abuse at the hands of the cult (John Hawkes is a truly terrifying villain, quiet, thoughtful, and soft-spoken, but ruthless in his actions). I’ve seen this film maybe half a dozen times, and though it doesn’t have any real “scares” to it, the movie lingers in your mind the way the only a truly great horror film can. The sheer power of it is a testament that the proper use of stillness and quiet can be more unnerving than the goriest action. Also, it has one of the best—and most haunting—endings I’ve ever seen.
I loved this movie so much that when I saw it at IFC in Manhattan, I immediately walked back to the box office and bought a ticket for the next screening. It begins with two brothers who have long ago escaped from the cult in which they were raised. Their lives, ever since, have kind of sucked, plagued by poverty and aimlessness. Younger brother Aaron especially longs to rejoin the cult, where he remembers eating good food and being surrounded by people who loved him. Though most reviewers focus on the film’s twisty relationship with time, what stuck with me most about The Endless was how it directly addresses what causes certain kinds of cults to flourish—namely loneliness, a sense of isolation, a need for the kind of unconditional love traditionally provided by family or religion. At the heart of so many of these cult films is the longing for a loving community, one that can provide meaning and value and purpose in a world where those things are routinely denied people. The Endless strikes directly at the heart of this, and it remains a compelling and powerful film.
Race with the Devil
I love Warren Oates so much I don’t even know how to talk about it. I’m serious. If you put Warren Oates in anything I’ll probably love it, and this film is no exception. Perhaps the only cult movie to also involve motorcycle racing, Race with the Devil pits two cyclists and their spouses against a satanic cult. The plot goes like this: two road-tripping couples in an RV accidentally witness a ritual sacrifice and all hell breaks loose. It’s a film packed with unforgettable images, full of masks and fires and almost hallucinatory creepiness, not to mention one of the great highway chase scenes of all time. What seems like a classic story of “outsiders” menacing “good honest folks” (hippies vs. the establishment) quickly becomes so much more, as deep paranoia sets in and every smiling stranger becomes a threat. Race with the Devil is ninety minutes (the perfect movie length!) of thrills, horror, and action, with Warren Oates in the driver’s seat. A perfect Saturday night flick.
The Seventh Victim
We generally think of cults as living in rural, isolated areas, but The Seventh Victim puts its cultists square in the city, in New York’s Greenwich Village, to be precise. The story follows a woman named Mary Gibson who is on the search for her missing sister Jaqueline who has fallen under the sway of a satanic cult.
The string of Val Lewton-produced RKO horror films from the 1940s are my favorite movies ever made, full stop. No one has achieved the mix of menace, fantasy, and longing that Lewton and his crew conjured on the tightest of deadlines and with minimal budgets. So many sequences in The Seventh Victim are unforgettable: a long walk down a dark hallway, a chase through a carnivalesque back alley, the awful revelation of what lies behind a locked apartment door. A film that brims with the mystery and terror of being trapped in a situation with no clear way out, The Seventh Victim is a classic.
The Wicker Man (1973)
I love The Wicker Man. I love the costumes, I love the music, I love Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle gleefully dancing through the village streets waving a sickle. I could probably talk about each scene in this movie for hours if anybody would care to let me.
But most of all I love Edward Woodward’s beautifully nuanced portrayal of the Christian police officer Neil Howie. We know from the moment Sgt. Howie arrives on Summerisle, he’s in completely over his head. And true, he is kind of a jerk, walking around decrying all the paganism in his midst, loudly denouncing any practice that doesn’t correspond perfectly to his worldview. But he’s also a genuinely honest man seeking to do the right thing, clinging so frantically to his ideals even as they ultimately doom him.
It’s beautiful how in a film full of people having an obvious great time (it’s practically a musical!), his is the only scowling face. A truly great film, and one that continues to reveal itself more with each viewing. And wow, what an ending!
Jimmy Cajoleas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He spent years traveling the country and playing music before earning his MFA from the University of Mississippi. His debut YA novel, The Good Demon, received three starred reviews, from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus, who called it “eerie and compelling.”
His new book, Minor Prophets, is available now from bookstores, e-tailers and via digital.
After their mother’s death, two siblings must navigate the strange world of the occult in this thrilling YA mystery. Lee has always seen visions: cats that his mother promises aren’t really there, a homeless man who he’s convinced is out to get him, and three men who give him ominous warnings in the woods. His mother and his sister Murphy try to keep him grounded in the real world. But when his mother dies in a car accident and her horrible husband tries to adopt them, Lee and Murphy flee to their grandmother’s ranch, which they’ve only heard about in stories. But is there a reason why their mother never brought them there? And what horrid truths lurk behind Lee’s haunting visions? Thrilling, twisty, and poignant, Minor Prophets will keep readers guessing until the final page.