There is much we know and much we don’t know about what precisely happened when 908 people lost their lives in a mass poisoning. The events surrounding the Jonestown massacre are generally considered to have been suicide, but there were several others involved, including children who did not go willingly when the events of that cold evening in November of 1978 transpired. The events would be chronicled as one of the single greatest losses of civilian life not related to war or natural disaster until 2001 when 9/11 happened.
Of course listening to the tape one of the first things you notice is how differently it is than you may have expected. So often in media depictions of cults the members talk in an emotionless almost robot like monotone. The idea of a brainwashed individual is a person who has completely given up their ability to think for themselves and has been left with nothing but a simple nervous response to external stimuli. But in this case it is quite the contrary. In fact, cult members from the Jonestown Massacre speak eloquently in ways that is largely difficult to determine from normal speech patterns.
It’s a terrifying question that is raised when we consider cults and what may be a cult. The idea of people entirely losing their identity and becoming an automaton that once had a personality is strange enough, but when the speech patterns and even many behaviors are so recognizable (even in outrageous and cult-like circumstances) we immediately are forced to ask ourselves just what caused this massive diversion from sanity and the known qualities of life.
But the Jonestown incident is different. The group behaves as though they are still in the midst of a normal political discussion, and it is only the content of their conversation that clearly betrays that something at some point went very wrong in their spiritual and/or social progression. The only one that seems to be behaving strangely at all is the leader, Jones himself as he seemingly tries to reassure his disciples that there is no alternative.
Perhaps one of the problems is the use of the term cult. While the term certainly applies to the Jonestown incident, it has a dismissive quality about it that doesn’t actually delve into the question itself. Why did Jonestown happen the way it did? What could change a person’s mind so completely to follow a single individual even to the point of death? And when these individuals lost their free will to think for themselves, did they give it up willingly or was there some mechanism present within the compound that removed the choice from them entirely?
Even now, over 30 years after the massacre, while it has become a major cultural icon and source of research for those interested in studying cults, it is still a curious tragedy with as many unanswered questions today as in 1978.