12 Chilling Books About Real and Fictional Cults
Get ready for ‘American Horror Story: Cult’ with this multigenre list of must-reads about religion gone wrong
Whether you’re counting down the hours until the premiere of American Horror Story: Cult or trying to make sense of South Korea’s former president’s scandalous ties to a shamanistic spiritual leader, it’s difficult to deny that cult narratives are in vogue again. From fictive groups like the Guilty Remnant or the Meyerists, to real life sects like the Moonies or the Order of the Solar Temple, communities rooted in zealous — and oftentimes deadly — beliefs are a cautionary reminder of how dangerous the exploitation of an individual’s trust and faith can be.
As a literary alternative to binge watching documentaries about cults on YouTube or listening to the You Must Remember This 12-episode series on Charles Manson in between new episodes of AHS, we’ve compiled a multi-genre list of reads that explore what can happen when religion turns sinister.
Children of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar
Fred D’Aguiar’s Children of Paradise is a riveting reimagining of life in Jonestown prior to its tragic end. Readers witness the unraveling of Jim Jones’ utopian dream through the eyes of two of his followers — Joyce and her daughter Trina — in addition to the commune’s caged gorilla, Adam. As the heinous cult leader’s behavior becomes more erratic, Joyce is forced to plan her escape from the community she once viewed as her salvation. With vivid prose and heart wrenching empathy, D’Aguiar’s novel examines the power of love and what it means to be free.
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn
In his extensive view into the rise and fall of the charismatic turned murderous preacher Jim Jones, Jeff Guinn (who also penned a book on the equally notorious Charles Manson) examines how a Bible-toting civil rights activist evolved into one of history’s most well-known cult leaders. From Jones’ staged healings to illicit drug use and womanizing, Guinn’s research — including recently released FBI files — sheds new light onto the man responsible for the largest mass suicide in the U.S.
Jonestown and Other Madness by Pat Parker
Celebrated lesbian feminist poet Pat Parker’s 1989 collection Jonestown and Other Madness is a gripping reflection on the way race, class, and gender played into Jim Jones’ sadistic slaughter of his congregation. Through the stanzas of poems like “Legacy” and “Love Isn’t,” Parker forces readers to question their definition of liberation and love and to actively discern the difference between empowerment and manipulation. She challenges us to reflect on how easily we accept the answers we are given in the wake of tragedy. In the foreword to the collection she writes, “If 900 white people had gone to a country with a Black minister and ‘committed suicide,’ would we have accepted the answer we were given so easily?” The answer, much like her question, is as timely as ever.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s wildly popular debut The Girls is a fictive glimpse into the inner circle of a Manson Family-esque group through the eyes of an enamored teenager named Evie. Set in the late ’60s, Cline’s addictive novel gives an intimate depiction of adolescence, desire, and the grotesque lengths some are willing to go in order to feel like they belong. As cinematic as Joan Didion’s quintessential essay “The White Album” and as eerie as Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, The Girls is a haunting bildungsroman inspired by a bloody history.
Child of Satan, Child of God: Her Own Story by Susan Atkins
Child of Satan, Child of God is the autobiography of one of the Manson Family’s most infamous members. Throughout the pages of her book, Susan Atkins revisits her troubled past, her struggle with addiction, and her relationship with Charles Manson, the man she blindly followed and ultimately committed murder for. Penned in 1977, Atkins’ book is an inarguably underrated tale of redemption and the perfect primer for those looking forward to next month’s publication of Member of the Family.
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami
Beloved novelist Haruki Murakami revisits the ghastly sarin gas attack that took Tokyo by surprise in the spring of 1995. Orchestrated by Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, the attack, which occurred at rush hour, resulted in 12 deaths, the injury of 50 individuals, and health complications for thousands of commuters. In Underground, Murakami attempts to make sense of this horrific act through a series of conversations with survivors. A testament to the resilience of the human spirit, this investigative look into one of Japan’s deadliest crimes is an unexpected story of hope.
Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
Jennie Melamed’s dark yet satisfying Gather the Daughters transports readers to a post-apocalyptic colony ruled by tyrannical men. In a community shaped by sexism, censorship, and government mandated procreation, womanhood goes hand-in-hand with servitude, domesticity, and dehumanizing subjugation. As the novel’s heroines come of age, they are confronted with the depravity of their colony’s traditions, an occurrence that sparks a rebellion and irrevocable change. Melamed’s debut is a captivating meditation on the dangers of misogyny and fear.
Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion by Benjamin E. Zeller
The sole in-depth study of Heaven’s Gate, Benjamin E. Zeller’s book charts the formation of Marshall Applegate and Bonnie Nettle’s UFO cult and its shocking end. Tracing the group’s ties to the New Age movement and Evangelical Christianity, Zeller explores how the anxiety of the 1990s and the looming threat of a new millennium led to one of the decade’s ghastliest mass suicides. Heaven’s Gate is a well-researched and insightful examination of what occurs when faith becomes deadly.
Heaven’s Harlots by Miriam Williams
Miriam Williams’ memoir recounts the time she spent as a member of David Berg’s sex cult The Family International aka The Children of God. Williams, who joined the group in the ’60s as a teenager, spent 15 years practicing what her then leader Berg called “flirty fishing.” Heaven’s Harlots exposes Berg and The Family’s sinister motives and documents Williams’ escape and her journey towards healing and freedom.
In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
In her recent memoir, Rebecca Stott revisits her relationship with her father and the restrictive evangelical community that shaped them. Members of the Exclusive Brethren, Stott and her family believed in extreme separation from the secular world in hopes that it would help them live a righteous life untainted by sin. A powerful and fascinating look at life within the sequestered cult that Stott grew up in and later escaped, In the Days of Rain is an exhilarating celebration of family, persistence, and forgiveness.
The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker
Readers experience the chaotic doctrine of the Worldwide Church of God through Jerald Walker’s harrowing boyhood recollection of his family’s time as followers of the questionable evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong. Throughout his book, Walker revisits how Armstrong’s teachings (a mesh of biblical canon and white supremacy) and failed prophecies put his already vulnerable family at risk. The World in Flames exposes the ways in which racism and greed can corrupt and how salvation often begins with choosing your own path.
God, Harlem U.S.A. by Jill Watts
A definitive portrait of the often overlooked cult leader Father Divine, God, Harlem U.S.A. illustrates how an economically disadvantaged Black boy from the South became a religious celebrity and political influencer. Through meticulous research, Jill Watts examines Father Divine’s origin, his theology, and the rise and fall of the International Peace Mission Movement. An especially interesting read for Philly natives, Watts’ biography breathes new life into Father Divine’s intriguing story.