Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple


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Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple


“The largest mass suicide in modern history,” is the conclusion that Director Stanley Nelson made regarding this eye catching movie, no, not a movie, a documentary, a horror documentary. The documentary climaxes with the horrific murder of more than 900 people who apparently included Jim Jones himself, the orchestrator of the heinous act. All this happened in Guyana in a town called Jonestown. Death came in form of a Flavor Aid which the cult members were forced to take in the presence of armed guards.  

The movie portrays Mr. Jones as a two faced beast. He is a viewed as a well-trained Pentecostal church minister and an idealist at the same time. In both faces he appears to be an orator who does not hesitate to use his skills to convince and impose his ideal ideas to the unsuspecting public. He approached historically judged people especially minorities from a perspective of a savior sensitive to their plight. To show his sympathy and well wishes, Mr. Jones went ahead and adopted Jim Jones Jr. who proudly said that he was the first black child to get adoption to a Caucasian in Indiana State. To his advantage, he managed to find such people in Guyana who were interracial and poor. 

Church members were made to receive comfortable and modest accommodation on top of allowances in exchange for 20 hours of work each day and their savings-life savings. From the look of things, people were okay with the arrangement owing to the fact that there were euphoric celebrations in Peoples Temple. To test the waters’ depth, Mr. Jones did a mock of the mass suicide and told his 126 present members that after taking the poison, they would die as one. Nothing happened. To show his influence, Mr. Jones massively helped support the election of a mayor in San Francisco in 1975. People who tried to walk out on Mr. Jones and his doctrines were labeled traitors. 

The end of the road came after a congressman from California decided to visit Jonestown to investigate complaints of people from California who had their relatives relocate to Jonestown. The congressman visit hit Mr. Jones’ nerve and his reaction left five people including the congressman dead. Oblivious of the fact that his end was imminent, he activated the historic mass murder. 

Concepts Evident From the Movie

The movie, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, is a classic illustration rich with examples especially in the study of groups and group dynamics. Mr. Jones had perfected the art of forming groups that were different and bizarre in all manner of ways but was interestingly able to hold the group together till the last minute. This paper will be an analysis of concepts such as leadership, power and influence that are inherent in group dynamics with special reference to Stanley Nelson’s work. 


According to Bhugra et al. (2013), goes beyond providing guidance and influence in the pursuit of goals but is a phenomena that helps leaders put across their message without mincing their words such that their followers are able to decipher their roles, responsibilities and positions clearly. Was this evident from the movie? Absolutely yes. The leader in the movie is the main protagonist, Mr. Jones who reigned with a fist of iron when need came calling. Mr. Jones was a classic leader. He was able to shift his church or rather, cult for three times, all along gaining numbers in terms of followers. During his last migration, from the US (California) to South America (Guyana), he managed to cross over with more than 1000 followers. All this was being done with the promise of a utopian community. Wasn’t that leadership?

Leadership is about making decisions. On this Mr. Jones was a genius. What made him move from city to city and then to a foreign country was the need to make the same decision. Media, especially in the USA paid attention to his activities and this was not what he wanted. Predicting danger, he made the decision to move and avoid being on the limelight. On the last part, the decision to murder was the most difficult one. It came to him when the congressman made the decision to do a check on his activities. Being egocentric, he influenced the attack that killed the congressman. Again, he knew that was most likely his last shot and decided to kill in mass. The decision to kill was predetermined and well planned. Remember he had made rehearsals on the same and all along he had been telling his people that, “Die with a degree of dignity! Don’t lay down with tears and agony! It’s nothing to death. It’s just stepping over into another plane. Don’t, don’t be this way.”


Power is the essence of having the upper end in a bargain (Turner, 2014) and the ability to reign. The same was the basis for which Mr. Jones abused those who were not only close to him but also believed in him. Out of his popularity with the lower class, Mr. Jones decided to live a life that used his power to exploit others. He claimed that he was the only heterosexual human left and from the same imagination, he imposed on some members of his church sexual escapades with him. Here, he used his power to exploit the sexuality of unsuspecting members. He was powerful to the extent of successfully blackmailing his congregation against deserting him. 

With the ability to influence, Mr. Jones was able to get people in more haphazard decisions. He managed to make a thousand people to migrate to a southern nation, give up their savings, and form gangs that protected him and also killed to keep him floating. Using his power, he was able to make his group agree to his idea of consuming fatal poison so as to die in unison. He tested his power over the people when he did a dummy exercise of the murder and confirmed his power. In San Francisco, he was a power such that he was able to make and move voters to successfully support his favorite. 


A group’s socialization influence always is the glue that keeps such a group relevant (Turner, 2014) to each other. From the movie, we can see Mr. Jones congregation as vulnerable due to their social class, economic status and race differentials. As a result, Mr. Jones decided to take advantage of the vulnerabilities to influence them. He influenced his congregation to believe that they were all homosexuals, and as such, being the only heterosexual, he took advantage of females. He influenced people to leave the US, together with their life savings to join him in his adventure. He was able to influence people into working for 20 hours just for a comfortable bed. His cult was so influential that its members were willing and able to execute high ranking US government officials. His influence in the US made his political choices pass to show that he had influence beyond his church. 

In conclusion, the movie has splendid lessons regarding group dynamics. As a leader, Mr. Jones was powerful and influential in the sense that he made people change their morals, behaviors and perspectives through which they viewed the realities of life. He was a master in his art till he pulled his last stunt that left the whole world jaw dropping. The movie was a good watch and resonated well with concepts in group dynamics.


Bhugra, D., Gupta, S., & Ruiz, P. (2013). What is Leadership?. Leadership in Psychiatry, 1-12.

Turner, M. E. (2014). Groups at work: Theory and research. Psychology Press.

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