The San Juan Daily Star
6 podcasts about cults and their enduring sinister attraction
By Emma Dibdin
Cults are ideal podcast fodder: psychologically rich human stories that combine elements of true crime, mystery and social history, and are often best told in long-form style. It’s been theorized that cults tend to proliferate during times of significant uncertainty and flux, which might explain why the public appetite for these stories remains so robust.
These six podcasts come at the subject from multiple angles. Some explore the psychology of cult leaders and their victims over the years, including a reexamination of the Manson murders and an exposé on the upstate New York “sex cult” Nxivm, while others focus on how cultish thinking can bleed into our everyday lives.
The so-called self-improvement program Nxivm promised its members happiness, confidence and a sense of purpose, and did so convincingly enough to attract many wealthy followers from the worlds of entertainment and business. But what lay beneath that shiny happy surface was cultlike psychological warfare, sexual abuse and a twisted ritual in which some members were branded with the name of the group’s manipulative leader, Keith Raniere. Long before Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking, fraud and racketeering, this rigorous season of the CBC podcast “Uncover” explored Nxivm’s toxic machinations, primarily through the extraordinary experience of actress Sarah Edmondson, who was seduced by the group’s emphasis on personal growth, rose rapidly to become one of its star recruiters, and is now its most famous whistleblower.
Starter episode: “The Branding”
As is true with any true-crime-adjacent genre of story, it’s easy for the intrigue surrounding cults (and their charismatic leaders) to overshadow the human suffering they cause. That suffering is thorny and multifaceted and extends to the families and friends of cult members. This compassionate series focuses on their children, who are often born into a group they never consented to join. Hosted by Rachel Bernstein, a licensed therapist whose specialties include cult interventions and deprogramming, “IndoctriNation” interviews guests about their experience of joining (or being born into) cults, what it took for them to leave, and the psychological ramifications they face as survivors. Though many of the stories told are extraordinarily harrowing, Bernstein’s gentle and trauma-informed approach creates a sense of safety for both her guests and her listeners.
Starter episode: “Breaking the Cycle w/ Marissa Hackett”
‘Let’s Talk About Sects’
Come for the satisfying pun in the title, stay for the deeply researched chronicles of all kinds of cults. Shows where a single host reads from a script can sometimes feel stiff, but Sarah Steel delivers each potted history with warmth and humanity, letting the facts speak for themselves rather than overdramatizing. Each episode of “Let’s Talk About Sects” is focused on a single group, some
well known (like the Peoples Temple of Jonestown), others obscure but no less fascinating. In each case, Steel makes a point of focusing as much on the psychology of the victims as on its leader, gently unpack-
ing the factors that can make people susceptible to the cult’s machinations. There are also regular interview episodes, in which Steel speaks to survivors about their experiences in cults.
Starter episode: “Branch Davidians”
‘You Must Remember Manson’
In her meticulously researched podcast “You Must Remember This,” film historian Karina Longworth tells true stories from the first century of Hollywood in a style that’s captivating in its simplicity, with no elaborate reenactments or soundscapes. In 2015, early in the show’s run, Longworth aired a season titled “Charles Manson’s Hollywood,” which proved so popular it has now been repackaged into a separate series. Longworth’s inimitable, carefully enunciated delivery is mesmerizing, creating an appropriately haunting atmosphere as she describes how thwarted ambitions and a web of Hollywood acquaintances factored into Manson’s twisted worldview, and chronicles the events leading up to the murders committed by Manson’s followers in the summer of 1969. The 12-episode season is so packed with detail and nuance that even for those who know the story well, this is a fresh take.
Starter episode: “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Manson Murders”
This show has a compelling selling point: It’s hosted by two cult survivors, both invested in dispelling the myth that anyone who joins a cult must be naive. Lola Blanc and Meagan Elizabeth, who were raised in a Mormon offshoot sect and a high-control Christian sect, respectively, talk to guests about their experiences of being in cults and, more broadly, about abusive relationships, repressive religions and extreme belief systems. Recent interviewees have included a woman who was raised in the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, a former CrossFit employee who found herself reshaping her entire identity around the company, and two survivors of the sex cult at Sarah Lawrence College. The subject of conspiracy theories and online groupthink also crops up often: In one episode, a former One Direction “stan” discusses falling down the rabbit hole into toxic fandom, and in another, a former conspiracy theorist explains why Alex Jones’ rhetoric drew him in. Given the recent rise of influencer-led “cults” on TikTok, the podcast’s blend of all these subjects feels timely.
Starter episode: “Antonio Perez — Alex Jones, the New World Order, and Conspiracy Theory Addiction”
‘Sounds Like a Cult’
The majority of us have never been in a cult, but that doesn’t mean our lives are untouched by cultish thinking. As this sharp and funny series makes clear, some of the biggest companies in the modern world built their success by cultivating devotees. In each episode of “Sounds Like a Cult,” comedian Isa Medina and writer Amanda Montell break down a different “zeitgeisty group” and assess how cultlike it really is. Some of the subjects are obvious choices, like Apple, SoulCycle and CrossFit, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire, Goop. But Medina and Montell are unwilling to settle for low-hanging fruit. Consider their episode on weddings, a ritualistic ceremony replete with patriarchal traditions and conformist uniforms which they call “the most mainstream cult we’ve ever covered on the show.” The show’s great pleasure is its unpredictability, and its refreshing knack for making you look at accepted norms through fresh eyes.
Starter episode: “The Cult of Goop”