Secret Societies refer to organisations who keep their existence hidden from the rest of the world. In their depiction on screen, these are usually seen as organisations of considerable power and their influence is almost always malign. Such societies are always believed to be highly secretive about their existence and more often than not will kill those who betray their code or eliminate evidence of their existence.
In real world conspiracy theories, it is frequently believed that secret societies are manipulating world events from behind the scenes – see the frequency of mention of organisations such as The Freemasons, The Illuminati or The Deep State, among others.
In some cases, these are real organisations whose existence or at least influence has been greatly inflated by conspiratorial imagination more so than there is ever any reliably documented evidence of their sinister activities.
On screen and in fiction, such secret societies are frequently ascribed to running vast criminal networks, searching for magical/occult artifacts or running secret gladiatorial games.
Of existing secret societies, The Illuminati appear in Razor Blade Smile (1998), Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (2001) and Trump vs The Illuminati (2020), are supposedly behind the creation of the Frankenstein monster in The Frankenstein Theory (2013) and sort of appear in Angels & Demons (2009). Meanwhile, The Freemasons cover up the real reasons for the Jack the Ripper killings in Murder by Decree (1979).
The tv series Rubicon (2010) has an intelligence analyst uncovering a web of connected real world conspiracies that lead to a secretive organisation. In the tv series Nowhere Man (1995-6), Bruce Greenwood is a photographer who has his entire identity erased and is forced to go on the run by a secret organisation who seems to extend their reach everywhere he goes.
In a number of films, secret societies are frequent seen as organising criminal activities – examples might include The Praetorians in The Net (1995), The Sheng Brotherhood in The Phantom (1996), The League of Assassins in Batman Begins (2005), The Hand in Elektra (2005) and tv’s Daredevil (2015-8), The Fraternity in Wanted (2008), The Cobra Organisation in G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (2009) and sequels, The Court of Owls in Batman vs Robin (2015), The Assassins and Templars in Assassin’s Creed (2016) and Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Spy Films are rife with the nefarious schemings of organisations with colourful acronyms for names. The most well-known of these was S.P.E.C.T.R.E in the James Bond films Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967) and to a lesser extent On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Spectre (2015). Another popular evil organisation was T.H.R.U.S.H. in tv’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-8), before such organisations were spoofed with KAOS in tv’s Get Smart (1965-70).
If there was a competition for creating a sheer number of secret organisations and their convoluted workings, the award should go to the tv series Alias (2001-6), which starts with heroine Jennifer Garner discovering that SD-6, the CIA offshoot she is working for, is actually a secret criminal organisation whereupon she is recruited by the real CIA as a counter-agent. During its run, the series was filled with a mind-boggling array of secret organisations and agencies including the Alliance of Twelve, APO, The Covenant, Prophet Five and The Shed.
Another variant might be the secretive unnamed cabal conspiring to pave the way for alien invasion in tv’s The X Files (1993-2002, 2016-8) and the film The X Files (1998). Anatomie (2000) features the Age Actabile Antihippocrate, a secret society among the medical fraternity that promotes illicit experimentation as a means of advancing science.
A frequent theme in fantastic cinema is of the secret society that abducts people and places on games where people can be tortured, or are made to endure sadistic games for the enjoyment of its members – see Films About Human Bloodsports and Death Games. The influential work here was Hostel (2005) and sequels, which depicts a group in Eastern Europe that abducts tourists and allows them to be tortured for paying customers.
Other such organisations engaged in death and torture games can be seen in films such as 13 Tzameti (2005), Die (2010), Raze (2013), The Houses October Built (2014), 13 Sins (2014), Headgame (2017), Most Beautiful Island (2017), Escape Room (2019) and The Hunt (2020). There is also the idea of secret societies engaged in serial killings as we see in Cobra (1986), Trick (2019) and Smiley Face Killers (2020).
Sinister Cults and Seekers of Occult/Magic
The first depiction of a cult of devil worshippers was The Palladists in the Val Lewton film The Seventh Victim (1943). Rosemary’s Baby (1968) popularised the idea of a secret cabal of Satanists attempting to give birth to the Anti-Christ. Since then, the idea of the cabal of devil worshippers has become a popular cliche in horror, notedly in Race with the Devil (1975), which sees the American Midwest populated by Satanist cults in every town, or The Omen (1976) and sequels, which have the young Anti-Christ surrounded by loyal followers who have infiltrated every level of orgnisatio around him to facilitate his ascendency. Depictions of Satanist cabals have become so commonplace they are dealt with under their own theme – see Films About Devil Worship.
A variant was the Australian film Thirst (1979) depicting the Hyma Brotherhood, a secret society of vampires that maintain human cattle farms. The Underworld films and TV series such as Kindred: The Embraced (1996), Ultraviolet (1998), Being Human (2008-13) and A Discovery of Witches (2018- ) shows secret vampire societies, frequently engaged in internicine warfare, hidden behind the curtain of the everyday world.
Often these groups are in search of occult or magical artifacts and knowledge such as The Hand in Faust: Love of the Damned (2000), The Illuminati in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, The Hellfire Council in The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (2006), The Legion and The Order of the Reunification in The Lost Room (2006), the groups in Labyrinth (2012), The Serpent Brotherhood in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (2014), the title group who hunt artifacts from fairytales in The Hunters (2016), the Kumal Trows in Sacrifice (2016), Prodigium in The Mummy (2017), The Order of Trinity in Tomb Raider (2018) and the Kobra Cult in Batman: Soul of the Dragon (2021).
There is also the idea of secret societies whose members have certain abilities or are seeking to find/recruit/exploit those who have such abilities. Examples would be the secret society of shapechangers in Society (1989); the group seeking to extends their lives by mind transference in Nothing But the Night (1972); the secret society of immortals in Death Becomes Her (1992); those gambling on people’s luck quotient in Intacto (2001); or the unnamed group seeking the heroine’s baby for its psychic potential in The Dark Red (2019). Seconds (1966) features a secret organisation that arranges for select people to be rejuvenated and take on new identities.
A variant on this might be the trope of groups engaged in secret wars behind the veil of history. There was Highlander (1986) and sequels and various tv series about two factions of warring immortals. A variant was Infinite (2021) about warring factions of people who incarnate through multiple lives.
Other Secret Societies
One intriguing idea that caught the public imagination was the Priory of Sion in The Da Vinci Code (2006) made up of the great thinkers throughout history whose purpose it was to hide the existence of a bloodline descended from Jesus Christ.
The tv mini-series Stark (1993) from the Ben Elton novel features the title organisation, created by big business, who are planning to relocate to The Moon and abandon the Earth to the rest of humanity after having stripped and exploited all the planet’s resources.
A bizarre variant would be Fight Club in Fight Club (1999), a secret society where men meet to engage in fisticuffs as a means of reclaiming masculine identity, which we then see being wielded into an underground army.
Films such as The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) and The Skulls (2000), both non-genre, depict the sinister workings of fraternity orders. On the opposite side of the coin, The Initiation of Sarah (1978) and The Initiation of Sarah (2006) depict sororities engaged in occult rituals.
Black Christmas (2019) depicts a fraternity using mind control on their members to suppress women, while the Male Masters in Dilili in Paris (2018) abduct young women to make into subservient female slaves. There was also the Men’s Association in The Stepford Wives (1975) and its remake The Stepford Wives (2004) where men come together to replace their wives with perfect android duplicates. Held (2020) features a secret organisation that uses psychological torture and imprisoned to force couples to sort out their marital difficulties.
1BR (2019) is about an apartment complex where the heroine is tortured and forcibly inducted into a secret society where all of the other tenants follow a book that provides a strict moral code to become better people. The end goes out with the suggestion that the city is filled with such apartment complexes.
One of the strangest of these was the society that appears in Mimesis (2011) and more evidently in the sequel Mimesis: Nosferatu (2018) who specialise in trapping people in elaborate recreations of classic horror films.
Not particularly fantastic but a recurrent theme in genre material is depiction of secret societies brought together by a common interest in sexual fetish as seen in films like Attack of the Adult Babies (2017) and The Institute (2017). Perhaps the best work on this particular theme was Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), a non-genre film in which Tom Cruise accidentally stumbles into an organisation of masked orgiasts. One real life example was the notorious 18th Century Hellfire Club that makes an appearance in The Avengers episode A Touch of Brimstone (1966) where their activities have been toned down to become merely a society of malicious pranksters.
Benevolent Secret Organisations
It is generally assumed that most secret societies are evil in nature. There are some exceptions to this, particularly superhero groups such as The Avengers, the Justice League, the Teen Titans and The Umbrella Academy. However, all of these conduct their activities in the open and move beyond what can be called secret societies.
There are assorted government-backed groups such as U.N.I.T. in tv’s Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005- ) but again this is a governmental organisation not a society and not secret. The best contender here would surely be U.N.C.L.E. in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which seems to act beyond control of individual governments.
We see more benevolent organisations such as S.H.A.D.O in the tv series UFO (1970-3) set up to defend Earth against alien incursion while hiding beneath the facade of a film studio and the title organisation in Men in Black (1997) and sequels, a comedy in which the titular agents are charged with protecting Earth from knowledge of alien visitors to the extent of blanking their memories.
Other examples might be the Torchwood Institute in the tv series Torchwood (2006-11) designed to investigate and protect Earth from aliens, and Mosaic, the organisation that deals with giant monsters as in Godzilla, King of the Monsters (2019). Also included could be the Gerry Anderson puppet tv series Thunderbirds (1965-6) about International Rescue, a family organisation that operates from the secrecy of an island base using hi-tech vehicles to come to the aid of disasters around the world.
Another contender here could be the organisation of The Librarians in The Librarian series of tv movies (mentioned above) and tv series The Librarians (2014-8) who exist to collect artifacts from myth and legend from around the world and preserve them for safekeeping.
- Thunderball (1965)
- Seconds (1966)
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
- Society (1989)
- Men in Black (1997)
- Fight Club (1999)
- Anatomie (2000)
- Alias (tv series, 2001-6)
- Intacto (2001)
- The Da Vinci Code (2006)
- The Lost Room (2006)
A full list of titles can be found here Secret Societies