The free-love cult that terrorised America and became Netflixs latest must-watch

Wild Wild Country, a documentary about a guru sinister commune in 1980 s Oregon, is shocking spectators with tales of poison and paranoia

Anyone who has ever dipped a toe in the pool of new-age mysticism is likely to have come across Osho. The bearded Indian mystic has had his books translated into more than 60 speeches, published by more than 200 publishing houses – you’re likely to find his works next to the crystals and yoga mats in your local hippy shop.

Yet if you go on the Osho website, or are one of the 200,000 people that visit the Osho International Centre in Pune, India each year – you’ll hear nothing about the most eventful segment of their own lives, before he was rebranded as “Osho”, and known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Rajneesh, who died in 1990, was a popular spiritual leader in India, attracting thousands of followers- called sannyasins or” orange people”- to practise free love and take part in his unusual style of meditation: lots of primal calling followed by dancing as if Fatboy Slim had just come on to Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage.

By the 1980 s he was at odds with the governmental forces in India and so decided to buy a ranch in Oregon. The land was largely uninhabitable but he sent his followers ahead to create a utopia. They constructed a giant dam, an airport, an electricity station and a meditation centre that could hold 10,000 people. They called it Rajneeshpuram, and when it was ready, Rajneesh and his adherents relocated to the US.

The cult that formed was as paranoid as scientology, as bizarre as Jonestown, and as controlled as the Manson family. Yet until the release of Wild Wild Country , Netflix’s latest make documentary series directed by brothers Mclain and Chapman Way, it had not entered the culture conversation in the same style as those movements. Now it seems people can talk about little else. The six-part documentary, available to opinion now, scored 100% on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, and received even more glowing endorsements from other filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight , who tweeted:” I’m on my second watch of Wild Wild Country . I’ll likely make it through a third .” The cinema has spurred hundreds of articles revisiting the events as other journalists attempt to get in touch with former members or relive their sannyasins experiences.

The tenor of the excitement around the show isn’t just about the intimate footage the directors have unearthed, or the fact they secured in-depth interviews with nearly all the cult’s living leaders. Spectators also seem to be shocked that they didn’t already know this story. Jenn McAllister, a YouTuber with more than three million subscribers, had a typical reaction of those not yet born over the period:” I can’t believe that happened in the US and I never knew up to now .”

Rajneesh is greeted by adherents in 1984 as he enters the Oregon commune in a Rolls-Royce. Photo: Sipa Press/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Perhaps this is because pop culture has been keen to retread the same couple of cult tales. In the past few years Emma Cline’s novel The Girls , a fictional reimagining of life in the Manson family, became a bestseller. Quentin Tarantino’s next film Once Upon a Time In Hollywood , starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, is also based on Manson. The most recent series of the Emmy-winning American Horror Story takes influences from both the Jim Jones and Manson motions, and Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie was the most recent major documentary on that movement. The hunger for these tales demonstrates no sign of abating.

Like most of the cults, the sannyasin movement began with members dreaming of a better future. What’s exceptional about Wild Wild Country is its episodic treatment manages to induce the cult attractive: a sense of purpose, self-realisation, free love. The demonstrate sucks you in to Rajneesh’s teachings and the charisma of his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela. Yet by episode four the commune has engaged in the sedation of thousands of homeless people, immigration fraud, failed assassination plots, and the largest bio-terrorist attack in US history. The cult infected 751 people with salmonella by contaminating restaurant salad bars. The 1984 assault, planned to incapacitate voters and allow it to win seats in a local election, led to a 20 -year jail sentence for Sheela.

‘I recollect all of this quite vividly ,” tells Rick Ross, from the Cult Education Institute, when I ask why commune members weren’t more suspicious of the leaders.” I was contacted by family members of people living in Oregon. They contacted me because they were concerned for their loved ones’ security, the potential for the group to become violent or criminal, and the fact that the latter are dedicating very large amounts of money to Rajneesh .”

The documentary leaves lots of unanswered questions about whether the sannyasins were a genuine spiritual movement or a scam , not least because most of the former members still speak about Rajneesh with affection. But Ross believes there is no question that the intent was malicious.” They were very methodical, deliberate. Rajneesh was intelligent- he was educated, he had a PhD. He was a master at manipulation and influence techniques. It’s common with these kinds of groups. They don’t play fair or transparently with the people they target. People are tricked and then they are trapped .”

Ross reels off cults that have emerged since Rajneesh: the Aum Shinrikyo movement that in 1995 let off sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo underground, killing 12 people; the American white-supremacist FLDS Church which, like Rajneesh, has political control of two cities, its own police force and a leader who is in prison for child abuse and rape; the Order of the Solar Temple which is associated with the mass suicides of dozens of members in France and Switzerland. His very long list highlights that awareness of previous cults does nothing to stop the next.

Ma Anand Sheela, the former private secretary of Rajneesh, became a charismatic leader of the cult. Photo: Arne Dedert/ AP

” The problem is that no one signs up to be in a cult , no one is a self-confessed cult member. Often these groups have a lot of legitimate criticism about society- there are plenty of inequality, a rat race which stifles individuality ,” tells Suzanne Newcome a research fellow at Inform, the new religious motions network at LSE.

The problem, she tells, is it has always been to difficult to work out whether a group offering things like therapy, meditation, life advice, yoga and retreats is a going to have a positive or negative impact. Once people might become aware they’ve joined a cult they’re often too invested and it’s hard to get out.

The Osho movement today, 28 years after its founder’s death, is a more tempered version than in Oregon, and focuses on selling books and meditation retreats. Yet it is still unwilling to accept the findings of the documentary. The Osho Times , its official organ, says the documentary fails to show” this was a US government conspiracy, from the White House on down, is targeted at frustrating Osho’s vision of their home communities based on conscious living “. Even in demise, Rajneesh continues to manipulate his followers.

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