It sounds like a work of fiction: In the fall of 1984, hundreds of people in The Dalles, Oregon fell ill with salmonella. Members of a cult had sprinkled the bacteria on salad bars in 10 fast-casual restaurants across Wasco County. First came the stomachaches and chills. Then, vomiting spells and diarrhea. Finally, for 45 of them, hospitalization.
Though no one died, 751 people fell victim to what remains today the largest bioterror attack in American history, more severe than the anthrax attacks of the early aughts. A CDC probe initially blamed the outbreak on improperly-trained food handlers, but a more exhaustive investigation soon revealed it was the work of the followers of cult leader Baghwan Shree Rajneesh (who called himself Osho). His charisma was so all-encompassing that he managed to amass tens of thousands followers across the world who swore by his freewheeling attitudes towards sex. Many of these acolytes were concentrated in the Oregon city of Antelope, renamed Rajneeshpuram after his followers had migrated there.
The story of the Rajneeshee salad bar attack, part of a larger and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to influence the 1984 Wasco County elections, takes up a fraction of the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, out tomorrow (it initially screened at Sundance earlier this year). Directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, the series is split into six hour-long installments.
The documentary series is a hodgepodge of found footage and newly-recorded material with survivors of the era, including one of the attack's alleged chief architects, Ma Anand Sheela, now living in Switzerland. She'd been sentenced to three separate 20-year terms in federal prison for her role in the attacks, though she only served 29 months before being released for good behavior.
The Way brothers spent four years making the documentary. The process required digitizing 300 hours of existing footage from the era, conducting roughly 100 hours of filmed interviews, and whittling that down to six episodes. It gave them a clearer sense of how Osho's followers were able to orchestrate an attack that few people in younger generations know even happened—and how seismically this attack altered America's conception of food safety.
“I think a big there was a huge rush to judgment by the CDC to blame food handlers for the salmonella outbreak,” Chapman explains to me over email. “I think once the number of victims had reached over 500 people, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on the CDC to claim a cause for the outbreak and put everyone at ease. It didn’t seem like calling this a terrorist attack would calm citizens down. Food handling seemed like a much tamer cause.”
A year later, the documentary explains, the CDC attributed the attack to Osho's followers.
“I think what makes the 1984 Rajneesh attack so extraordinary is that fact that the intention behind the mass poisoning was to win an election,” Chapman tells me. “It wasn’t solely planned as an act of revenge, or a plot to induce panic. The attack was designed as a tactic to make voters sick, depress voter turnout, and swing the county elections.”
Over the course of working on the documentary, the brothers began to realize that America is still susceptible to an attack of this scope and violence, even if we've advanced considerably in our understanding of how such an attack can be carried out. Maclain explains to me that he remembers asking the owner of a pizza restaurant in the Dalles, whose establishment was attacked by followers of the Rajneesh, if there was anything he felt he could have done to prevent this attack.
"His response was, 'There was nothing I could have done. If someone decides they want to ruin your life, they can. And there’s not much you can do about it,'” Maclain says. And then a few mornings ago, Maclain found himself suspiciously eyeballing the coffee creamer jar at his local Starbucks, wondering how easy it may be for someone to tamper with and poison the creamer. He realized how many people would get sick as a result. (He used the creamer.)
“I think one of the most important thematic elements we were interested in exploring was the visceral clash of cultures between the two communities of Rajneeshpuram and Antelope, Oregon," Maclain tells me. "How both sides claimed to be on the right side of the Constitution, using it as a shield and a weapon for their own survival.”
Wild Wild Country is a documentary that shows what can happen when two wildly different sides refuse to learn or compromise, becoming more entrenched in their own ideological belief systems as a result. The documentary series exposes how deep tribal affiliations can run and how this rigidity can manifest within America.
To the Way brothers, that doesn't sound too far off from where the country is now. It can result in even the most basic elements of what we depend on to sustain us—say, the food we consume simply to survive—being weaponized against us.
Wild Wild Country premieres March 16th on Netflix.