The Paris Review

Why Are We So Fascinated by Cults?

Still from Wild Wild Country.

In March, I sent an announcement around to friends and colleagues: watch out for my new novel, Buddhism for Western Children. It’s a spiraling story of a powerful, manipulative guru versus a boy who must escape to recover his will, I wrote, and it profiles Western lust for Eastern spiritual mystique and tradition. I got a lot of wonderful goodwill in response, and also quite a few, Wait—is this like Wild Wild Country?

What was Wild Wild Country? I don’t watch TV, a habit left over from my antiworldly, culty childhood, on which my novel is loosely based, but now, obligated, I turned on Netflix. Like so many others, I was hooked, and I began to wonder anew why accounts of cults—novels, movies, docudramas—titillate and resonate time and again?

, the true-crime docuseries directed by the brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, is a sprawling, melodramatic, tricky show that follows the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh from his sixties-era ashram in India to a vast ranch in Central Oregon in 1981. It uses miles and miles of sandy, archival, look-at-me footage (and you feel a little dirty, looking), including incredulous televised broadcasters, and pulls you through a heady succession of the scandals provoked as the cult’s new city arose. “It was really wild country,” says one of the key followers, or sannyasins. Helicopter shots zoom in on the frontier, a mountainous, treeless terrain: “Everything you can see belonged to you,” declares Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s irrepressible, blithely arrogant lieutenant, who is arguably the mastermind of the

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