On the surface, cults don’t always seem so bad. They’re a group of people all committed to a charismatic leader or a shared ideology. Members join willingly for some sense of self-improvement the group’s leader is promising: becoming healthier, connecting to your true self, healing from the past. We all, in some sense, want to be better than we are. It’s not hard to see why someone would believe a charismatic smooth-talker with all of the solutions to their problems. Members, seeing improvements under the guiding hand of such a person, become willing to do anything to keep in their good graces, including cutting off contact with those who don’t believe and giving over power of everything.
It’s the devotion, the isolation, the dependency on an individual that can reveal the dark side of cults, when the leader uses their charisma to enact horrible acts. Cult leaders have been convicted of assault, theft, embezzlement, and even murder in the past. I think many of us can name a cult or two off the top of our heads: Heaven’s Gate, NXIVM, Jonestown. Inside every cult are people with families, friends, and loved ones left wondering what happened or desperately trying to get them out.
If you’re looking to read about some fictional cults, try these ten thrillers about cults.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Evie doesn’t quite know where she fits in the world yet, unsatisfied with her family and friends going into the summer of 1969. When she sees a group of girls who seem carefree and beautiful, everything Evie wants to be, she leaps at the chance to visit The Ranch, where a charismatic leader is there to welcome her with open arms. Desperate to stay, Evie distances herself from her life before, leaning into her obsession with one of the girls and clinging to the sense of belonging the group gives her. Soon, though, she faces a decision that has her torn between belonging and morality.
Those Who Prey by Jennifer Moffett
Moving to college isn’t exactly as glamorous as it seems. It’s hard for Emily to be so far away from her family, to make friends in this new place. Then, a cute boy invites her to join his Bible study, and she jumps at the chance. It turns out Josh is part of an exclusive group called The Kingdom. They promise friendship, relationships, and belonging. Plus, a mission trip to Italy in the summer? How could Emily say no, even if it means cutting herself off from her family and giving up her money? Then, a girl on the trip ends up dead. Will Emily come to her senses before they come for her too?
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Vern is 15, trapped on a compound with her abusive cult-leader husband, and seven months pregnant. Desperate to get herself and her children out of there, she escapes to the woods. She gives birth there to twin boys and manages to evade the cult members trying to hunt her down for years. Then, something begins happening to Vern, something like an illness, and hallucinations blur her reality. She thinks finding her best friend, Lucy, who got out of the clutch of the cult might lead to an answer. But, getting there only leads to more questions about who to trust and what will happen to her when she’s found.
The Project by Courtney Summers
After their parents died in a car accident, Lo had only her sister Bea as her family. Then Bea joined The Unity project, a community difficult to pin down. For six years, Lo searched for her sister to no avail. When she gets a job at a magazine with dreams of being a writer, she starts to dig into The Unity Project more. After witnessing a boy from the community jump onto train tracks, Lo convinces the group’s leader, Lev, to do an interview. The further she digs, the more desperate Lo is to get her sister out of the group. But what can she do if her sister doesn’t want to go?
The Lightness by Emily Temple
After Olivia’s father goes missing after attending a mediation retreat in the mountains, she sets out to find him. At the Levitation Center where he was seen last, she enrolls in a summer program where girls are supposed to learn about meditation and gardening while connecting with other campers. Among the group is Serena, who draws Olivia’s eye. Serena and her two friends are determined to levitate that summer, no matter the cost. The journey to levitation, though, might become one they don’t make it out of alive.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
After meeting in their first month at Edwards University, Will is in love with Phoebe. When she joins a religious group, Jejah, led by an alumni named John Leal, Will is stuck on the outside. He had just left his old college, lost his belief in God, and couldn’t face that environment again. When Phoebe is involved in a bombing that kills five people, she disappears, leaving Will desperate to find her. Will he be able to get to her before the violence continues, or is Phoebe another person who has left Will alone?
Bunny by Mona Awad
Mackey is on the outskirts of her MFA program at Warren University, a prestigious group with only a handful of members. She and her friend Ava watch the other members of their cohort, making particular fun of a group of girls who call each other Bunny and are in weird coordination with each other. When Mackey is invited to one of their events, she feels compelled to go. That unlocks a door into a world of rituals meant to bring their writing to life. Now part of the group, Mackey is reluctant to go back to her outsider life, no matter what horrors she must commit to do it.
The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond
After one of Alice’s law firm clients sends her and her newlywed husband, Jake, an invitation to join a group called “The Pact” as a wedding gift, the couple decides to accept. It’s supposed to keep couples together, and Alice and Jake want nothing more than that for their marriage. They’re given a contract of rules to follow: give each other gifts, meet up with other couples, plan a vacation. When they accidentally break rules, leading to punishments, Alice and Jake don’t want to be part of the group anymore. But no one ever leaves The Pact. Not ever.
The Hive by Gregg Olsen
A college journalist writing an expose about a well-known wellness guru ends up dead in a ravine. Officer Lindsay Jackman is on the case, digging into the guru Spellman and her group called The Hive. The members leave their husbands and children behind just to be close to Spellman. When Jackman goes poking around, she finds another death associated with the group 20 years ago. Will she find more bodies in the group’s past and find out what happened to the journalist, or will the group shut her out before she can get to the bottom of it all?
The Line Between by Tosca Lee
Wynter has lived her whole life on New Earth’s compound with her mother and her sister, following the group’s leader Magnus, God’s Interpreter. That is, until she’s cast out for asking too many questions. Outside the compound, an epidemic plagues the United States, causing dementia in those infected. When her sister shows up on her doorstep with canisters of a potential cure, Wynter sets out to try to save the world she now has to live in.
If you’re still in the thriller mood after reading these thrillers about cults, why not check out these YA mystery and thriller novels about vacations gone wrong or these missing people thrillers?