Movies About Cults That Will Keep You Up At Night

Cults are uniquely terrifying because just about anyone is susceptible to their charms. No one wants to lose their autonomy, and yet again and again, people who join cults do just that. Movies about cults tap into those fears, taking control away from both the heroes and also those rooting for them.

Originally, cults were factions who worshipped a specific god. Later, cults became defined as groups of people, usually under a leader whom they worship, who are up to no good, and who use coercion to lure in new members. Often by the time people want to leave, it's too late. They're trapped — or worse. Movies about these kinds of cults, which include the Manson Family, NXIVM, and Heaven's Gate, tend to be based on a true story or influenced by real events. But movie cults can also take a more supernatural approach, like, say, in "Rosemary's Baby," in which a cult tries to control a woman impregnated with the Antichrist. 

Whether you're looking for a story about something that actually happened or something that never could, these 14 creepy cult movies tap into the primal terror of losing yourself to a group with nefarious purposes. They're almost guaranteed to keep you up at night.

Charlie Says

The Manson Family is perhaps the most infamous cult in United States history. Made up mostly of young women who fell for the charms of leader Charles Manson, several members of the cult committed a spree of murders in August 1969. While most movies about the Manson Family focus on Manson and the murders themselves, "Charlie Says" depicts the experiences of the women in the cult. Based on the books "The Family," by Ed Sanders and "The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten" by Karlene Faith, Ph.D., the movie follows Leslie Van Houten (played by "Game of Thrones" actress Hannah Murray) from the time before she met Charlie ("Doctor Who" star Matt Smith) to her eventual spiritual redemption in prison. 

What makes "Charlie Says" so interesting is how it shows how easy it is to fall in line with cult thinking. The young women in the story are desperate for love and affection, and the allure of Manson's "family" makes them willing to do anything. Director Mary Harron ("American Psycho") never makes these women into caricatures, instead giving them moments of humanity and horror. She also keeps Manson in the background, letting the victims' stories take center stage. By presenting the tale from a new perspective, "Charlie Says" offers a fresh and thought-provoking look at one of America's most sordid stories, while still preserving all of its inherent terror. 

Starry Eyes

Some people will do anything to achieve their dreams, including giving up their souls to the forces of evil. That's the premise behind "Starry Eyes," which stars Alexandra Essoe as Sarah, an aspiring actress working a dead-end job at a Hooters-style restaurant called Big Taters. Sarah suffers through demeaning auditions, is treated poorly by her alleged friends, and is feeling pretty awful about everything. So, when a deal with the devil comes knocking, Sarah must decide how much she's willing to lose in order to win. 

The cult of fame turns out to be an actual cult, full of famous producers and actors who made the same choice as Sarah. Sarah's transformation from wallflower to starlet is stunning, but it comes with some unfortunate side-effects; "Starry Eyes" takes quite a few turns throughout its 98-minute runtime, dabbling in body horror, psychological horror, and straight-up slasher-movie action. 

Essoe's performance is the glue that binds "Starry Eyes" together. We sympathize with Sarah even when she makes bad decisions because her plight is just so relatable. Sarah is struggling to make it in a brutally tough industry. That means she has to become brutal and tough herself, no matter the cost. 

The Lords of Salem

What if you weren't in a cult, but instead one was destined to worship you? Rob Zombie's "The Lords of Salem" asks that very question. In "The Lords of Salem," Zombie's wife and frequent collaborator, Sheri Moon Zombie, plays Heidi, a radio DJ in Salem, Massachusetts. After a mysterious fan sends Heidi an old, creepy record, she seeks the help of Francis Mathias, an expert on the Salem witch trials. As it turns out, not only is Heidi's past intertwined with the trials, but she's the subject of prophecy that could lead to the birth of Satan. 

While Zombie's earlier films are gory odes to schlock, "The Lords of Salem" takes its subject matter a bit more seriously. There's a lot of reverence for older cult films here, as well as literary and genre history. Sheri Moon in particular shines as Heidi, who retreats into an old addiction to escape the witchy happenings. The movie is a slow burn, but stick with it; it's absolutely worth hanging on for the climax. The final half hour in particular is a pure audiovisual delight, with stunning, surreal imagery and a killer soundtrack. 

The House of the Devil

Director Ti West's "The House of the Devil" begins with the claim that the movie is based on a true story. Thankfully, it's almost entirely fiction. The movie is loosely based on the "satanic panic" that gripped the U.K. and America in the '80s, which was a moral hysteria that argued that Satanists lived among us, wanted to sacrifice people to the devil, and were hiding hints everywhere.  

In "The House of the Devil," the story, which is about a young college student who takes on a babysitting job for extra money and experiences some weird happenings, is slight. There are weird phone calls, strange sounds, and, eventually, a cult tries to sacrifice the woman to the devil in the attic. It's bare-bones at best.

The story doesn't matter though. Here, the aesthetic is everything. The 2009 movie perfectly mimics the style, dialogue, and outfits of early '80s cinema, to the point that it's almost hard to believe how recently the film was made. It's as if West distilled dozens of movies from that era into a single experience. If you have any interest in '80s cult films or the satanic panic at all, this is one you have to check out. 

The Devils

Ken Russell's historical horror opus "The Devils" will be the hardest movie to track down on this list, but it's worth the effort. The controversial film is based on the downfall of Urbain Grandier, a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest accused of witchcraft after a number of nuns allegedly became possessed in Loudun, France. Grandier, played by Oliver Reed, is having an affair with a younger woman. Unbeknownst to him, the abbess of the local convent (an absolutely unhinged Vanessa Redgrave) is infatuated with him. She will stop at nothing to get her way, even if it means committing blasphemy. 

It's nearly impossible to find an uncut version of the film, although censored versions are occasionally available to stream. "The Devils" has been called one of the most controversial films of all time by a number of critics and fans, and with good reason. It's a brutal, shocking film about the depravity of those who are supposed to be divine. Russell's direction is sublime, with beautiful cinematography and art design. "The Devils" might contain some intensely disturbing content, but it's beautiful to look at. 

Red State

"Red State" is a real surprise of a movie. Written and directed by Kevin Smith (the guy who made "Clerks"), it begins with three guys drugged and kidnapped by a Christian cult. There's some torture, some other nastiness, and then federal law enforcement shows up, kicking things into high gear. Smith pulls a fantastic switcheroo, trading out basic "kidnapped by cult" tropes for a story that draws clear inspiration from the infamous Waco siege. The movie eventually devolves into a standoff between the cult leader, played by genre film legend Michael Parks, and the ATF agent leading the siege, played by John Goodman.

Parks' and Goodman's performances are top-notch, and Smith's direction takes a giant leap forward from his comedy features. Quite simply, "Red State" is terrifying, carefully treading the line between the real and the supernatural in a way that makes the viewer wonder if the cult is onto something. 

Given the horror of the real-world situation the film is based on, there was some off-screen controversy; when the Westboro Baptist Church protested the film, Smith joined them on the picket line (he did the same when Catholic churches protested his movie "Dogma" a decade earlier). Smith also interviewed members of the church, after inviting them to attend a screening of the movie. Sometimes, life is even weirder than the movies!

Mandy

Getting kidnapped by a cult is scary enough. But what if you made them mad and they decided to sacrifice you? Panos Cosmatos' psychedelic horror movie "Mandy" stars Nicolas Cage as Red, a lumberjack whose wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is kidnapped by a cult and burned alive in front of him while he's on mind-altering drugs. In revenge, Red goes on a rampage, taking out the cultists one by one with righteous rage. The movie's heavy metal score and aesthetic combine perfectly with the grotesque moments of violence; there's even a chainsaw fight between Red and one of the cultists! 

In "Mandy," Cage unleashes his more extreme side, and it's all the better for it. His freak-out following a macaroni commercial has to be seen to be believed. The movie doesn't have much of a traditional plot and can feel non-linear at times, but it's really more of an experience than a story anyway. This one requires a big screen, a dark room, and some serious speakers to enjoy properly, but in the right environment, it's impressive to behold. 

Midsommar

In most cult movies, the main characters are the ones in peril. "Midsommar" is a little different. In this movie, the cult is dangerous to everyone in the movie except for the protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh). 

That's just one way in which "Midsommar," which takes some cues from the cult classic "The Wicker Man," is a little different. Sometimes, it can be hard to identify with those who end up joining cults. With Dani, however, it's not too tough. Dani loses her family in a tragic accident shortly before a trip to Sweden with her boyfriend Christian and his friends. However, Christian is not a particularly attentive boyfriend, and Dani's isolation and anxiety get worse as time goes on. However, the cultists, called the Hårga, embrace her, and offer her an escape from her bad relationship and lonely life.

The actions of the Hårga, who borrow some historical Viking traditions, are awful, but the group shows Dani more love than she's ever seen before. For the first time in her life, she feels valued. "Midsommar" is a fascinating look into toxic relationships, and the way it makes you understand how tempting cults must look when you're down on your luck is both powerful and terrifying.

Society

So, the cult in this movie is actually an alien species, but otherwise it seems to use the same playbook: recruiting unsuspecting members, then subjecting them to unspeakable horrors. "Society," a 1989 horror-comedy written and directed by Brian Yuzna, posits that maybe the rich aren't like us at all — because, see, they're aliens. Billy Warlock stars in "Society" as Bill, a rich kid in Beverly Hills, California who doesn't trust his high-society family and their friends. He has good reason not to: as he discovers, Los Angeles' wealthy are actually participants in massive body-combining orgies called "the Shunting."

The Shunting offers the kind of gross-out horror you'd expect from David Cronenberg, but here, it's played for laughs. The infamous "butthead scene," for example, is both impossible to describe and far too gross to post a screenshot of (but, y'know, it's on YouTube). It's all so extreme that, in spite of the unconventional cult at its center, it has to be included. There's no other movie on this planet quite like "Society." This one's worth checking out for the WTF-factor alone. 

The Perfection

Speaking of wealthy WTF-ery, the straight-to-Netflix horror movie "The Perfection" is a wild ride. The movie follows elite young cellists Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning), who are both competing for the attention of the head of their music academy, Anton (Stephen Weber). The young women are quickly pitted against one another, doing horrible things to prevent the other from succeeding as a cellist.

Hinging entirely on the performances of Williams and Browning, "The Perfection" is a terrifying downward spiral of a movie that cranks everything up to 11 — until, suddenly, it isn't. The third act twist and eventual climax are, no pun intended, perfection. A story that could easily have ended on a sour note instead ends on a feminist, queer-positive one, and it's a refreshing blast. 

The cult at the center of "The Perfection" is loosely based on elite art and music companies, and while it's hard to believe the lengths the in-movie cult goes to, abuses of power within the arts are all too common. "The Perfection" is a twisty horror flick with some absolutely horrific moments, but it's all worth it for the ending's eventual catharsis.

The Ritual

Maybe I watch too many horror movies, but sometimes it's a mystery why people go on vacations in the woods at all. In "The Ritual," a group of friends reunite after years apart for a backpacking trip in the Swedish forests. Instead of male bonding, however, they get involved in something ancient that will tie them together for eternity. 

One of the friends is injured while hiking, forcing the group to cut through the woods, where they end up in an abandoned cabin. The cabin formerly housed some cultists who worshipped an ancient forest god, and things get spooky fast. Director David Bruckner does a brilliant job with the movie's more subtle horrors, including superimposed hands reaching out in the woods, which builds up to a brilliant reveal with some excellent creature design. 

"The Ritual" is a great look at masculine relationships and how they can be impacted by traumatic events, but it's also a damn scary monster movie that's worth checking out on Netflix.

Ghoulies

We know what you're thinking. "Ghoulies" is about little green creatures who come out of toilets, right? 

There are, in fact, little green creatures who come out of toilets in "Ghoulies," but they're only one part of a much larger plot. The movie's real story is about a cultist named Malcolm Graves who failed to sacrifice his son Jonathan and killed his wife instead in a ritual ceremony gone wrong. 25 years later, Jonathan throws a party and unknowingly ends up summoning the forces of evil. The ghoulies encourage Jonathan to summon more of them; after bringing some dwarves to life, he raises dear old dad from the dead using cult magic.

A huge showdown between Jonathan and Malcolm over control of the ghoulies and the dwarves breaks out — and that's when things really get wild. See, "Ghoulies" isn't so much about the ghoulies as it is about Jonathan falling victim to the same thirst for power that consumed his father. The cult in "Ghoulies" promises great power, but at a great cost. The movie is partly a silly "Gremlins" knockoff, and partly a serious horror movie about the dangers of being power-hungry. Basically, there's a lot more going on than its title would have you believe.

The Invitation

We've all been to awkward dinner parties, but in "The Invitation," awkward turns deadly. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) to a dinner party to meet her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). But it's not just about dinner. What starts like a Tupperware party from hell turns more sinister when David and Eden reveal that they're part of a suicide cult, and they're looking for new members. 

Director Karyn Kusama knocks "The Invitation" out of the park, creating the kind of social horror that's hard to mimic. There's something inexorably terrifying about being unable to leave a situation out of fear of breaking social taboos, while also wanting to run for all it's worth. "The Invitation" is a movie that's paced well, too, creeping along until it eventually explodes in its third act. The final scene of the movie is absolutely haunting, revealing that there are much higher stakes than we've been led to believe. It might be one of the bleakest horror movie endings in decades. 

Eyes Wide Shut

While we've tried to highlight some more obscure movies about cults, we would be remiss if we didn't discuss Stanley Kubrick's horny cult masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut." In Kubrick's final feature, Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman, then real-life spouses, star as William and Alice Hartford, a seemingly vanilla couple who decide to spice up their sex life. They start attending sex parties where all of the men wear masks and all of the women must be beautiful, and their marriage doesn't seem like it can hold up to the strains of jealousy that follow. "Eyes Wide Shut" is notoriously indulgent, but it's fascinating given Cruise's ties to Scientology, as well as his and Kidman's divorce, which came only two years later.

"Eyes Wide Shut" is probably the least overtly frightening movie on this list, but it's full of a lingering horror that will stick with you for years. There's a reason that it has been parodied and referenced in everything from "Family Guy" to the "Hitman" video games. "Eyes Wide Shut" is the movie about sex cults — and, as you'd expect from Kubrick, it looks absolutely gorgeous.