What comes to mind when you first think of a cult? An image of brooding black-robed, heavy death-metal teenagers gathered around a pentagram comes to mind, but that’s occult, or the belief in the supernatural, mystical, and magical. A cult has a much more pleasant philosophy—sometimes.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary officially defines the term as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion, and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.” Cults sometimes aren’t even based on religion. Often these social groups are founded on a certain way of living, and each member is devoted to that unusual belief.
Some of your favorite faces from the big screen have been swayed to take part in, help, or even grow some of the biggest, most well-known cults around. Here are 10 celebrities that are or were members of a cult.
10 Val Kilmer
From Top Gun to The Prince of Egypt, actor Val Kilmer kills the stage no matter the role. The popular performer from ’80s and ’90s films also happens to be a devout believer of Christian Science. The religious group is prolific for their metaphysical practices, such as a connection to the Divine Mind and the idea that all problems could be cured with the right mindset.
In January of 2015, Kilmer was hospitalized for a possible tumor after denying that he had been diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t until April 2017, after suffering needlessly for two years, that he stated he experienced healing from his cancer due to his affiliation with the cult. He claims the traditional medical treatments caused his current condition, not the tumor healed by his beliefs.
9 Allison Mack
If you think you don’t know Allison Mack, think again. “You’ve probably heard of her work on” projects such as 7th Heaven, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, and Smallville. But before she was shoulder to shoulder with Clark Kent, Mack joined NXIVM, the sex trafficking cult which posed as a marketing company offering personal and professional development.
Mack helped recruit women through blackmail and forced labor and even performed initiation ceremonies where victims were branded with her and the cult founder’s initials. She was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to three years in 2021.
8 Jaden Smith
Son of famed actor Will Smith, Jaden Smith, is an avid conspiracy theorist and supporter of Orgone. Orgone, sometimes known as the Orgonite Society, was thought of as the organizing principle of the universe, a creative building block to everything in nature.
Orgone was introduced back in the 1930s by Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian doctor and psychologist after Sigmund Freud. Orgone is viewed as a massless, constant substance associated with living energy ranging from the smallest microscopic units to macroscopic organisms like planets and galaxies.
7 Patricia Arquette
She was commonly known in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Holes, and even Toy Story 4; still, Patricia Arquette wasn’t always so well known. Her family grew up in rural Virginia in the commune known as Skymont Subud. The community functioned without utilities like bathrooms and electricity to find and follow their inner guidance.
Founded in 1920s Indonesia by “prophet” Muhamad Subud Sumohadiwidjojo, the group itself identifies as a spiritual movement that aims for its members to become more of who they were destined to be. However, Arquette saw the flaws in the following, noting its biggest hypocrites as her own parents. She eventually left the commune, took refuge with her sister, then moved out west for sunny California.
6 R. Kelly
The 1996 hit from Space Jam “I Believe I Can Fly” is by American singer, songwriter, record producer, and convicted sex offender R. Kelly. Despite being one of the world’s best-selling music artists, Kelly has faced multiple accusations and criminal counts of sexual abuse with underage women.
A civil suit filed in 1996 detailed allegations that starting in 1991, a promising, underage high school singer was encouraged to recruit her school friends and pressure them into engaging in group sex with other underage girls. In 2019, Kelly was arrested on federal charges alleging sexual exploitation of a child, human trafficking, child pornography, racketeering, bribery, and obstruction of justice.
During one of the many hearings, witnesses came forward testifying about a sex cult. They described the experience as mentally and physically abusive as Kelly was in charge of things like what they ate and wore. Kelly faced a total of 22 criminal charges in January 2021, and by September of that same year, a federal jury in New York found him guilty on nine counts. Kelly faces two more trials later in 2022.
5 Michelle Pfeiffer
Growing up in sunny SoCal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Take it from Academy Award nominee Michelle Pfeiffer. Though the young star grew up just a short drive from Hollywood, there was no going back once she started working in the film industry.
Pfeiffer was taken in by some friends who were members of a new age metaphysics cult called Breatharianism. Also known as Inedia, Breatharianism can be a deadly pseudoscience in which cult members claim that food and water aren’t necessary to sustain life. Some members have even died while practicing their beliefs. While Pfeiffer admits that the Breathariansim cult did take a lot of her money, her fellow members also helped her break harmful addictions, which led her to become the world-renowned actress she is today.
4 Winona Ryder
Known for oddball roles like Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, award-winning actress Winona Ryder is no stranger to communities of outlandish ideas.
The Rainbow Family commune is a cult of loosely affiliated individuals from all walks of life who come together to share experiences, music, food, love, and the hope of a better world. Inspired by the Woodstock Festival, the gatherings originated in Oregon in 1970 and spread to various parts of the country. The gatherings were used to pray, meditate, observe silence, and above all, concentrate on world peace.
Ryder joined the commune when she was seven years old. The 300-acre plot of land in California had no utilities and was shared with numerous other families. With such limited access to the outside world, Ryder spent most of her time reading books and delving into her imagination for the entertainment we would later know today.
3 Joaquin Phoenix
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the United States, Joaquin Phoenix has had a wild journey that landed him in Los Angeles. And we don’t just mean on the silver screen. Phoenix is a critically acclaimed actor, ranging from roles in Gladiator, Signs, Walk the Line, and Joker.
Phoenix’s parents met when his mother was hitchhiking in California. With his siblings receiving the names of River, Rain, Liberty, and Summer, we can’t say we’re surprised where the Phoenix family got their ideas from. They joined the Children of God, now known as The Family International, where they believe in salvation, spiritual reformation, and the apocalypse of an anti-Christ. Phoenix lived this way for over a decade as his family traveled across South America as missionaries for the Children of God.
But around 1974, things started to get a little fishy. The Children of God implemented a form of gospel preaching called flirty fishing where female members of the cult, or “fisherwomen,” would persuade men, or “fish,” to join the community and contribute a charitable donation via sexual intimacy. The practice was a primary source of financial income and a spike in membership as over ten thousand children would be born from these encounters. Due to the distorted practices, Phoenix and his family returned to the States in 1978 and settled in Florida.
2 Rose McGowan
Despite the beauty of her name, Rose McGowan has a dark past and even darker film history. Though her breakthrough performance in 1996’s Scream earned her praise and recognition, McGowan has a track record of characters known for seduction and darkness stemming from her childhood.
Born in Florence, Italy, to American artists, her father ran an Italian chapter of the Children of God. You know, the flirty fishing cult that Joaquin Phoenix left. McGowan spent her early childhood at the group’s communes, often traveling through Europe with her parents, and witnessed many sex crimes, including assault, abuse, and molestation. Her parents were members of the cult until 1978 when they returned to the United States only for McGowan to run away as a young teenager. At 15, she officially emancipated herself from her parents and moved to Los Angeles only to find Hollywood may be just as bad as the cult she left.
1 Glenn Close
Lastly, and certainly not least, the three-time Emmy, Golden Globe, and Tony award winner Glenn Close. Born in Connecticut in 1947, The Natural actress grew up under the watchful eye of the MRA, the Moral Re-Armament.
Founded in 1938, the international cult encourages its members to actively participate in political and social issues. One of the cult’s core ideas is that changing the world starts with changing oneself. They believe in the Four Absolutes of honesty, purity, selflessness, and love. However, Close recalls the commune-like conditions and altruistic attitude shrouding the cult’s sense of superiority. All of her actions were watched, and she was shown how to foster a disinterested concern for others, though the group claimed to promote wellbeing and selflessness.
Close believes she made her career about understanding the behavior she witnessed, and what better way to explore that than with acting.