I am working on a television documentary for an Australian production company that looks at doomsday cults within America, with one segment featuring Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Going into this project I had a vague idea of Jonestown and what occurred there. While iconic images of Jim Jones, the masses of bodies at Jonestown and the saying “drink the Kool-aid” are in the common social consciousness, the specific events of what occurred in Guyana in 1978 are not.
The principal interview for this segment is Vernon Gosney, a Jonestown survivor who lost his son Mark on November 18, 1978. Although Vernon’s story is a truly tragic one, he recognizes that the danger of Jonestown-type cults is not just historical. As our program will discuss, he feels that the cult dynamics that led to Jonestown still exist in America today, and he wants to alert people that could be susceptible to similar groups.
Experts say it is typically young idealistic people who get involved with new religious movements. With the Internet, you have a double-edged sword. It gives access to alternative viewpoints, but it also provides a platform for potentially dangerous movements to gain followers.
Our program hopes to educate those who are uninformed about the events at Jonestown in 1978 as well as warn of the potential threats that lurk today.
Initially I struggled to understand how so many could be led down a seemingly obvious destructive path by Jim Jones. By delving more deeply into the story of Peoples Temple – reading the accounts of church members and their reasons and circumstances for joining the church – I feel I understand the underlying reason that people were somewhat blinded to Jones’ abnormal and controlling behavior. It was hope. Hope is what Jones initially gave to people, hope to have a society free of bigotry, hope for a place to escape persecution due to your race, your age, or your sexuality. Jones ultimately preyed on those who were looking for a better life. Through dazzling charisma and trickery, he managed to convince people, he was the answer.
If our documentary can convey this message, it will be a success.