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Why are cults so fascinating?

Brandon Paykamian • Apr 30, 2018 at 11:50 AM

If there’s one thing that always arouses my curiosity, it’s cults and the social dynamics within them. Like many, I’ve lost much-needed sleep spending nights watching programs exploring just about every cult with historical notoriety.

I recently finished the Netflix special documentary, “Wild Wild Country,” which focuses on a large cult centered around controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, and his authoritarian secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who purchased large swaths of land in Oregon.

The group alienated much of the surrounding townsfolk after years of hostilities leading up to the cult’s campaign of poisoning hundreds of residents of The Dalles, Oregon in a 1984 bioterror attack.

Similar to other cults, the Rajneesh movement was also plagued by internal power struggles that led to mass manipulation of cult members and later, assassination attempts within the group.

But it wasn’t always quite this dark.

Many regarded Osho as a man who preached a peaceful philosophy of acceptance, and people across the world still buy his books more than 25 years after his death.

The story of Rajneeshpuram is a classic story of how spiritual movements that start out preaching “peace and love” can quickly take a dark turn from utopia to dystopia.

Perhaps what makes these stories fascinating is the fact that we are all susceptible to being caught up in similar situations; whether we’re looking for a sense of community or purpose within political organizations, churches, fraternities, etc., it can be quite easy to lose one’s sense of self.

“The Path,” a Hulu series that follows the lives of cult members in the fictional Meyerist movement, explores such themes. Throughout the story, we see that the characters try to maintain their relationships and their sense of individual identity within a rigid and controlling religious movement that gradually falls apart after members’ theological illusions become shattered.

Throughout the course of both “Wild Wild Country” and “The Path,” one thing we notice is each individual’s desire for autonomy constantly battling a different desire for a sense of collective identity and community.

While American culture and its classical liberal ethos often stress rugged individualism — often to the point of what could be considered isolated individualism — it can be hard to forget that we are not, or aren’t hardwired to be, so atomized.

We are interdependent, social creatures, and we crave a sense of community and being part of something greater than our individual selves, whether we’re speaking of nationalism, theology, ideology or just simple things like devotion to the nuclear family.

Maybe it’s that internal and eternal conflict within each individual that makes documentaries such as “Wild Wild Country” and fictional series like “The Path” so intriguing to many of us.

As easy as it can be to dismiss folks who are drawn into bizarre cults, could it be that we see a bit of ourselves in cult members? After all, these groups play on things most people want — a sense of belonging, fellowship and community.

There’s nothing wrong with valuing these things and wanting these things, as long as it isn’t taken too far.

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