Cults grab our attention and hold on tight. They’re intriguing, beguiling, and — all too often — deadly. They’re endlessly fascinating while highlighting our desires for something more: Greater meaning, richer lives, closer community, more personal freedoms, and maybe even enlightenment. Also, the occasional chance for weird sex stuff (looking at you, The Source Family).
More often than not, it all falls apart, often at the hands of a megalomaniacal leader run amok. Sometimes it ends with everyone walking away and a few of the higher-ups in prison. Sometimes it ends up with everybody dead. Other times, the cult simply rebrands and carries on (looking at you, Osho).
Podcasts are a great entry point to the world of cults (without actually having to join one). The mix of storytelling, journalism, and academia offers a perfect gateway to exploring the very human phenomenon of people banding together in tightly knit microcommunities. To be fair, a lot of the coverage about cults is through a fairly negative lens. After all, a heavy majority end pretty messily. Still, there’s a lot to be gleaned about how society operates from learning about cults –especially for those interested in when rational thought is abandoned in favor of groupthink.
So where to start your cult podcast journey? We’ve compiled a list of ten of our favorite podcasts about cults below. Each podcast touches on a different cult, a moment in history, or the overall idea of how cults function. These are ten podcasts that’ll enlighten you while entertaining you at the same time. Let us know your favorite podcasts about cults in the comments and we’ll give them a listen!
PROPHETS OF DOOM, DAN CARLIN’S HARDCORE HISTORY
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is arguably the best history podcast out there. Carlin’s layperson mentality and journalistic integrity make him the perfect avatar for the audience. “Prophets of Doom” is a stand-alone about the Protestant Reformation. Bluntly, it’s about everything that happens after Martin Luther goes tap-tap-tapping on the church’s door. The proceeding events blow your goddamned mind.
The episode’s synopsis, in Carlin’s own words, is enrapturing: “Murderous millennial preachers and prophets take over the German city of Munster after Martin Luther unleashes a Pandora’s Box of religious anarchy with the Protestant Reformation.” This is probably the best historical examination of cult behavior taking over society, thus providing amazing context for all cults. In short, start here.
Suggested Listening: This is a stand-alone episode and costs $1.99.
Cults takes deep dives into the cults that have captured our attention over the centuries. Hosts Greg Polcyn and Vanessa Richardson — who also host the wildly popular Serial Killers (our review) — bring a level of research to each episode that makes this show very addictive and always thought-provoking.
Each story is a fully-formed look at the functioning of the cult with a keen examination of why people join, leave, or are willing to, in some cases, kill for their cult. This is a must-listen podcast.
Suggested Listening: Episode 64, “Freemasonry” — The cult that built America
I GOT THE HELL OUT
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Debby, I Got The Hell Out‘s host, spent 10 years in what she calls “an Old Testament, Polygamist, Doomsday Cult.” Holy shit. Debby sits down with her pal and co-host Laura to talk about her experience in a fundamentalist Christain cult, the draconian practices and beliefs, and how she got the hell out.
This is an amazing first-person account of what life was like in a cult and the aftermath. It’s engaging, funny, terrifying, and cathartic.
IndocriNation takes a different path. Therapists Rachel Bernstein examines the psychology behind cults, how people are drawn in, what adherents are willing to do for the “leader,” and how people escape (or not).
This is a great place to get a little outside context to the phenomenon of cults. The show also serves a wider purpose by looking at how cult leaders, sociopaths, and those seeking power can manipulate us and how to avoid being duped. It’s a great listen if you’re looking for real-world context.
Suggested Listening: Episode 24, Third Generation Scientology with Nathan Rich
THE GATEWAY: TEAL SWAN
This is probably the most addictive podcast on the list. The biggest draw here is that the story of Teal Swan, the social media influencer turned cult leader, is on-going. You can go down to Costa Rica and join Swan’s cult if you want. That means you’ll be “volunteering” to operate her various social media influencer platforms.
The great thing about The Gateway is that it’s very even-handed in its look at what Swan and her acolytes are doing. The six-part series goes deep and offers an unsettling glimpse into how social media influencers have maybe a little too much influence over (some of) us.
Suggested Listening: Episode One. This is a six-part, serialized podcast.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SECTS
Let’s Talk About Sects is a fantastic examination of sects, cults, and religion. Host Sarah Steel goes to great lengths to tell the story of one cult per episode.
This is a fact-based program that’ll hook you in and keep you coming back for more. Steel has the ability to parse why people start cults, why people then join, and how this keeps happening again and again by simply and thoroughly telling the stories of the cults you’ve heard of and a lot you may have never heard of.
Suggested Listening: Synanon (the episode covers Charles Dederich’s addiction support group that became a cult which forced men to get vasectomies, women into abortions, and ended in violence).
Heaven’s Gate is a ten-part series that covers everything you ever wanted to know about the stellar-obsessed death cult. The show takes an investigative approach to how the Heaven’s Gate cult got started, what it meant to be a member, and how it all ended in suicide.
This series is basically a masterclass in a single subject that offers insight into the whole cult phenomenon. The brilliance here is how the Seekers are treated. They were regular folks. As you listen, you’ll have moments of head-shaking that are immediately followed by moments of, “Oh, I can see that.” It’s enthralling.
Suggested Listening: Episode One. This is a ten-part, serialized podcast.
TRANSMISSIONS FROM JONESTOWN
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The FBI held the tapes from Jim Jones’ Jonestown with the actual audio of the mass suicide locked in their vaults for over 20 years. Then they made the tapes public. Transmissions From Jonestown is the podcast that examines, at length, those tapes.
The podcast is a great resource for parsing what was going down at Jonestown and what people were thinking, talking about, and how they were living. The series ends with an examination of tape Q875 which challenges a lot of the mainstream story of what happened and creates a bit of a conspiracy at the end of the series. It’s fascinating.
Suggested Listening: Episode One. The 11-part series needs to be listened to in order.
OH NO ROSS AND CARRIE
Oh No Ross And Carrie blew up when Ross and Carrie joined Scientology as a way to get to the bottom of what was really going on in the religion. Eventually, they were found out, kicked out, and unofficially labeled as supressives (the religion’s term for undesirables). That’s a hell of a play for any podcasters that paid off amazingly well.
The show has continued beyond Ross and Carrie’s Scientology ex-communication. It’s now an examination of cults, religious zealotry, the paranormal, charlatanism, and the people who operate in that world with the hosting duo using themselves as guinea pigs. It’s always a fun listen.
Suggested Listening: Ross and Carrie Meet Trevor: Rogues’ Gallery Edition (Trevor quit his Scientology job and left the church after stumbling upon Ross and Carrie’s story).
CHARLES MANSON’S HOLLYWOOD, YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS
Longworth’s 12-part deep dive into Charles Manson is the definitive podcast on The Family, Manson, the murders, and the aftermath. Listening to the classic series is like taking a semester-long university-level class on the subject that’ll leave you shook, educated, and wanting more of Longworth’s amazing storytelling.