Analysis of a Cult Death Tape (Jonestown)

Yesterday Sam Harris shared the Jonestown Death Tape on his Twitter account. According to the source it was acquired from an FBI agent’s son. Naturally I couldn’t help but listen to all 44 minutes of it, and let me tell you—it’s one of the most interesting historical audio recordings I’ve ever heard!

But it’s obviously not for everyone.

You can listen to the tape here, but first let me lay out some warnings.

While I call the tape “interesting,” I do so precisely because of how disturbing it is. In the background you can hear babies crying and (presumably) toddlers screaming “No! No! No!” Parents cheer the deaths of their children as if infanticide is a meritorious venture.

Meanwhile the Rev. Jim Jones goes off on a paranoid torrent, accusing vague but malicious forces of plotting to kill everyone in the camp. Rather than face death by evil and invisible mercenaries, Jones reminds everyone: “we are not committing suicide; it’s a revolutionary act.”

This goes on for the last half of the tape. The first half is altogether different and is an extraordinary case study in cult mass suicide.

Jones begins his tirade by nonchalantly discussing why they are killing themselves. He asks his audience for feedback. After a few inaudible questions from his cult members, we finally hear the voice of one of them who vainly begs Jones to look for other options. Christine Miller pleads, “Is it too late for Russia?” The question is whether or not the cult can escape Jonestown and move to Russia. Presumably Jones told them earlier the Soviet government had extended them an invitation (highly, highly unlikely to be true).

Jones shoots her down, but Miller gets back up. In fact, she stands her ground against a murderous cult leader for several minutes. Here are some of the highlights from that exchange (emphasis mine):

Miller: I said I’m not ready to die.

Jones: I don’t think you are.

Miller: But, ah, I look about at the babies and I think they deserve to live, you know?

Jones: I agree. But also they deserve much more; they deserve peace.

Miller: We all came here for peace.

Jones: And we’ve—have we had it?

Miller: No.

Jones: I tried to give it to you. I’ve laid down my life, practically. I’ve practically died every day to give you peace. And you still not have any peace. You look better than I’ve seen you in a long while, but it’s still not the kind of peace that I want to give you. A person’s a fool who continues to say that they’re winning when you’re losing. …

Miller: When you—when you—when we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let them, the enemies, defeat us. 


What makes this discussion so captivating in context and in hindsight is that Christine Miller was among the 900+ people who died at Jonestown! Unfortunately we only know she died. We don’t know if she committed suicide or continued to stand her ground against Jones only to be murdered later. But I’d guess it’s pretty likely that she committed suicide.

The calmness of everyone on the tape, Jones included, is the most interesting aspect of the tape. We would probably think Jones was insane if he asked any of us to kill ourselves in a mass suicide ritual and vocally condemn and resist any pressure to do so. And we wouldn’t do it, but somehow he convinced ~1,000 people to end their lives, including a woman who publicly resisted Jones!. This is no easy feat.

Another very remarkable moment in the tape comes when Jones gets word that Leo Ryan was assassinated. He announces it to his audience, and they all cheer. Jones was able to paint a compassionate congressman from the US as a foreign enemy, and he convinced his flock that Ryan’s death was just. How did he do that?

People often think I’m a little crazy because of my interest in Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, but how could you not find it interesting? This is some of the weirdest shit to ever happen in the names of society and religion.

If you can handle the sounds of dying babies, I highly recommend listening to this. Creepy as fuck.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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5 Responses to Analysis of a Cult Death Tape (Jonestown)

  1. winfred says:

    That’s a no go zone for me. Can’t stand crying babies

  2. Jon Darby says:

    Tres creepy! A little too much for me. I understand the allure to the history of the cult though–it kinda takes the wind out of the Christian sails when you tell them about a guy who claimed to be the messiah (withing our lifetime), whose followers attested to his miracles (on video), and who convinced 918 people that they should be willing to die for him (now on audio!). There’s a lot more evidence backing up Jim Jones as messiah than Christians have ever been able to produce for Jesus.

  3. Mikhail says:

    I don’t think that SU government could let them go here. Ideology was Scientific Atheism (idk, maybe I translate it the wrong way) so they couldn’t let any religion cult come to this country.

  4. The mistake people always make when it comes to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple is describing it as a religious organization when it was not. In the years leading up to the Jonestown Massacre, Jim Jones derided the Bible and God Himself. Jones boldly declared that there is no heaven and he stomped on bibles and threw them across the church. He even suggested that the pages of the bible should be used as toilet paper. The other mistake people make is suggesting that the Jonestown Massacre happened in the name of Christianity. Most historians agree that it didn’t happened in the name of God or Christianity. The Jonestown Massacre happened in the name of Socialism, Communism and Jim Jones himself. I wish people would stop using Jonestown as an excuse to knock Christianity.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      So one of the posts I’ve been wanting to do for a while is to discuss this extraordinary phenomenon that occurred in Jonestown, the USSR, North Korea, and a few other places. Jim Jones was a lifelong atheist. Stalin, the Kims, and others are atheists. Yet somehow they were able to express their lack of belief while simultaneously claiming to be the literal god. This is fascinating to me, and the only reason why I haven’t blogged about it yet is because I’m a political scientist, and I’m attempting to formalize a study into this bizarre phenomenon.

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