Why Are We So Fascinated by Cults?


Arts & Culture

Still from Wild Wild Country.


In March, I sent an announcement around to friends and colleagues: watch out for my new novel, Buddhism for Western Children. It’s a spiraling story of a powerful, manipulative guru versus a boy who must escape to recover his will, I wrote, and it profiles Western lust for Eastern spiritual mystique and tradition. I got a lot of wonderful goodwill in response, and also quite a few, Wait—is this like Wild Wild Country?

What was Wild Wild Country? I don’t watch TV, a habit left over from my antiworldly, culty childhood, on which my novel is loosely based, but now, obligated, I turned on Netflix. Like so many others, I was hooked, and I began to wonder anew why accounts of cults—novels, movies, docudramas—titillate and resonate time and again.

Wild Wild Country, the true-crime docuseries directed by the brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, is a sprawling, melodramatic, tricky show that follows the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh from his sixties-era ashram in India to a vast ranch in Central Oregon in 1981. It uses miles and miles of sandy, archival, look-at-me footage (and you feel a little dirty, looking), including incredulous televised broadcasters, and pulls you through a heady succession of the scandals provoked as the cult’s new city arose. “It was really wild country,” says one of the key followers, or sannyasins. Helicopter shots zoom in on the frontier, a mountainous, treeless terrain: “Everything you can see belonged to you,” declares Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s irrepressible, blithely arrogant lieutenant, who is arguably the mastermind of the soon-to-be metropolis. The interlopers stream and swarm into Antelope, wearing a color wheel of red hues. The locals feel besieged. As tensions between Oregonians and spiritual seekers simmer, schisms also flare inside Rajneeshpuram. The conflict is further animated by an astounding cast of odd and indelible characters and eerie juxtapositions: long-haired Sannyasins against shaking-their-head townies; beautiful, beaming, blissed-out blondes with outdoor tans versus white-bread government officials. And then there’s Bhagwan himself: otherworldly, fragile saint to his disciples, faux mystical, egotistical charlatan to outsiders, berobed, fishy eyed, a magpie for flashy watches and fancy cars. “I’m not your leader,” says the guru, in a voice that seems to come from a little plastic pillbox tucked inside his cheek. “You are not my followers. I’m destroying everything.”

And so they follow him to the ends of the earth. Just like that, they build him a city.

It’s a broad drama, and yet, Wild Wild Country also seems cramped by its datedness. It’s small and specific, one more marginal, creepy cult story in which no one died. So why is it so riveting, so compelling now?

I can explain my own interest. The Rajneeshees looked like my people. Giddy, electrified, childlike in their unabashed belief, exhorting and quivering and shining. The young mothers looked like my mother, and I thought how my father would have loved to captain one of those bulldozers, carving new roads out of nowhere, or straddle the balance beam of a rooftree.

I could feel the messy, lurid tale in my bones. Bhagwan and Sheela use the same machinations and follow the same trajectory as the guru in my own early eighties childhood. Sannyasins—we called ourselves devotees—cultivate a high-minded, even genial nihilism, paired with an acute, voracious interest in the self, its betterment and its pleasure. And there was the same paradox-ridden, trademark guru style: “Never born, never died,” reads Bhagwan’s epitaph. The words to one of the most popular devotional songs in the cult of my childhood were, “For I am not born, and I shall never die.”

Here also were the spiritually estranged, or “worldly,” people from my childhood, “sluggish and guilty,” as I write in my novel, whose inability to pronounce Indian words betrays their ignorance and bigotry. One of the finest Wild Wild Country characters, John Silvertooth, the mayor of Antelope, remembers Bhagwan’s sinister personal pharmacist, “Puta? Was that her name? Puja? Yeah, Puta’s something in Spanish we don’t wanna say.”

Because of my history, this particular tale holds familiar allure, but the question persists: Why is everyone else so enthralled? I have a few speculations.



If there’s a twentieth century ur-cult embedded in the American imagination, it’s probably India-tinged: a sweaty climate, scant clothes, rupees as play money, a lush, feral sensuality. You definitely see those cult porn stereotypes in Wild Wild Country: video bursts of exposé nakedness, Dionysian frenzies, and hot chicks in tight, vagina-pink sweaters giving long hugs. We catch plenty of glimpses of young skinny white people, with beards and hollow abdomens and beads swinging between loose breasts, variously heaped atop each other or going at it. But I think the sense of abdication—that vacating thrill—ends up seeming even more sexual than the bare skin, and I have to wonder: Does the show provoke a not-so-buried desire to cede control, give up responsibility, and submit to a seemingly greater power?

Individuality is stripped and ravished, as if the cult itself were a bedroom. There’s an electrical charge between sex and power: in offering themselves up, showing their pale throats, they might trip the wire. Sheela chooses an arid box canyon for Rajneeshpuram, and the free-love mood shifts into the shade under her direction. But it still pulses with her jealousy of her position as Bhagwan’s favorite. As Swami Prem Niren, Bhagwan’s lawyer and member of the inner circle, puts it, “Anyone that [Bhagwan] gave juice to, Sheela was gonna fuck over.”

I’ve now come to see Westerners trying to sublimate their egos Eastern-style as escapist and onanistic, as if some kind of spiritual orgasm could replace the problematic needy-wanty ego. Rajneeshee meditation looks like a swoon to me, the persistent stimulation of the mind’s genitals.

As for drugs, it’s a darker vision, and I can’t help but think of Jim Jones, a contemporary. There’s Haldol in the beer—the vilest act of the commune is to bus in six thousand homeless people as a bloc of voters for the Rajneeshee side in a land dispute, and then to sedate them unwittingly when they get out of line—and as the holy war escalates, there are outrageous attempted poisonings.

And there are tambourines, the exotic rhythm anyone can shake, suggesting both trancelike states and something straight out of a kindergarten classroom. So that’s one theory: sex and power always sell, and we’re shameless voyeurs.



Wild Wild Country is a classic retelling of the American myth, refracted and distorted but nonetheless there. We recognize all the big themes: the cant of individualism versus the chant of egalitarianism. There is manifest destiny, hubris, the dogged pursuit of religious freedom, land use, the ironies of the Second Amendment.

Led by the imperious, disdainful Sheela, the Rajneeshees are extreme, even obscene in their entitlement and exceptionalism. There’s heat at the borders, and it turns out the Rajneeshees are packing heat, too. And warrior Sheela knows just how to poke at our precarious balance and hypocrisy of church and state, intuitively weaponizing her brand-new American victimhood by crying persecuted minority religion.

Back to those aerial shots and the thunder of the city-building earthworks—my computer screen was practically sprayed with clods of dirt as the harsh, barren landscape of the ranch at Antelope is conquered and civilized. This time, it’s the other, the Indian and his weirdo followers, swooping in to capture and tame territory with little regard for the local tribe and the scale of the culture that’s already there.

Who’s native now? There’s a small voice, almost lost in a crowd milling for a TV microphone in front of the courthouse in the Dalles, but it’s a key, ironic clip: “We don’t have a place for people like that in America,” says a pinched older lady with dead hair. You realize you’ve unwittingly drifted to her side, but those words are jarring, offensive, and suddenly you want to root for the cult—whiplash. I think there’s a knee-jerk ennobling of conviction in our culture—whether it’s fiercely held opinion, religion, or politics—that’s hard to resist. We’re acculturated to choose sides, and Wild Wild Country has a good old American field day (sixty-four thousand acres, that ranch!) with our allegiances and prejudices, our sense of outsiders, insiders, natives, and nativists.



A cult is already world built and glassed in like a snow globe, a fish bowl. Or a TV show. Recurring aerial shots of the Rajneeshpuram terrarium—by the fourth episode out of six, there’s a verdant saddle where the city has sprung. A promised land of rose-colored guru-lovers, a mini culture, a microcosm. The comings (joinings, coercions) and goings (desertions, disillusionments, banishments) are exaggerated, making the borders clear.

We’ve been creeping in and out of cults since the famous garden in the Old Testament (and before that through every culture back to the Egyptians).

My mother has told me that part of the seduction of our guru was the beauty of his garden. No gas stations, strip malls, parking lots on the sanctuary. In my memory, it is Eden, an oasis dotted with holy sites and temples, groves and grottos and snaking raked gravel lovingly worked over by hundreds of hands. One of the most powerful tools of a leader is to align, embody, and enlarge himself with place.

Fred D’Aguiar, the author of the terrifying Jonestown novel, Children of Paradise, was born and spent the first twelve years of his life in Guyana, where Jim Jones retreated in 1977. He cites nature writing as crucial to writing about cults and invokes another Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris, who has also tackled Jonestown: “His fiction reacts to the landscape as if it were a structural determinant of his prose.” In the town square of D’Aguiar’s fictionalized Jonestown, just barely hewn from jungle, there’s a cage. Not to be missed: a cage within a cage. A gorilla named Adam, deeply feeling, sentient and dangerous, reaches through the bars.

Any biblical Eden depends on keeping its citizens away from dangerous knowledge. Watching Wild Wild Country, I thought of the earliest American cult: the Puritans with their restrictive, punitive pieties. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne devised an insular world with dark, wild woods encroaching on the exposed, scrubbed-raw town square centered on its pillory, “so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze.” Hawthorne describes a kind of religious freedom dependent on defining and expelling the other, be she Hester Prynne, sexual deviant, or heathen Indians.

More to the point, perhaps, I happened to reread “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian morality tale, recently, because one of my sons was wrangling with it in eleventh-grade English. In Omelas, “the air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air … ” It’s all joy, peace, and prosperity. But the condition of its perfection, the contract of Omelas, is the unspeakable suffering of the single banished child. Imagine you lived there and enjoyed all that privilege, would you, could you, stay? Would you, could you, leave?

What makes the Wild Wild Country story so timely—and timeless—is that in Western literary tradition, from the Garden of Eden on, there seems to be something suspect in utopia. There is always something conditional, a devil’s bargain. Is this why we’re both magnetized and repulsed by cults? Is it baked into our culture that there’s a set balance of good and evil in the world, and therefore the very existence of a utopia would require a dystopia in another corner of the planet?



Fred D’Aguiar has suggested that a cult is the exploitation of “the psychology of faith.” Perhaps another part of our interest in cults is in watching power duck and weave. Reflecting on the fall of Rajneeshpuram, Prem Niren shrugs, “For [Bhagwan], all of this was a game. A game of consciousness to transform consciousness … A big Gurdjieffian device, a device for all of us to see what we would do under pressure.”

In my novel, belief is one of the guru’s best tricks, one of his most powerful plays. I suspect another reason we keep watching Wild Wild Country is because it taps into our insecurities about belief. On one hand, this outlandish, tambourinish behavior—the propulsive, spasmodic dancing—looks affected, and it’s hard to imagine any of these lithe young beauties performing emotional abandonment with no audience. On the other hand, might some of it be real? Are we skeptics, spiritual landlubbers missing out? I’d hazard that this dynamic is part of what keeps disciples hooked inside, too. Sheila’s most ardent and credulous disciple, Ma Shanti B, has a chilling little speech near the end of the show in which she describes being haunted, still, by faith—and bad faith. Did she miss the blow from the master, she wonders? The killing blow that delivers enlightenment. Was she a coward or a heroine for running away?



America has always been fascinated by the foolsone born every minute, as Barnum (may have) crowed—and like any good culture, we relish the cautionary tale.  

It’s sort of intoxicating to watch fugue-state Rajneeshees do what they’re told, like children, only in an adult sphere with mature content. Even in R-rated orgy, even with their assassination schemes and warehouse full of guns, they come across as determinedly childlike. The condition of belonging—the condition of loving the guru unconditionally—is giving up your will.

At some level, perhaps we are tempted by that abdication. But surely none of us would be so easily duped, right? And so we savor the inevitable fall and shiver with the catharsis.

A human trait: We can’t look away from the antics of power or the circus of self-destruction, or the flagrant, the decadent, the grotesque. A terrarium is made to be viewed, and so is a train wreck.

The week I watched Wild Wild Country on my laptop, I typed myself straight into a malware trap, falling for a cute pop-up, a pick-up artist from Hewlett Packard’s customer care website:

[9:09 AM] Kevin: Hi Kirstin you have done a great job
I got your computer screen now
let me start the work

The result was that I’d be deep in Rajneeshpuram when suddenly the cursor (that spirit) would be wrested from my control, and there was “Kevin” scrabbling across my screen, shutting down Netflix, grabbing and erasing documents. I felt invaded, obviously, and red-pill paranoid. Was this the demon-ghost of the guru in my childhood (he’s dead now), come to extract latent devotion or deliver punishment? And then I wondered, more cogently, was this anything like the loss of identity and control that the Rajneeshees—or my parents—gobbled up, ushered in?

Are we fascinated by cults because we want to watch folks just like us get smitten, overtaken, ensorcelled, Stockholm syndromed without even having to be kidnapped? To watch them expose themselves? We’re riveted by a version of it in politics every day: the cult leader in the White House; the puppet master of the Twit Theater; the savant who stepped into the vacuum, filled the spot for fundamentalist tyrant.

At some level, in watching all this, we’re complicit. Our almost lascivious appetite for the accounts of cults, their rises and falls … I’d say we’re hooked because it’s the story of us.


Kirstin Allio is the author of a short-story collection, Clothed, Female Figure, and a novel, Garner. Her new novel, Buddhism for Western Children, is the inaugural work in The Iowa Review Series (University of Iowa Press), coming out this fall.