'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Footnotes: Our Top 5 Books on Religious Cults

Elizabeth Olsen in
Elizabeth Olsen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene"/Photo: Jody Lee Lipes © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Cults are hardly a new phenomenon in American life. Wayward souls have sought solace in religious sects and free-loving communes since the days of the Founders. But recently cults have bubbled up into the pop culture zeitgeist like never before.

At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, no fewer than three films explored various aspects of religious extremism. "Higher Ground," Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, follows a Born Again Christian through a devastating crisis of faith. “Sound of My Voice” centers on a Bay Area couple who infiltrate a cult and attempt to expose its leader as a fraud. And “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which opens in limited release today, shines its light on a recent escaped cult member grappling with the experience’s traumatic after-effects.

Oscar buzz is already building around the latter, which stars Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Ashley and Mary Kate) as the titular polynomial young woman who turns up at her estranged sister’s house after disappearing for two years into a cloistered religious commune run by a controlling and charismatic overlord (John Hawkes). She is stricken with terrorizing flashbacks to the cult’s groupthink dogma and her own role as victim and perpetrator of power-tripping exploitation cloaked under the veil of spirituality.

There has also been a recent influx of books seeking to reveal the truth about life inside the commune (or compound) and the history and sociology of various American cults. Read on for our list of the most enlightening and fascinating reads among them.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by John Krakauer: Krakauer is best known for Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, his award-winning reported accounts of what happens when human hubristic desire for transcendence collides with nature’s brute force. Here Krakauer turns his eye for delusional behavior on the sect of Mormon fundamentalism that inspired the 1984 murder of a woman and her toddler. Through exhaustive research and a series of jaw-dropping jailhouse interviews with one of the killers, Krakauer paints a vivid portrait of how a cult’s iron-clad patriarchy can inspire the same kinds of religious justifications for violence terrorists use to sanction murder.

Escape by Carolyn Jessop: In this fascinating memoir, Jessop exposes the bizarre and cruel practices she experienced growing up among the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) sect of Mormonism that lead to her harrowing escape. Jessop is the first woman to have escaped from the cult and won custody of all eight of her children – a testament to the church’s insidious power over the judicial officials in that region of the country.

Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and his People by Tim Reiterman: Widely considered the definitive account of the Jonestown tragedy, Reiterman's PEN Award-winning book probes inside the life and mind of the sadistic leader who engineered the 1978 mass-suicide of 918 of his followers. An investigative journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle who traveled to Jonestown where he was shot in a People’s Temple attack on his  group of emissaries, Reiterman combines firsthand observations, original interviews, and deep research in his searing 600-page expose.

Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge by Don Lattin: Combining elements of true crime storytelling and investigative journalism, Lattin delivers a vivid and, at times, shocking expose of the legacy of sanctioned sexual exploitation among Children of God. The book is framed around the tragic story of Ricky Rodriguez, the son of cult leader Karen Zerby and adopted son of founder David Berg,  who was forced to have sex with adult women throughout his childhood. Four years after fleeing the organization in 2001, Rodriguez arranged to meet one of the women who had sexually abused him, murdered her and then committed suicide.

Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies by Arthur Goldwag: This comprehensive digest of fringe-dwelling true believers offers a wealth of little-known facts and insights into the gurus, prophets, and conspiracy theorizing groups united in their willingness to cling to a group or theory that attempts to create order out of the entropy of human society.