Aside from wars and natural disasters, it was the greatest loss of life in modern times.
This month marks the 37th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, when over 900 men, women and children swallowed cyanide-laced juice at the behest of their deranged leader, Jim Jones.
A terrible death wasn’t what those poor people expected when they left everything behind for a life in the South American jungles of Guyana. Jonestown was supposed to be their Garden of Eden–a place of beauty and peace where all their hard work would finally pay off.
Instead it was a hot, humid, festering concentration camp where people spent their days doing hard labor in snake-infested fields for no pay and very little food, while their now-insane leader ranted and raved at them over a loud speaker. They were tortured for the most minor infractions, which included admitting they were homesick, and sexually abused whenever Jones saw fit.
But by the time the people realized their Garden of Eden was actually hell, it was too late. Jones had their passports, and even if they could have escaped, there was no where to go. Jonestown is only accessible by plane or boat, and running away meant a slow death in the impenetrable jungle. Even so, some people felt it was worth getting away from this place of torture and madness.
There were signs that there was something wrong with Jones from the time he was a child, when he reportedly murdered his friends’ pets so he could charge them for his animal burial “services.” While he claimed Jonestown would be a place where all races would live in harmony, he was more interested in acquiring his followers’ money in a quest for absolute power and control. In the end, I personally believe he ordered the murders of his followers not because he truly believed Armageddon was coming, but because he couldn’t stand to watch the collapse of his empire. He cracked when sixteen followers tried to leave him, realizing there would be many more to follow. The massacre was the last test of his terrible power.
For years, the Guyanese attempted to distance themselves from Jones and the horrible evil he perpetrated in their country, and rightly so. They had no idea what he was planning–they let him in because the price was right. However, now they have decided to acknowledge Jonestown with signs and promote it as a “dark” tourist destination.
The Jonestown of today is eerie. The jungle has mostly taken over, except for a clearing full of daisies where hundreds of bodies once lay. Most of the original structures are gone, trashed by fire and looting, but the curious can still see evidence of what happened there–including a 15-foot pit where “misbehaving” people were often left for days.
Beyond the darkness of Jonestown, Guyana is a startlingly beautiful place with gorgeous beaches and warm, welcoming people.
The Garden of Eden Jones promised his followers is there after all, lying just outside the gates.
Do you think physical places are forever altered after horrific tragedies like the Jonestown massacre? Do you think what happened in 1978 could happen again? Are “dark tourist” attractions ethical? Would you ever visit Jonestown?