From venerated car engines to pagan mosh pits, some cinematic cults seem like a total blast.
When it comes to cinematic baddies, cults are right up there with Freddie, Jason, and buzzkill EPA agents that hate ghostbusting. And just like any villain, not all fictional cults are born bad, they’re just politically organized that way. In fact, some films feature fictitious cults that seem reasonable at times. Attractive, even. Dare I say…fun.
This isn’t to say that “fun” cults don’t have their downsides. Fancy velour robes and secret basement rituals tend to come at a price. Usually, a human one, because “I bet those weirdos with different beliefs kill babies” has been a staple in the human interaction playbook for centuries.
The difference between what makes cults bad and religions good is fuzzy. There are those who’d argue that specific antisocial, criminal behaviors like brainwashing and sexual deviancy define cults. Others would say that what makes a cult a cult is other people calling it one; that cults are groups that challenge the status quo and are, as such, inherently villainous.
I don’t know about you, but doing things differently has a certain appeal to it. Don your goat masks, here are ten cinematic cults that we’d consider joining:
Cult of the V8 | Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
In a post-apocalypse that doubles as a demolition derby, best believe there’s going to be some strong feelings about cars. And who among us did not succumb to car-fanaticism while watching Mad Max: Fury Road? The Cult of V8’s foundation is unknown, and irrelevant, with Fury Road doubling down on its silent film spirit by showing, not telling, us about its shiny and chrome theology. The War Boys build altars out of personalized steering wheels, craft intricate iconography into scrap metal, cry out for Valhalla, and embrace the liturgy of gesture. In this sour, irradiated sandlot — the only salvation is vehicular.
Pros: Something to distract from being riddled with apocalypse cancer
Cons: Ritual self-sacrifice
Unnamed pagan cult | The Wicker Man (1973)
We can all agree that burning people alive is a bad thing. But there’s something undeniably bold about following up human sacrifice with a cheery round of folk songs. The Wicker Man’s got it all: Morris dancing, nude fire-jumping fertility rituals, animal masks, constant musical numbers, a fearless leader in Sir Christopher “Wicker Man is not a horror movie” Lee. If Wicker Man wanted to put us off sacrificial tree-loving it shouldn’t have made it look so damn fun. Sorry, well-meaning party pooper cop. Wrong place, wrong time.
Pros: Seasonal parties
Cons: Seasonal murder
Locker C-18| Men in Black II (2002)
On their quest to save the world, agents Kay and Jay stop by a locker in Grand Central Station that is home to a society of tiny aliens who worship Kay, “the light-giver,” as their god. Their faith is based around the objects Kay has left in the locker over the years, which include a wristwatch (“you left it to illuminate our streets and our hearts!”) and a video store membership card that doubles as a sacred text (“Be kind! Rewind!”). When Kay retrieves the watch and panic ensues, Agent Jay replaces it with his own, supplanting Kay as the locker’s deity. Locker C-18 has everything: wide-spread peace, adaptable allegiances, and a large adult entertainment section in the back.
Pros: Peace under the watch-ful benevolence of Tommy Lee Jones
Cons: Condemned to a lifetime in a train locker
Army of the Twelve Monkeys | 12 Monkeys (1995)
Driven underground by a bio-catastrophe, mankind orders a very disoriented Bruce Willis to go back in time to find and stop the perpetrators: a shadowy “let the world burn” group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. In the end, the Army is revealed to be a mostly harmless if eccentric eco-terrorist group lead by a charismatic mentally-ill red herring played by Brad Pitt. So, good news: the worst thing the group with the super cool name did was release some animals from a zoo. Bad news: we have a plague.
Pros: Not really a cult just pro-animal rights
Cons: Still technically a terrorist group
The Brotherhood of Sleep | Prince of Darkness (1987)
Who doesn’t love a good secret? Well, The Brotherhood of Sleep has been sitting on a doozy: an ancient cylinder containing…wait for it….Satan. Hell. Yes. After stumbling upon the cylinder in the 16th century, the Brotherhood took a vow of silence to contain the son of the Anti-God, separating themselves from the Vatican, and hauling ass to the New World to keep their secret safe. But, as the film’s title suggests, Satan wakes up.
Pros: A rare, anti-satan religious sect! Reset the clock!
Cons: Good at keeping secrets, bad at keeping their numbers up
P.A.G.A.N. | Dragnet (1987)
“Good evening, pagans! Don’t forget your goat leggings!” You know when you hear the name of a thing and you’re like: “well, I’m sold!” That’s how I feel about P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness and Normalcy), a cult mostly interested in wearing animal masks, calling beer “the nectar of Satan,” and being counter-culture weirdos. As far as I’m concerned, the hijacking of train cars full of deadly chemicals was a corporate move.
Pros: Kick-dancing to electronica in a dirt pit
Cons: Throwing abducted women into a pool inhabited by a giant snake
Unnamed frog-worshiping zombie cult | Psychomania (1973)
What is the secret of the living dead? Frog magic, baby. Frog magic. Psychomania follows Tom, the leader of the conveniently-named “living dead’ biker gang, whose occult-leaning family just so happens to have discovered the secret to immortality. Basically: when you die—don’t! Naturally, Tom and his gang of biker hoodlums waste their newfound undead-ness on rebellious anarchy, stunts, street harassment, and making puns. Which, naturally, has consequences. Being a douche seems to be the only way that messing around with frog magic can backfire. Nice!
Pros: Being unkillable
Cons: If your mom agrees to become a frog, you lose all undead privileges and turn into a statue
The Organization | The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Anyone who wants to argue about whether the secret organization sacrificing teens was a “secret society” or a “cult” can rot in semantic hell. Far as I see it, the boxes are ticked, the cheques are signed, the unnamed order is a cult hellbent on appeasing the old gods. Is throwing teens under the bus a fair price to pay for peace? Eh, probably not. But the Organization is definitely not the evilest cult out there, especially when 1) the old gods are super real, and 2) most fictional groups are trying to expedite the end of days, not stop it. You have my sympathies, Organization. Better luck next time.
Pros: Believing that humanity is worth saving
Cons: *Sigh* ritual sacrifice
The Jedi Order | Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
It’s the late 70s. The kickass Vader hallway scene from Rogue One has yet to retroactively turn Conan “sad devotion to that ancient religion” Motti into the dumbest/bravest man in the galaxy. What we have are Han’s skepticism and Ben Kenobi’s monk life. The impression we’re given is that the Jedi Order is long-dead and Luke is here to bring it back, baby! That is after he’s been radicalized by the sand hermit who claims to know his father.
Pros: Helping to save the galaxy from eeeeeeeevvvil
Cons: Having to sit through vague moral platitudes
Christianity | The Life of Brian (1979)
Every religion’s gotta start somewhere. And if that somewhere means goofy devotion to a reluctant Graham Chapman, I’m all in. Team #holygourd.
Pros: A messiah!
Cons: Immediate schisms