For a creative writer, Jonestown provides a wealth of material from which to choose. I think the biggest reason is that everyone, regardless of age, race, religion or socioeconomic status, knows about the tragic events and, moreover, has an opinion about why they happened.
Someone wishing to write about Jonestown could pick from many different subjects. During my research on Jonestown, I read numerous books, both by academics and by those Peoples Temple members who survived its horrible end on November 18, 1978. In many of these works, one topic that seemed to be covered, and appropriately so, was cultism: how the phenomenon forms, how it escalates, and how such a collection of people morphs into a dangerous group capable of committing unspeakable acts like mass murder and suicide.
Like many others, when I think of a cult, images of people with the same buzz cut hair, sitting around a campfire, and singing often comes to mind. To me, the most captivating aspect of Peoples Temple and those members who relocated to Jonestown, was that this stereotypical view could not have been more inaccurate. Though those who comprised the Temple came from varying backgrounds, they all shared a common goal: making the world a better, more equal and happy place for all individuals. The only crime they committed was being led astray by a manipulative, disturbed, power-hungry man who lost sight of the once-great vision be created.
My inspiration for authoring my script “No Jonestown Redux,” as well as the several short stories (some of which have been published) written about Jonestown is my dedication to the victims and survivors, whom I think many facets of society dismissed as cultists. If my work does anything, I hope it educates society in general to realize that people who end up in groups that become cults are citizens of this world with families, friends and lives who should not be pushed to the proverbial curb.
“No Jonestown Redux” had its birth in my viewing a You Tube video, “State Department Attempts To Contact Jonestown.” In this chilling, slightly more than ten-minute piece – which appears on this site as an MP3 – U.S. Consul for the Guyanese Embassy, Doug Ellice monitors Congressman Leo Ryan and party’s movements throughout Jonestown and Port Kaituma via ham radio. As time progresses, Ellice notices key Temple members speaking in code and sensed something terrible was brewing. What was more disturbing is the United States government officials Ellice contacted seemed to have no idea how to respond to the escalating tensions.
The end of this recording is where my screenplay began. In my tale, events take place in Guyana’s neighbor Suriname, and those under the tyranny of cult leader Jerick Janssen are Dutch. Protagonist Mikael Verbeek is a Dutch diplomat working at his nation’s embassy in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. Verbeek summons Peter Markamp – his friend and a representative of Dutch King Jonas – to visit “Janssendam” and offer safe passage to anyone who wishes to return to the Netherlands. When Markamp is killed during his mission, Verbeek, aware of the events of Jonestown, sets out on a quest to ensure the same fate does not happen to those under Janssen’s rule. The diplomat faces countless obstacles, but with the help of both the Surinamese and Dutch militaries, manages to neutralize Janssen and foil his plan to follow the lead of Jim Jones.
My editing of the screenplay continues, even as I begin to shop the work around.
(Matthew H. Emma is a freelance writer currently pursuing his dream of becoming a full-time creative writer. He’s written numerous short stories – including twenty that have been published – and has written three feature length screenplays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)