Cults and Extreme Belief

TV review by
Melissa Camacho, Common Sense Media
Cults and Extreme Belief TV Poster Image
Mildly sensationalized docuseries has disturbing details.

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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Looks at how cults attract members and keep them in the community. It also highlights some of the conditions that make people vulnerable to recruitment. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Cult leaders are described as smart, charismatic, manipulative, often misogynistic. 


Details about cult practices and rituals include paddling naked bodies, branding skin with fire, rape, and other violent practices. Contains some bloody and burn images. 


Underage marriage, sex-trafficking, BDSM practices discussed. 


"Bitch," bleeped curses. 


Some episodes feature YouTube videos, Instagram posts, and other social media. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

References to drinking, smoking, and substance abuse in some episodes. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Cults and Extreme Belief is a documentary series that profiles the activities of various cults and certain religious sects. It contains some very mature conversations about cult recruitment tactics and conditioning behavior, and describes violent rituals like paddling, skin branding, and rape. There's also a lot of discussion of sexual behaviors, including relationships with child brides. Words like "bitch" are audible, and there’s lots of bleeped cursing, too. Publications like The New York Times and social media like YouTube and Instagram are also featured. 

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What's the story?

CULTS AND EXTREME BELIEF is a documentary that profiles some of history's most notorious cults. Host Elizabeth Vargas reveals some of the belief systems different groups reinforce and reject, and how these beliefs are articulated to recruit members. Former cult members and experts like Dr. Janja Lalich help explain the ways cult leaders employ indoctrination tactics, and subsequently, use reward and punishment systems in order to keep group members compliant. The reasons why individual members joined different groups, and the uncomfortable, unethical, and criminal events that motivated them to leave, are also discussed. 

Is it any good?

This informative and mildly sensational series highlights the inner workings of cults and religious extremists. From NXIVM, an alleged sex-trafficking cult, to Jehovah's Witnesses, each episode of the news magazine uses interviews, archived footage, and roundtable discussions to detail what goes on in each. In addition to describing the recruiting and conforming tactics employed by group leaders to get members to comply, it also highlights the long-lasting and far-reaching consequences members face, including loss of income, PTSD, living with guilt or fear, losing loved ones, and, in some cases, legal prosecution. 

The show isn't meant to be objective, and the conversations are purposely disturbing enough to be both entertaining and ominous. Not everyone will agree with the characterizations of some of these groups, either. But Cults and Extreme Belief still offers some important insight into the characteristics shared by most cult leaders that make them, and their philosophies, attractive to vulnerable people. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the difference between a cult and a group that practices something that's different from the mainstream. How do you think people get involved with cults? Can anything good come from being part of a cult or extremist group? 

  • What do you think the producers of Cults and Extreme Belief are trying to achieve with the series? Inform the public? Warn them of potential dangers? Or are they using people's suffering for entertainment value? 

TV details

  • Premiere date: May 28, 2018
  • Cast: Elizabeth Vargas
  • Network: A&E
  • Genre: Reality TV
  • TV rating: TV-14
  • Available on: Streaming
  • Last updated: March 13, 2020

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