The Myth of the Zombie Kool-Aid Death Cult

Trying to recall my initial exposure to the massacre at Jonestown is nearly impossible. This may be due in part to the fact that I wasn’t even a year old when news of the tragedy was first broadcast on television sets across America. But it may also be the result of being raised on a steady diet of cable news, an experience that has left me with a media hangover I still can’t shake.

To me, Jonestown was nothing more than another sound byte, no different from the thousands of other sound bytes clamoring for my attention since the time I first became aware of television news. There was Iran Contra, the PTL ministry scandal, the O.J. trial, Columbine, Monica Lewinsky, and the list goes on. How do you place importance on a single event when it’s served up with a dozen other news items that are supposed to be of equal importance? The answer: you don’t.

I automatically categorized Jonestown alongside events like the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate in my collective memory. I didn’t do this because I had made some profound intellectual connection among all three historical tragedies and was planning to write a thesis on the topic once I went to college. No, I did this because it seemed to make sense. It seemed easy. And it appeared to be the way the ABC, CBS, and NBC news organizations went about categorizing their content, so why couldn’t I? In my mind, the process went something like this: “These things are all the same. They relate to crazy religious cults bent on self-destruction.” That’s where Jonestown was filed: under “C” for cult(s).

Interestingly enough, in my work as a freelance journalist, the theme of religion came up several times last year while talking with my editors at different magazines. So that’s when I pitched the idea of writing a retrospective on religious cults, a sort of field guide. The story eventually found a home at Lemon magazine, as part of its utopia-themed third issue (originally slated for a Summer 2007 release; now rescheduled for Summer 2008). I envisioned it as a sort of crash course for the uninitiated (like myself) that would include a synopsis on each cult outlining its purposes and beliefs, as well as interviews with former members. It seemed simple enough. And at this point I was still basing my understanding of cults from my own cursory exposure (i.e. television news), not hard research. Peoples Temple was just one of the targeted cults I planned to cover.

And, just as with any story I undertake, this is the point where things became interesting. I began my research by reading everything I could find. I focused primarily on interviews with Jonestown survivors, scholarly accounts, and random news items from online media outlets (the latter normally consisting of coverage of the annual gathering of Peoples Temple members on November 18th, the anniversary of the tragedy). All of this information was helpful in laying the foundation for my understanding of what happened in Jonestown. I learned the importance of what Jonestown was initially envisioned as (a utopia, a self-sufficient community devoid of racism, sexism, etc.), and I also learned about the aspirations of Peoples Temple as a group. But as with any type of research, for all the answers I found, just as many new questions were raised. Normally, this is a good thing, because I can go back to the source and begin constructing my story from interviews and quotes. But in the case of Peoples Temple, I felt frustrated. I assumed I would never have my questions answered, since I figured most everyone involved was dead. But that was before I stumbled upon this website, and more importantly, the Speakers Bureau section of the site.

Through that link, I made contact with Tim Carter, Laura Kohl, Alan Swanson, and Bunny Jackson. While each was a former member of Peoples Temple, their experiences proved to be uniquely different. Swanson and Jackson had never moved to Jonestown, but Carter and Kohl had. What struck me most from these interviews was the dedication of these individuals (particularly Carter and Kohl) to their group and its shared beliefs. Each person, in their own way, was an idealist, activist, intellectual, or caregiver. They explained to me how the members of Peoples Temple were vocal proponents of social change and envisioned a society where racism, sexism, and classism would be nonexistent. Were those goals idealistic? Yes. Were they unattainable? We’ll never know, as Jonestown was the template for this society.

So how then did Jonestown, a highly-evolved agricultural settlement located deep in the jungles of Guyana, South America, transform from its idealistic beginnings to the nightmare it became? Obviously Jim Jones can be cited as the master architect behind the majority of this transformation. And perhaps his devoted inner circle can also be held accountable. But really, as anyone reading this knows, these are questions with no definitive answer. The answers exist in the gray spaces between truth and conspiracy theories. But what interests me, as a cultural observer, is the notion of perception and how it was and is facilitated. In my case, until last year, my view of Jonestown was colored primarily by the portrait the media painted, the facts in sound bytes about cyanide, punch, mass suicide, cult, Jim Jones. Nowhere in these sound bytes though were the aspirations of Peoples Temple ever discussed.

So who spoke for the dead? Who defended the convictions of the lifeless bodies splayed on the ground at Jonestown, the people introduced to television audiences via aerial video footage shot from a news helicopter? Nobody did. The power of the press failed. If anything, the media only succeeded in telling the truncated story of Peoples Temple, an ill-informed snapshot that portrayed the members as zombies marching toward Jim Jones’ charismatic light. But this is nothing new. Audiences are constantly being provided incomplete bits of news, stories without context. And while these observations are by no means revelatory, what’s more disturbing about the failure of the press in relation to Jonestown are the myths and clichés it propagated. Above all else, these have become the legacy of Peoples Temple.

“Every time I hear the phrase ‘drink the Kool-Aid,’ it’s like pouring salt into the wound,” Tim Carter said during our interview. “It is a sports cliché now. I really think if people had any comprehension of what happened in Jonestown, they would no more use that phrase lightly than they would some phrase that emerged from the Holocaust. There was just too much tragedy and too much pain to make it a cliché.”

The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” was actually first associated with the Merry Pranksters, a group of people who traveled with novelist Ken Kesey during his public LSD experiments during the 1960s. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ exploits were documented in the Tom Wolfe book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In this context it meant that someone had “drunk the Kool-Aid” spiked with acid. But in its re-appropriation post-Jonestown, the phrase included more of a warning: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” In this context the meaning translates to: don’t trust any group that you are wary of.

A perfect example of the harsh media criticism still dogging survivors can be found in Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Glieberman’s October 2006 review of Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, where the critic uses the term “zombie Kool-Aid death cult” to describe the deceased members of the massacre at Jonestown:

Reverend, seducer, icon of warped Elvis cool, Jim Jones led the creepiest bad trip of the ’70s — the mass suicide of 900 of his followers in Guyana. This slipshod doc offers fascinating footage of Jones’ silky malevolence (he has the eyes of a perverted hypnotist), and it captures one aspect of the story that has been crucially underplayed: The Peoples Temple congregation was sizably African-American. But when it comes to how those followers turned into a zombie Kool-Aid death cult, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple leaves you with more questions than you went in with.

Even today, as the perception of Jonestown and Peoples Temple are slowly changing, thanks in part to Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and Leigh Fondakowski’s play The Peoples Temple, the long-term damage is already done.

(Matthew Newton can be reached at .)