Wild Wild Country is easily one of Netflix’s most compulsively watchable shows to date. Here, we examine the complex true story behind the new documentary series.
Wild Wild Country – a docuseries focused on controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his sinister commune – has scored a 100% ‘fresh’ rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it hasn’t received a single negative review. It’s also caused a mammoth stir on social media, with glowing endorsements from the likes of Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight).
“I’m on my second watch of Wild Wild Country,” he tweeted.
“I’ll probably make it through a third.”
The six-part series begins, as so many tale of cults do, with one man’s desire to build a utopian society. However, as the story unfolds, it quickly becomes one of immigration fraud, criminal prosecution, attempted murder and biological warfare.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a self-styled sex guru from India, wanted to create an earthly paradise which would allow his followers to practice the art of free love, away from society’s ‘restrictive’ views on sex. In the early Eighties, he and his followers, known as the Rajneeshees or ‘sannyasins’, took over a remote 64,000 acres in eastern Oregon, gradually transforming it into a community called Rajneeshpuram with its own shopping malls, restaurants, post office, discotheque, public transport system, sewage plant, reservoir, medical laboratory and airport.
But it wasn’t long before people in the nearby town of Antelope, Oregon (population 75) – fearful of the commune and its intentions – began to fight back, denying a business permit for the compound.
At this point, Wild Wild Country takes a frightening turn, veering away from Rajneesh’s compelling teachings and ideologies and focusing on the controversial actions of his inner circle – particularly that of his charismatic secretary, Ma Anand Sheela.
Sheela and her fellow sannyasins famously began purchasing a number of lots in Antelope during the early Eighties. In an attempt to commandeer the municipal government, they also recruited thousands of homeless people along the West Coast and shipped them to Oregon by bus, promising them a place to stay and a free beer every night in exchange for their votes as new citizens. When these newly-bought members of Rajneeshpuram began agitating the paying tenants of the commune, their beers were quickly laced with a powerful sedative called Haldol.
This new sense of power quickly proved addictive for Sheela and the commune’s leaders. Keen to extend their political control across the rest of the county, they forged a twisted plan to incapacitate voters in The Dalles, the largest population centre in Wasco County, ahead of the November 1984 election, by giving them food poisoning.
The chosen biological agent was Salmonella enterica Typhimurium, which was bought from a medical centre and cultured in labs within the commune, before being spread over food at salad bars in 10 local restaurants. By 24 September 1984, more than 150 people were violently ill. By the end of September, 751 cases of acute gastroenteritis were documented – with 45 people receiving hospital treatment as a result.
It was the first, and the largest, bio-terrorism attack recorded in US history.
Sheela, widely recognised as the architect of the attack, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her crimes. Ranjneesh himself alleged that Sheel was entirely responsible, before leaving for India and rebranding himself as Osho. He expanded his spiritual teachings, devised a series of new meditation methods and began to focus his discourses entirely on Zen. He died in 1990, having seen his books translated into more than 60 languages – and the Osho International Meditation Resort continues to attract around 200,000 visitors each year.
Yet, somehow, the tale of Rajneeshpuram faded from memory – until documentary filmmaker brothers Chapman and Maclain Way stumbled across it.
“Our first initial instinct was, ‘Holy crap, this is an actually insane story,’” Chapman recalled during an interview with Business Insider.
“But it wasn’t until we started searching and found this complex underbelly – what is a religion, what is a cult, fear of the other, immigration rights, and all these thorny topics – that we thought this could make for an interesting deep dive.”
While Rajneesh’s disciples speak effusively of the late guru, with some even tearing up at the memories of their time at Rajneeshpuram, Chapman and Maclain have said that it was hard to get them to open up about this “very painful and traumatic time in their life”.
“I think that the interesting thing was that both sides – Antelope and the neighbouring ranchers, or the Rajneeshees themselves – saw the story of Rajneeshpuram as a warning of sorts, and they were realising how forgotten the story was,” says Maclain.
“Granted, each side looks at the story of Rajneeshpuram as a very different type of warning. I think sannyasins will talk to you about how this was an example of government overreach and religious persecution they were facing, whereas people from Antelope or neighbouring ranchers will talk to you about the dangers of cults, and what brainwashing can do to you.”
He finishes: “Ultimately, everyone who did participate in the documentary series [talked to us because] they didn’t want the story of Rajneeshpuram to be totally forgotten. They saw value in it as a warning.”
The resulting docuseries is incredibly immersive and thought-provoking, weaving several personal narratives into a singular story – one which reflects on a national scandal, forgotten cults, Rajneesh’s legacy, and what it really feels like to be drawn into a commune.
Overall, though, it examines humanity’s overwhelming fear of ‘The Other’ – a subject that feels increasingly relevant in the Brexit and Trump era. No wonder, then, that so many are calling this stranger-than-fiction tale an absolute must-watch.
Wild Wild Country is streaming on Netflix now.