Cults are based around the blind obedience of their followers and the authority of their leader, with individuality stripped away in favor of assimilation. However, not every member of a cult is quite as brainwashed as the others, and the ones who are brave enough will often try to run for it or actively oppose their oppressors.
This can have varied results. Unlucky defectors will be caught and either killed or otherwise punished for their attempted rebellion. Those who manage to escape may still need to change their identity or location just to be safe, though some will try and rescue some others who couldn't escape in time. To the cult they left, they may become known as a famous traitor, get erased from the cult's history, or be tracked down by the authorities. Living after the escape typically involves a lot of fear and caution, especially as they've turned against something they've been conditioned to see as right, and will generally be Not Used to Freedom. At times, this may be a character's Dark and Troubled Past.
This doesn't have to happen with actual cults, and characters escaping from cult-like groups can apply here as well. The important part is that a character at least attempts to escape from an oppressive, brainwashing group.
Compare Defector from Decadence.
No Real Life Examples, Please! This sort of thing is a sensitive subject, one that need not be discussed on TV Tropes.
Beware of unmarked spoilers!
- Avengers: The Initiative: Trauma's mother was a member of a cult worshipping the Eldritch Abomination Nightmare, although she didn't believe in him until he possessed another cultist to impregnate her. A few weeks later, she fled the compound with the help of another reluctant cultist, whom she later married.
- The first mission as the new Agent J in the first volume of Men in Black was to introduce a new kind of drug, the Bezerk, which developed a cult around it. J has the mission of going undercover in this cult, being used by K as a Guinea Pig, rescuing J before he died and annihilating all the cult.
- Talon: The Court of Owls has spent generations corrupting young boys into being their enforcers (known as Talons) while perpetrating their shadowy rule over Gotham City. Calvin Rose (fittingly enough, an escape artist) is the first one to ever break away from them and has been on the run ever since. Another Talon, Nathaniel O'Malley, provides him some covert support by not challenging him, but never actively turning on the Court. Birds of Prey has a second Talon, Mary Walker/Strix also break free of the court, while two more (Ephraim Newhouse and Xiao Loong) struggle against the cult but still end up dying in its service during Night of the Owls.
- The Walking Dead:
- Many members of Negan's Cult of Personality (such as Carson, Amber, Mark, Dwight, and Sherry) defect to the heroes during the territorial conflict. They're disturbed by Negan's actions and want a life where they don't have to worry about being subjected to Facial Horror or a Batter Up! death if they displease him.
- Lydia is the daughter of a cult leader whose followers wear the skins of zombies and attack humans. She is taken prisoner by the main characters and comes to sympathize with them and reassess her past values.
- In Fear No Evil, a My Hero Academia fanfic, a young Toshinori Yagi joined the Humarise cult in hopes of finding community and job opportunity after being neglected by foster care system because he was Quirkless. The cult tried to force him to conform by taking away his exercise equipment, force on him a diet to weaken him, frequently forced unwanted affection onto him and tried to make him give up his dream of being a hero. Toshinori fled and was rescued by Nana Shimura.
- Bad Dreams: The heroine refused to take part in a cult suicide pact as a teenager and is stalked by the cult leader's ghost years later.
- Bad Times at the El Royale: Emily took her sister Rose and ran away from Billy Lee's cult (who are in hot pursuit of them throughout the film) because Billy Lee was molesting Rose and turning her into a killer.
- The Endless: The story begins with two brothers who once belonged to a camp and left it receiving a message urging them to return. One of the brothers remembers the group as a sinister and homicidal UFO death cult that they ran away from while the other brother thinks it was a harmless commune they simply drifted away from.
- Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers: In the opening scene, a nurse who is part of the Cult of Thorn helps Jamie and her baby escape from the cult after experiencing Curious Qualms of Conscience. It's one of the last things she ever does.
- Lord of Illusions: Swann, Jennifer, Quaid, and Pimm all abandoned the cult of self-proclaimed Dark Messiah and magic user Fletcher Nix prior to the start of the movie, being creeped out by his displays of magic (while the rest of the cult became entranced by it). The movie begins with them coming back, but only to save the life of a child Nix is preparing to make into a Human Sacrifice, and to kill Nix.
- Midnight Special: Roy, the main character, his ex-wife Sarah and their associate Elden all left "The Ranch" a religious-themed cult (who believe that Roy's son, a child with apparently alien powers, is a divine prophet), prior to the movie, partially due to the leader of the ranch taking Roy's son from him. At the beginning of the movie, Roy has spirited away his son from the Ranch and is on the run from both them and the police.
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: While it's unclear if she's abandoning Manson's cult itself, the climax has Flower Child running out on the other cult assassins rather than take part in their murder scheme.
- The Postman: After the End, the eponymous protagonist is Press-Ganged into the Holnists, a cross between a Cult of Personality and a Right-Wing Militia Fanatic group. They attempt to use brainwashing and intimidation to make him a loyal soldier, but he deserts the first chance he gets. Later, in the climax, the cult's second in command turns on their leader, who castrated him and cut out his tongue in the past.
- Played for Laughs in Road Trip. The "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue mentions that Jacob started up a cult, and then convinced everyone to agree to a Suicide Pact. After he committed suicide by poisoning though, everyone else thought about it some more, changed their minds, and just walked off.
- The John Sandford novel Bad Blood features a Religion of Evil with a generations-old culture centered around pedophilia and incest. When Flowers and his men go to arrest the cult leader, they find him being held at gunpoint and subjected to a mock trial by his daughter and granddaughters, now that his men are all dead, arrested, or on the run. The daughter of another perpetrator, despite being Conditioned to Accept Horror, is happy to confirm the detectives' suspicions and direct them to evidence as soon as they question her.
- The main character of the Beneath duology by Roland Smith tracks his runaway brother to the underground headquarters of a sinister cult and ends up convincing him to leave, along with the cult leader's granddaughter, who's never been aboveground in her life.
- Guardians of Ga'Hoole: Soren and Gylfie meet when they're both taken to an Orphanage of Fear known as "St. Aggies", where young owls spend their time being brainwashed and assimilated. Each night, they attempted to resist but were caught and subjected to a stronger form of the regular brainwashing. However, through reciting legends about the mythical GaHoole, they were able to resist that brainwashing, too. Though they were able to escape by learning to fly, they were chased down by a patrol and the two other owls who weren't being brainwashed, Hortense and Grimble, were both caught and killed for their troubles.
- In the John Carter of Mars series, Xodar is first introduced as one of the many members of the Cult of Issus. After falling out of favor with his people, he is shown the true face of Issus - that of a hideous old woman - and decides to forsake the cult forever, joining John Carter and Carthoris in their efforts to escape.
- In Banana Yoshimoto's Lake Nakajima was kidnapped as a child by an Aum Shinrinkyo-like cult until he escaped several years later. His mother's quest to get him back made national news, and he still bears the emotional scars from his time there.
- Maul: Lockdown: Artagan, a former member of the Force-worshipping Bando Gora, betrayed their attempt to assassinate a crime lord and went on the run with his newborn son sixteen years ago.
- Winston Smith and Julia in 1984 both resist the totalitarian cult of the Party and Big Brother, but after his imprisonment and torture, Winston comes to love Big Brother.
- The Stand: After Randall Flagg becomes the Dark Messiah of Las Vegas, his Reign of Terror and the strength of his enemies are gradually mentioned as driving some people away even as others worship him more reverently. This even extends to four of his main lieutenants, who eventually grow creeped out by his actions and plot to flee to South America, although at least two of them hadn't left yet by the climax arrives, with one trying to stop Flagg's execution of the heroes, and the other cowering in the background and then being blown up with everyone else still in the city.
- Station Eleven: It's mentioned in passing that many of the younger members of The Traveling Symphony (including some major characters) were members of various doomsday cults in the years after The Plague before breaking away from them and joining the acting troupe. In the main story, one of the Prophet's followers is clearly upset by most of what they do and ultimately kills the Prophet to protect Kirsten and her friends.
- In the Venus Prime series, Sparta grew up in the Free Spirit, a transhumanist cult that believed her to be The Chosen One. She later got free and spends the first half of the series fighting to wipe out the Free Spirit's operatives.
- The Pillars of Reality: An interesting case where the "Cults" are the forces that govern the world. Both the Mage and Mechanics Guild (mainly the latter) impress a mindset of superiority and caring for no one outside their Guilds upon the children they forcibly take in (along with plenty of other messed up philosophies for the Mage Guild), and the series begins with Mechanic Mari and Mage Alain beginning to resist that mindset and conditioning, eventually rallying others to do so as well and outright going to war with the Guilds they came from. Later books also show that there are several characters (such as former Mage Camber, now an Imperial advisor) who secretly left the Guilds in the years before that, not seeking to resist them but just to live normals lives.
- Castle: The murdered rock star from the episode Swan Song is eventually revealed to have been an escapee from a cult (something the cult leader took very personally, having felt that he was Like a Son to Me) which had a Scam Religion that the leader used as an excuse to grow and sell drugs under freedom of religion protections while roping in vulnerable runaways and homeless kids. Two other runaway members of the cult (neither of whom have anything good to say about its practices or its leader) appear later in the episode, one of them providing general information to the detectives, and the other having only recently been rescued from it by the murder victim and been lying low as a roadie in his band.
- Criminal Minds:
- The episode "Minimal Losses" has a member of a Waco-like cult getting disgruntled with their methods and having phoned in a tip about child abuse which drew in the authorities, later trying to help the captured law enforcement members.
- One episode mentions this in passing. One of the victims had recently left a cult because she took the leader's preachings literally. He claimed to have divine heritage, so she researched his genealogy and found nothing extraordinary. While the cult leader was happy to sue her into silence, he made no attempt to get her back or punish her for leaving. She stumbled across the killer during her genealogy research.
- The two victims from "The Forever People" were killed for trying to leave a cult that preached surviving a prophesied apocalypse by making its members Human Popsicles. The cult leader is actually innocent, a member is committing the crimes behind his back.
- One Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode featured a religious-themed cult led by Eugene Hoff, a pedophile with delusions of grandeur, with most of his followers dying due to a murder-suicide pact when the police investigate Hoff for impregnating an eleven-year-old girl. During the investigation, the detectives speak with a family who'd left Hoff's "Church" several years earlier, when he was first starting out, due to catching him in their daughter's room with his pants down. At the end of the episode, Hoff is shot by one of his child brides due to violating his own doctrine by letting it slip to her that he's a Godhood Seeker.
- In The Mentalist The cult/church Visualize has quite a few members who left it shown over the course of the show and provide information about it whenever the cult and its members are being investigated over a Mystery of the Week.
- Gabriel Meadows left after the death of his parents and became a journalist dedicated to discrediting Visualize, with the ending of the episode implying his younger sister may leave as well.
- Randall Parker, a founding member of the cult, left after the death of their original leader, and will tell anyone who visits him how he thinks the man was murdered by current Visualize leader Bret Stiles.
- Lucy Joel, who appears in the cult's second episode, is a member who left for unspecified reasons and lives in fear of them, noting how members are constantly urged to make Confession Cams every week for spiritual release, and those recordings are kept to blackmail anyone who leaves from airing the group's dirty laundry.
- Peter DiBuono, a member who became a Catholic priest describes his stint with Visualize in the 1970s as a confused, messed up part of his life.
- Monk: The Victim of the Week in Mr. Monk Joins a Cult ran away from a Church of Happyology and became a prostitute due to how messed up the experience left her. She spent the rest of her life living in fear that they'd kill her for leaving the cult, but the cult is a Red Herring.
- In NUMB3RS CBI Agent Willons from the episode "Nine Wives" was a cult member for her teenage years and while the cult she was part of isn't featured, she plays a role in dealing with people from another cult being investigated for statutory rape and bigamy.
- In Orange Is the New Black, Norma inverts this by being the only person who does not leave her cult, because she is so shy and afraid of the world, and being in the cult makes her feel safe and special. When the cult leader/her husband berates her, that the whole cult was a lie and that she only stays because shes weak, she responds by pushing him over a cliff and uttering her only words in the entire series.
- The Outer Limits (1995): In "A New Life", the plot follows a mysterious preacher who has convinced people tired of modern life to retreat into the wilderness with him for faith and service. One villager, Jacob, ran away from the group years ago and has been hiding in caves away from the community due to missing civilization and then finding there was no way back. The main character Daniel also tries to run away with his wife and son after witnessing their leader shift into his true alien form (he's gathering people to mold into a Slave Race), and is later able to convince his friend Thomas that there's something wrong with the cult after being captured. Unfortunately, none of the five get away, and The Bad Guy Wins.
- In one Portlandia, the two characters accidentally join a cult after visiting the farm that provided their organic chicken. After living there happily for several years, they randomly decide to leave. This is played completely for laughs.
- The second season of The Sinner opens with an attempt to rescue a young boy from a cult. The effort goes horribly, horribly wrong, resulting in a double homicide.
- Kimmy Schmidt of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt escaped from a guru who made her and three other women fear the End of Times.
- The Walking Dead: In season 6, Dwight is a member of Negan's Cult of Personality who attempts to abandon the warlord when Negan tries to make Dwight's sister-in-law Tina become his wife in exchange for insulin she needs to survive. Dwight, his wife Sherry, and Tina steal the medicine and flee, but Dwight and Sherry return to the Saviors after Tina dies and end up serving Negan before later siding with the heroes, alongside various others Saviors, as Negan's empire deteriorates.
- In Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror, Diana Stanley "the Redeemed Cultist" joined the Silver Twilight Lodge to fit into Arkham social life, learned just how horrific their Inner Sanctum rituals really are, and now seeks desperately to atone for her part in them. Her personal story has her become The Mole and feed information on the Lodge to the police.
- Leviathan: The Tempest: It is entirely possible, if not exactly common, for some of a Leviathan's Beloved to break free of the effects of the Wake and successfully make a break for it. Unfortunately, these defectors will sometimes carry Leviathan heritage (indeed, the heritage of the Strain of Nu actually favors such rogue lineages), which can easily lead to a full Leviathan metamorphosing in a family that only knows about their inhuman heritage through a few vague horror stories from one grandparent.
- Divinity: Original Sin II: Almira the Black Ring succubus fell in love with a Magister and escaped to start a new life with him. However, she needs the player character's help to sever the soul-deep oath that binds her to the Black Ring's patron.
- In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the Mythic Dawn Apocalypse Cult member Eldamil does this posthumously in the Artificial Afterlife that their leader Mankar Camoran built with a Daedric Prince's patronage. Realizing that they were being used and their "Paradise" is a trap, he helps the Player Character find and kill Camoran.
- Far Cry 4: Ishwari, the Player Character's mother, was a "Living Goddess" avatar of Kyrat's patron deity and a co-founder of the Golden Path religious movement/La Résistance with her husband. When she realized that her husband was every bit as brutal as the dictator they had sworn to depose, she left for America with their young son.
- Tweak Kirby is heavily implied to be this in Far Cry 5 as he has a deep amount of knowledge about Jacob's cult, has a room filled with writings about how they're untrustworthy liars, and is the son of a former cult member whose actions he feels a need to atone for. While never outright stated, all of this implies that he may have been part of the cult himself once, but broken away when he was young.
- Salem from Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 was a former priest of the Loptr Church, and was almost killed after he defected. He ran with a band of honorable thieves before being press-ganged into Leif's army. Salem is also the first playable character who can use dark magic in the entire series.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a storyline that reveals that one the NPCs in Kakariko Village, Dorian, is a former member of the Yiga Clan and that the Clan murdered the mother of his two daughters for attempting to leave the group. Dorian admits that he has been feeding them information about Link in exchange for protection for his family, but after further threats he cuts ties with them for good and promises to help Link however he can.
- The Secret World:
- The Morninglight classifies any attempted defectors as "Obstructive Persons," and generally has them hunted down before they can leak any of their secrets to outsiders. You have the opportunity to meet two such persons, Alina and Mihail, both of whom can both be found hiding in Romania; neither know that much, but the former is so paranoid about the terrible things that the Morninglight will do to her that she's decided to stay put in the forest and wait for the werewolves to kill her instead.
- After investigating the abandoned Fear Nothing Foundation headquarters, you learn that one of them defected prior to the sending of "The Great Message"; the trail eventually leads you to Yuichi Nakahara, a hikikomori who initially joined the FNF in search of friends - only to flee in terror when he realized that his cultist "girlfriend" was grooming him for the role of "Messenger." In other words, they wanted him to become the suicide bomber who was to deliver the Great Message, before Yuichi ran and forced them to make do with John Copley. In the wake of this trauma, Yuichi is a Nervous Wreck who needs the support of his little sister to remain stable and spends a good chunk of time justifiably consumed with fear over being killed by an assassin or having his brain eaten by vampire squid gods.
- In World of Warcraft the Nerubians are a subspecies of the Aqir, vaguely insectoid beings formed from the essence of the Old Gods, who collectively abandoned worship of their creators. It's exceptionally rare for anything tainted by the Old Gods to escape their control without outside help, and as the Nerubians are extremely Out of Focus has not been explored beyond a non-canonical source mentioning they concluded worshipping them made as much sense as a "fly worshipping a spider". They still hate other species, they're just not doing it for themselves now.
- In Daughter for Dessert, the Church of the Aquarian Revelation and its leader, Smoking Dog, adored Lainie when she was spending big bucks to feed the whole congregation, but when her family cut her off, they forced her into a horrifying purification ritual. Only then did she realize that the church was only after her money. The protagonist had to rescue her.
- Cosmic Dash: Orthos Kabalos is heavily implied to be a former member of the Cult of Y'tun Sargon who left after the cult killed his wife. Now he leads the task force investigating them.
- The Mirror: The members of the cult known as "The Mirror" are, at first, obedient and happy to serve their leader, Curtis. However, in "Lesson 28: Water", the main trio of followers have to chase down a fourth child as he tries to make a break for it. This follower is not seen by the next video, and his fate is unknown to the audience. By the last episode, the three followers themselves are missing, with the implication being that they lost faith and defected as well.
- Don't Hug Me I'm Scared: After being subjected to four abusive lessons by some unhelpful "teachers" on their television show, the Red Guy is gone from the group by video 5. Despite being gone from the show, he was still on set attempting to help his friends escape as well. Duck Guy tried to leave but was killed before he could, and video 6 shows that Red Guy is still badly affected by his time on set and finds himself unable to function in the normal world, which appears to have taken the "lessons" to heart- everyone is exactly the same, and Red Guy gets rejected when trying to be creative with the song from video 1 (although this might actually be a flashback to before the show began).
- My Dad's Tapes: One of the videos centered around interviewing a woman who had escaped from the actual Church of Happyology...
- The Alternate Reality Game Spectacular Organic involves a health-food company serving as the front for a cult. Doug Horry, an ex-member of the organization, had been "excommunicated" after trying to learn about the cult, and spends his time on the run while trying to help players uncover the secrets of Spectacular Organic.
- Bojack Horseman: Todd winds up joining a cult that operates under the guise of an improv theatre troupe, due to feeling isolated from his friends. Another member who isn't sufficiently cheerful is implied to be beaten and brainwashed. Todd himself becomes disillusioned with the group when he learns the leader lives a life of luxury and also isn't the improv master he presents himself as, and BoJack helps him escape. BoJack also mentions offhandedly that he learned a lot about cults while he was a Scientologist; he read a book about cults during that time.
- The Justice League Unlimited episode "The Ties That Bind" (which provides the page quote) shows how Mr. Miracle resisted throughout his childhood the cultish control Granny Goodness had over the children of Apokolips and even broke the hold the cult had over Big Barda, who Miracle later marries. When Mr. Miracle returns to Apokolips to "rescue" Kalibak and escapes once again, Granny is bewildered that Miracle withstood her years of torture and attempted brainwashing.
Granny Goodness: How? Granny never failed with any of them. How did I fail with him?
- The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic season 5 premiere "The Cutie Map" features a surprisingly realistic depiction of a cult. Ponies are stripped of their special talents and conditioned to conform to leader Starlight Glimmer's rigorous standards. Three of the ponies are unhappy with the situation and pester Twilight and her friends about how it feels to be individuals, but none of them are ready to leave yet. When Starlight Glimmer learns about the dissent, she submits the confessed traitor to brainwashing before she welcomes him back into the fold. Once Fluttershy exposes Starlight Glimmer as a hypocrite, the cult dissolves.
- In the Rocko's Modern Life episode "Schnit-Heads", Heffer joins a cult that is obsessed with eating sausages. After he gets tired of eating sausages for every meal, he tries to run away but can't, forcing Rocko and Filburt to rescue him.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003): "H.A.T.E." opens with the Turtles encountering a wounded former Right-Wing Militia Fanatic. The other militiamen shot him for trying to stop their plan to nuke New York City due to all of the alien sightings there.