This article contains spoilers for “Wild, Wild Country.”
Netflix’s latest documentary series is full of so many twists and turns, it’s hard to believe the story is true. But the almost-forgotten events of “Wild, Wild Country” really happened, as we see in grainy national broadcasts, home movies and faded photographs. There was a cult named the Rajneeshees that moved from India to a remote part of Oregon to set up their vision of a utopian society, where everyone wore red clothes and free love was encouraged. Their differences freaked out the older residents and neighbors, and soon, the two sides became locked in a struggle for control of the local government. That’s when things get really weird.
“Wild, Wild Country” starts with the Rajneeshees’ ever-present guru, who went by the name of the Bhagwan and later changed it to Osho. However, for long stretches of time, he was silent or rarely interacted with his followers at large. It’s his secretary and second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela, who led the cult to commit some of its darker deeds. She was connected to or planned assassination attempts of local government officials and a reporter, drugging homeless people the Rajneeshees welcomed into their commune and poisoning over 750 people in the largest bioterrorist attack in modern U.S. history. These events happened within four years of the Rajneeshees’ move to Oregon in the early ’80s. Sheela became the public face of the group, often tangling with journalists on live TV or threatening violence.
When we see movie or TV depictions of women in cults, they’re not usually the charismatic leaders or in positions of power. Women are usually depicted as the followers, either forced or by choice. There have been dozens of interpretations of the rebellious young women who ran away to follow Charles Manson in his plans to unleash chaos in the ’60s. Some women, like those in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, fulfill more traditional domestic roles while forced into early marriages with typically older men. They’re told to say nothing about the forced polygamy and child abuse.
While watching the “Wild, Wild Country,” there’s little reason for audiences to suspect Sheela would be the driving force behind some of the Rajneeshees’ most infamous crimes. She looks like anyone’s aunt: a petite woman with a gentle voice – until she gets angry. During her present-day interviews, she’s always ready with a quick answer. Her glasses, grey hair and layers of shawls make her look harmless, but the stories she tells are frightening and her almost constant smile feels unnerving. At least in American media, we don’t often see women in charge of a devoted flock in the same way the media obsessed over Manson, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians or Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Like Sheela, other women around the world have also used their influence to fool people into believing they were appointed gods or prophets.
• Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a former Jewish housewife from New York, decamped to Florida and set up an ashram after she claimed to have received visions of Jesus Christ and Hindu gods. The ashram was a place of meditation, but also a place where children were beaten. The guru ordered her daughter raped when she was 14.
• Anne Hamilton-Byrne was another New Age guru who once preached the values of yoga before claiming she was the female reincarnation of Christ. She created the Family, which still exists in Australia today, and gathered over 20 children, convincing them that she was their mother and that they were all brothers and sisters. Hamilton-Byrne had hundreds of followers help her brainwash or physically abuse the kids, which included drugging them with LSD.
• In Mexico, Silvia Meraz Moreno helped lead ritualistic murders of two 10-year-old boys and a woman as a sacrifice to “Saint Death.” Her husband was allegedly the group’s priest.
• Hak Ja Han took over the Unification Church after her husband, Sun Myung Moon, passed away. She’s now in charge of billions worth of assets across several different countries and worshipped as the co-messiah by her followers, “the Moonies.”