Date of Award


Degree Type

Open Access Thesis

Document Type

Master Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Justice Studies

First Advisor

William McClanahan

Department Affiliation

Justice Studies

Second Advisor

Victoria E. Collins

Department Affiliation

Justice Studies

Third Advisor

Judah Schept

Department Affiliation

Justice Studies


This is a descriptive research project that investigates how popular entertainment media portrays cults. My intention is to see how the selected films and television shows portray issues of hierarchy and culpability within the cult and to explore how the genre and theme of the content was utilized in order to evoke certain reactions and sentiments in the audience. The selected films were The Sacrament, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Midsommar. The selected television shows were Waco and American Horror Story: Cult. Each film and series is given its own analysis. Findings indicate that a common theme of the rigid hierarchy common in media portrayals of cults, with groups consisting of one cult leader on the top with everyone else below, is a distinct concentration of culpability in leaders, not followers. Unlike leaders, members’ culpability is often shown to be significantly more complicated, as members are often portrayed primarily as victims. The project also raises critical questions about the fine lines dividing cult and culture, dark tourism and the role of spectatorship, and tensions between socially sanctioned religion and cults.