Heres what Netflixs Wild Wild Country doesnt explain …

Posted: September 1, 2020 at 10:50 am

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When Ma Anand Sheela first met the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in his apartment in Mumbai in 1968, she hugged him and cried. My whole head melted, Sheela says in the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, which discusses Rajneesh and his cult. My life was complete. My life was fulfilled.

Rajneesh, who died in 1990, was a powerful spiritual guru who had thousands of followers in India and the West. In 1981, with the help of Sheela, who became his personal assistant, Rajneesh bought a ranch nearby the tiny town of Antelope, Oregon, and moved his cult there, creating a whole new city named Rajneeshpuram. Its no surprise that the situation snowballed, leading to heated confrontations with local residents, attempted murder, and mass poisoning. Wild Wild Country follows the saga in captivating ways, through historical footage as well as sit-down interviews with Sheela, who effectively ran the cult and was Rajneeshs spokesperson, and other members who had prominent roles, like Rajneeshs lawyer Swami Prem Niren.

But as Ronit Feinglass Plank notes in The Atlantic, the series doesnt really explain what the day-to-day life was like in Rajneeshpuram. And it doesnt really address how its possible that thousands of people could just give up their lives, wear only maroon clothes, and blindly follow one man. What are the psychological mechanisms at play?

Rajneesh preached to his followers about the idea of creating awakened people who live in harmony with their surroundings. But his cult also forced members to donate large quantities of money, while creating an isolated community that kept tight control over its members. The Netflix documentary doesnt show this, but Win McCormack, who wrote about the cult in the 1980s, points out in The New Republic that Rajneeshs followers were encouraged to get sterilized or have abortions. (For more on Rajneesh and his cult, read The Oregonians 20-part investigation from the 1980s.)

Rajneesh was just one of many cult leaders who have captivated and horrified people throughout history. In 1978, cult leader Jim Jones urged more than 900 of his followers to kill themselves by drinking poison in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1993, in a standoff with government officials, more than 75 Branch Davidians died in a building fire in Waco, Texas, together with their leader David Koresh. All of these groups, and many more less prominent cult organizations, have some things in common. I talked with Louis Manza, chair and professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College about how cult leaders control their followers, when people are most vulnerable to cults, and the difference between cults and religions.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

How do cult leaders like Rajneesh exert control over their followers?

They can take a lot of approaches, obviously. On a real simple level, they could take control in a very physical way, restraining someone from leaving a space, but that doesnt seem to happen a whole lot. Its more of a psychological control. If you look historically at different types of cults, theres always an indoctrination period where the cult leader is going to form a bond with people. Once they have that bond, now they can get inside of someones head, because now those people start to trust that person. And now the leader can start to make other suggestions to them: You should move away from your family. You should come live with us, etc. Thats one of the critical things: there has to be that emotional connection thats made by the person whos running everything with the people they want to bring in with them. If you dont have that connection, its going to be really hard to get people to do anything.

What kinds of psychological mechanisms do cults use to keep their members in line?

Once someone forms a bond with a person, you can use that to your advantage, to a certain extent. You can withhold certain types of things. If youre the cult leader, [you can decide] we all get to meet at this point in time, and we all get to talk about our feelings, but you cant come this week because youve been misbehaving, or youve not been pulling your share, or whatever the case might be. Once you have that relationship with that person, punishing [or rewarding] them can get something out of them. Again, its not a physical-restraint type of thing, but it is a form of control.

Theyre also paying attention to what works, the same way that a spouse pays attention to what works with their significant other, the same way a parent pays attention with their kids. [Parents] can punish their children by making them stand in a corner for 10 minutes, and that works because that kid doesnt like to stand in a corner. But for another kid, that doesnt work, so they have to find something else. So they take the tablet away from them, or they dont let them watch television. People who are very good at understanding other people, are very good at paying attention, can get inside someones head and then exploit that. But the person whos exploited has to be exploitable. If someone is in a good place psychologically, then theyre most likely not going to be exploitable.

People who are very good at understanding other people, are very good at paying attention, can get inside someones head and then exploit that.

When are people most vulnerable to a cult?

On a simple level, when theyre in a state of psychological instability if something is not quite right in their life, if theyre missing something, especially on a relationship perspective. We are social creatures. Theres going to be some variability there; some people like much larger social circles than others, some people like to live in a cabin in the woods by themselves. But the majority of us fall in the middle. Its part of what makes us humans. And so if thats missing for individuals, and they dont have a way of meeting that need on their own, theyre going to look for someone else who can maybe provide that need for them. Now, lots of people will join cults as a way of satisfying that. Other people will join other types of groups.

I compete in ultramarathons, so I do a couple races a year. And that kind of satisfies that need for me. Now, is that a cult? I dont think so, not in a way we define a cult, when you think of like the Jonestown massacre and Jim Jones. If youre into certain sports teams, that social need is being met there. Its just that idea that someone needs some type of social connection. I think its one of the primary forces. If they simply cant find a way on their own to fulfill that, and then someone comes along and says, Hey, we have this group. And youre welcome. Join us! it can be a very subtle thing at first. If you want to get someone in, and you know how to manipulate people, its fairly simple to do: you bring them in, you establish the relationship, and then you just start sucking them in more and more, and eventually, someone just crosses a line and theyre in. And then they can have a hard time getting out, because now they have that social need being met. It can be a very subtle process along those lines.

What do cult leaders have in common?

They tend to be charismatic. Historically, if you think of the people we call cult leaders, like David Koresh, James Jones, they all had a certain charisma. That goes back to what I was saying about forming social bonds. If you cant attract people to you, then youre going to be hard-pressed to form a cult. Beyond that, its going to depend. You have to understand people, you gotta know whats going on inside of their heads, you gotta talk to them, you gotta be able to pull information out of them. Those are skills. All of us use them in different ways. Ive been teaching since 1992, so I know if I do this, I will get students to interact in class. Is that a form of manipulation? Sure it is. I wouldnt put it up with the same kind of manipulation that a cult leader is doing, but they are also doing that. Theyre understanding people, theyre studying people. They develop that kind of skill-set, but I think charisma has to be at the top of it, because just knowing people, its a skill people can acquire. Being charismatic and understanding people, thats another thing altogether.

People who are in power also like to keep that power, and they dont want to give that power up. The cult leader wants to control people, to a certain degree. When you look at people who run these organizations, if you look at the more historically famous ones, they had a need to control people, and when that control got pushed up against, they pushed back. When David Koresh and the Branch Davidians went down, Koresh didnt want to give up control of those people. And you had the gun fight and the burning of a building and all that. Jim Jones didnt want to give up control of those hundreds of people in Jonestown, and people died. I think wanting to control is a driving force from the leader, and wanting to belong is the driving force for the member. You put those things together, you create the perfect storm for getting people into a cult.

Whats the difference between a cult and a religion?

Religions are an organized belief system, and cults are organized belief systems. People will engage in lots of behaviors on the part of their religion, that can be very good but it can also be very bad. People have killed other individuals in the name of their religion. Now, will Catholics prevent you from leaving the church? Not to my knowledge. I was raised Catholic. Im an atheist now. No one held me back. So what we usually consider cults tend to exert a bit more control over their members, but thats not to say that that control doesnt happen in more organized, traditional religions. But with cults, you see that real psychological, physical-restraint thing kick in to a much higher degree than you see in Catholics, Lutherans, or whatever. If there is a dividing line, its along those lines, but they definitely share a lot of features, because theyre organized belief systems.

But there are lot of things that are not even religions or cults that are organized belief systems. Again, if youre part of a certain sports team, you have an organized belief system. But mental manipulation, psychological manipulation is something you tend to see more in cults than in organized religion.

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Heres what Netflixs Wild Wild Country doesnt explain ...

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September 1st, 2020 at 10:50 am