The subject of cults has been one of public fascination for centuries, one of those bizarre anomalies which allows an insight into farthest fringes of the society. Now it looks like it’s become the topic du jour of the Hollywood elite. At least three separate high profile Hollywood personalities have each set off to make their own project on the same topic.
Last month this trailer for the disturbing documentary Holy Hell was released. The film, directed by Will Allen and produced in part by Jared Leto tells the story of Allen’s own twenty-year experience as a member of the bizarre Buddhafield cult in West Hollywood.
This Sundance festival favourite is the latest in a run of film and TV productions exploring the world of modern cults. It was also recently announced that the author of American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis will be directing his own series about the collective paranoia of a group of young people who have escaped from a cult in LA.
Meanwhile Jake Gyllenhaal, who spoke to us briefly about the project, is also turning to television and an anthology drama series that will focus on The Peoples Temple, a cult which in 1978 led to the mass suicide of more than 900 people, also known as Jonestown.
Furthermore, another TV show which debuted in 2016, The Path about a South American cult starring Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul has become quite popular.
We spoke to Eileen Barker, Professor of Sociology at The London School of Economics, to find out more about our current fascination with cults. “The ‘different’, especially when seen as exotic, sensational, or sexy etc. always makes a better story than the ‘normal,” says Barker, “and many new religious movements, ‘cults’ and/or ‘sects’ are seen as one or more of these things.”
In part our interest is validated by the surprising fact that there are more religions around today than ever before. Barker, whose work concentrates on new religious movements, tells us that “There are over a thousand religions currently active in the UK, the majority of which only became visible after World War II [. . . ] many groups do not survive beyond the first couple of generations. But new new religions are always appearing and the growth of the Internet has helped to make them more visible.”
Here are three other notorious movements/cults that have become well-known:
In the end much of this subject remains a dark and unsettling mystery. But one thing is clear – we’re far from bored of this latest Hollywood trend.
Holy Hell is on limited release in the United States right now.