Faith is a powerful thing. There’s almost no limit to what can be accomplished when enough people share the same beliefs. However, this power can be easily misused, and a group of misguided believers can do a lot of damage during their search for enlightenment. That’s why it’s no surprise that there are so many scary movies about the dangers of cults.
From Rosemary’s Baby to Midsommar, filmmakers have been using these volatile groups to tell some incredibly chilling stories since the beginning of cinema, and that’s precisely why we’ve decided to compile a list highlighting six of the scariest cults in horror.
For the purposes of this list, we’ll be defining a “cult” as a fringe group of extreme believers bound by a shared (fictional) faith. And while we won’t be officially including it on the list due to a possible conflict of interests, I’d like to give a shout-out to the disturbing Paradise Gates cult from the Safe Haven segment of the Bloody Disgusting-produced V/H/S/2 (which is one of my personal favorite examples of destructive cults in film).
With that out of the way, don’t forget to comment below with your own favorite horror movie cults if you think we missed a particularly spooky one.
Now, onto the list…
6. The Eden Parish Commune – The Sacrament (2013)
Nothing beats real life it comes to visceral scares, which is exactly why Ti West’s The Sacrament stands out with one of the most disturbing cults to ever grace cinema screens. Heavily inspired by the real-world 1978 Jonestown massacre, this found footage thriller places viewers directly in the middle of a mass suicide organized by a psychotic religious leader.
While the Eden Parish commune initially seems friendly enough, with members sharing heartfelt testimonies about how “Father” has turned their life around, things soon devolve into apocalyptic chaos as it’s revealed that large-scale death is their ultimate goal.
5. The Fundamentalists – Red State (2011)
While you wouldn’t expect a Kevin Smith creation to make it onto this list, Red State’s brutal depiction of Christian fundamentalists remains a surprisingly terrifying addition to the Clerks director’s filmography. Gun-toting evangelists might not seem all that scary at first, but it doesn’t take long for their fervorous belief in the rapture to really get under your skin.
Another case where the fear factor comes from how grounded these fanatic antagonists are (I mean, I’ve heard extremist preachers say worse things than the cult in this movie), Red State’s fundamentalists are also boosted by a show-stopping performance by the late, great Michael Parks as their psychotic pastor.
4. The Mother Buddha Followers – Incantation (2022)
Another found footage venture, Kevin Ko’s Incantation may take a while to get going, but once the Mother Buddha worshippers show up and you get a better grasp of what’s going on, the film transcends its Paranormal-Activity-like setup and becomes something much more disturbing.
Inspired by a real-world case of supposed mass hysteria where a family became convinced that they were under siege by demons pretending to be folk deities (and tragically ended up murdering their eldest daughter in an attempt to get rid of the evil spirits), Incantation reminds us that even when dealing with supernatural horrors, the hands that lead us to them are usually quite human.
3. The Brethren – Silent Hill (2006)
Back when it was generally accepted that there was a curse on big-screen videogame adaptations, Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill was seen as something of a breath of fresh air due to its striking visuals and passion for its source material. While we’ve seen bigger and better adaptations since then (and I hope the upcoming sequel will be one of them), I’d still argue that this 2006 thriller holds up as a white-knuckled scare-fest – and Christabella’s cult of fervent Brethren is a huge part of that.
The film takes a few liberties with the videogame version of the cult (making them vaguely Manichean instead of keeping the odd mix of Christianity and Lovecraftian mythology present in the original version), but the final act makes it clear that these delusional witch-burners are much more dangerous than Alessa herself.
2. The Esoteric Order of Dagon – Dagon (2001)
The late Stuart Gordon had to travel a long and winding road in order to get his The Shadow Over Innsmouth adaptation onto the big screen. From changing the story’s setting to coastal Spain in order to get European backing for the project to down-sizing the practical effects work of what was initially meant to be a fish-cult epic, it’s a miracle that the finished Dagon is as good as it is.
Thankfully, the many changes made to the project didn’t interfere with the real terror behind Lovecraft’s story: the Esoteric Order of Dagon. An entire fishing village that turned to worshipping a malevolent sea god in a time of crisis, their fishy mutations and sacrificial rites make them one of the most memorable cults in fiction. I also appreciate Gordon’s added detail that members of the order wear masks made of human skin in order to preserve at least some semblance of their fading humanity.
1. Mademoiselle’s Society – Martyrs (2008)
The New French Extremity was defined by grounded scares and brutal acts of violence, so it makes sense that one of the movement’s most memorable films featured a pain-worshipping cult that tortured hapless victims in a quest for insight into the afterlife.
Martyrs is certainly not for the feint of heart, featuring some of the worst acts of bodily harm ever put to film, but the implication that an entire secret society is behind these crimes somehow makes everything worse – eerily suggesting that people can overlook gruesome suffering so long as it serves their obsessive belief system.