The Rajneesshee cult started building their utopian city of the future in rural Oregon during the early 1980s. And while it all began with peace and love, it ended with attempted murder, the exploitation of thousands of homeless people, and cult leaders who ordered the poisoning of an entire town by spraying salad bars with salmonella.
At least 750 people got violently ill during the salmonella poisoning, which was part of a trial run to keep people home on election day. The plan was for the cult to use the thousands of homeless people they’d bussed in from every corner of the US to take over the county government by registering them to vote for candidates installed by the cult. When they were no longer needed, the homeless people were drugged and dumped on the streets of Portland. And that’s not even half the story.
Wild Wild Country, out today on Netflix, is a six-part limited series – a fascinating exploration of a cult that most Americans outside of Oregon hardly remember, even if they were alive during the early 1980s to see it. Directed by brothers Chapman Way and Maclain Way, it’s absolutely worth binge watching this weekend.
I spoke with the directors over the phone earlier this week to ask them about cult leader Bhagwan Rajneesh (now referred to by followers as Osho), this hypercapitalistic utopian experiment in Oregon, and Ma Anand Sheela – the woman who helped orchestrate the violence and attempted murders that would ultimately bring the community crashing down.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Gizmodo: So how did you guys first hear about the Rajneeshees?
Chapman Way: We had just wrapped our first documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which is about a minor league baseball team in Portland, Oregon and we worked with an archive center up there called the Oregon Historical Society. They’re a premier archive center in the Northwest and they had over 300 hours of archival footage on this story. An archivist over there named Matt Cowan started telling about kind of the craziest story that ever happened in Oregon with this guru and his followers that built this $US125 ($162) million dollar utopian city with a school and airport and police force, and then how they took over a small town of Antelope, and then bussed in thousands of homeless people to take over the county, and then ended up poisoning 750 people with salmonella.
And Mac and I were just listening to it going, “There’s no way this is a true story or it really happened because we would have heard about it, how have we not heard about this story?” And we kind of went home and did some light googling and, sure enough, and everything Matt told us we reading right in front of our eyes again. We decided to dive head first started transferring all of this old footage of what the Center had. When we got the archive back it was even crazier than some of the things Matt had told us about.
Maclain Way: The first time that Chapman and I saw footage I think it was of the 1982 World Festival, which was a great first tape to watch if you’re looking at Rajneeshpuram [the cult city in Oregon] footage because it’s just thousands of people in red celebrating and dancing. It’s just so mind blowing to see that this existed in this kind of remote part of the state of Oregon.
We started reaching out to potential characters, talking heads. Pretty quickly, talking to those people it became really clear that this was probably the most important thing that had happened to them in their entire life. That was how they felt about it. Which, as a documentary maker, I think you’re always excited when you hear people feel that strongly about a certain topic. And then obviously on the other side too, getting to know people in Antelope. It was certainly a time period that they remember really, really well. It was probably the biggest thing that ever happened in that entire town. That’s when I think we started conceptualizing this documentary series.
Image: Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
Gizmodo: One of the characters you talked to was Sheela. How did you approach her? Was she eager to talk?
Chapman Way: Yeah, we approached her pretty soon off the bat. As soon as we started transferring the footage we saw what an integral character she would be to this whole saga, so to speak. And also, just as a documentary filmmaker, she was such a rich character. She was very feisty, she spoke her mind, and very strong willed. So I think we were immediately drawn to her just watching the archive footage. And so we reached out to her, kind of not sure what her response would be or if she would even be interested in revisiting this.
Within the first few minutes of getting her on the phone it was clear that she felt like she’s never really been given an opportunity to walk an audience through her series of events – how she saw it how it unfolded. On our end, we weren’t really interested in doing a traditional true crime narrative — you know doing an interrogation style interview or trying to get her in a gotcha moment — we were really just interested in having a conversation with her and having her walk us through exactly what happened from her point of view. And so, I think we kind of just really hit it off with her and really connected with her.
Maclain Way: We were coming to her — we flew halfway across the world. She lives in a remote part of Switzerland. I don’t know if people in her town really know who they have living there. It certainly seemed like something that she had not really put behind her… because she talks about how important Bhagwan is [still] to her.
In her day to day life, [Bhagwan is] still a big part of her life. But in some aspects you can totally walk by Sheela on the street and you would never guess that’s Ma Ananad Sheela – that’s a woman that’s pleaded guilty to poisoning almost 750 people and all these assassination conspiracy attempts in the United States. And when we went to meet with Sheela, we were very aware that we had already met and talked to people in Oregon that called this women pure evil. That’s certainly how people that we had known in Oregon felt about Sheela.
And Sheela was interesting. It was a really dynamic interview. It’s an interview where she has her perspective of the events that happened and I wouldn’t even really say that she was really trying to spin us, as much as that’s just truly how she feels.
Gizmodo: Obviously another character is [former cult follower and attempted murderer] Jane Stork. What was your personal impression of her and sort of how her story collides with Sheela? Did you find her to be a more reliable narrator than Sheela in any sense?
Chapman Way: Absolutely. I mean I think the first thing, when you meet Jane now is that… and I mean listen, and I mean this in a very nice way… but she seems just like a very sweet and soft grandmother. Like anyone’s grandma, you know? She was very kind and very generous and she was very welcoming to us when we visited her for this interview. And at first it’s kind of hard to reconcile this person who was found guilty of these murder attempts with the person you’re interviewing today. But I think Jane has a real courage to her. She’s kind of one of only a few Sannyasins that’s willing to go deep inside and talk honestly and openly about where she felt she went wrong. And obviously, for us as documentarians, it was incredibly valuable to have that character that the audience could fully trust and believe.
Maclain Way: And I think that if you look at our three bigger characters who are followers of Bhagwan — we have Sheela, we have Jane, and then we have the attorney Philip Folk (Noran) who’s a Sannyasin, and they’re all different in their own ways. Jane is someone that would absolutely consider herself an ex-follower of Bhagwan. She no longer thinks of him as any special or an enlightened master or God. She truly believes that she was part of a cult and that’s what a cult is. Sheela’s a bit more in the middle. She’s certainly someone who doesn’t really like the Sannyasin community, she’s not friends with Sannyasins, but she still has a little bit of a personal connection with Bhagwan as a man that she knew intimately and was close to for five years. Whereas Noran is dyed in the wool. He became a follower of Bhagwan and became a Sannyasin when he was in his late 20s, early 30s and today remains so. And will remain so until his last day. So those are three vastly different perspectives even though these are all people that at one point were a part of building this community.
And I think that Chap and I were interested in that not just to create like an aura of objectivity in covering our bases but we generally found each perspective very interesting, and I think that part of the fun hopefully of watching Wild Wild Country is that viewers get to kind of figure out exactly who is more reliable and who might be spinning them and who isn’t. And hopefully that’s kind of part of the fun of watching the series.
Gizmodo: I’m fascinated by cults and utopian communities and all sorts of these things in history. What do you think would have happened with Rajneeshpuram if they had stayed in Oregon — if things had gone slightly different?
Chapman Way: Yeah, we’ve thought about this a lot. Also on the same line of this questioning, the connotation of a cult is such a negative connotation and it conjures up images of suicides and deaths and all these horrific things. And the beginning years of Rajneeshpuram really had us questioning — you know, we’re not religious or spiritual people in our private lives — but is it possible for a cult to do good in the world? Like, what’s wrong with a cult if it is this sustainable organic community that’s practicing meditation and love and peace? That’s really fascinating to us. Is that possible? Who cares what their spiritual beliefs are. Everyone in America is free to believe whatever they want. If their spiritual beliefs are different, who am I to personally judge them? And so I think that had they not come into the problems of the land use that they did, that kind of started the whole series of escalating events, I think there’d be a New Age community out there that people would go and visit for a couple weeks, do a spa retreat, do some meditation, do some yoga and go back home. Like, I think it could still be maybe a sustainable community for a New Age community.
Maclain Way: In episode one, part of the reason we wanted to show the Puna Ashram [commonly called Puna One in the Rajneesh movement in India, before they moved to Oregon], it’s almost like a spa retreat. Bhagwan created some controversy in India before Rajneeshpuram, but nothing like what happened in Oregon, and I think what happens is when they come to Oregon [from India] they just buy 64,000 acre ranch and like… meditating isn’t going to build this utopia. The only thing that’s going to build this utopia is hard work and determination. And for a lot of Sannyasins — not so much the ones that are interviewed on Wild Wild Country — but just your run of the mill Sannyasins that weren’t really in positions of power within the community, it was definitely a period of transition for them to get used to relaxing all day and meditating and this kind of personal inner growth, to then being forced to… they didn’t really complain about it… but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was pretty hard labour.
And so I think that just even that transition of going from a place that’s already been built to… now you are in this massive kind of utopian experiment and building a $US125 ($162) million utopian city. It created tension. Eventually, it gets totally off the rails by 1983, 1984, 1985. And I think if you look at it, it definitely starts to look like a cult, a negative cult, at that point.
Gizmodo: One thing that I expected a little bit more of that I didn’t see in the documentary that maybe you guys can talk about was Sheela’s surveillance apparatus and the way that she had different ways of recording people and tapping every phone on the compound. Can you guys talk a little about that and what you found in your research there?
Chapman Way: In our research, and talking to the Sannyasins that were kind of in the power circle, it was believed that the first wiretapping happened in Bhagwan’s residence. Sheela was afraid of the people that were living with Bhagwan, specifically his doctor, the doctor’s wife who was Hasia, who was part of this new Hollywood group. There were accusations of drug use in Bhagwan’s house, so it was believed that Sheela was very nervous about what this Hollywood guru and his medical staff were doing with him.
I think from there it got bigger and bigger with the wiretap situation as Sheela tried to hold on to her power as the secretary and as the leader of this commune. I think she was afraid that Bhagwan was looking at possible replacements for her and I think the wiretapping became a way for her to learn what anyone was saying about her or about Bhagwan and it became a form of control for her to have that information.
Maclain Way: Yeah, I think that a lot of people talk about how it was just a way for Sheela to have a gripping control over the community, especially through this kind of recording apparatus she could hear a lot more things that she wasn’t personally present for.
We probably could have dove a little deeper into it, it’s just, chronologically, the wiretapping didn’t really happen until the middle of ’84 and the beginning of ’85. And by that point, poisonings were starting to happen, and the homeless people had already been tranquilized. I think that in terms of the assassination attempts and conspiracies that were in full swing, so as far as covering the illegality in Rajneeshpuram, it was a little hard to go back and really dive into the wiretapping. I think most people by that point felt that Rajneeshpuram was already totally off the rails.
Chapman Way: And all of those tapes were confiscated by the FBI. There were requests to see if we could get some of those tapes and figure out how to use them. We were never given access to them. There’s just a lot of complex legalities when citizens aren’t aware when they’re being recorded. If we had access to those tapes and were allowed to use them in the series we probably would have dove into it more.
Gizmodo: Another question that I always ask myself when looking at various cults and utopian societies that have failed — and the question that I’m going to put to you — is, do either of you think you would have joined the Rajneeshees if given the chance?
Chapman Way: That’s a very good question. I consider myself fiercely independent. I’m never someone who has looked to outside sources for a sense of community or a sense of family or a sense of identity, it’s just never been part of who I am.
So on that end it would have been incredibly difficult for me to wear red clothes and wear [a necklace] of a man around my neck. It would have been incredibly difficult for me. However, on the other side of things I think the ideals and what they were hoping to achieve there is very fascinating to me and something that does catch my attention. I don’t believe I would have joined, but I have no issues with anyone who would have decided to live in that community and achieve what they were after.
Maclain Way: It’s a question that we would always throw at each other, especially when we were editing a section like the World Festival section where people are river rafting and gambling at night and at the beer garden [laughter], like c’mon, you don’t want to go there for a couple weeks and have fun? And we’d always kind of like laugh about that.
I think one of the things that the series does and it’s inherent when you make a documentary — it kind of collapses the Rajneeshees and gives the impression that there’s only one kind of Rajneeshee or Sannyasin and that type of Sannyasin just lives at Rajneeshpuram full time. There were a lot of global Sannyasins that probably just came to the World Festivals for like one week or two weeks and then went back home and had a normal job and maybe even a family and took the red off and lived a more normal life, but would still call themselves a Sannyasin. I think maybe like that’s the level of Sannyasin that I would be. I got the sense that if you were living at Rajneeshpuram for two or three or four years you were deeply, deeply committed to this movement, and it was just a whole different type of person than someone who would show up one week out of the year.
Chapman Way: We did tons of pre-interviews with Sannyasins who we didn’t end up filming for one reason or another — we tried to keep the talking heads to a minimum so you got to know the characters. But almost every Sannyasin that we talked to, they said these four years, despite all the controversies and criminal activities, were some of the best years of their lives. And I found that really interesting and wanted to give those characters a platform to explain to the audience why that meant so much for them.
Image: Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
Gizmodo: One of the things that strikes me from my own research and your documentary is that the Rajneeshees were so quintessentially American. Here you have people coming from all over the world, you have this Indian guru, but the beliefs they seem to espouse were unapologetically capitalistic. Now you could obviously argue that by the very nature of it being a cult, it was exploitative in a large sense. But the ideas that they espoused were capitalistic. There were no apologies for having a ton of Rolls Royces. No apologies for the hedonism, the sex, the discos. It was sex, drugs, and rock and roll in a very almost throwback sense because we’re into the ’80s at this point in American history. Did you come across people who, during this experiment, felt like they were really getting fleeced? A lot of money was changing hands, they had all these systems set up to take money. And they needed a lot of money. Was there anyone who you talked to who really regretted it and really felt exploited?
Chapman Way: Yeah, when we talked about money issue, there were some of the people that we interviewed who said, “No, no one ever asked me for money. I never even had any money. My contribution was that I worked 16 hours a day building this community and that’s what I had to offer.” Sonny, who was the PR spokesperson, donated her camper van, that was her contribution to the ranch.
Others that we talked to who did have more money, emptied out their savings account, sold their houses, sold their cars, and gave everything they owned over. Some of those people were even happy to do that and felt that they got screwed over by the locals or the government in ruining their commune. Some people definitely had a sense of bitterness in being exploited a little bit financially. Our perception was that in the early years it was not an issue. It wasn’t until ’84 and ’85 with all the lawsuits and all the bills that they were racking up that Sheela was really going around to all the communes around the world and really pressuring Sannyasins to kind of open up their checkbooks. And I think in 1984 and 1985 more Sannyasins started wondering ‘Hey, I joined this movement to relax and meditate and become one with myself and now I’m getting hit up for money every time the leaders of the commune come to visit.’ And so I think the money issue became a bigger topic in the later years.
You were talking about how it is so kind of quintessentially American and I do find it very fascinating that when most people hear communes they kind of think of like communism. But the Rajneeshees were almost like this libertarian group that really believed in pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, creating your own economy, being able to take care of yourself, and so they did kind of preach these very American capitalistic ideals which are contrary to what most people think of when they think of hippie flower communes.
Maclain Way: Jane [Stork] told me a really interesting story one time that we weren’t able to get it into the documentary series. She told me a story one time about ’84 and ’85 and when the legal battles were ramping up, the tension was reaching a breaking point, and Les Zaitz at The Oregonian was just starting his 20-part investigative series. And I mean, that series, it’s hard to underestimate how much that series impacted the ranch and he was revealing stuff that even the Rajneeshees didn’t even know about.
But Jane had this story, and Bhagwan’s Rolls Royce count had reached the 80s and probably the 90s by now [Bhagwan owned roughly 100 Rolls Royces by the time he left Oregon]. She has a son named Peter and Peter had been walking one day and his shoes had been worn out. At the ranch, if your clothes had gotten worn out through normal wear and tear, they had this building named after a Hindu goddess where you’d go on to the ranch and swap out your old jacket or your old shoes and get a brand new pair back. And that’s how the commune had always operated. Jane told Peter to go get new shoes, and he said “Yeah, I went to get some new shoes and they said that they don’t have any new shoes anymore.” And then Jane had to twist some arms and pull some strings to get her son a normal pair of shoes at the ranch. And for Jane what she told me was significant in this moment was that when she saw Peter with these worn down shoes and at the same time she saw Bhagwan driving around in his Rolls Royce, she said that was the first time that she kind of saw the inequality on the ranch. It really struck something deep in her. And she has a really long process, a process that she calls breaking the spell, which is the title of the memoir she wrote. And she almost uses that story as the tiny spark.
It wasn’t a big spark, but it was a tiny spark for someone who was such a true follower of Bhagwan Rajneesh to start questioning the system that she was a part of.
Wild Wild Country is currently streaming on Netflix.