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. It’s 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 Rajneesh’s spokesperson, and other members who had prominent roles, like Rajneesh’s lawyer Swami Prem Niren.
But as Ronit Feinglass Plank notes in The Atlantic, the series doesn’t really explain what the day-to-day life was like in Rajneeshpuram. And it doesn’t really address how it’s 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 doesn’t show this, but Win McCormack, who wrote about the cult in the 1980s, points out in The New Republic that Rajneesh’s followers were encouraged to get sterilized or have abortions. (For more on Rajneesh and his cult, read The Oregonian’s 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 doesn’t seem to happen a whole lot. It’s more of a psychological control. If you look historically at different types of cults, there’s 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 someone’s 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. That’s one of the critical things: there has to be that emotional connection that’s made by the person who’s running everything with the people they want to bring in with them. If you don’t have that connection, it’s 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 you’re 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 can’t come this week because you’ve been misbehaving, or you’re 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, it’s not a physical-restraint type of thing, but it is a form of control.
They’re 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 doesn’t like to stand in a corner. But for another kid, that doesn’t work, so they have to find something else. So they take the tablet away from them, or they don’t let them watch television. People who are very good at understanding other people, are very good at paying attention, can get inside someone’s head and then exploit that. But the person who’s exploited has to be exploitable. If someone is in a good place psychologically, then they’re most likely not going to be exploitable.
When are people most vulnerable to a cult?
On a simple level, when they’re in a state of psychological instability — if something is not quite right in their life, if they’re missing something, especially on a relationship perspective. We are social creatures. There’s 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. It’s part of what makes us humans. And so if that’s missing for individuals, and they don’t have a way of meeting that need on their own, they’re 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 don’t think so, not in a way we define a cult, when you think of like the Jonestown massacre and Jim Jones. If you’re into certain sports teams, that social need is being met there. It’s just that idea that someone needs some type of social connection. I think it’s one of the primary forces. If they simply can’t find a way on their own to fulfill that, and then someone comes along and says, “Hey, we have this group. And you’re 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, it’s 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 they’re 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 can’t attract people to you, then you’re going to be hard-pressed to form a cult. Beyond that, it’s going to depend. You have to understand people, you gotta know what’s 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. I’ve 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 wouldn’t put it up with the same kind of manipulation that a cult leader is doing, but they are also doing that. They’re understanding people, they’re 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, it’s a skill people can acquire. Being charismatic and understanding people, that’s another thing altogether.
People who are in power also like to keep that power, and they don’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t want 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.
What’s 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. I’m an atheist now. Now one held me back. So what we usually consider cults tend to exert a bit more control over their members, but that’s not to say that that control doesn’t 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, it’s along those lines, but they definitely share a lot of features, because they’re organized belief systems.
But there are lot of things that are not even religions or cults that are organized belief systems. Again, if you’re 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