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7 Movies About Creepy Cults (And What They Can Teach You About Writing Horror)

By David Young · October 20, 2021

We’ve learned all sorts of lessons from horror movies, like never split up, never run upstairs, and never investigate an odd sound. But while audiences learn what not to do, writers watch horror movies to learn what they should do.

Where better to start than in the many horror films that feature cults? As one of the creepiest possible directions that a horror story can go in, cults in film have a lot of lessons for writers about what’s scary, what’s satisfying, and what really sticks with viewers long after seeing the events that play out.

Let’s take a look at several films that feature cults to find out what makes this horror subgenre so…captivating and impossible to escape.

(Fair warning, there are slight spoilers below!)

Hereditary (2018)

While many people remember that Midsommar is an Ari Aster film that most definitely displays cult activity, only those that stick around to the end of his previous hit, Hereditary, will note what role cult members play in that one as well.

A story about a chaotic breakdown after a death in the family, there are ominous nods to the family’s involvement in occult behaviors that result in a demonic presence plaguing their family, but here’s the kicker: while some familiar elements like a séance play a role in an eventual demonic possession, Hereditary accomplishes a magnificent round-circle ending after employing multiple red herrings to set the audience’s teeth on edge. If you are thinking of fireplaces and attics right now when I mention red herrings, then you’ve already seen the film — and you know just how satisfying it is to be misled the way that’s done in this story.

‘Hereditary’

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man is a great love letter to the mantra, “Things are not always what they seem.” While it’s clear immediately that the islanders of this story are a creepy cult with questionable practices, the biggest red flags don’t start flying high until we get confirmation of human sacrifice. Even then, though, the story leads to an unexpected twist — as we find that the protagonist, Neil Howie, essentially dug his own grave.

This leads to the other big lesson that The Wicker Man and its nefarious islanders have to offer: this film is a great example of the trope “Things are not always what they seem.” While it’s clear immediately that the islanders of this story are a creepy cult with questionable practices, the biggest red flags don’t start flying high until we get confirmation of human sacrifice. Even then, though, the story leads to an unexpected twist — as we find that the protagonist, Neil Howie, essentially dug his own grave. This leads to the other big lesson that The Wicker Man and its nefarious islanders have to offer: If you think you saw something, no you didn’t. When cults are involved, it’s mostly best to not be a hero. Don’t try to investigate — just get the hell out of Dodge. And when someone does try to prevent the seemingly inevitable, it’s likely going to end badly for them.

‘The Wicker Man’

The Ritual (2017)

The Ritual is a creepy British film focused on not only unnerving the reader for a good while with questions about sanity and unconscious actions but also building an engaging character arc for the protagonist, Luke. His actions in the beginning and the end are in stark contrast for various reasons, and upon viewing, it’s clear to audiences how he attempts to redeem himself by resisting the offer given him as a “chosen” sacrifice.

But more than that, The Ritual has a cult whose individuality seems to be completely erased — even literally, as the dead mummified cult members prove this point the best — making it all the more disconcerting when Luke is asked to join their ranks by worshipping their deity in exchange for his life. These nameless characters within this reclusive society represent an altogether frightening side of cultdom that isn’t always explored, as does the way they prey on Luke’s trauma and his troubled soul.

‘The Ritual’

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

This film, a true classic in the genre, paints the effects of psychological and physical abuse that go unnoticed until it’s too late.

Yes, there’s a mysterious pregnancy that draws a lot of unwanted attention (and phenomenal performance in the movie as well), but what happens before, during, and after that pregnancy is indicative of how hard a cult will work to get what they want from outsiders and members alike — and often, how dark a character’s actions can become with the promise of “something better”, as film cults often claim to offer their ranks.

‘Rosemary’s Baby’

Children of the Corn (1984)

Based on the Stephen King short story, Children of the Corn is iconic for so many reasons. For one thing, it teaches writers and audiences alike that you can’t trust children in horror movies, either. (Kidding! Kind of…)

Children of the Corn tells the story of a couple who stumbles upon a town of kids who perform blood sacrifices on every adult they can — unless it serves their needs to do otherwise. The exceptions made to this cult’s main tenet breed contempt, and the story escalates to prove yet another universal truth: discord can arise even among the like-minded.

‘Children of the Corn’

The Village (2004)

Many things about The Village give it status as a prime example in this list of films about cults. This is because it’s different since what started as a cult actually has become a clandestine micronation — a community that doesn’t choose to be together, but rather has no other choice.

After all, the truth of the outside world has been hidden from them completely. Keep in mind that this film also demonstrates for writers the emblematic Shyamalan twist, and it even showcases the dangers of misinformation — like with cults — in fiction and in real life.

‘The Village’

The Endless (2017)

A story about two brothers revisiting a commune they attended when they were younger, The Endless has a message for those trying to reason away involvement in a cult. One of the reasons it paints time and time again is perspective: whether something is dangerous, whether it’s a supernatural experience, or whether it’s even real, is all somewhat subjective, relative to how you present it in your characters.

There’s another lesson, too, though — not only is it easy for everyday people to be sucked into these communities, but it’s even easier for them to present themselves as normal, everyday people. If that’s not a scary thought when talking about a UFO death cult, I don’t know what is.

‘The Endless’

Conclusion

Every film teaches something to viewers and writers — no matter the genre or subject matter. It just so happens that horror writers can glean a lot of lessons from films about cults in particular. Maybe it’s because, at the end of the day, the enemies are ourselves, our fellow humans, even if there is a supernatural element to it. Maybe that’s also what makes this much, much scarier. Either way, you’ve got a lot to learn, so get to watching and reading these films. But that’s not a command or anything. I mean, we’re not in a cult.

David Wayne YoungDavid Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.

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