Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate were supposed to be utopias. How did it go so wrong?

When a dream becomes dystopia.

Illustration Thomas Hedger
Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate were supposed to be utopias. How did it go so wrong?

On November 19, 1978, at the behest of their spiritual leader Jim Jones, over 900 Americans living in Jonestown — an agricultural commune dug out of the unceasing jungleland of northwest Guyana — killed themselves. The instigating incident was a visit from a swashbuckling California congressman named Leo Ryan, who had arrived in Jonestown to investigate allegations from concerned family members that people in his constituency were being held against their will.

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His trip began well enough. Thanks to Jones’s careful stage-managing, Ryan was at first convinced that Jonestown was a harmless, if kooky, place. By the end of the day, would-be defectors began slipping notes begging for help escaping. By the next morning, while on the tarmac of a tiny nearby airport with a small group of defectors, Ryan was shot and killed by one of Jones’s disciples.

Afterward, Jones convinced the rest of his followers that the Guyana Defense Force, the country’s national army, would soon act on U.S. government orders and emerge through the trees to torture and murder them all. He advocated “revolutionary suicide” instead, and cajoled and pleaded and hectored his followers until everyone had ingested Flavor Aid (not, as is commonly believed, the more expensive Kool-Aid) laced with a cocktail of poisons.

That’s the part of the Jim Jones story with which most are familiar: the unfathomably grim end. It’s why Jones’s organization, the Peoples Temple, has long since entered lore as a death cult. It’s a tempting thing to believe. It’s just not true.

In his recent book The Road To Jonestown, the author Jeff Guinn traces the epic history of the Peoples Temple, from its founding in Indianapolis in the ’50s to its boom in California in the ’60s and ’70s to its wildly ambitious — ultimately, tragically so — transplantation to South America.

Guinn makes it clear that in joining him, Jones’s followers weren’t seeking death. The congregation was diverse in race, in gender, in socioeconomic status. It was a radical proponent of equality. What Jones’s followers were seeking, desperately, was to change the world.

In the early ’60s, with a series of carrots and sticks, they helped successfully force Indianapolis to integrate. Restaurants that didn’t serve black customers would be boycotted; restaurants that did would get waves of Peoples Temple customers. Through similar tactics hospitals and government agencies saw integration as well. And as the Peoples Temple grew and moved, it retained that altruistic bedrock: it wanted to literally fulfill the Biblical commands to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.

Years later a man named Bernie Blanton, who spent his high school years in Peoples Temple before fleeing the organization, would write, “Even to this day I can honestly say they were some of the most highly principled individuals I have ever been associated with.”

Over the phone from his home in Fort Worth, Texas, Guinn told The FADER, “Always with Peoples Temple, there were social outreach programs, drug counseling, food giveaways, clothes giveaways, sending poor kids to college. Initially that was the basis, that was the foundation, of their whole existence — to do these good things.”

Jones’s followers believed in a greater cause, and suppressed their will to his to make it happen. For a long, long time, a lot of good came of it. But the result, in the end, was disaster.

“That’s the anomaly,” Guinn says. “Unlike other demagogues, Jones got his followers by appealing to their better natures. He wasn’t telling them that they were superior to anybody else, that they have to destroy everybody else, that it’s their destiny to rule the world. He brought them in by saying, ‘Let’s make the world a fairer place, a better place, without regard to race, without regard to gender.’”

Dystopia and utopia are antonyms, or at least they’re supposed to be. One is an absolute nightmare, the other a perfect dream. In practice, like in Jonestown, the two extremes can thread together. In any given aspiring utopia — in its grand gambles, in its bold social experimentation — there is the seed for unspeakable calamity. Just like that, the dream can become the nightmare.

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Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate were supposed to be utopias. How did it go so wrong?

In the spring of 1997 a notorious event occurred in Southern California that provided echoes of Jonestown. In a suburban San Diego rental house, 39 bodies were found wearing identical black Nikes, all of them with exactly $5.75 in their pockets. It would soon emerge that this was a cult known as Heaven’s Gate, and that they’d eaten phenobarbital-laced apple sauce, and that they’d killed themselves believing they were joining a spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. It would also emerge that they’d shared identical last meals, at the family-dining restaurant Marie Callender’s: turkey pot pie, blueberry cheesecake, and iced tea.

The leader of the group was a man named Marshall Applewhite. For years he presided over Heaven’s Gate alongside his co-leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles. They were known by their followers as Bo and Peep, or Do and Ti, or the Two. Nettles died in 1985, just over a decade after she and Applewhite first established Heaven’s Gate. In the ’90s the group found financial stability by designing websites.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biographical details that emerged about Heaven’s Gate members in the months after the 1997 mass suicide pointed to lonely lives. “He felt he had a purpose,” one man’s sister said of her brother’s entrance into the cult: “He was part of a community.” A Heaven’s Gate member’s parent told the media that her estranged daughter once wrote her a letter saying “Mother, be happy that I’m happy.”

Anticipating a media frenzy after their suicides, members of the cult left behind videotaped testimonials. There’s nearly two hours of footage, all beatific smiles and self-awareness. “I just wanna let everyone know how lucky and happy I feel to be here,” a member who identifies herself as Yrsody says, “and to let you know that what we’re about to do is certainly nothing to” — she pauses — “think negatively about. We’re all choosing of our own free will to go to the next level with Ti and Do.”

“There are people in the world who thought I had completely lost my marbles,” scoffs a member identified as Wknody. “They’re not right! I couldn’t have made a better choice.”

There’s also a 45-minute audio tape recording from the night Jim Jones ordered the “revolutionary suicide.” It’s a remarkable thing to revisit, not the least so because of the eery similarity to the Heaven’s Gate confessionals. All over the “death tape,” as it’s known, are voices declaring their own happiness until the very end.

Most of the tape is Jones talking. “If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace,” he says. “I haven’t seen anybody yet didn’t die. And I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change,” he says. But you hear the voices of his followers, too. And they are praising him.

“I’ve been here ah — one year and nine months,” one woman says, “And I never felt better in my life. And I don’t see nothing that I could be sorry about. We should be happy. At least I am. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

“I just like to thank Dad, ’cause he was the only one that stood up for me when I needed him,” says another, referring to Jones.

At one point, a member hopes that someone among them will “endure long enough in a safe place to write about the goodness of Jim Jones.”

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Jones, for his part, never stops his sales pitch. “[We are] 1,000 people who said, ‘We don’t like the way the world is,’” he says. “We didn’t commit suicide, we … protest[ed] the conditions of an inhumane world.”

When we think of the emergence of a dystopia, we think of a descent into madness — a slow but evident forward progression. When did Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple lose their bearings? Pinpointing an exact moment where a flip is switched — from hope to insanity — is not possible. Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple had their defectors, but those defectors could only tell you about their own personal breaking points.

In Jonestown, on that horrible last day, there were victims that pushed back, argued with Jones, tried to save them all. They either succumbed to group pressure, or were forced to ingest the poison. And by all available evidence the vast majority felt, as Jones told them, that this was their destiny.

To the end, Jones peddled the dream of utopia. Their final acts of life, he told his followers, wasn’t what they had once planned, no. But it was now their only choice. This was the only way they could fulfill the dream.

Dystopia and utopia are antonyms, or at least they’re supposed to be.

Most of the time, reality TV producers create ostensible utopias knowing they’ll crumble into dystopia just about as soon as the lights are switched on. Both some of the most venerable formats the genre has ever created and its strangest curios — from Survivor and Big Brother to Temptation Island and Kid Nation — operate on the principle of shoving a small group of people into an isolated space and letting them quickly go insane.

The British show Eden was supposed to be different. Shot in the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula, in the Scottish Highlands, Eden was a sincere attempt at a televised utopia. No competitions or challenges or any other incentives for dissent to foment. No meddling from producers hoping to gin up dramatic screen moments. Just 23 strangers picked for their survival skills and left to build their own isolated community. The crew would be off-site so as to interfere as little as possible with the genuine experiment. The tagline: “What if we could start again?”

As The New Yorker reported earlier this year, it all went to hell. The cast members chafed at constantly wearing their microphone packs and would at times remove them, but a “loudspeaker system known as the Voice of God would tell them to put them back on again.” Not too long into shooting, “a crude hierarchy formed, based mainly on physical strength.” Factions formed, too.

A series of rebellions and walkouts forced the production team to give in to demands from the cast. One of the demands was something called “turbo yeast,” with which it “took only 48 hours [to] make a forty-proof moonshine.” “In the autumn, they did nothing but drink, really,” a crew member observed. One cast member faced a mental breakdown in which she “imagined that she was in Eden permanently, and that if she tried to leave she would be caught by the police and brought back.”

The darkness of Eden, thankfully, was a simulation. In the end, blessedly, everyone went home. The darkness of Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate will resonate for generations to come.

The healing that Heaven’s Gate attempted to provide was internal. One former member who left the group before 1997 once said, by way of explanation of what went so wrong: “We were seekers of what was going on, why were we here, what’s the purpose of life.” They were anguished people, looking for answers to impossible questions. They came together to find it. Their failed utopia was a brotherhood and sisterhood of those who desperately needed something in which to believe.

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Peoples Temple wanted to fix the world, an even more powerful motivation.

“There are degrees of manipulation, and the most effective ones are not necessarily the most obvious,” Guinn says. “Jones got his followers to totally commit, leaving behind families and friends. And there’s a certain amount of pride that will not allow their followers to say, ‘This guy is not what I believe in.’ You commit yourself so totally, you just can’t let yourself back out. You can’t admit that this person can ever be wrong.”

Believing in the greater calling of aspirant utopia, Jones’s followers rejected their own individual decision-making processes. The grand project of a perfect egalitarian society got them to commit, totally. And once they were committed, there was no going back.

There are a lot of ways that Peoples Temple could have ended, even in ignominy, that wouldn’t have meant mass death. But once Jones convinced his members — in the name of utopia — to trust him over themselves, the possibility of the Jonestown tragedy was born.

Here’s the really terrifying thing: whether real or simulated, the world constantly provides us with examples of people who started out with the best of intentions for utopian community life and then watched as everything went horribly, completely wrong. It’s enough to make you want to give up before even trying.

Which is a terrible thing to do. Because we need people bold enough to believe they can remake the way we live. We don’t want our would-be visionaries to fear the fomenting of accidental, in-retrospect inevitable dystopia. Whoever you are, you’ll never get anything done unless you really believe things will work out. But if you’re wondering how all those people wound up drinking the Flavor Aid in that commune cut out of the Guyana jungle, it’s because they, too, really believed.

Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate were supposed to be utopias. How did it go so wrong?