Crazy-conspiracy documentary Shadowland and 8 more cult classics

By Gen Terblanche21 May 2024

Crazy-conspiracy documentary Shadowland and 8 more cult classics

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger cut his teeth in the world of true crime. Now he’s conducting a forensic analysis into the impact of popular conspiracy theories in the United States today. With the help of journalists from The Atlantic magazine who’ve been tracking the spread of conspiracy movements like QAnon over the past four years, Shadowland Season 1 delves into how and why people latch onto conspiracies despite overwhelming contradictory evidence. Joe’s documentary series Shadowland explores the conditions and people that have pushed conspiracy thinking from the shadows to the spotlight in events like the 6 January 2021 insurrection.

Binge Shadowland Season 1 on Showmax now.

Christopher Key in Shadowland S1
SHADOWLAND — “They Need to Hang” Episode 101 — Pictured: Maryam Henein — (Photo by: Peacock)

Many of the conspiracies explored in Shadowland, from the far-right American political conspiracy theory movement QAnon, to the hysteria that drove the January 6 insurrection on the US Capitol, to Covid-19 anti-masking conspiracy movements, interweave to hint at even deeper, crazier conspiracies. 

As Shadowland interviews both the conspiracy pushers and consumers, bizarre claims get stacked into word-salad statements that take ages to unpick. Did you know that lizard people live among us, or that the 2020 election would be overturned and that the Kennedys (who’re not actually dead) would reinstate Trump as President? Shadowland shows time and again that making crazy claims is free, easy and requires very little work aside from talking loudly over other people at high speed. For the most part, the proof, the truth, and even the rare consequences will be someone else’s problem. The profits, however, are real.

Rage bait and crazy pays

Shadowland S1 on Showmax
SHADOWLAND — “They Need to Hang” Episode 101 — Pictured: “Shadowland” Documentary Image — (Photo by: Peacock)

For some conspiracy pushers like Zach Vorhies who’re interviewed in Shadowland, crazy pays. This former Google employee reveals how he latched onto the profitability of radicalising content online. While Zach reveals that there’s no charge for appearing on or watching the videos he hosts on his platform, the money rolls in anyway. Zach admits that he has some interested backers with deep pockets who make sure that he can spread his pet conspiracists’ messages, even after they’re deplatformed by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Hosting discredited faux documentaries like Covid conspiracy Plandemic, along with alt-right hatemongers like Alex Jones keeps conspiracists coming back for more “research”.

Caught in the shadows

Shadowland S1 on Showmax
SHADOWLAND — “Killed The Man I Know” Episode 105 — Pictured: Documentary Imagery — (Photo by: Peacock)

But for those obsessed enough to act on the conspiracy theories instead of just spreading them for clout, likes and cash, there’s a harsh awakening. Live on film, Shadowland follows the downfall of one struggling business owner who did her own “research”, and wound up being caught on film baying at her fellow conspirators to hang US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi while storming the Capitol Building on 6 January. In the course of the documentary she winds up sentenced to 20 years in prison because the defence she believed would hold up in court – after she does her “research” and turns to conspiracy “experts” for legal aid – was that she’ll claim to be a “sovereign citizen” … you know, like when Michael Scott from The Office thought he could officially declare bankruptcy by yelling the words “I declare bankruptcy”. 

Compassion above all

Pauline Bauer in Shadowland - now streaming on Showmax
SHADOWLAND — “They Need to Hang” Episode 101 — Pictured: Pauline Bauer — (Photo by: Peacock)

It’s not just the conspiracists who’re victims, though. Shadowland interviews people whose family members and best friends have gotten sucked into conspiracy black holes as a source of comfort during hard times. While Shadowland has few solutions to offer, it’s an unusually compassionate and open-minded look at the phenomenon and its spread. It explores why people are so desperate for answers to their fears and economic pressures. And it shows how conspiracy groups are pouring in to meet those needs, providing everything from community and acceptance, to a feeling that history will see them as heroes for pushing back against and exposing an unjust world. 

Binge Shadowland Season 1 on Showmax now.

Join our cults

There’s no need to start a podcast! Here are eight more series that take us inside the world of misinformation, fringe movements, cults, and organisations that profit from a “special” relationship with the truth.

1. Time Bomb Y2K: This HBO documentary film explores how a simple but widespread programming code issue to do with date formatting got twisted into end-of-the-world hysteria at the start of a new millennium. 

2. The Vow Season 1-2: Over two seasons, true crime series The Vow takes us inside the NXIVM “self improvement” cult and pyramid scheme to expose the systems that were deliberately laid down to groom recruits for abuse. The Vow follows the case as NXIVM leader Keith Raniere is convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering, forced labour conspiracy, and wire fraud.

3. The Illuminated Season 1: This South African documentary series spotlights the founders, controversies, and driving ideas behind nine faith-based fringe movements, from Israelvisie to Scientology through interviews with human rights groups, mainstream church leaders, escaped and expelled ex-members, and those still within the organisations. 

4. Devilsdorp: See inside the cult behind Krugersdorp’s 2012-2016 Appointment Murders, in a series that spent 18 months untangling the personalities and motives behind 11 killings, and figuring out the psychological pressure points that led people to kill.

5. Alabama Snake: Appalachian snake handling Christian cult leader Glenn Summerford is in the spotlight in this HBO documentary that explores how one small community uses touching dangerous snakes as proof of their surrender to God’s will, and how one man relishes and abuses the power and authority this lends him. 

6. The Leftovers Season 1-3: Prefer a little fiction? This HBO sci-fi series follows life after a global event during which 2% of the global population suddenly vanished. The first season takes us inside the cult uprising called The Guilty Remnant to reveal how people try to take back control in the face of an inexplicable tragedy. 

7. Big Love Season 1-5: For many of us, this HBO drama series was a first introduction to the idea of sister-wives, as it explores life (especially for women) within a Mormon fundamentalist polygamy cult through the eyes of one family living in Salt Lake City, Utah.

8. Lovecraft Country Season 1: Among the themes that this horror fantasy series explores, as it takes a road trip through Black experiences in the United States from the 1950s to the modern day, is The Order of The Ancient Dawn, a white supremacist, patriarchal cult dedicated to achieving immortality.

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