Membership Has Its Privileges
It's a secret society. Gunn:
Never heard of them. Lindsey:
That's 'cause they're secret.
are all about the mental manipulation and brainwashing in order to inspire devotion to a leader. Other cults, however, are all about the whole "meddling with dark powers" thing
Let's face it. Secret societies make good villains because you can do almost anything you want with them
. If your story needs some hidden group to be the bad guys, you can't go wrong with a shadowy cabal of masked figures chanting Latin or some other long dead language.
The members of such groups
meet in the middle of the night
, and when they meet are almost always garbed in cloaks that hide their body shape
, along with identity-concealing masks
. The leader of the cult, of course, will almost always be wearing a much more extravagant, often differently colored cloak (red is a popular option), and his mask is usually more elaborate as well.
Expect black robes
, evil magic
, Human Sacrifice
(especially of the virgin kind
, and usually in a painful manner
), and dark plots to destroy
or conquer the world
. Synchronized chanting, bonfires (including the occasional burning cross or wicker-man), odd sexual practices, and blood sacrifice is popular among such groups, but not always necessary. The members of the group itself will be loyal to various degrees. Some will end up being Punch Clock Villains
, others in it for the money or murdering
, while others will be hardcore true believers.
Don't expect much of a detailed, coherent religious philosophy
beyond "serve the God of Evil
in return for power (or to keep him from smiting us)," a bit of Pseudo-Nietzschean
nihilism, and perhaps a bit of Social Darwinism
with special focus on "culling the weak."
A Subtrope of Religion of Evil
. May overlap with The Omniscient Council of Vagueness
. Often found in works of Religious Horror
. Has connections with the Department of Redundancy Department
. Often a form of Mystery Cult
or Breeding Cult
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Anime and Manga
- The Cult of Kira, seen at the end of the Death Note manga, don't get much screentime, but they fit the bill.
- The Litchi Hikari Club has shades of this, especially in the opening, which depicts them from the perspective of an outsider.
- In Teen Titans there are two: the Church of Brother Blood, and the unnamed cult that worships Raven's demon father, Trigon.
- Turns out they are one and the same.
- In Spider-Man comics, the Cabal of Scrier, which worships an ancient alien, and a breakaway cult led by Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) called the Order of the Goblin.
- The Dark Circle in Legion Of Superheroes. In original continuity they were an ignorance cult that viewed knowledge as dangerous and wanted everyone to act on instinct. In Reboot continuity they were The Man Behind the Man of the Affiliated Planets, and were mostly working towards power for the individual members and so that Brainiac 4 could feel something - which she finally did when she sent the AP fleet to a pointless death and killed the rest of the Circle.
- The sex cult in Eyes Wide Shut (see picture above). Exactly how sinister they really are is left somewhat unclear.
- A lot of Hammer Films productions featured cloak-wearing demon worshippers of one stripe or another.
- 1957's Night of the Demon was all about an investigator who discovers one of these groups.
- The 2009 Sam Raimi film Drag Me To Hell took a lot of inspiration from this film.
- Demon Lover has the former leader of a devil-worshiping cult summons a creature from the depths of Hell to carry out his revenge against the coven's members.
- The Devil's Rain was advertised as giving the audience "the first real look into the world of Satanism". Despite the presence of several LARGE HAMS (including William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine), it has all the thrilling scares of cardboard box convention.
- The 1987 film parody version of Dragnet featured the P.A.G.A.N.S. (it stands for "People Against Goodness And Normalcy"), a motorcycle gang-cum-satanic cult whose leader chants in really bad rhyme.
- The "vampires" from The Omega Man wore cloaks and engaged in mystic rituals as per this trope, but also were the brainwashed minions of a charismatic leader too.
- The cultists in The Final Sacrifice are a bunch of machete-wielding madmen in black tanktops and hoods out to Take Over the World by summoning the spirits of an extinct Native American civilization. Mike and the bots can't decide if they're pro wrestlers or if "Canadian rules football is quite different."
- Damien from The Omen has a secret cult of devil-worshipers that serve and protect him. When they're not murdering people or attending black masses, they're care-takers, teachers, priests, and Cub Scouts. Since there doesn't appear to be any influential people in this cult, it could almost be a Milkman Conspiracy if their plan wouldn't revolve around ending Christ's life as soon as possible. All of the cultists have ample access to children.
- Demonstrated in the opening of the latest Sherlock Holmes film.
- Subverted in the short film Rings of The Ring franchise. Instead, the groups consist of "rings" of teenagers who watch Samara Morgan's cursed videotape and record the supernatural things they witness, this ritual of sorts passing to each group member when the previous panics. One group in Astoria, Washington seem more than willing to sacrifice one member to see the events of the inevitable Day Seven when the victim is killed by Samara's ghost.
- The cultists in Race With the Devil, who chase the heroes across Texas after they witness the cult carrying out a Human Sacrifice.
- Hilariously subverted in Hot Fuzz - black robes? Check. Meeting in secret? Check. Killing people off? Check. Being generally evil? Big damn check. Having anything to do with a reasonable, normal, evil bunch of black-clad homicidal night-meeters' goals? Noooot quite...
- The Whisperer in Darkness (2011). The Cthulhu Mythos cult attempting to open a wormhole to the Mi-Go's planet for an Alien Invasion.
- In The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow, has an investigator researching "paganism" in northern Ontario in 1933. Evidence of a cult's operation is presented piecemeal, via newspaper articles, letters, reference materials and a specific photo, gradually detailing a Greco-Roman Mystery Cult that is involved in a spate of disappearances. The viewer is meant to infer that these Keres-worshippers are hard-to-track and have been operating in secret for quite some time.
- In Harry Potter, Death Eaters behave this way. When they gather, they all wear uniform robes in a cult of personality of sorts for Voldemort. They wear masks as well in a Faceless Goons sort of way.
- Quite a few examples in various Conan the Barbarian works, by Robert E. Howard and other authors: Golden Peacock, Hanuman the Accursed, Set, Tsathoggus, Yama, Yezud.
- Some in Fritz Leiber's Nehwon stories, too: Earth God, Gods of Trouble, Hate, Rat God, Spider God, Tyaa.
- In fact, these are quite common in Sword and Sorcery, even relative to their frequency in Fantasy generally. Convenient Obviously Evil villains.
- Pretty much any group of worshippers of an Eldritch Abomination, such as those found in HP Lovecraft and his imitators' works. "Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!"
- "Phn'glui mgl'wnafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!"
- "Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young!"
- Listen to a "wax cylinder recording" of that last here and watch the cat when the other voice speaks up.
- The Satanists in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens lampshade and parody this concept, with a coven of secretly Satanist nuns who are doing their best to fulfill the prophecies leading to the conception of the Antichrist, but are otherwise just decent people following the tenets of the religion they were raised in, not that different from anyone else.
- The satanic cults in the works of Dennis Wheatley (mostly based on Aleister Crowley and company), plus Hammer Horror versions thereof.
- In the Discworld novel Guards! Guards! the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night are a secret society behind the plot to summon a dragon and overthrow the Patrician. While the leader is a cunning manipulator, the members are pathetic petty-minded lower-middle class losers who mainly want to get back at people. (What they have going for them is anger.) But apparently they aren't as unique as they think... there's a whole street full of secret societies, with all the trimmings.
- The other societies are similar enough that early in the book, two characters exchange esoteric passphrases for most of a page before one of them says something the other isn't expecting. They then spend most of another page arguing about whether the good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy or the ill-built tower trembles mightily at the butterfly's passage. Finally the person trying to get in says something that clues the doorkeeper in that he's looking for another secret society that meets three doors down.
- In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian novel The Hour of the Dragon, the cult of Asura is portrayed as this. While they are secretive, Conan refused to persecute them without actual crimes, and they assist him in regaining his throne. And do not, in the course of the novel, show any sign that the accusations are anything but Malicious Slander.
- The Darkfriends of The Wheel of Time. Since they are all about helping the Dark One bring about The End of the World as We Know It (in exchange for personal power and immortality), membership is banned on pain of death throughout the world, and their cells are even called "circles".
- The bad guys in Lovely Assistant by Geoph Essex wear dark, hooded cloaks...and really do have some Evil Plans on their agenda. The leader doesn't exactly wear a different color, but she does sport a different look from the rest (by leaving her hood down to show off her beautiful blonde hair).
- Foucault's Pendulum is a hardcore postmodern deconstruction of this trope. In addition to numerous literary and historical references to various Secret Circles throughout the ages, two of them feature in the main plot: the first is a generally benign Druidic cult at an alchemical retreat, but the second is a full-on evil secret society led by a major supporting character, Senor Aglie.
- In Shadow Kiss, Mână (the Hand) was a secret society of royals who attempted to use forbidden compulsion techniques to get their way. Their initiation ritual was torturing potential members with magic until compelled to stop.
Live Action TV
- Showed up at all the time in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Moloch the Corrupter apparently auto-generated them wherever he went. A frat house sacrificed people to a demon snake in exchange for the power and wealth of their families. The Mayor was a particularly effective single person version of this, to the point that most of the demons that appeared were working for him. The Harbingers of the First Evil probably qualify, a group of high school cultists tried to sacrifice a fellow student in exchange for money, and on and on. Even Giles was a member of one when he was younger.
- Doctor Who has the worshippers of Azal and the Cult of Demnos, though the former leans more towards a Religion of Evil.
- The Regents from Warehouse 13 invoke the general idea of this trope as an acerbic jab at Artie's expectations.
- The Grey Council from Babylon 5 is the senior level of government for the Minbari Federation. It is comprised of three members of each of the three castes (Worker, Warrior, Religious) at least until the fifth season when Delenn breaks the Council and reconstitutes it so that the Workers gain a majority over the other two (usually more dominant) castes. Unlike the other examples, the Grey Council isn't so much evil as it is manipulative and ultimately corrupt. It meets in secret aboard a warship in deep space, so that its deliberations (and for that matter the identities of its members) remain unknown even to most Minbari. All members wear dark grey cloaks with head-concealing hoods. They also have a habit of withholding information even if doing so is ultimately self-defeating.
- Chaos Cultists from Warhammer (and Warhammer 40,000) qualify. Khorne's worshipers often organize into martial brotherhoods or murder cults, orders devoted to Tzeentch tend to be influential secret societies or sorcerous cabals, cults of Slaanesh are at best bands of artistes and hedonists or at worst mobs of depraved sex-crazed sadomasochists, and Nurgle's followers are nihilistic groups spreading disease and despair.
- Vampire: The Requiem features the Shadow Cults, an invention of the Mekhet that allows them control over humans (and other fringe benefits) by promising to unearth the secrets of existence. One of them, the Moulding Room, promises to reveal the power behind modern pop culture but is explicitly revealed to be a Situationalist prank — in other words, founded entirely For the Evulz.
- From another New World of Darkness game, Mage: The Awakening, you have the Guardians of the Veil, who both qualify as this trope and manufacture this trope for mortals. As the Mage equivalent of the Secret Police, they obviously act in secret, and also fit this trope by believing in an apocalyptic philosophy that is actively trying to bring about the birth of a mage messiah. But they also like to make mystery cults that deliberately spread disinformation about magic, in order to prevent curious individuals from accidentally discovering real magic.
- A Mummy's Cult also tends to operate in this fashion. Mummy Cults are among the few people in the modern world who know of Sekhem and the Nameless Empire, and also have the ability to direct a Mummy through his Relics. A Cult that abuses this authority, though, may regret it once the Mummy starts getting its memories back...
- Dark•Matter, a roleplaying game for the Alternity system based strongly on contemporary conspiracy theory and The X-Files-like science fiction, had the Final Church, THE worldwide conspiracy for demons and satanists. Basically, pretend that every paranoid rumor regarding Satanism mentioned in the 'Real Life' section was actually true, and you get the gist. There was even a web book devoted solely to the group at the end of Alternity's run, and the group makes a comeback in the d20 Modern Menace Manual.
- Many Call of Cthulhu adventures have them, in accordance with the original Cthulhu Mythos source material.
- Subverted with the Lords of Waterdeep from the Forgotten Realms D&D setting, who dress like this trope, engineer secretive political schemes, and conceal their membership from the public, but aren't actually evil and work to ensure their city's security and prosperity.
- The Cult of Kefka in Final Fantasy VI. They have given their souls to Kefka, and spend all their time walking around thinking about him.
- The story in Resident Evil 4 revolves around rescuing the daughter of the President of the United States from a cult called "Los Illuminados". Interestingly, the most obvious example of this trope is only in one particular level. The rest of the game involves you fighting villagers and soldiers that have been infected by the cult.
- Dead Rising had the Raincoat Cult. As the name says, they didn't wear cloaks, but they did wear masks.
- The Warcraft universe's Cult of the Damned is a group that worships The Lich King in order to achieve eternal life through undeath. In contrast, the apocalyptic Twilight's Hammer cult exists to awaken the Old Gods sealed beneath Azeroth's surface, knowing full well that doing so will bring about the end of the world.
- City of Heroes features The Circle Of Thorns, a group that one poster to the COH forums characterized as "a bunch of demon-worshipping asshairs". Missions where the players go against the Circle of Thorns are never popular.
- That's at least partially due to the Scrappy Level maps the missions tend to use.
- In a subversion of the "cult leader wears red" thing, the Cult of the Mythic Dawn in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has the mooks wearing red. The leader wears blue. Also, the mooks of the Black Hand wear black robes, but their leader wears a green overcoat for no apparent reason whatsoever.
- The first Discworld videogame is based on Guards! Guards!, mentioned above, and so has a similar secret society.
- The Silent Hill series has an evil cult which has a large role in every game except arguably Silent Hill 2. Hints to some sort of actual religious theory beyond "serve the evil god in exchange for power," appear in the third game (for example: that Alessa is both the mother and daughter of God). The third game also has examples of true believers (Claudia) and people mostly in it for power and money (Father Vincent).
- The Keepers from Thief are a rare heroic example, using their ancient knowledge and secrecy to protect the ordinary people from great evils.
- Chzo Mythos has the Order of the Blessed Agonies.
- When the fans get a hold of the Black Cloak Society in King's Quest, they usually get this treatment. AGD Interactive's Fan Remake of King's Quest II has several hints that they're prepping to survive The End of the World as We Know It - possibly the events of King's Quest: Mask of Eternity. AGD puts another example in their version of the game by having the benevolent monk from the original turn out to be running a Fur Against Fang racket against what turns out to be the Friendly Neighborhood Vampire
- The Evil Spaghetti Cult from Kingdom of Loathing's Nemesis Quest, as it plays out for Pastamancers. They worship your Nemesis, an evil spaghetti elemental. There's a brief Shout-Out to Project Chanology (which devolves into a general spoof of 4chan memes), although otherwise the cult doesn't have much in common with the Church of Happyology.
- The Masquerade in Persona 2: Innocent Sin certainly qualifies. In this case, they even have different robes to indicate which leader commands them, though they will all take orders from the Joker.
- The secret society in The King Of Shreds And Patches fits this bill, having ties to several high-profile figures (from noblemen to the Queen's own occultist) all in service to the King in Yellow.
- The Ku Klux Klan follows this trope more than you'd expect from a real-world organization. Night-time meetings, bonfires and burning crosses, and not to mention the all-enclosing robes and masks (complete with differently-colored masks and robes to distinguish the leadership from the common members).
- Media portrayals of Satanism also tend to fall into this trope, especially during the "Satanic Panic" of the 1970s and '80s.
- The Druids, at least according to many Greek and Roman writers. There is, in fact, more evidence for the horrible human-sacrificing Druids than for most other views of them. On the other hand, it comes from the pens of their enemies.
- Keith Thomas  points out that the stereotype of devil-worshippers as black-robed figures chanting in Latin in a ruined abbey originated with Tudor propaganda against the banned Catholics. Only after Catholics had ceased to be figures of fear was it applied to more obscure cults.
- Although the stereotype was deliberately taken up by the Hellfire Club, a bunch of rich 18th century thrill-seekers who were in it just for the kicks and the depravity.