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The Nightmare That Was 'Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle'
November 17, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

The word “Jonestown” doesn’t invoke quite the same chill now as it did when Americans first heard the incomprehensible news that more than 900 followers of a religious leader named Jim Jones had killed themselves on his command.

Today, 40 years later, the story feels a little less visceral and perhaps a bit more academic in Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle, a four-part series that airs at 9 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday on Sundance TV.

The documentary gathers what we’ve learned over the past four decades about the “how” factor: how Jones recruited members for his People’s Temple, how he moved the group to what they were assured would be a remote haven in Guyana, and how it all went terribly wrong on Nov. 18, 1978.

Responding to concerns that some People’s Temple members were being held against their will, a party of Americans that included U.S. Rep. Leo McCarthy had flown to Guyana to see for themselves.

Temple gunmen killed five members of the party, including McCarthy. Jones immediately realized this would draw the full weight of U.S. law enforcement, and he convinced almost everyone it would be better to kill themselves than to face harsh retribution from that mortal enemy.

So the group mixed potassium cyanide into flavored water, which was initially identified as Kool-Aid and thus spawned the still-popular phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” More than 900 followers drank and died.

In a poignant footnote, there was some indication not everyone drank willingly. The research for Terror in the Jungle supports that suspicion. But Jones wanted no one left alive, and while he didn’t get all of that wish, he got most of it.

Terror in The Jungle wisely covers all of this, using vintage news clips, investigators’ evidence and interviews with survivors who had connections to the People’s Temple.

It’s a solid journalistic report, seemingly with no ideological preconceptions, and since more than half the country today wasn’t alive in 1978, a recap is necessary.

The real essence of any report on Jonestown, however, is the “how” question. How did one man so mesmerize hundreds of people that they killed themselves rather than potentially be asked about crimes that most of them had not committed? How did one man convince parents that their children would be better off dead?

This isn’t the first time the question has been asked, and Terror in the Jungle wisely draws on experts who have written books on Jonestown and studied the evidence in search of that answer.

In some ways, their collective answer seems disarmingly mundane. Former People’s Temple members, including two of Jones’s adopted sons, say he was both mesmerizing and a megalomaniac. The word of God, they say, was simply the tool he had chosen to enshrine himself, and he had the skills to pull it off.

At the same time, his broader life story suggests Jones embodied some complications.

Growing up in Indiana, he was a weird kid who was fascinated by churches and preachers and the power they seemed to exert over their congregations, particularly in aggressive churches like the Pentecostal.

When he started his own church, the first People’s Temple, he built it largely on the idea, radical in the 1960s, that churches and society itself should be color-blind. His was the first integrated church in Indiana, and some of the people who knew him then say he had a genuine conviction that racial inequality needed to be addressed and remedied.

His first congregants were drawn largely to that message, convinced they could help heal society. When he had several hundred members, Jones convinced 140 of them to move with him to California.

A national bus caravan drew more members, and Jones began exerting ever-tighter control. He required them to turn over all their possessions. He dictated how they would live. He took children away from their parents and assigned them to be raised by others.

From that perspective, it sounds like voluntary serfdom, and many of the interviewees here suggest it was. Jones wanted worshippers who worshipped him.

Here again, though, several former Temple members say it wasn’t that simple. They believed in his message of equality and justice and a better world, and they thought that staying with the group and working hard in a communal way was the best path toward that end.

Following him into suicide still seems extreme, and the suggestion here is that Jones had laid the groundwork earlier, slowly convincing Temple members that the whole rest of the world was the enemy and they could only trust him.

And the suicide command itself? Perhaps it was Jones’s grand finale, his last mesmerizing sermon, conjuring such an apocalyptic picture in the frenzied, chaotic aftermath of the earlier murders that Temple members were swept away.

Even in the final months, riddled by drugs and fueled by increasing desperation, Jones had remained an all-powerful father figure who convinced his isolated follower that his orders were their only option.

Once Terror in the Jungle has noted that Jim Jones was fascinated by Adolf Hitler, or at least the way Hitler bent the masses to his will, it gets easier to understand the path by which Jones came to that final night in Guyana.

How the others got there also becomes a little more clear. But it remains a longshot that most of the rest of us will ever say yes, we understand.

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Ironic that the conclusion to this review is about how "most of the rest of us" will not be able to admit we understand this form of manipulation. By definition, someone who has been brainwashed will not CONSCIOUSLY understand or be able to explain how their judgement has been compromised. Marketing, politics, finance, digital content and even the very design of online media drives people to the point of suicide, metaphorically and literally. Even if charismatic people/ideas/platforms are not asking directly for your life, they may be asking for other forms of sacrifice that are harder to fight against. A documentary about Jonestown should be studied and examined for exactly all those mundane elements of manipulation. If we distance ourselves by denying empathy and assuming that we are above that kind of crowd mentality, it only makes us more blind to subtle manipulation happening all around.
Nov 29, 2018   |  Reply
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