For a moment zoom into the center of the Venn Diagram that compares investigative reporting, scandals, and murder. There I envision to be a tiny shape labeled “CULTS,” like an off-the-grid compound operating without a thought for the uninitiated. Inside that bubble lies a fascinating jumble of human psychology, tangled-up questions of power and consent, and many discrepancies between fact and fiction — all cloaked in a compelling aura of calm.
Since my personal experience with investigative reporting, scandals, and murder (fortunately) has come in mostly podcast form, I regularly find myself skimming through Apple Podcasts for the most enlightening series on cults — and possible cults — throughout history and today. Here is what has captured my interest…
1 | Cults —
The co-hosts of the podcast Serial Killers delve into the psychology of cult leaders and members in one to two-episode mini-series. An impressive archive of episodes (74 at the time of this writing) covers lesser-known groups like the Church of the Last Testament, which was started by former traffic officer Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop, as well as major historical movements we can now examine in a new light, such as the Freemasons, or “the cult that built America.”
2 | Dear Franklin Jones —
In an earnest look at his own upbringing, producer Jonathan Hirsch conducts interviews with his parents, family, friends, and former members to confront the controversial group environment in which he was raised. Some of the documents he revisits were even written by himself as a child. Hirsch’s seven-episode investigation and coming-of-age story makes for an intriguing (and emotionally draining) series.
3 | Caliphate —
ISIS may not officially be a cult, but as reported by The New York Times in 2017, “indoctrination practices used by the Islamic State have much in common with apocalyptic cults from decades ago.” Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism for The Times, brings listeners in on one recruit’s faltering story of joining the murderous group. This podcast is gripping, but because it addresses a real threat in real time, I recommend listening only when you can be fully attentive.
4 | Heaven’s Gate —
I’ll admit I took a personal day to listen to the entirety of this podcast about the group of 20 people who committed mass suicide in a mansion outside of San Diego in 1997. Host Glynn Washington (of WNYC’s Snap Judgment) comes to the series with his own history of growing up in an apocalyptic cult, not to mention expertise as a reporter and the rarified ability to see things from all sides. Follow along as he meets members who left the group before its deadly ending as well as people who lost family — all in pursuit of the answer to everyone’s question: “Why?”
5 | IndoctriNation —
Hear about the far-ranging effects of cults from licensed marriage and family therapist, Rachel Bernstein, who has nearly three decades of experience working with former members. On her podcast, Bernstein interviews past cult members and experts with the goal of informing listeners about the risks posed by “predators, toxic personalities, and destructive organizations.” She covers a range of cults and groups, including Christian Science and splinter groups of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
6 | You Must Remember This —
The 2015 Manson season of this show by Karina Longworth, produced by Slate, seems to come up whenever cult content is mentioned. Her body of research focuses on the 1969 murders committed by Manson and his followers and the Hollywood scene that contained them. Providing in-depth context for what became known as the end of the 60’s, the 12-episode series is as captivating now as it was when it was first released.
Lara Wilson is a creative person who isn’t proud of her relationship to bingeable true crime and scandalous content, but is willing to share what she knows about it. Find her on Instagram at @larawlsntown and in the desert at @compoundyv.