Megan McLachlan highlights 5 TV and film documentaries that capture the spectrum of cults.
With cults on the rise, so are cult documentaries. But how we define “cults” can differ from person to person, including the veneration of dolls, saunas, soul mates, and purpose. The following documentaries and docuseries are some of the most compelling ones to take on the idea of “cults.”
Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids
Before there were Furbies. . .before there were Power Rangers. . .there were Cabbage Patch Kids. Director Andrew Jenks’ fun little history lesson takes us back to the early 1980s for the story of how Xavier Roberts became the name to tattoo a million butts (dolls’ butts, that is). Arguably there could have been a whole documentary on Martha Nelson Thomas, the folk artist from whom Roberts allegedly stole the idea for Cabbage Patch Kids, but Jenks focuses on how Roberts created the Cabbage Patch “experience” that captured the nation, including the landmark doll hospital, adoption papers, and of course, refusing to refer to the toys as “d-o-l-l-s.” The doc is not only an enjoyable trip down memory lane, but it also provides a notable touchpoint of life before the internet, eBay, and Black Friday madness. In many ways, the Cabbage Patch Kids mark both the beginning and end of two different eras.
Billion Dollar Babies is now playing in select theaters.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
A cabin, some smoke, a group of women making weird noises. From the trailer of Anna Hints’ Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, it looks like what the next season of Showtime’s Yellowjackets could look like (sans cannibalism). But instead of something sinister, Estonia’s entry for Best International Feature serves as one of the most thoughtful, remarkable documentaries of the year featuring women sharing their stories at their most vulnerable: naked and in a sauna.
The tradition of saunas in Estonia dates back to the 13th century and is believed to invigorate both the body and the soul. The audience doesn’t learn the names of the women who are speaking, nor do we even know what they look like (many times, we’re glimpsing their legs or skin and only hear their voice), but each woman takes us on a journey through individual vignettes from their lives, including topics on abortion, coming out, miscarriages, and more. For as devastating as some of the stories can be, the film uplifts the audience by acknowledging this safe space for women to come together and reflect on their complicated pasts. You don’t need to know their names or what they look like to be moved by their stories. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is such a special film, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is now playing in select theaters.
Escaping Twin Flames (Netflix)
Peck includes familiar cult doc talking heads, like coercion expert Janja Lalich, to provide insight into the group’s cult-like MLM strategies and clearly has the expertise in this area, especially with her excellent NXIVM doc Seduced. If you find yourself wanting to learn more about TFU, there’s another doc that dives a little deeper.
Escaping Twin Flames is streaming on Netflix.
Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe (Amazon)
With insight from investigative reporter Alice Hines (who gained significant access to Jeff and Shaleia and their home), this doc links the rise of cults to the loss of religion in the United States, and how even though the younger generations have rejected organized religion, they’re still looking for a higher power to guide them and their decisions. Escaping Twin Flames and Desperately Seeking Soulmate work in tandem to answer many of the questions that remain in each doc, but ultimately, little resolution since TFU is still in operation. That might be the chilling part of all, thinking about the people who are still funding Jeff and Shaleia’s million-dollar lifestyle to take classes with no accreditation other than “the proof” of happiness you see on social media.
Desperately Seeking Soulmate is streaming on Amazon.
Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God (HBO)
“Who are we to judge?,” says believer Hope (real name Ashley). “It’s like, what’s a cult? People not believing what’s mainstream, that god is a man and you find him in a church that wants money?” For as much as Love Has Won shows individuals struggling to find purpose, it also provides a fascinating character study of a woman who’ll forever remain a mystery. When you learn that Carlson walked out of a dinner with her mother and sister and never looked back—leaving behind three children—it makes the “Mother God” moniker she acquires even more interesting. What did developing this cult do for her? What did she gain from motherhood with strangers that she didn’t have with her children? The biggest mystery of Love Has Won might not be how Amy Carlson was able to charm her believers, but the void she hoped to fill by having them.
Love Has Won is streaming on MAX.