The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is a cognitive bias colloquially known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or frequency illusion. It is when you see one idea, fact, or word that is new to you and then you suddenly see it everywhere. Let’s say you have never read or heard the word “mauve” and then you stumble upon it while reading the New Yorker. You take the time to look up the word and find its meaning to be a pale purple color named after the mallow flower. Then the very same day you see the word mauve used repeatedly in a Nabokov novel. Next, you doing a Sunday afternoon crossword with a cup of coffee that you almost spill when you see 9 across is a 5-letter word for a pale purple color. What would you have done without already knowing the definition? This eerie feeling of collective coincidence recently grabbed me with the resurgence of the Rajneeshee movement story.
Rajneeshees, followers of the spiritual teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were a sect of believers that inhabited India and later after Bhagwan ‘Osho’ Rajneesh was nearly assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist who led his following to the tiny ranch town of Antelope, Oregon. I first became familiar with the story while watching my favorite guilty pleasure true-crime show Forensic Files. One episode, originally aired in 2002, stood out among the rest. It was about a spiritual cult, the Rajneeshees, and their community Rajneeshpuram. It was a fascinating episode, narrated by the late great voice actor and announcer Peter Thomas. His sonorous raspy voice told the odd story of orange robbed eastern religious followers interacting with small town American ‘salt of the earth’ townies. I was drawn into the program and fascinated by the story of America’s largest wiretapping and Bioterrorism attack that was led by the secretive Rajneeshees. Above all I was fascinated with my ignorance of the topic.
How had I been educated in America and not know this history? And then suddenly I saw it everywhere. I was reading Letters to a Young Contrarian when Hitch spoke of the movement:
“I was posing as an acolyte in order to make a documentary about the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who had built himself a large and lucrative practice among well-off westerners. The whole thing was a racket, of course – the divine purveyor of disco philosophy had the world’s largest private collection of Rolls-Royces – but what I remember best was the morning darshan with the all-wise. On the way into the assembly one had to be sniffed from head to toe by two agonisingly beautiful California girls dressed in flame-ochre kimonos.” –Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
Then I heard the buzz about the new Netflix original 7 Part Series Wild Wild Country when it was taken to Sundance, satirized on SNL, and raved about by thousands of documentary fans. The odd story of a seemly brilliant spiritual being with a proclivity for Rolls-Royces, a community of free love and spiritual healing, and a dark force of bioterrorism on a small Oregon town in the 1980s engulfed me like many other viewers. What made these people of “peace” sabotage 10 salad bars in the area with salmonella to influence local elections?
Wild Wild County focuses on many key players in the movement such as Ma Anand Sheela a young woman in the 1980s who was given the coveted position of personal secretary to the religious leader. She is interviewed at length in the Netflix special and is currently living in Maisprach, Switzerland where she avoided extradition to USA but has been tried in Switzerland for the “criminal acts preparatory to the commission of murder” in relation to a plot to kill US federal prosecutor Charles Turner in 1985.
I have yet to finish the lengthy 7-part documentary series Wild Wild Country, but I had the latest brush with Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon when I was talking Netflix with a guy at a bar and he told me he knew a former Rajneeshee. The world is actually much smaller than we believe it to be, and through the connections and gaps in our language there are always mysteries permeating our daily lives.
Featured image from Pexels.