clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Wild Wild Country’ Is Not Your Average Cult Exposé

The Netflix series is a fascinating look—with real-life members—at the psychology of the experience

Netflix/Ringer illustration

How does one process a cult story without a culmination? There is no climax to the events of Wild Wild Country, the six-part Netflix docu-series tracking the rise and fall of a religious sect’s settlement in rural Oregon. The end of Rajneeshpuram, the town formerly and now again known as Antelope, didn’t arrive at the hands of an armed confrontation with the authorities or a self-administered doomsday ritual. An overtone of menace hovers over every episode, in part to generate just-keep-binging suspense and in part to reflect the real sense of persecution experienced by the Rajneeshees and the native Antelopers. But while the road to its dissolution is paved with poisonings, attempted murders, and federal indictments, when all is said and done, Rajneeshpuram simply—spoiler alert—ends. For its former residents and antagonists alike, life has gone on.

Perhaps this is why the rapid, semihostile takeover of a town by the disciples of an Indian religious leader has largely been forgotten by the general public. The filmmakers of Wild Wild Country, brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, happened upon their subject by chance. (The Ways aren’t the only pair of siblings involved in Wild Wild Country: the ever-prolific Mark and Jay Duplass executive-produce alongside Josh and Dan Braun.) While researching their debut feature The Battered Bastards of Baseball, about the Portland Mavericks, the Ways met a film archivist in possession of more than 300 hours of footage depicting what he called “the most bizarre story that ever happened in Oregon.” In the early 1980s, spiritual teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh mandated that his organization build a new home base near Antelope, swiftly outnumbering and essentially enveloping the tiny working-class hamlet down the road. Five years and several political brawls later, Bhagwan would be barred from re-entering the country as part of a plea deal.

Like most of their audience, the Ways had never heard of Bhagwan or the battle between his crimson-clad supporters and the United States government. Naturally, then, Wild Wild Country begins by assuming the perspective of the outsider looking in. All the tropes of a classic cult story are in place: the bewildered small-town residents, looking back with 30 years of hindsight; the slow-motion shots of an anonymous sea of red clothing, taking over the landscape like a parasite; the straight-from-a-movie origin story about a mysterious stranger giving Antelope advance warning that “they are coming.” At the beginning of Wild Wild Country, the Rajneeshees are comfortably positioned as a monolithic, faceless other, all the easier for the audience to gawk at from a distance.

But unlike the devotees of more infamous cult leaders, a good number of Rajneeshpuram’s leaders and Bhagwan’s trusted deputies are still alive. Many, even the defectors, are defiantly proud of what they accomplished in Rajneeshpuram’s short half-decade of existence, maintaining their image of the settlement as an ultimately failed but briefly successful experiment in communal living. And as a result, many of them were willing to speak at length for what would ultimately become Wild Wild Country.

The Ways are judicious about introducing their interviews with the Rajneeshees. In one standout masterstroke, several Oregonians point to the arrival of a deputy named Ma Anand Sheela as the true starting point of the war over Antelope. The clips are spliced together, sketching a quick and efficient outline of the villain of the story—only to cut to Sheela herself, now in her late 60s and living in Switzerland. I audibly gasped at the reveal. Over the ensuing hours, Sheela becomes the single most compelling figure in Wild Wild Country, a warm, passionate, determined presence who seems fundamentally at odds with the Machiavellian supervillain described in other testimonials. Sheela is a particularly extreme example of Wild Wild Country’s overall narrative ethos, which allows the Rajneeshees to come through as the individuals they were and are. Wild Wild Country is not an exposé of a cult, and those hoping to have their voyeurism indulged with outlandish details about group sex and assassination plots may come away disappointed. Instead, it’s an exploration of what it means to be in a cult, a less titillating approach that’s unexpectedly illuminating.

After inhaling the entire series, I’m still not entirely clear on what, exactly, the Rajneeshees believed—what ideology they bought into so ardently that they built a city from scratch in the middle of the Oregon desert. Group meditation is a part of daily life, as is that distinctive color scheme; Bhagwan speaks of creating a “new man.” But the particularities of Bhagwan’s teachings are largely left unspoken. This might be because Bhagwan’s writings, under the assumed title “Osho,” are widely available over myriad volumes curious viewers could easily look up for themselves. It also might be because Rajneesheesm itself appears vague and therefore flexible by design. (The buildings at the desert compound were named after a potpourri of spiritual leaders across faiths, from Jesus to Buddha.)

The lack of doctrinal specificity also means that the ins and outs of the Rajneeshees’ criminal wrongdoings are kept out of focus. Occasionally, weighty words like “bioterrorism” and “evil” come up in conversations with law enforcement officials, and every once in a while a clip seems to promise that, at long last, the Ways are about to blow the lid off whatever was going on behind the scenes. In Episode 3, a government employee realizes in hindsight that a building the Rajneeshees wouldn’t let him inspect was actually “their lab”; an investigative reporter finally joins the cast of interviewees in Episode 4.

But the grand reveal never comes. Instead, the interviews remain a frustrating yet true-to-life blend of fact and fiction, rumor and reality. The Rajneeshees, possibly on Sheela’s orders, really did engineer a strain of salmonella and deliberately infect the townspeople of The Dalles, Oregon—an unprecedented and well-documented act of bioterrorism that Wild Wild Country faithfully relates. On the other hand, an otherwise no-nonsense prosecutor credulously repeats an urban myth about the Rajneeshees grinding up beavers to poison the water supply. The offenses that ultimately brought the Rajneeshpuram leadership down were either technicalities (Bhagwan agreed to leave the country under a plea deal for mass immigration fraud) or committed within the community (Sheela’s ally Jane Stork attempted to kill Bhagwan’s personal physician with a poison syringe). Wilder accusations, like the idea that Sheela was planning to murder Wasco County officials by crashing a plane into a civic building, remain unproven.

Wild Wild Country makes clear that the Rajneeshees were far from blameless in their clashes with Antelope and the authorities, playing the role of aggressor as often as aggressed. Bizarrely, this was part of what I found so compelling about Sheela, and what I suspect many others will, too: Rather than conforming to the stereotype of the passive, blissed-out pacifist, Sheela openly declares that she doesn’t believe in turning the other cheek. In her countless TV appearances as Bhagwan’s spokesperson, explicitly encouraged by the guru, Sheela’s persona was pugnacious, quick, and even wisecracking, bragging to an interviewer and his studio audience that Rajneeshees are having the best sex of their lives. She’s charismatic and unapologetic, and remains so in her old age.

Sheela also took some extreme measures, and in depicting these excesses honestly, Wild Wild Country succeeds where the uncomfortably airbrushed Waco failed. Rajneeshees were trained in the use of semi-automatic weapons, yielding some alarming footage of commune residents practicing on a gun range and serving as Bhagwan’s bodyguards. To give Rajneeshpuram enough votes to take over the county government, Sheela bussed in homeless people by the thousands from across the country, a tactic that inevitably backfired. And then there were the poisonings, which Sheela never openly admits to. According to the Ways, “What we found was that she was willing to indirectly speak about [her alleged crimes], and justify her actions by explaining the persecution that she felt—and what led her to these moments. But it was clear she wasn’t interested in detailing them too much for us.”

In agreeing to this approach, it’s possible that Wild Wild Country lets Sheela off easy, making her more reasonable and relatable than she might otherwise appear. But the strategy also has the effect of centering the why of the Rajneeshees’ actions rather than the what or how, prioritizing the psychology of Bhagwan’s followers over the specifics of their situation. Sheela, Stork, and Bhagwan’s onetime personal attorney Swami Prem Niren, who remains a true believer, go into depth on what attracted them to Bhagwan in the first place, and what they treasured about the Rajneeshpuram community so much that they went to such lengths to protect it. Inner peace, personal empowerment, and honest attempts to do good may not excuse the Rajneeshees’ behavior, but they provide a convincing alternative to flat-out evil. The same prosecutor who buys the beaver story also describes Sheela as incapable of empathy. She currently spends her days caring for elderly dementia patients.

The Ways are principally interested in connecting the dots between one image of Sheela and the other—in figuring out how there’s space for opposite impressions of the same person to coexist. It’s possible that Bhagwan’s organization was a cynical scheme to fleece gullible, unfulfilled Westerners out of their money, as one Oregonian claims; it’s also possible that his followers found solace in their new faith, regardless of its intent. Wild Wild Country understands that behind every tabloid-friendly utopia-gone-awry headline is a group of people, however misguided, who earnestly thought they’d found utopia. Losing a home, or a sense of belonging, is a less acute kind of trauma. It’s still worth exploring.