Out in the scenic woodland countryside of the border of Montclair and Verona, New Jersey, is a sprawling, 9,000-square-foot Rhineland-style castle, which looms over the surrounding area atop a high hill like something out of a gothic fairy tale. The imposing estate features countless stained glass windows, 30 oak paneled rooms, six fireplaces, an expansive octagonal rose garden, a small chapel with a soaring cathedral ceiling, and a creepy feeling pervading the entirety of it all that makes it feel like a distinctly haunted place out of a dream world, a sort of Dracula’s castle. Called “Kip’s Castle,” or simply “The Castle,” the quaint estate was constructed for the textile magnate Frederic Ellsworth Kip and his wife Charlotte Bishop Williams Kip, and between the years of 1902 and 1905 it was painstakingly and meticulously crafted stone by stone from materials imported directly from Europe. In later decades the family would move out, and the castle sat there abandoned for some time before it was purchased in 1980 by an Indian swami by the name of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and this is where the estate’s history would get very strange and colorful indeed. And here we have the tale of an eerie castle on a hill, strange rumors of bizarre rituals, and a mysterious cult that grew out of control.
Rajneesh had made quite a notorious name for himself in his native India. Having started with only 7 followers in a hovel in a town called Poona, by 1974 he had managed to grow rapidly into a prominent guru with over 200,000 followers based in 400 centers around the world, and raking in millions upon millions of dollars while he was at it, mostly by receiving all of his followers’ earthly possessions, as was required by his “religion.” Being the “rich man’s guru,” as he called himself, Rajneesh was not at all humble about any of this, and his title “Bhagwan” actually translates to “God.” Although he was in hot water for charges of tax evasion in India, as well as outrage for disrespecting and attacking Hinduism and for his group’s controversial beliefs that sex could be channeled into healing energy, he nevertheless sought to constantly expand his operation, and in 1980 purchased Kip’s Castle in order to gain a foot hold in the United States, boldly saying at the time, “I am the Messiah America has been waiting for.” He arrived in 1981, moved into his imposing gothic castle on the hill, drove around town in a flashy white Rolls Royce, and immediately got to work doing all manner of weird and cultish things.
The eccentric Rajneesh immediately had the entire interior of the estate painted white, and destroyed all of the beautiful stained glass windows in order to meet his imagined humble aesthetic, and the beautiful wood floors were also covered in linoleum. His gold and jewel encrusted Rolls Royce was also custom outfitted with bulletproof armor plating, a television, VCR, and telephone, as well as a James Bond style mechanism that could shoot out tear gas canisters. The group wasted no time in immediately posting an advertisement in several local papers and Time Magazine that announced “Sex! Never repress it! Search all the nooks and corners of your sexuality. It will be more fun.” This had people on alert right off the bat, as it gave the impression that this was some weird sex cult that had moved into town, something that Rajneesh denied, saying that their presence there was merely as a base of operations for the purpose of distributing literature and video tapes to followers. Even so, the rumors began to fly that the cult was up to doing drugs, having bizarre rituals, blaring “goat sacrificing music,” conducting orgies up in their castle lair, and experimenting with strange forms of meditation, psychotherapy, and sex magic. It was also widely whispered that the cult was planning a massive rally to take over the entire area, and locals complained that the cultists were leaving red and orange dye, which was the color worn by the Bhagwan’s followers, in the washing machines at a local laundromat. Some stories were spookier still, such as rumors that the cultists would chase away trespassers or that they were even attacking people. One witness would tell Weird New Jersey of his own experience:
Growing up I heard stories about monks, cults, or even vampires, living in Kip’s Castle. When I was a junior in high school, 6 of us girls drove up to Kip’s in a Datsun. As we approached the castle, a man who was walking like a zombie stopped our car and asked us what we were doing. We told him we were lost and couldn’t find Bloomfield Ave. and we lived in Montclair. That was stupid because EVERYONE who lives in Montclair knows where Bloomfield Ave is! He went to grab the door handle and we took off up the hill. There was nowhere to turn around, so we drove up the castle driveway. As we were turning around, without power steering, about 60 people came out of the castle, all walking the same way the man down the hill was. It was like Night of the Living Dead! There were kids, men, and women all dressed in black cloaks. It was the scariest thing I have ever experienced.
At the time there were rumored to be between 80 and 200 of the Bhagwan’s followers living at the castle, and this raised a lot of concerns in this quiet, conservative community. One local would tell The New York Times at the time, “People are panic-stricken. We are very concerned about our property values, our children and about this becoming an international headquarters for a free-sex cult.” These rumors stirred up quite a bit of animosity towards Rajneesh and his followers, with vandalism to their property a frequent occurrence, yet still the group grew to the point that there were now simply too many devotees in the castle and the surrounding town. The cult then purchased more than 100 square miles of ranchland in rural Wasco County, Oregon to start up a new commune, and meditation centers for their teachings were popping up all over the place. Devotees continued to come in as well, including perhaps most famously Shannon Jo Ryan, who was the daughter of Representative Leo J. Ryan, better known for getting killed by cultists at the compound of Jim Jones during the 1978 Jonestown massacre than for anything he ever did in actual politics. Business was booming for the cult, as for many people it represented an ideal lifestyle.
As all this was going on, the commune in Oregon, boldly called “Rajneeshpurum” in Rajneesh’s typical modesty, was being built up at a fast rate, possessing an airport of its own, a shopping mall, restaurant chain, beauty salons, and even its own police force and artificial lake. It also began expanding into its own functioning city, incorporating outlying towns and taking them over with followers who moved there in droves to outnumber the original residents by a large margin, and Rajneesh would also move there to be elected to six of the seven town council seats. Their wealth also grew exponentially, with the cult owning massive amounts of property and Rajneesh amassing a fleet of 85 Rolls Royces. By the end of 1982, most of the cult lived in this immense commune and left Kip’s Castle, but their story was not over yet.
The downfall of Rajneesh began with his second in command, Sheela, who was, let’s just say a bit extreme. She committed arson while trying to burn down the Wasco County planning office, attempted to poison local officials, and also contaminated the food of non-cultists with Salmonella bacteria, all of which brought the law breathing down their necks. Sheela was finally arrested and convicted of attempted murder after trying to kill Rajneesh’s personal physician. The law was still not satisfied, and in an effort to rid the area of the group, they would press forward to arrest Rajneesh on 35 counts of felony immigration violation, for which he received a 10-year suspended sentence and a $400,000 fine, and he then promptly sought asylum in numerous countries. After being denied by everyone, he escaped to India in defeat and would die there of a heart attack not long after.
After this the city he had made returned to normal, now called Antelope, and there is very little left to show that such a frighteningly powerful cult was ever there. As for Kip’s Castle, it never was inhabited again, and it lay abandoned and derelict until renovation work was carried out in 2005 and it ultimately became part of the historic Essex County Park System. In the end, the cult of Bhagwan Rajneesh has passed into the mists of time, but it remains a curious case of a cult that got surprisingly huge in its time, and it is an odd little historical oddity worth taking a look at.