The Wild, Wild Story of the 'Sex Guru' at the Center of Wild Wild Country

Netflix
Netflix

Wild Wild Country, a six-part docuseries on Netflix, tells the unbelievable true story of what happened when an Indian "sex guru" and thousands of his crimson-clad followers infiltrated a sleepy town in Oregon in the 1980s. This binge-worthy retelling of a bizarre moment in American history features plenty of free love, to be sure. But there's also betrayal, wire tappings, immigration fraud, attempted murder, a late-night arrest, the largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history, the relocation of thousands of homeless people in an attempt to sway a local election, and—at the heart of it all—a gussied-up guru who owned enough Rolls-Royces to drive a different model each day for three months.

But the voice of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the very man who founded "Rajneeshism," is surprisingly silent throughout the series. According to brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, the directors behind Wild Wild Country, this was intentional. The docuseries primarily focuses on the years 1981 to 1985, which coincided with a period in Rajneesh's life where he took a vow of silence.

“We really just wanted to drop the audience into whatever was happening at that moment,” Chapman told India's CNN News18. “And the truth of the story is at that moment [Rajneesh] wasn't speaking to the locals, nor was he speaking to his followers. So, we wanted the audience to experience the story as the characters in the documentary were experiencing it.”

Still, viewers were left wondering what made Rajneesh’s followers—largely well-educated and well-off Westerners—renounce their past lives and devote all their time and energy to the guru’s teachings. To understand how Rajneesh, a former philosophy lecturer, gained thousands of followers from around the world, we need to go back to the beginning.

 
 

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain on December 11, 1931. (He wouldn't begin calling himself Bhagwan, which means the blessed one, until 1971.) He was raised for the first seven years of his life by his grandparents, merchants who greatly influenced his views on religion. His grandfather was a Jain, part of a religion that preaches asceticism and avoids all forms of self-indulgence, but took an interest in other views. He often invited Jaina monks, Hindu monks, and Sufi mystics into their home, where an inquisitive young Rajneesh grilled them with questions.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh speaks with his followers in 1977
Redheylin, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Rajneesh’s grandmother didn’t believe in religion—a highly uncommon stance at that time, but one that also resonated with her grandson. Later in life, Rajneesh spoke out against organized religion, arguing that it interfered with the practice of meditation.

In school, Rajneesh proved to be a bright pupil and voracious reader, but by his own admission, he was both argumentative and mischievous. However, this served him well as a student—and later, a lecturer—of philosophy.

In his youth, Rajneesh developed an obsession with meditation and experimented with different methods, all while pushing himself to physical extremes by running at least five miles twice a day. He claims to have reached enlightenment at the age of 21 while sitting under a maulshree tree—similar to the enlightenment story surrounding the Buddha. Rajneesh later told his followers that his current life was an extension of a past life he experienced 700 years before.

Although his insubordination got him expelled from the first college he attended, he transferred to another university and earned a degree in philosophy. He went on to earn a master's in the subject and even lectured at the Mahakoshal Arts College at the University of Jabalpur for some time. However, he often took breaks to go on speaking tours, where he traveled around India spreading his own views on enlightenment—a pursuit he took up full-time in the mid-1960s.

An image of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh making the peace sign with his fingers

Somprakashmlaobra, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Rajneesh quickly gained a reputation for his controversial views, which angered many but also attracted followers he dubbed sannyasins (those who renounce the world in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment). He regularly criticized revered figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa, but reversed his view on religion several times, at one point proclaiming, “Ours is the only religion—first religion in the history of the world.”

 
 

People in India started calling Rajneesh the “sex guru” after he gave a number of lectures on the transcendental and divine nature of fornication. In 1968 he gave a series of lectures that were published as From Sex to Superconsciousness, and later urged his followers to meditate during sex because because “it is one of the most peaceful, silent, harmonious states—where meditation is the easiest.”

In his book, he references some of the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, and this blend of Western thought and Eastern spirituality is a recurring theme in Rajneesh's teachings. Or, as the Daily Mail put it: “His teachings were a bizarre mixture of pop psychology, ancient Indian wisdom, capitalism, sexual permissiveness, and dirty jokes that he gleaned from the pages of Playboy magazine.”

It’s important to note, however, that sex was merely one component of Rajneesh's philosophy. The meditation method he invented, called Dynamic Meditation, was largely aimed at inducing a cathartic release. This was achieved by getting his followers to scream, hit things, cry, jump up and down, and dance blindfolded. Brigid Delaney, a writer for The Guardian who tried some of these methods at a meditation camp, wrote:

“There are psychological theories behind this process of letting go in a contained and safe space. In some ways it’s like a self-exorcism: you release your own demons and suppressed emotions and afterwards, feel lighter for it. It worked for me.”

There's no denying, though, that Rajneesh's talks on sex attracted the most attention, and they coincided with the “free love” movement of the 1960s. As such, it was around this time that he began attracting followers from Western countries. To accommodate his growing group of devotees, Rajneesh founded his first ashram (commune) in Pune, about 90 miles southeast of Mumbai, in 1974.

Rajneesh's eccentric and indulgent habits only attracted more attention. He had a squad of 50 sannyasins, all trained in karate and other martial arts, to protect his home, and “sniffers” stood guard at his lecture hall, ready to turn away anyone who smelled of perfume or other pungent odors. (He was supposedly sensitive to strong smells.) He even hired a limousine to carry him 150 yards from his home to his lecture hall. When asked why he made such a dramatic entrance, Rajneesh was matter-of-fact in his response: “I want people to talk about me.”

Later, after moving to the U.S., he racked up a collection of 93 Rolls-Royces, earning him the nickname “Rolls-Royce guru." He also had a habit of sporting gem-encrusted Rolex watches. According to Vulture, he owed his fortune in large part to donations from his wealthy sannyasins.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh driving one of his Rolls-Royces circa 1982
Samvado Gunnar Kossatz, Wikimedia Commons

His followers, however, were unperturbed by their master's flagrant materialism. Indeed, his commune in Pune grew and grew until it became clear that the ashram was no longer large enough to accommodate Rajneesh’s vision. Unable to find a suitable property in India that could house the 100,000 sannyasins he someday hoped to preside over, his assistants (most notably Ma Anand Sheela, who is arguably the real focus of Wild Wild Country) started looking for property in America. However, as The New Republic reported, there were other factors that likely spurred Rajneesh to leave India, including unpaid taxes and disagreements with the locals in Pune.

 
 

In 1981, Rajneesh and 15 of his followers came to Antelope, Oregon, where they bought a 64,000-acre ranch and ultimately took over the town, renaming it Rajneeshpuram. It’s here where we catch up with the events featured in Wild Wild Country, a story which culminates—spoiler alert!—in Rajneesh’s arrest at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in October 1985 following an attempt to evade charges of immigration fraud for arranging sham marriages among sannyasins who faced deportation. He was 53 years old at the time.

Rajneesh himself was ultimately deported from the U.S. and lived out the rest of his days in India, where he died of heart disease at the age of 58.

In yet another reversal that occurred a few years before his death, he called for an end to the religion of Rajneeshism and eventually asked his followers to start calling him Osho, meaning “on whom the heavens shower flowers,” according to his obituary in The New York Times.

After disavowing the religion he created, Rajneesh said, "There is no church, no holy book, no catechism, no priest, no congregation, no baptism ... It is a mystic commune ... of people who are individuals searching and seeking ... It is a way of being religious but not a religion. I am a friend, a guide, a philosopher."

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh holds court among his followers in Oregon
Netflix

In keeping with his worldview, Rajneesh's epitaph fittingly carries these words: “Never born, never died, just visited this Earth from 1931-1990.” His teachings, however, live on in the many spiritual centers around the world that continue to teach his meditation techniques.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House

Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But ever since her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a hit Netflix series, her work has been experiencing a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.)

If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”)

In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. Shirley Jackson claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."

It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities.

Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. Shirley Jackson considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life.

“They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. Shirley Jackson died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.)

A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

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