December TV: Documentaries about cults | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

December TV: Documentaries about cults 

Pause your usual holiday romcoms and cozy up tales of charismatic creeps.

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'Tis the season to watch cult documentaries, not Christmas romcoms filmed in Ogden last summer. Christmastime and cults go together like milk and phenobarbital-laced cookies: hypnotic sparkly lights; feigned goodwill; nonstop ad indoctrination; savior confusion (Jesus? Santa? Warren Jeffs?). Wake up and smell the peppermint Flavor-Aid, people. Here are a few cult docs to cozy up with this season.

Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God (2023; Max): It all opens with body-cam footage of the Colorado compound of the Love Has Won cult, zooming in on a mummified body with no eyes wrapped in Christmas lights—welcome to the weird. Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God. The movie has plenty to work with in Amy Carlson, a McDonald's manager who died for the sins of this "3D world" in 2021, aided by a daily diet of booze, drugs, colloidal silver and a grab-bag of new age lunacy. Easily the cult doc of the year.

Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults (2020; Max): The extremely-online Love Has Won crew owes it all to Heaven's Gate, the O.G. internet cult. Like Love Has Won, Heaven's Gate followers believed their leaders (Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles) would ascend to heaven in a UFO upon death. In 1997, clad in matching sweatpants and Nikes, they made it a 39-person group tour package by committing collective suicide to hitch a ride on the passing Hale-Bopp comet. ( is still up and active, BTW.)

The Way Down (2021–2022; Max): Larger-than-life-haired Gwen Shamblin Lara rose to infamy with her Weigh Down Workshop diet program, later transforming it into a God-hates-fatties church called The Remnant Fellowship. Rumors of cult-like psychological, physical and financial abuse plagued Shamblin Lara until she died in a plane crash in 2021—but that didn't stop the documentary, which added two follow-up episodes in 2022. Proving you can take it with you, she left none of her fortune to the church.

The Vow (2020–2023; Max): The Vow is better known than most of the other docs we're talking about here, because it involves semi-celebrities like Smallville actress Allison Mack and the daughter of Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, caught up in a "sex cult" (the ultimate documentary marketing phrase). Former NXIVM leader/current inmate Keith Raniere was a creeper "self-help" guru who recruited (and branded) members for money and sex, despite looking like the darkest timeline incarnation of Beavis & Butt-Head's school teacher.

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (2022; Max, Netflix): You can't spell "Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" without "fun." Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey mixes interviews with the women who survived the jelly-wristed rule of FLDS "prophet" Warren Jeffs and dramatized background scenes to powerful effect, subtly increasing the "ick" factor. The religious tyranny, polygamy and child brides of the Mormon offshoot sect have been documented before, but never as bluntly and brutally as this.

Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath (2016–2018; Discovery+, Prime Video): Actress Leah Remini has become nearly as famous for pissing on Scientology as she is for starring in the greatest American sitcom of all time, The King of Queens (I will die on this admittedly stupid hill). Former Church of Scientology members Remini and Mike Rinder spent three seasons interviewing fellow escapees, with Remini consistently (and rightfully) hammering one detail: the tax-exempt status of churches.

How to Become a Cult Leader (2023; Netflix): If you've read this far and are now thinking, "This cult leader gig sounds a hell of a lot better than [insert your dead-end job here]. How do I get in?" then How to Become a Cult Leader—a satirical docuseries produced and narrated by Peter Dinklage—is here to help. The six-episode "instructional" kicks off with MVPs Charles Manson and Jim Jones, later delving into deeper cult cuts like Aum Shinrikyo and Buddhafield. Presumably, MAGA will be covered in Season 2.

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