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The People's Temple: how Jim Jones controlled his followers

On November 18th 1978, a total of 918 people died in Georgetown, Guyana. This unbelievably tragic day of death in South America wasn't caused by an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, though. Nearly a thousand humans lost their lives in what some of the people involved called a 'revolutionary suicide'. What we're talking about, of course, is the utter insanity of Jonestown.

When the huge numbers of followers of The People's Temple drank cyanide-poisoned grape Flavour Aid that day, they did so under the instruction of the highly influential figure of Reverend Jim Jones. It's important to point out that not all 918 people that died that day did so voluntarily. Many were forced to 'drink the Kool-Aid', while countless others were shot dead by Jones' loyal militiamen. That said, plenty that died drank the poisoned punch knowingly and willingly. They killed themselves because they were told to do so.

The scale of the calamity is staggering and doubtless always will be. But just how did such a great swathe of people wake up one day prepared to shoot their friends, inject their children with cyanide and then commit suicide? The answer lies with the cult's leader, Jim Jones

The Overall Answer? Mind Control

The term ‘mind control’ brings with it a certain stigma. It’s tempting to think of conspiracy theories about Manchurian candidates and the US government’s shady MK-Ultra programmes. But the phenomenon is no flight of fancy. At its core, mind control is simply brainwashing. Something cults are notorious for.

Charles Manson is perhaps the benchmark here. As cult leaders go, few figures have received the notoriety of Manson. While the man was an arch manipulator who could conduct his ‘Family’ group from afar with serious aplomb, compared to the abilities of Jim Jones, Manson was a mere amateur.

Mind control in this context refers to the general ability that Jones had to dictate his followers’ thoughts, behaviour and actions. To understand how he achieved that, we need to further break down his brainwashing methods.

1. Adoration

Jim Jones is, quite rightly, a reviled figure. An abusive control freak responsible for the deaths of nearly a thousand people, there’s no pardoning or forgiving his actions. But the man didn’t ascend to his position and make so many people prepared to die for him entirely by bullying his way there. Quite the opposite, in fact. His followers loved him. Although it may be difficult to understand why given the conclusion to The People’s Temple’s story. We need to look back.

First of all, rather obviously, the smooth-talking and handsome man in his dark sunglasses was incredibly charismatic. And to begin with, he was - it seems - genuinely likeable. He lived for helping others and was known for his selflessness and generosity. He also knew scripture and The Bible inside out. It was something his congregation couldn’t help but be impressed by.

There was another vital piece of the puzzle. In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, racial segregation divided the United States. Most churches were either black or white. Not so with Jones and his flock. In fact, integration and tolerance with the very bywords of Jones’ approach. Jones and his wife Marceline adopted Korean-American and African-American children and fought for civil rights vociferously and proudly. His congregation - comprised of a combination of ethnic minorities and progressive white people - were in awe of the man’s bravery, tenacity and ability to get things done.

For many, such was their love for Jones that they were to be blinded for life to his later transgressions and transformation. The Reverend was God in human form and that was that. 

2. Confusion, Starvation & Disorientation

Jones quickly learned that controlling fully-functional human beings with their own thoughts and ideas and agency is nigh-on impossible. He effectively needed to ‘break’ his congregation. To do so he encouraged them to work for the cause and ‘give back’. This would mostly involve having to undertake back-breaking and exhausting manual labour. Generally for extremely long periods of time.

Sleep deprivation became another useful tool. The longer people were awake, the more tired they became, the more pliable they were. Throw in meagre rations of food and soon he’d built up an army of listless, obedient and malleable zombies. 

As time went on and Jones became increasingly fixated on the idea of ‘revolutionary suicide’, he would often hold ‘White Night’ suicide drills out of the blue. Effectively, these were 3am fire alarm drills, but - obviously - a whole lot darker. Often, followers would have no idea whether these drills were false or real. Leading to, as you can imagine, a real tension and a feeling of a lack of control over their own destinies.

3. Blackmail

One very methodical and particularly cynical way Jim Jones would exercise control over people was by creating blackmail situations. Surveillance, secret filming and filmed confessions were common. As were forced and faked confessions. He’d even make people admit on camera to having carried out crimes such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Such tools were purely psychological. After all, they were hardly credible. Still, though. They worked.

Jones was even known to force people to hold guns he claimed were murder weapons, get their fingerprints on them and then use that as a way to have the person do as they were told. Betray him and he would report them to the police, he said.

4. Drugs

Jones himself was a huge drug addict. Barbiturates were a particular favourite. The speed would keep him focused and energetic, but also cause huge mood swings and increasingly erratic behaviour that many experts believe contributed to the awful conclusion of The Jonestown Project. He would also spend the majority of his days popping various prescription medications. As well as self-medicating, he would also medicate his followers. Whether they liked it or not.

Those with dissenting voices (or what were perceived as such) would be put into ‘therapy’. But, as you can imagine, we’re not talking about feet-up-on-the-couch, tell-me-about-your-childhood-type therapy. We’re talking about ‘Special Care Units’ (aka prison cells patrolled by armed guards) and heavy sedation via psychotherapeutic drugs. 

5. Physical Abuse, Violence & Torture

Not all of the methods used by Jim Jones to control his followers involve ingenuity or subtlety. In fact, once his authority was established and with loyalty drilled into everyone, he could keep them in line with the fear of violence. Or violence itself. Towards the end of The People’s Temple, abuse was rife. Sometimes it was used as a tool of control, other times it was employed merely as punishment. Mostly it existed because Jones had become increasingly paranoid, cynical, jaded and ravaged by the destructive force of nefarious power and drugs.

Beatings were regular, staged boxing matches were not uncommon, either. Floggings while naked, forced medical examinations, sexual assaults, people locked in boxes, the violence was frequent and always humiliating. Often it would be administered in front of a crowd. One particularly distressing story involved Jones stopping a sermon to strip a woman and make her defecate into a can in front of hundreds of her fellow followers, including her friends and family.

He would terrorise and beat children in front of their parents, take away men’s wives to have sex with them, electroshock elderly folk and force people to drink their own urine and eat their own vomit. The man knew no depths and would do anything to chastise, intimidate and control his followers…

Despite all of the violence, horrors and human rights violations, people stayed. They were too far in and had ultimately had their brains reprogrammed. Eventually, it would lead to the most shocking and evil mass murder-suicide of all time. 

One thing is for sure - what happened at Jonestown On November 18th 1978 is the very epitome and brutal nadir of Twisted Faith.

By Steve Charnock

Wednesday, 12 September, 2018 :17

Steve Charnock is a freelance writer who scribbles all sorts of things for all sorts of people, specialising in true crime and crime drama. He mainly writes features, reviews, blogs, articles and lists. But always forgets to write his mum a birthday card.

Twitter: @BloodyCharnock