When Ma Anand Sheela met the Hindu guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in her apartment in Mumbai in 1968, she embraced him and cried. "My whole head melted," says Sheela on Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country about 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 near the small town of Antelope, Oregon, and changed his cult there, creating a new city called Rajneeshpuram. It is not surprising that the situation has been a snowball, which generated clashes with local residents, assassination attempts and mass poisoning. Wild Wild Country follows the saga in captivating ways, through historical filming and interviews with Sheela, who effectively led the cult and was the spokesperson for Rajneesh, and other members who had prominent roles, such as the lawyer for Rajneesh Swami Prem Niren.
But as Ronit Feinglass Plank notes in The Atlantic the series does not really explain what day-everyday life was like in Rajneeshpuram. And it really does not address the way that it is possible that thousands of people can simply sacrifice their lives, wear only brown clothes and blindly follow a 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 environment. But his cult also forced members to donate large amounts of money, while creating an isolated community that maintained strict control over its members. The Netflix documentary does not show this, but Win McCormack, who wrote about the cult in the 1980s, points out in The New Republic that Rajneesh followers were encouraged to be sterilized or aborted. (For more on Rajneesh and his cult, read The Oregonian 's investigation of 20 parts of the 1980s.)
Rajneesh was one of the 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 clash with government officials, more than 75 Branch Davidians were killed in a fire at a building in Waco, Texas, along with their leader David Koresh. All these groups, and many less prominent cult organizations, have some things in common. I spoke with Louis Manza, president 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 slightly edited for short and clarity.
How do cult leaders like Rajneesh control or see their followers?
They can take many approaches, obviously. On a really simple level, they could take control in a very physical way, preventing someone from leaving a space, but that does not seem to happen much. It is more a psychological control. If you observe historically the different types of cults, there is always a period of indoctrination in which the cult leader will form a bond with the people. Once they have that link, now they can get into someone's head, because now those people begin to trust that person. And now the leader can start making other suggestions: "You should stay away from your family." "You should come and live with us." Etc. This is one of the most important things: there has to be that emotional connection that is made by the person who executes everything with the people they want to bring with them. If you do not have that connection, it will be very difficult to get people to do something.
What types of psychological mechanisms do cults use to keep their members online?
Once someone establishes a link with a person, he can use that to his advantage, up to a point. You can retain certain kinds of things. If you are the leader of the sect, [you can decide] we will all meet at this time, and we can all talk about our feelings, but you can not come this week because you have been misbehaving, or not. I have not been taking your part, or whatever the case may be. Once you have that relationship with that person, punishing them [or rewarding] can get something out of them. Again, it is not a type of physical restraint, but it is a form of control.
They also pay attention to what works, in the same way that a spouse pays attention to what works with his partner, in the same way that a father pays attention to his children. [Parents] you can punish your children by making them park in a corner for 10 minutes, and that works because that child does not like to stand in a corner. But for another child, that does not work, so they have to find something else. Then they take the tablet, or they are not allowed to watch television. People who are very good at understanding other people, are very good at paying attention, can get into someone's head and then exploit that. But the person who is exploited must be exploitable. If someone is in a good place psychologically, it is most likely not exploitable.
When are people more vulnerable to a cult?
On a simple level, when they are in a state of psychological instability, if something is not right in their life, if something is missing, especially in a relationship perspective. We are social creatures. There will be some variability there; Some people like social circles much larger than others, some people like to live in a cabin in the woods on their own. But most of us fall in the middle. It is part of what makes us human. And then, if that's missing for people, and they do not have a way to satisfy that need for themselves, they're going to look for someone else who might be able to provide that need. Now, many people will join "cults" as a way to satisfy that. Other people will join other types of groups.
I competed in ultra marathons, so I do a couple of races a year. And that kind of satisfies that need for me. Now, is that a cult? I do not think so, not in a way that we define a cult, when you think about the Jonestown massacre and Jim Jones. If you like certain sports teams, that social need is being fulfilled there. It's just that idea that someone needs some kind of social connection. I think it's one of the main forces. If they just can not find a way by themselves to fulfill that, and then someone comes and says, "Hey, we have this group, and you're welcome, join us!" It can be very subtle at first. If you want to involve someone, and you know how to manipulate people, it's quite simple to do: you bring them, you establish the relationship, and then you start sucking them more and more, and finally, someone just crosses a line and they're inside. And then they may have difficulty leaving, because now they have that social need satisfied. It can be a very subtle process in that sense.
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 he was saying about the formation of social ties. If you can not attract people to you, then you will be in trouble to form a cult. Beyond that, it will depend. You must understand people, you must know what is happening inside their heads, you must talk to them, you must be able to extract information from them. Those are skills. We all use them in different ways. I have taught since 1992, so I know that if I do this, I will have the students interact in class. Is that a form of manipulation? Of course it is. I would not endure it with the same kind of manipulation as a cult leader, but they are also doing it. They are understanding people, they are studying people. They develop that kind of skill set, but I believe that charisma should be at the top, because the simple act of meeting people is a skill that people can acquire. Being charismatic and understanding people, that's another thing.
People who are in power also like to maintain that power, and do not want to give that power. The leader of the sect wants to control people, to a certain extent. When you look at the people who run these organizations, if you look at the most historically famous, they had the need to control people, and when that control was pushed, they backed down. When David Koresh and the Branch Davidians fell, Koresh did not 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 did not want to lose control of those hundreds of people in Jonestown, and the people died. I think that wanting to control is a driving force of the leader, and wanting to belong is the driving force for the member. You put those things together, create the perfect storm to get people involved in a cult.
What is the difference between a cult and a religion?
Religions are an organized belief system, and cults are organized belief systems. People will engage in many behaviors on the part of their religion, that can be very good, but it can also be very bad. People have killed other people in the name of their religion. Now, will Catholics prevent you from leaving the church? Not that I know. I was raised as a Catholic. I'm an atheist now. Now one stopped me. So, what we generally consider the cults tend to exercise a little more control over their members, but that does not mean that control does not occur in the most organized and traditional religions. But with the cults, you see that true psychological and physical discipline begins at a much higher level than you see in Catholics, Lutherans or whatever. If there is a dividing line, it is along those lines, but they definitely share many characteristics, because they are organized belief systems.
But there are many things that are not even religions or cults that are organized belief systems. Again, if you are part of a certain sports team, you have an organized belief system. But mental manipulation, psychological manipulation is something that tend to see more in cults than in organized religion.