Cults will always fascinate people. The blend of otherworldly ritual, religious ideology, and, sometimes, even suicidal ideation terrify us and intrigue us. With many religious sects turning up between the ’70s and ’80s, one of the better known was Rajneeshees, a group originally started in India by the mysterious Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Their decision to wear purple from head to toe and celebrate free love sounded innocuous, but the true story is far from wholesome. The six-part Netflix series Wild, Wild Country leaves audiences enraptured with a story that, at several points, sounds like the worst blend of tall tale, racial bigotry, and true crime drama that leaves you questioning motives at every turn.
The town of Antelope, Oregon could have gone through life never registering on anyone’s radar. Back in the early 1980s the small town had a population of forty, predominately composed of white, elderly farm people. Upon hearing that a religion wanted to set up an “agricultural commune” on 80,000 acres of rocky hillside called The Big Muddy Ranch, the town was accepting.
Directors Chapman and Maclain Way capture a story that is just as intangible as the religious motivations of its leaders. The creation of Rajneeshpuram opens the door towards questions of prejudice. The white residents of Antelope gape open-mouthed at the newcomers and seem to only disagree with the group’s promotion of casual sex and disinterest in marriage. As representatives of the ’60s, the townsfolk are perceived as conservative fogeys who oppose the “invasion” of dirty hippies. One member states that the religion felt superior to the local yokels, a feeling that only intensifies once the Rajneeshees take the radical step of buying the town as a means of furthering their spread.
Several voices of the Rajeneeshpuram group ring loudest throughout the series’ six hours, and are far more intoxicating to hear than the Antelop residents. Ma Anand Sheela, personal secretary to Bhagwan is a figure you’ll be enraptured by. Described at various points as “Hitler” and a power-hungry zealot, the audience almost laughs at the reveal of this tiny Indian woman who is described as an attempted murderer. Yet as the series continues Sheela’s words wrap the audience up in a story of religious love that ultimately drove her mad. “What have I to lose,” she blankly says in one scene, challenging people like an outlaw in front of a train. She’s a true believer, and you have to admire her chutzpah at being an Indian woman who people trembled in the face of.
The citizens of Antelope’s response seems fairly one-sided, if only because the Rajneesh religion seems opaque as it’s presented. Described as dynamic meditation, there’s little history or rules for what the group believes in. It’s said Bhagwan wanted to “create a new man…that lived in harmony with each other” but it’s unclear how they planned to achieve that, or maybe the documentary forsakes that information in favor of the more tawdry elements. Bhagwan himself is never cemented as a Jesus figure and he seemingly never found himself mired in questions of sexual misconduct compared to figures like Jim Jones. One member even says “we really did not feel like we were the chosen people.” In fact, it was past fear of the Jonestown massacre, only a few years in the rear view, that caused the Antelope residents to fear the religion, a feeling that only intensified once the Rajneeshees started buying guns as a means of protecting themselves.
Desperate to expand their farm into a working town Wild, Wild Country’s bite comes as it questions whether the citizens of Antelope had valid fears of the religious order or were suffering from mass paranoia. The U.S. Attorney decries the group as pure “Evil” like he’s Spongebob’s Mermaid Man. Later, it is this same man who tells a story about the members of Rajneeshpuram attempting to poison the water supply with “blended beavers.” Mind you there’s no proof, it’s “something he heard” and that’s good enough to condemn the group.
Another moment sees the town more willing to believe a salmonella outbreak is proof the Rajneeshees poisoned them than that a worker just didn’t wash his hands. The various members of the group do their best to laugh things off. The lawyer for the organization cites they did everything legal and that the religion merely bought land that was for sale, furthering the idea that prejudice fueled the desire to bring the Bhagwan and his followers down. At one point a newscast says what the group did was “legal, but was it right?” Bumper stickers saying “Better red than dead” do more towards furthering the belief this was a modern day Red scare.
But Wild, Wild Country tries to capture all sides, even if it doesn’t seem like they necessarily see it. Rajneesh member Jane Stork – a stoic woman of humanity throughout the series – details how Sheela did eventually take to organizing the death of the sect’s doctor. The documentary interviews only those at the top of the Rajneesh group, and it remains unclear what happened to the few who were mentioned yet not interviewed. Regardless, hearing Sheela and Jane Stork’s differing relationships to the Bhagwan are compelling. Combined with the antipathy to them from the town, it’s hard not to witness a repeat of issues we have today with immigrants and the battle between conservatives and liberals.
Wild, Wild Country has its slow moments – six hours can feel like it after awhile – but it is utterly jam-packed with information on a story many still are unclear about. Was this the story of a racist town? Or was this a religious cult run amok? The series never definitively answers those questions and its all the better for it!
Wild, Wild Country is now streaming on Netflix.