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Mysterious Places: Jonestown

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.

Jim Jones

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.

The tragedy of Jonestown

The tragedy of Jonestown

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.

guyana

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?

PS: For more creepy tourist destinations, see this post about Japan’s suicide forest or this one about the Kabayan mummies.

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32 Comments

  1. Terrible what he did to his friends’ pets. That was a big warning flag right there.
    Visiting a site where so many died would be somber, that’s for sure.

    Reply
    • JH

      Most definitely, Alex. I don’t know if I’d want to go to a place like that or not, but I think it would definitely paint a clearer picture of what those poor people went through.

      I agree – killing animals is a huge red flag.

      Reply
  2. Wow, 30 years. I still remember the shock of hearing this news and wondering how anyone could follow this man. I have no interest in visiting there. Then again, I visited Dachau, so who knows.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Denise – it’s the same type of thing, on a smaller scale.

      I’ve read quite a few books about Jim Jones, and in the beginning, he was a charismatic, brilliant man who seemed to be able to heal people. And he specifically preyed on the poor and disenfranchised. Over 500 bodies were never claimed – their only family had been Jones and his other followers. Sad.

      Reply
      • There was a mixture… some were unclaimed because their family didn’t want to claim then due to their association with Jones. Many of the unclaimed were children, because their parents also perished in Guyana. Very sad, all the way around.

        Reply
        • JH

          I agree, Joyce. Definitely a very dark moment in history. Do you mind if I ask how you know so much about it? Do you have a personal connection? *she asks hopefully*

          Reply
    • JH

      It was a horrific tragedy, that’s for sure. Sadly, the police and government were warned that it was coming from followers who had escaped.

      Aside from Congressman Ryan, they did nothing.

      Reply
  3. Yes, I do believe horrific events leave a psychic mark on buildings and locations.

    Too bad one of his followers didn’t take him out but I imagine there was some hypnosis involved too.

    Reply
    • JH

      They were pretty brainwashed and afraid. Sadly, a lot of his followers also had no place else to go.

      Reply
  4. I do believe evil things leave an imprint. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there’s just an energy that seems to linger in a space where horrible things happen. I watched a documentary on Jonestown a few years ago and was astounded by the recording where you could hear people saying they didn’t want to drink. I had always assumed the guy brainwashed everyone into drinking it…but kids can be heard crying and so can adults and he made them drink anyway. It’s all just so disturbing.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh yes, it was horrible. A lot of people had guns to their heads before they would drink. And then Jones took the coward’s way out and shot himself – what a terrible, sick person he was.

      I agree with you on the energy imprint. I believe that as well.

      Reply
  5. Jonestown is a sad tale. I’ve read and watched a few shows about it. I think I’ll pass on that tourist destination though.

    Reply
    • JH

      It certainly wouldn’t be the happiest place to visit, but the rest of Guyana is beautiful.

      Reply
  6. I remember this well and the mass murder/suicide. The senator who was gunned down-all captured on camera. The guy was insane but this does go unnoticed when we think of how many people are let out by psychiatrists claiming they are OK only for these same people to kill again. I actually found it touching to know the daisies are covering the area where there is a mass grave. The morbid always attracts people and people will go to visit. I ma not sure if I would visit to be truthful. I could say no but if I was in the area and there wasn’t anything else to see I may very well go. I know it would feel eerie and very, very sad. They should keep it ramshackle though and not “make it look better”.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sorry, Birgit – I should have been more clear. The daisies aren’t where they were buried, but where they died. Even more symbolic that way, I think.

      The government and police had tons of warnings about Jim Jones and his plans before the massacre. Unfortunately, by the time they took action, it was too late.

      In some ways, it is good for us to remember the people of places like Jonestown, and honour those who died there.

      Reply
    • There aren’t any bodies buried at Jonestown. The daisies address growing where the bodies originally were laying. I think is beautiful… like Earth is loving those people who were only seeking a place where they felt they belonged.

      Reply
  7. I can’t believe I never heard of this. How horrible. I feel so bad for those people who fell into his trap. I do believe evil can leave an imprint on a place. Just like I believe places can be haunted. And how creepy and yet beautiful that those daisies grow where all of those people died, as if nature were trying to bless the area and erase the mark of evil.

    Reply
    • JH

      It is an amazing symbol, Chrys. I was hoping I’d be able to find a photograph of the daisies to share here, but I couldn’t.

      Jonestown was most likely before your time. I only know about it because I find cults fascinating. I like to see if I can figure out the psychology behind them – what makes people tick.

      Reply
      • A cult feeds on the most well fashioned thought of what a society should be and it uses the gullibility of its… what I would like to call it’s victims to suck into the dilutions of utopia and a good life and then exploit the circumstances. Followers are normal people and Jonestown followers weren’t any different, looking for love and comfort that we all look for and when presented with a golden opportunity they took it. Religion acts out of the doctrine of love and acceptance and thus the reason for its followers. Everyone wants to belong somewhere and they thought they belonged in people’s temple. They wanted a good life not death, they wanted a family and a father and the pain they felt on November 18 is one we all feel at times betrayed by the ones we love and trust. God rest there souls.

        Reply
  8. I remember it well. 30 years ago, I was graduating from high school. There was lots of talk about cults. How they trick you into joining them. It was scary. I’m sure my parents were afraid to send me out into the big, bad world. I always wondered why they all drank the poison. I hadn’t heard before that it was under duress, gun point, etc. What is also horrifying to me is that people can be swept up in someone else’s insanity.

    I’m not sure if I’d willingly seek out a place of horrible tragedy to visit. I believe that the feeling of it lingers on. I visited Dachau as a college student because that was the field trip during our study abroad. It was eerie and sad. It smelled like something had been burning. The day was grey. I stuck close to my group and was the first back to the bus when it was time to leave.

    Reply
    • JH

      Usually the people who get “sucked into” cults are estranged from their families, either willingly or not. They’re adrift, and are looking for something to belong to. There are some who come from good, strong families, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. When I was a kid, “Moonies” were the scare story, even though we had no idea what they were. We were convinced they were hiding around our school, waiting to grab us.

      It seems odd to clamour to visit a place like Dachau or Jonestown. Still, I think it’s important to never forget what happened there. Too easy to write it off as “the past” when similar situations are always happening. 🙁

      Reply
  9. Yes I remember it J.H. Didn’t the army try to get there – in time? But didn’t manage to? The story reached our shores here in South Africa. Daisies are a lovely symbol in spite of it all … no wonder our parents were afraid for us stepping out into the big bad world.

    Reply
    • JH

      Hi Susan,

      If they did, that hasn’t come up in any of my books about Jonestown. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I’ve read several survivor accounts about how they alerted the police and the government, but to no avail.

      Unfortunately, even when the government does get involved, it can have horrible results. Congressman Ryan’s visit to Jonestown was the last straw that sparked the massacre, and look what happened at Waco.

      Reply
  10. I thought the Jonestown murders happened in 1978. That would make it 37 years and not 30. If I am wrong, please correct me.

    Reply
    • JH

      Is my face red, Annette! Well, I never said math was my strong suit. 🙂

      I was going from a bunch of stories that ran this year, including one in a reputable paper, that said this year was the 30th anniversary. I should have double-checked the math.

      Thanks for pointing out the error!

      Reply
  11. It is not unusual for Sociopaths to start out killing animals when they are children and slowly graduate to larger prey.

    I believe a tract of land can be poisoned by extreme violence done upon it in ways science has not yet discovered.

    Sad that it is a tourist attraction now. 🙁

    May your holiday season be healing. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Hi Roland,

      Yes, any yet so many people ignore animal abuse because, “Hey, they’re JUST animals.” As an animal lover, it drives me crazy! Not to mention basic human decency dictates we show compassion for all creatures.

      My Thanksgiving came and went last month, but I hope you enjoy yours! My next break will come in December, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

      Reply
  12. How creepy and very, very sad. I hadn’t heard of this particular incident, but I remember the Heaven’s Gate suicides in ’97. So, yes, I do think something like this could happen again. I don’t think I’d want to visit the place, though. Too much wrongness there.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, the Heaven’s Gate ones were eerie too. But I think Jonestown was the most extreme.

      Thanks for commenting, Sara!

      Reply
  13. I totally remember this. The “church” My Daddy had us in has/had been referred to as a cult (and I refer to it as a cult myself – I hated it yet stayed so long but glad to be out now). What I remember the most is that my Daddy and others thought Senator Ryan was wrong to go there and that he should have left those people alone. I remember personally being horrified.
    From my experience people with military background can be sucked in as well

    Reply
    • JH

      Most definitely. Although Jim Jones targeted the poor and disenfranchised, no one is immune. That’s why it bothers me so much when people blame the victims, saying they were “stupid,” etc.

      Reply

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