True Crime Tuesdays: Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle
Helen Archer | On 02, Jun 2020
Recent news that BBC Four could be taken off the air later this year serves us a reminder of the jewel in its crown: Storyville, the documentary strand that has brought us films from around the globe and is at the moment the home of Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle.
It’s aptly named – a documentary so terrifying it has the feel of a horror movie. Directed by Shan Nicholson for SundanceTV, it was screened in the US two years ago to mark the 40th anniversary of the deaths of more than 900 American citizens in the Guyanese jungle. They had gone there to follow their leader Jim Jones, head of the Peoples Temple, and had hoped to form a socialist utopia, but instead found themselves trapped in the middle of nowhere with an increasingly despotic and drug-addled messiah-figure.
Originally shown over four hours in America, here it has been cut down to a more manageable, yet still extraordinarily detailed, 2 hours and 40 minutes, over two episodes. Using new interviews and previously unaired footage and audio, it’s based on the book The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, who is interviewed in the programme and functions as something of a narrator. He is joined by survivors of the church, including Jones’ sons Stephan and Jim Jones Junior. They each tell their own stories, which interweave effortlessly together to form a cohesive narrative of incredible escapes, terrible losses, and lifelong trauma.
The first episode deals quickly with Jones’ upbringing in Lynn, Indiana, before getting into the meat of the subject, as he sets up the Peoples Temple at the age of 25. Initially successful because it appealed to people in turbulent times with core messages of equality for all, it attracted idealists who were passionate about creating a better world. Including initiatives such as rehab programmes (one of the survivors here, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, tells of how she joined after they helped her sister get off drugs), it became the first fully integrated church in Indiana, and the Temple’s message resonated with African-Americans.
Playing audio of his ministries, the first episode documents the bogus “healings” performed by Jones, as well as his increasing paranoia, and the dramatics he would use to spread fear among his followers. In order to move them to California – where Jones felt he would have more access to power – he started prophesying about a nuclear war which would wipe out Indiana. To bind his followers more closely to him and the church, he invented government conspiracies, going into full isolationist mode, culminating in a faked assassination attempt.
It was enough to get his church moving west, where his fame was spreading. People gave up their houses, families and lives to follow him. The Temple became increasingly cult-like, setting up a Planning Commission to spy on and discipline people. Audio is included in the documentary of a punishment beating, with Jones’ high-pitched laugh as he observed the group violence. Defection was the greatest sin, loyalty its greatest value, and it was made increasingly difficult for anyone to leave.
And yet people were managing to get away, and had set up a group called Concerned Relatives. Determined to bring the abuse to light, they were working with journalists to expose the dark side of the church. In 1977, the article “Inside the Peoples Temple” was published, and suddenly Jim Jones felt the backlash.
He had a back-up plan, though. From 1973, Jones started sending out his followers to build a settlement in Guyana, Jonestown, a self-sufficient agricultural community billed as the promised land, and the Peoples Temple decamped there to escape scrutiny. Followers soon found themselves trapped in the middle of a jungle, where they’d have to trek 30 miles to get out, with no access to money or their passports. Sirens wailed in the middle of the night as Jones would speak from one of the many loudspeakers dotted around, ranting and slurring his words as he became more dependent on drugs.
The Concerned Relatives finally managed to get a congressional delegation, led by Congressman Leo Ryan, to travel to Guyana to investigate, and this ill-fated trip is detailed in stomach-churning detail over the course of the second episode. While on-screen we see footage of the riotous, yet sinister, applause with which Ryan was greeted, the interviews tell a different story. Behind the scenes, some people were planning their escapes. Footage of Jones as he watches his house of cards tumble down is genuinely creepy, and the tension builds to an almost unbearable level, before the gun attack and the airfield in which Ryan was killed along with the news crew in attendance, before the enforced “suicide” of those who remained at the camp. Children were injected with the poison first, so their parents could watch them die, thereby losing the will to live themselves. The famous Death Tape is played – audio of Jones as he performs his last sermon to his dying congregation – and disturbing details about the people who refused to drink the poisoned Flavour Aid are divulged. Finally, aerial shots of the encampment are shown, body upon body laid out next to each other on a scale that is all but incomprehensible.
It’s a brutal, nightmarish hour of television, but the over-arching narrative – of the manipulation of idealism – is also disturbing, and is one that survivors clearly think is relevant today. The way in which their lives were defined by their early optimism and their feeling of belonging, and the exploitation of their hopes and fears, make this not just a horror story but a cautionary tale. Refusing to allow themselves to be remembered in jokes about Kool-Aid, this documentary humanises Jones’ victims in a viscerally haunting way.
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle is availabe on BBC iPlayer until January 2021.