“Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle” is a 4-part documentary directed by Leonardo DiCaprio. It deals with a topic so sick and disturbing that sensitive persons should seriously consider not watching it: the November 18, 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana, when cult leader Jim Jones convinced or forced 900 supporters to commit suicide. The documentary features eye witness testimony and also plays part of the so-called death tape, recording Jones´ last speech during the actual mass suicide. Of the 900 dead, 300 were children. In that case, murder is the only possible description of what happened. All the victims – except Jim Jones himself – were essentially tortured to death by cyanide poisoning. Jones shot himself, thus dying quickly. The mass suicide became inevitable when Jones had ordered the killing of US Congressman Leo Ryan, who had visited Jonestown to investigate the cult. DiCaprio´s documentary is based on a bestselling book by reporter Jeff Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple”, which I unfortunately haven´t read.
Jones, who was White, began as an anti-racist preacher and activist in Indiana. His church, later cult, was known as the Peoples Temple. It eventually moved to LA and then to San Francisco, where Jones and his followers soon became an important part of the local political landscape. Jones´ religious message was a bizarre blend of charismatic Christianity (complete with faith healing) and socialism or Communism, with a strong emphasis on racial equality. Judging by “Terror in the Jungle”, many of his followers were Black or Jewish. It´s not clear to me whether Jones really was a Christian of any kind, or simply an atheist huckster playing out a part. He certainly saw the Peoples Temple as a left-wing radical organization of some sort. They must have been the most exotic one around!
Not everything was well backstage, of course. Jones was a drug addict, sex offender and sadistic bully. Eventually exposed by the media, risking to lose his political support in the Bay Area, Jones decided on a daring move. He and his followers built a town of their own in Guyana, an English-speaking nation in South America with a large Black population and a “socialist” government. Jonestown, as the place was called, was in the middle of the Guyanese jungle, and almost impossible to reach…or escape from. Jones, who was obviously a sociopath, soon turned Jonestown into a virtual concentration camp. In 1978, a group of concerned Peoples Temple ex-members persuaded Leo Ryan to visit Guyana on a fact-finding mission. After complicated negotiations, Ryan was allowed to leave Jonestown with a small group of cult defectors, only to be gunned down by Jones loyalists at the nearby Katuma airstrip. Realizing there was no turning back, Jones then ordered the mass suicide which shocked the world. I´m frankly surprised there even are survivors of the Jonestown massacre – one of them was a man who literally saw his own wife and kid suffocate to death after taking the “Kool Aid”. He got away only because Jones ordered him to take a large sum of money in a suitcase to the Soviet embassy in Guyana´s capital Georgetown!
While the Jonestown massacre is the single worst cult suicide in recent history, perhaps all of recorded history, cult suicides are nothing new and have continued to happen. Why some “scholars of religion” actually defend cults baffles me to no end. “Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle” paints the sad picture of a charismatic psychopath systematically manipulating young, gullible and idealistic followers looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. I also got the impression that Jones had planned the mass suicide months, even years, in advance when Jonestown failed living up to his expectations. He started preaching “revolutionary suicide” and probably saw his chance when Ryan, apparently suspecting very little, stepped right into it. The left-wing message may have been real once (I assume small town Indiana didn´t have a huge market for anti-racist activism) but became just another tool of cultic self-aggrandizement by the time Jones moved his operation to liberal urban California. I admit that “Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle” made me feel very pessimistic. What are the guarantees that it won´t happen again? None, of course. It *will* happen again, just as sure as war and genocide will do so.
Somehow, it feels that the only winner in this competition is “Reverend” Jim Jones, the worst serial killer in American history.