In reality and folklore, cults have long been a fascinating topic. Fine ideologies can be twisted and corrupted into something else, often perpetrated by charismatic leaders with amoral intentions.
The phenomena of cults and fringe groups haven't just been studied by scholars, but denounced by survivors and former members who lived through their own cult experiences and came out the other side.
Here are my picks for the best books about cults and fringe groups for anyone who wants to dive deeper into the disturbing world of cults and what they're really like on the inside.
10. Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
Fanaticism can be strange, scary, unsettling—but it can also be deeply fascinating. Many fictional stories have explored the idea, but what is there to say about it from the perspective of social science?
That's what Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism is about as it debunks several famous cult stories and investigates the key figures behind those fanatic movements, all to better understand fanaticism from scientific and sociological points of view.
9. Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing
Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing is a collection of essays about cults from many different perspectives, which engage with themes of exclusion, hatred, superstition, religion, gender, and more.
Author Lauren Hough grew up as a member of The Children of God and now shares her experiences through her nonfictional work.
Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing connects matters of queerness, belonging, and freedom to the ideology of cults and the impact such ideologies have on young individuals.
8. Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, The Cult That Bound My Life
Sarah Edmondson spent 12 years in the NXIVM cult. She eventually escaped and wrote this book—which inspired the HBO docuseries The Vow—in which she shares her experiences and warns how being recruited by a cult is a lot easier than most think.
This is a real story about abuses of power, leadership, female trust, and friendship. It's about how cults often prey on our very human need to seek happiness and escape loneliness.
7. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple
The preacher Jim Jones was responsible for the Jonestown Massacre, considered one of the largest murder-suicides in American history. The Road to Jonestown is a comprehensive work on the figure, his life, and how it developed into the tragedy we now know.
Author Jeff Guinn examines Jones's life, his extramarital affairs, his habits, and his philosophies on life. Jim Jones was ultimately responsible for the deaths of 900 people, and all of that was only possible due to his charisma and public speaking skills.
6. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders
Back in 1969, a series of violent Los Angeles murders began featuring in the media. The Manson case—and subsequent trial—became extremely famous, marking the end of the 60s and ushering in a new, darker era.
Widely portrayed in the media since, the Manson case was (and still is) one of the most discussed cult-related incidents of our times.
Vincent Bugliosi (the prosecuting attorney in the trial) wrote Helter Skelter to show how he built his case and all the detective work that went into it. Thrilling, insightful, and well-written, this book is a true jewel for readers interested in the Manson murders.
5. Cults, Conspiracies & Secret Societies
Cults, Conspiracies & Secret Societies is a guide that connects and explains several cases of cultish societies and conspiracy theories, touching on the Kennedy assassinations, the Illuminati, the Peoples Temple, and even Heaven's Gate.
If you're passionate about cult societies and need a solid guide that you can cite to back up your arguments, this book provides all the general and in-depth information you need about these groups.
4. Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times
In Apocalypse Child, author Flor Edwards reclaims her childhood through this uniquely revealing piece of literature.
Flor grew up in The Children of God, a nomadic group who believed that chosen people would be saved from the (imminent) apocalypse. Father David, the leader of this group, chose a nomadic existence and kept moving the group—from Los Angeles to Bangkok to Chicago.
Flor's memories of the first thirteen years of her life give us an original and honest account of her life and her existence within this cult group.
3. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Written by acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami, Underground is a departure from his fiction work, bringing us a journalistic investigation into the terrorist attack that happened in Japan, 1995.
During the spring of that year, five members of a religious cult released poison gas on the Tokyo subway system. The impact of that event still lingers on the country's people, who remember it with fear and anger.
In Underground, Murakami works to find the rationale behind the act while reflecting on the darker sides of human nature. His talent and original style provide us with an account of this tragic event that gives us insight into who we are as a flawed species.
2. Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, The FLDS Cult, and My Father Warren Jeffs
Warren Jeffs was the self-proclaimed Prophet of the FLDS church. He was accused of several crimes (mostly involving sexual assault and child abuse) and he's now incarcerated in Texas. He abused his power and became famous for his unconventional ways and worldviews.
Breaking Free was written by his daughter Rachel Jeffs, who provides a deep recollection of this secretive polygamist Mormon fundamentalist cult that she managed to escape. It's a sad but fascinating read.
1. Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out
With all this talk of cults, one important question is always in the background: How do individuals get pulled into cults in the first place? Are they simply weak-willed and gullible? Or is there more to it?
Cults Inside Out aims to provide answers through this comprehensive guide to the world of cults. Informative, interesting, and analytical, this book seeks out the true reasons that drive cult followers.
On the flip side, Cults Inside Out also examines the strategies and methods used by cult leaders to assert their power over people—and why those tactics work astonishingly well.
For anyone who's approaching the world of cults with serious intent to understand why cults happen and how people get roped into them, Cults Inside Out is a must-read full of valuable advice.