Two years ago, Netflix began the How to Become family of satirical documentary series, which became hugely popular. The first of the many in the line was released in the year 2021 and was titled How to Become a Tyrant. The satirical humor laced documentary series helped people understand what was not right with the tyrants who ruled their countries with absolute power. The second installment of this Netflix Original documentary series is How to Become a Cult Leader, you can guess what the content of the show will be and who it is going to be about.
How To Become A Cult Leader takes no time to jump into the nitty gritty of what happens behind the closed doors of so-called ‘cult leaders.’ The documentary covers in detail world-famous gurus, hypnotists, pastors, yoga teachers, and preachers, and each episode of the show is dedicated to one leader who ran a commune; each had a different aspect attached to it. But all of them had one thing in common: their strong ability to control the minds of the people and get away with imparting bizarre claims, thoughts, and ideas and allowing these concepts to grow so much so that followers believed their leader’s words to be the ultimate truth.
Six episodes about six different individuals who claimed to have received the higher calling: Charles of the famous Manson Family; Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple; Jaime Gomez, who created Buddhafield; Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate; Shoko Asahara of the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo; and Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. Almost all of them operated in the United States of America, and what they brought to the table was their power to grab the attention of people and sustain it for a long period of time until one day, the spell broke, and the group finally saw the leader for who he or she was.
What makes each episode interesting is the engagement nature and the thorough research done on each cult leader to help us understand the unwritten, unpublished playbook that these leaders follow, and if you look deeply into it, all of them had the same modus operandi. This modus operandi is explained extremely vividly by the amazing narrator, Peter Dinklage, in his deep voice. Peter happens to be a producer on this documentary as well, and his narration gives the show gravitas. Every episode has a lot of common points, and what makes each of them captivating is the screenplay and the editing.
Hats off to the producers for having thoroughly gone through the footage from years ago and compiled it for the sake of understanding why talking about such cult leaders of that period is necessary. It threw light on the social and economic parameters of first-world countries like the USA and Japan, where the society was materialistic and progressive, but socially there was a lot of grounds they could not cover. Men and women of all ages and classes were drawn to these groups because they were seeking answers they could not find the normal way.
The documentary retains engaging quality till the end, for each of the leaders had a different ending. Representing the material in animation form was a fascinating approach, something viewers saw in the previous installment of the series, “How to Become a Tyrant,” as well. Unfortunately, this aspect of the documentary series became tedious rather quickly. Footage of the leaders could have done the trick of making the stories around them even more grounded. The animated portions after a point seem like a childish attempt to hold on to the narrative. A documentary needs to have videos and photographs to help us visualize an era from almost half a century ago. This would allow the viewers to relive a different period where the mindset was different, the fashion choices seemed bizarre, and the raging topic was the Cold War. If the stories of leaders do not include proper visual evidence, the show loses momentum.
Thankfully, that did not happen because the stories described in this show are filled with shocking revelations and are an ideal representation of ‘truth is indeed stranger than fiction.’ It is appalling to see the kind of atrocities many of the leaders—surprisingly, all of them men—got away with. Almost all of them were corrupt, serial sexual offenders, manipulators, and hypocrites, and not one of them had the intention of helping people. They basked in the thought of having people on their pedestal who were willing to do anything for them. We wonder if there were any infamous female cult leaders.
The show beautifully presents the idea of power and how it changes the way an individual looks at society once they acquire it. The copy-pasting narrative of the show and the lives of the cult leaders are scary because each of them achieved great success. Of all the episodes, the most disturbing were the ones about the Jonestown massacre, the sad ending of the Heaven’s Gate followers, and the deadly cult of Aum Shinrikyo. These stories will make your skin crawl, for it is hard to imagine such incidents happening, and there is never much discourse on how to prevent cults from springing up in the future. on why this should never be repeated.
There is one aspect that the makers of the show did not divulge: the possibility of all the cult leaders suffering from high-functioning mental health issues without branding them medically insane. Words like narcissism were thrown in between, but beyond that, there was no discussion on how being unaware of such issues could have led to the cult leaders becoming megalomaniac figures who never acknowledged their misgivings.
The makers managed to bring forward the survivors of the cults, who, over the years, realized how toxic the whole agenda was and how they’d gotten carried away because of many of its appealing factors. The survivor’s tale of living a harrowing life and opening up about it adds to the intrigue factor of the cult. There is not one redeeming quality about any of the cult leaders mentioned in the show that could be discussed. The satirical take on the subject matter is what made the previous show and the current “How to Become” series rather enticing. The tales of vicious individuals, and learning the kind of doctrines they followed is a fascinating case study.
This series is a must-watch because the idea of cult leaders, even in this day and age, has not faded. There are individuals all over the world right now still getting carried away by the words of a man or woman who claims to be the ‘know it all’ persona, and add social media to this mix, and we get another internet-savvy leader doing exactly what all six men in the show did decades ago. How to Become a Cult Leader is a must-watch to let the populace know about not allowing a single person to control your spiritual, physical, and emotional faculties.