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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Paris Review

The Paris Review4 min read
A Polyphonic Novel of Midcentury San Francisco
Protesters link arms in front of the International Hotel in San Francisco in an attempt to prevent the police from evicting elderly tenants on August 4, 1977. Photo: Nancy Wong. Via Wikimedia Commons. Imagine that you’re a sullen, sheltered kid from
The Paris Review6 min read
Staff Picks: Monsters, Monkeys, and Maladies
Patti Smith. Photo: © Jesse Dittmar. In her latest memoir, Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith writes of Sandy Pearlman: “We stood on either side of him, promising to mentally hold onto him, keep an open channel, ready to intercept and accept any signal.
The Paris Review10 min read
How To Write A Poem About Noguchi
The Noguchi Museum (Image © NYCGO) When I lived in New York many years ago, I used to go to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. It was his studio, and now is a series of rooms full of sculptures and drawings, short films, the akari lanterns for w