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Film / Jonestown

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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a 2006 documentary by Stanley Nelson, which aired in 2007 on PBS's American Experience. It charts the story of the Rev. Jim Jones and his People Temple, from their noble beginning in The '50s, to their controversial history in San Francisco in The '70s, to the notorious mass suicide at their Guyana compound in November 1978. The film lacks any narration, instead allowing the story to be told by former Temple members themselves.

The film is noted for being much more respectful about the event than other TV documentaries, some of which have tried to replay the story from a more sensationalistic angle. Jonestown takes a more subdued route and treats the carnage dead seriously. It received the Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.



  • Adult Fear: Your children (and all of your family and friends) can be compelled to let themselves die based on the word of someone who is supposed to be their spiritual leader.
  • Affably Evil: Jones' early Temple films show him enthusiastically describing the positive atmosphere and social safety nets the Temple affords to its members. He was also heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, which won him significant support from the black community and liberal activists. Even skeptics who tried to confront Jones were suddenly charmed by his good looks and magnetism. He was that persuasive.
  • Alliterative Name: Jim Jones.
  • Answers to the Name of God: Jones' mother, Lynetta, was a religious fanatic who believed she had given birth to the Messiah. Here's his favored sales pitch, meant to entice newcomers to his flock, though in hindsight we know what it really means.
    "If you see me as your friend, I'll be your friend. If you see me as your father, I'll be your father... If you see me as your savior, I'll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I'll be your God."
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  • Anyone Can Die: Jones' victims included a congressman, a news team from NBC, and over 900 of his own followers.
  • Apocalypse Cult: Jones kept his church under control with fears of apocalypse. In The '60s, he convinced his followers to move with him to the Redwood Valley, which a magazine article said could withstand fallout from a nuclear war. In Jonestown, he pumped people with made-up stories about America persecuting its racial minorities. When Ryan arrived, many were fearful that their children would be sent to concentration camps, which led some to choose suicide.
  • Apocalyptic Log:
    • Jones' "death tape", in which he tells his followers that the Temple has failed and that their only course of action left is "revolutionary suicide."
    "If we can't live in peace, we can die in peace."
    • Shortly before the "revolutionary suicide" begins, we see grainy footage of the cultists firing at Congressman Ryan and his delegation at the Port Kaituma airstrip before it fades to static as the cameraman is shot.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Jones' rationalization for the unfolding massacre.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Once Congress got a whiff of what was going, Jones figured the party was over, so he poisoned all of his prisoners to send a message to the government.
  • The Caligula: As Jones' mental health deteriorated, so did Jonestown in standard of living and the treatment of human beings. He lived like an emperor for several months, surrounded with worshipers and vice, and bided his time until his tax-evading drug den inevitably drew the attention of news outlets. Then he struck.
  • Camera Abuse: NBC cameraman Bob Brown was among those killed in the airstrip shooting. Footage from his camera, which had fallen to the ground, shows the Temple shooters climbing out of the dump truck and shooting at Ryan's delegation.
  • Canned Orders over Loudspeaker: Jones did this a lot while in Jonestown.
  • Captain Ersatz: In-Universe. Although the tragedy at Jonestown gave the English language the phrase "Drinking the Kool-Aid", the poisoned punch at Jonestown was not Kool-Aid, but a knockoff brand called "Flavor-Aid".
  • Crapsaccharine World: Jonestown was depicted as a paradise in Temple films and enticed many followers to leave for Guyana permanently. Once they arrived, they were never allowed to leave, were forced to live and work in spartan conditions while Jones lived in comparable luxury, and were routinely tormented by Jones and his drug-addled madness.note 
  • Creepy Child: According to Jones' friends in Indiana.
  • Corrupt Church: Jones can be heard saying "blasphemous" things about God, Heaven, and the Bible. Justified in that the Temple evolved into more of a Marxist political organization and moved away from being a traditional church. Jones was a pentecostal preacher who used religion for his own personal ends and later discarded pentecostalism for Marxist ideology. At some point it seems he started to believe the lies he'd told.
  • Cult: One of the most notorious and enduring examples in history.
  • Dark Messiah: Jim Jones' life ambition was to die a martyr. To that end, he spent years mixing with the social potpourri of San Francisco, cultivating a church of impressionable people who believed the world was on the brink on nuclear annihilation.
  • Death Seeker: Jones did not only apply this trope to himself, but to everyone and everything around him. The film suggests that Jones had always sought death; as a kid, he held funerals for (and allegedly killed) stray animals. Several incidents are described which suggest that Jones had planned a mass suicide years before the move to Guyana.
  • Doomed Expedition: Leo Ryan's fact-finding mission to Jonestown. Jones's death squad rolled up and shot Ryan and his delegation as they were boarding the plane. Back at the compound, Jones claimed no involvement in the attack, but "prophesied" the Congressman's death from a stray shot by his guards (he was actually shot more than 20 times). As Jones' self-discipline later started to slip and he admitted he did order Ryan's murder.
  • Downer Ending: A Foregone Conclusion.
  • Dramatic Irony: Jim Jones denouncing euthanasia from the pulpit. "Who's going to decide who and when a person is going to die? We must never allow that!"
  • Drinking the Kool-Aid: The massacre was the Trope Codifier, though not necessarily the Trope Maker (what they actually drank was a Kool-Aid Captain Ersatz called "Flavor Aid").
  • Driven to Suicide: For almost the entire Jonestown settlement, on an enormous scale. Although some of the survivors would call it a mass murder instead of a mass suicide, since they tricked or forced into doing it.note  Jones is widely considered to be the only person who really committed suicide as he shot himself in the head rather than drink the poisoned flavor aid like his followers.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The reaction of the few survivors, who are clearly still haunted by the events they describe in their interviews. (The presence of Jones's gun-wielding goons ensured that hardly anyone survived; of the over 900 people in Jonestown only four managed to escape).
  • Faking the Dead: Jackie Speier tried to do this during the airstrip shooting. This didn't stop one of the Temple shooters from hitting her point blank.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Heard at the start of the movie, then later right before the punch is brought out.
  • For the Evulz: One academic called Jonestown a Bergen-Belson of mind control. Jones read L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, studied Hitler, admired Idi Amin, praised Kim Il-sung, glorified Joseph Stalin, borrowed heavily from Chairman Mao's reeducation literature, and believed he was the reincarnation of Lenin.
  • A God Am I: As time went on Jones started to view himself as an inerrant Godlike figure, and many of his followers agreed (while other more pragmatic followers overlooked these claims because they felt the cause was the important thing).
  • The Hedonist: Temple members, both male and female, recall sleeping with or being sexually assaulted by Jones, who was rarely sober.
  • Heroic BSoD: Some Temple survivors recall experiencing these while witnessing the carnage unfold around them.
  • I Will Find You: The relatives of the Temple members trapped in Jonestown.
  • If I Can't Have You...: Jones was ready to have Temple members shot and poisoned before allowing them to leave.
  • Infant Immortality:
    • Averted. Tim Carter, one of the few Temple members to leave Jonestown alive on the day of the massacre, recalls watching his son die from cyanide poisoning.
    • Carter's story comes at the same time we hear the actual audio recording of the beginning of the massacre, in which children were forced to take the poisoned punch first. Young kids can be heard screaming in the background while Jones tells his followers to keep going. The entire sequence is a ten minute installment of Nightmare Fuel.
  • Interfaith Smoothie: Despite being a pentacostal pastor and preached "apostolic socialism," he later preached Christianity had lied to its followers. At various points he admitted to being an atheist and agnostic, though he declared himself a prophet, an avatar for various religious figures, or a god himself so it's unclear what he really believed. The general thrust was the only road to paradise is through Jim Jones.
  • Kubrick Stare: Former member Hue Fortson describes an incident where a female member who expressed romantic interest in Jones was stripped naked and denigrated in front of the entire Temple. Fortson notices Jones giving her this while sporting a Slasher Smile.
  • Let No Crisis Go to Waste: Part of Jones' rants over the Jonestown speaker system were claims that America had gone full "fascist" and were sending all of their minorities to concentration camps.
  • Made a Slave: Jonestown inhabitants were made to work at almost all hours of the day, had to live in cramped rooms and huts, and were not permitted to leave the settlement except in (extremely) rare circumstances.
  • Manly Tears: The male Temple survivors, especially Tim Carter.
  • Mask of Sanity: One follower remembers an incident in the San Francisco Temple where Jones asked everyone to gather and drink from a vat of punch, before telling them that they just drank poison and were about to die. Then he tells everyone that there was no poison and that they have just taken a test of loyalty. It makes you wonder how long Jones planned the massacre in advance.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: Jones' sermons, being geared toward post-Civil Rights Movement black audiences, were full of this. While initially justified, they soon evolved into obsessive anti-government paranoia.
  • Offing the Offspring:
    • A massive example. Jonestown's children were the first to be given the cyanide-laced punch. Their parents led them to the vat, where they were either forcibly injected or had the poison squirted into their mouths.
    • Tim Carter walked in on his wife as she was squirting a poisonous syringe into their baby son's mouth, and then took the poison herself. He graphically describes the poison's effects on the baby.
    • Meanwhile, at the Temple's offices in Georgetown, high-ranking member Sharon Amos killed her three children (one an adult who willingly allowed it), then herself (with help from her adult daughter).
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The Peoples Temple and how it was run.
  • Photo Op with the Dog: Horrible as Jones was, he was a hero to the black community for championing civil rights and often provided them with legal services and nursing homes for the elderly. Once they were on the hook, Jones convinced them to drain their savings and fork it over to his church, where it was funneled into one of several Swiss bank accounts.
  • Plot Armor: Pointedly averted. Congressman Leo Ryan, perhaps out of naivete, seemed to think he had this when he told Vernon Gosney, a Temple defector, that he had "the congressional shield of protection around you." Gosney looked at Ryan as if he were "totally insane." Both Gosney and Ryan were shot at the airfield, the latter fatally.
  • Precision F-Strike:
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy: A very dark example. It is noted that Jones' early sermons had a lot in common with African-American churches, which made him popular with that demographic at a time when segregation was the norm. It is also theorized that Jones may have related with the Civil Rights Movement through his own ostracization from society.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: One of the greatest Real Life examples out there. Jones started as a weird but friendly child that grew into a young man who believed in racial equality and socialism as a way to improve other people's lives. He then decided that The End Justifies The Means, got addicted to drugs and power, and it got worse. Much worse.
  • Scenery Gorn: Jonestown post-punch.
  • Secret Test of Character:
    • How Jones characterized the many "White Night" meetings, where he'd gather his followers, convince them they were under attack, and have them pledge one-by-one that they were willing to die for the cause (and at least twice Jones actually gave them what he said was poison). Which is why it took a while for everyone to realize that the final meeting was the real thing.
    • He'd also announce Loyalty Tests where Fake Defectors would ask their friends to help escape Jonestown, and they would be required to denounce them. Of course this also discouraged genuine defectors from seeking help from family and friends.
  • Sinister Minister: Jones changed his gimmick depending on the audience. Pentecostals tended to respond to the hard sell, while the beatniks were enticed by his Marxist ideology. Jones dropped the act once the converts arrived in Guyana, revealing that he believed in neither God nor heaven, though he believed himself to be God or at the very least a prophet.
  • Sinister Shades: His trademark look, which he claimed was either to minimize distractions while he was meditating, or even to shield his followers from the divine spark in his eye. The shades were actually to hide the redness in his eyes caused by heavy painkiller and amphetamine abuse.
  • The Sociopath: By the time of Ryan's visit, Jones was a controlling, egotistical, abusive, promiscuous madman. He soon ordered the murder of Ryan, then his followers to kill their children and commit suicide.
  • Stepford Smiler: Temple members in archival footage who expound how great it is living in Jonestown.
  • A Storm Is Coming: Played eerily straight in Real Life. On the day of the massacre, hours before the vat is brought out, a severe thunderstorm pours torrential rain on the settlement. Survivor Tim Carter remarks that it was "as if evil itself had blown into Jonestown."
  • Taking You with Me: What Jones' "revolutionary suicide" really was.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The film hints that there was something seriously wrong with Jones as far back as his childhood.
  • Think of the Children!: Christine Miller objects to the mass suicide.
    Christine Miller: I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live.
    Jim Jones: I agree, but what's more they deserve peace.
  • Uncanny Village: Jonestown, which was purportedly built as a left-wing utopia but gradually evolved into Jones' dystopian fiefdom.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Before Guyana, Jones had a popular following among liberals and radical leftists in the United States, owing to the political and social activities of the Peoples Temple. In particular, Jones managed to forge links with San Francisco politicians George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and Willie Brown, as well as Vice President Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalyn Carter.
  • Villain Protagonist: Jones starts out very much a protagonist, but becomes more of a villain as his power and paranoia grow. He becomes a full-blown monster by the time the Temple settles in Guyana.note 
  • Villainous Breakdown: The whole massacre can be seen as this. In news footage, Jones becomes increasingly anxious as more and more Temple members choose to defect to Ryan's delegation. Knowing his paranoid nature, we are not surprised when he takes the extreme measures of having Ryan assassinated and organizing the mass death of his group.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Jones demanded that that the poison be given first to the Temple's children.


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