Lindsey: It's a secret society.Some Cults 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.
Gunn: Never heard of them.
Lindsey: That's 'cause they're secret.
Gunn: Never heard of them.
Lindsey: That's 'cause they're secret.
— Angel, "Power Play"
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Anime and Manga
- 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 Court of Owls have ruled Gotham City from the shadows for centuries. They also feature prominently in the animated feature Batman Vs Robin.
- 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.
- What the Sisterhood is accused of being in The Sisterhood of Night.
- 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 2009 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.
- Sound of My Voice: two undercover documentarians get themselves recruited into a secretive cult built around a young woman claiming to be a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic future. The first scenes show the two leads running a gauntlet of security measures to meet the cult leader.
- In Curse of the Crimson Altar centres a witchcraft cult established by Lavinia Morley, a woman executed for witchcraft in the 17th Century, which still operates in the present day. The cult practices Human Sacrifice, but it is unclear what its actual goals are.
- 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.
- Pretty much any group of worshippers of an Eldritch Abomination, such as those found in H.P. 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.
- Even Agatha Christie used this trope, and like she did with most tropes, had some fun with it. The investigation in The Seven Dials Mystery leads to the titular secret society, whose members wear masks shaped like clock faces. It's a society of amateur detectives led by the police superintendent.
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.
- In "Image of the Fendahl", a local black magic cult learn of the coming of the Fendahl and the leader believes that he can control it and use it to dominate others. This ends badly.
- 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.
- The Secret Society, from House of Anubis, of course. They are a bit of a lighter example though. While they do indeed meet up in the dark cellar of Anubis House, chant creepily during ceremonies and wear cloaks, they aren't doing big sacrifices or any dark magic. They are mostly teachers along with a few important figures like a cop and a nurse (as well as the father of who they assume to be The Chosen One) and their goal is to achieve eternal life so each of them can fulfill a more personal goal, such as stopping themselves from dying of a degenerative disease. The most evil thing they did was hide away their supposed chosen one and lie about it to the students, yet they never wanted any of the students to actually get hurt. They are disbanded at the end of the first season when they realized they had the wrong chosen one and their one-hour window to do the ceremony has closed.
- 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.
- In Planescape, there are the Primals, a group who is based in the Inner Planes. They seem to have discovered some big secret of the universe, but aren't eager to share it. (Most assume it has something to do with Elemental powers, given their location and name.) Due to the secrecy, most other folk assume they're up to no good, even though there's no concrete proof.
- The Dracula Dossier: During Dracula's initial visit to England, he took over a Satanic cult with a large proportion of upper-class members. Edom later suspected the cult was acting as a "stay-behind" network for Dracula.
- In Unknown Armies it's very likely that the robe-wearing, secretive cultists with an agenda for the entire world are actually the Player Characters themselves. Also their main antagonists. And some of the side characters too. The Occult Underground being defined as a subculture of secrecy is a fertile breeding ground for all manners of secret cults, with varying degrees of evilness (or, for that matter, efficiency).
- 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. Oddly, the Cult seems to have their wires badly crossed about HOW to go about their mission - they actually spend most of the game trying desperately to kill people their principle strategy hinges on being alive.
- 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.
- Also, this trope is being invoked in-universe: the trappings of the Circle hide the fact that they aren't a secret society at all. They're actually the ghosts of a fallen civilization using their rituals to possess the bodies of both innocent victims and recruits. They act like a secret society both to get a greater pool of bodies to incarnate into and to look like a different kind of threat to law enforcement and the government. The masks and robes ensure their low-level recruits don't notice the replacements.
- 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 Speakers of the Black Hand wear black robes, but their leader, the Listener, wears a green overcoat. Justified, as he is the one who has to show himself in public when visiting the Night Mother's shrine smack-dab in the middle of Bravil.
- 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 Genoharadan in Knights of the Old Republic are a secret society of assassins and bounty hunters that operate behind the scenes, guiding galactic history.
- The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble: You find one inside the Schnibble Cult.
- ObsCure II has Delta Theta Gamma, which at first glance appears to be a hard-partying fraternity but is slowly revealed, as you explore their frat house, to have a lot more in common with the likes of Skull & Bones than with Delta House. The finale reveals them to have been a Greater-Scope Villain secretly involved in the events of both games, with most of the main villains working for them in some capacity.
- In Opplopolis, Tomaj Pangolin's young godson Marvin uses his hacking/googling skills to determine that "marvedyne" has something to do with a secret society of aristocrats.
- In Sinfest, failure to belong to one is among the reasons why Lil' E deems Slick lame.
- In Broodhollow, the Society of the Skull and Shovels seems like this at first. Brooding chants, dark robes, mystical significance, check, check, and double-check. But then Wadsworth actually gets inside and is shown that it's really just a (seemingly) harmless gentleman's club of sorts.
- A rare heroic example from The Sanity Circus: The Nameless Organisation is concerned with tracking down, monitoring and keeping a lid on the Scarecrows, but they do with maximum secrecy and all information is strictly limited. They're even called 'The Nameless Organisation', after all.
- The Circle of Cold Flames from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe are an order of mystics and sorcerers dedicated to overthrowing Heaven and instituting a reign of evil over the earth (and put themselves in control over it all in the end). They go in for all the trappings: black cloaks, pentagrams, sacrificing virgins to their demonic overlords, and so on.
- Strong Bad insists that his true age is a closely-guarded secret guarded by a sect of closely-guarded monks, who bake crustly-guarded bread.
- Jackie Chan stumbles onto one in the Jackie Chan Adventures episode "The Chan That Knew Too Much". Much of the humor in that episode comes from their deciding He Knows Too Much.
- Conspiracy Kitchen Sink Gravity Falls has one too, hinted in several cryptographs, but revealed in the episode "Society of the Blind Eye".
- 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. However, there is some archaeological evidence for this too.
- 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.
- This stereotype was deliberately taken up by the Hellfire Club, a bunch of rich 18th century British thrill-seekers who were in it just for the kicks and the depravity.