Misconceptions of Jonestown and Peoples Temple

by Martin English

Earlier this year I began my research on Peoples Temple and the events of Jonestown. Soon after starting, it became clear that I had a lot to learn. I had understood Peoples Temple to be a cult which ended in a mass suicide, but I didn’t know much more than this. Since researching Peoples Temple, I have discovered that what little knowledge I did have wasn’t entirely true in itself.

I live in the north of England, and whilst researching this subject it has become apparent to me that perhaps not a lot of people in my area have much understanding of what actually happened in Jonestown. I am currently reading Tim Reiterman’s book Raven, which delivers a very detailed account of Jim Jones’ history and his Peoples Temple. I have attempted to talk to people about the events of Jonestown, in particular, people who can remember the tragic news as it broke, in order to learn if they can remember how it was portrayed. Most conversations I have on the subject are very limited and do not usually evoke a particularly emotive response. I think the reason for this is twofold: people remember the event only vaguely – if they remember it at all – and their limited knowledge of it means they are unable to give an informed personal opinion. Secondly, I think that it’s possible that the people of Jonestown aren’t considered victims, as it is a common misconception that they all committed suicide, when in actual fact many were murdered.

The events of Jonestown were incredibly tragic, and it’s upsetting that a misconception can cause people to consider the members of Peoples Temple as outsiders with extremist views. From what I have read and watched on the subject, it seems that the majority of members were good-hearted people, building a community based on positive social values and cooperation.

These misconceptions about Jonestown and Peoples Temple are part of the reason that I plan to make a documentary on this subject. I am a graduate of Film and Television Production from York St John University. During my course of study I was mainly involved in small projects, and I want to research and work on something bigger, with more scope for story. I think that starting a project such as this would be an interesting avenue to go down.

I have watched two documentaries about Peoples Temple: Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and Tim Wolochatiuk’s Jonestown: Paradise Lost.The latter is a docudrama that focuses heavily on the final day in Jonestown and uses the events leading up to it in order to create a tense climax. Although this documentary successfully built suspense and allowed an audience to sympathise with the victims, I feel it didn’t focus so much on the level of manipulation and deception used by Jim Jones. I believe it is important not to overlook this. After all, this is the reason that a lot of the people have such a jaded opinion of what really happened in Jonestown. The Nelson documentary does a much better job in showing a better overall picture of Peoples Temple – it doesn’t simply focus on the final events in Jonestown – but it still doesn’t tell me what happened after Jonestown: What happened to the people that survived? How was it covered by the news media? What was the reaction from the general public?

I realize there is only so much one documentary can cover, and it is impossible to cover all the elements of a huge subject such as Peoples Temple in a single film. However, I haven’t seen any media that answers these questions about life after Peoples Temple, and I believe it is ripe for study.

It is important to know the story of Peoples Temple and how Jonestown evolved into the living nightmare it did, but I also feel it is important to hear more personal accounts of why people joined the Temple in the first place and what they experienced during their time inside. Were they aware that things were going awry, and how did they react? Do certain events that they witnessed in the Temple make more sense in retrospect? Are there flaws in the personalities of Temple leaders that they understand, either then or now? These are some of the questions I would like to explore.

In the years since the tragedy, the image of Jonestown has come to serve as a warning for people not to become so heavily invested and reliant on a single person. I feel strongly that there is an important story to be told about what happened after Jonestown, not only as it affected the survivors, but other people involved.

If you have a piece of this compelling and important story – especially if you feel that it has not been told – or if you would like to talk about life in Peoples Temple, then I would love to talk with you. I am not looking just for people who once lived in Jonestown. You may have been a member of the Temple who didn’t go to Guyana for whatever reason, or perhaps you are a relative or friend of a member. Even if you want to enquire about the documentary that I intend to make, I would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact me at martinenglishfilms@gmail.com. Thank you.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 12th, 2013.
Skip to main content