15 Horrific Tactics Jim Jones Used To Keep His Followers On Lockdown

Jim Jones was one of the most successful cult leaders of the 20th century. The charismatic founder of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ amassed a loyal following, one dedicated enough to start a new settlement in Guyana under his leadership. Here, he promised, followers of all races would live together in harmony. Nicknamed "Jonestown," the commune became the site of one of the most notorious mass deaths in history. On November 18, 1978, a total of 909 people died at the location, either by poison or by gunfire.

How did Jim Jones keep his followers under his control, even as his plan for the "Jonestown Massacre" became clear? What cult tactics did he employ in order to get hundreds of people to follow his instructions? Over the course of his time as the head of the Peoples Temple, Jim Jones used multiple coercive tricks to control his parishioners, from psychological maneuvers to torture.

By the time Jim Jones moved to Guyana to establish his commune, he had already burned through his influential connections. For Jones, the only end game seemed to be death. So, how did he keep his followers from simply packing up and going home? Keep reading to learn all the horrifying details of how Jim Jones kept his followers on lockdown until the moment they died.

Photo: Nancy Wong / Wikimedia Commons

  • He Physically Isolated His Followers

    How do you legally kidnap hundreds of people and essentially give them no choice but to do whatever you tell them to? Separate them from the world. In 1977, Jones moved scores of his followers to Guyana, a country in South America, largely to escape the media scrutiny that was now surrounding the Peoples Temple.

    Those who went with him were cut off from their friends and family outside of the organization. Jones became their sole source of information.

  • He Created A False Warzone

    According to Guyana escapee Teri Buford O'Shea, once the Peoples Temple moved down to South America, Jones made followers believe that the military was after them. He told them that American soldiers were waiting in the woods to kill anyone who ventured too far away from the compound.

    O'Shea told The Atlantic, "We didn't know this at the time, but he'd set up people who would shoot into the jungle to make us feel as if we were under attack. And there were other people who were set up to run and get shot - with rubber bullets, though we didn't know it at the time. So there you were, in the middle of the jungle. Shots were being fired, and people were surrounding you with guns."

  • He Tortured Doubters With Drugs And Live Snakes

    He Tortured Doubters With Drugs And Live Snakes
    Photo: Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Deborah Layton was a Peoples Temple member who escaped Jonestown six months before the massacre. She filed an affidavit against Jones in order to get the US government to investigate the Peoples Temple. According to Layton, one of the ways that members of the cult were controlled was by being sent to the "medical unit."

    "Brave people who spoke out against the atrocities in Jonestown were taken to the 'medical unit' and put on coma inducing drugs," she said. "Others had a python wrapped around their neck. Children who cried about wanting to go back to the States were lowered into a dark well at night. One man was forced into 'the box' underground where he stayed for days/weeks."

  • He Subjected Followers To Public Humiliation

    To break specific members of his group down, Jones would force them to undergo mass criticism in front of the rest of the congregation. Jones would make the followers strip naked in public and encouraged other cult members to berate them at length.

    Former Peoples Temple member Elmer Mertle said that this technique was called "catharsis" and that each "catharsis" would end with Jones telling the person who was being punished that what had just happened was a good thing. Mertle said:

    The first forms of punishment [in the Temple] were mental, where they would get up and totally disgrace and humiliate the person in front of the whole congregation... Jim would then come over and put his arms around the person and say, "I realize that you went through a lot, but it was for the cause. Father loves you and you’re a stronger person now. I can trust you more now that you’ve gone through and accepted this discipline."

  • He Staged Fake Mass Suicides

    He Staged Fake Mass Suicides
    Photo: Symphony999 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Prior to the mass death that would end the Peoples Temple, Jones staged suicide rehearsals that he referred to as "white nights." During these events, members had to drink red liquid that they were told contained poison to test their loyalty. Jonestown residents were also frequently kept in the main pavilion while Jones spent all night raging against the media, outside family members, and government powers who opposed them.

    The true purpose of the white nights was chilling. By continually forcing people to enact a mass suicide, Jones was grooming them for the inevitable real event. By the time the actual massacre came about, Jonestown followers were subconsciously prepared to simply follow his instructions.

  • He Deprived Residents Of Sleep

    He Deprived Residents Of Sleep
    Photo: Peoples Temple / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Depriving someone of sleep is a quick and brutal way to destroy their will. According to Teri Buford O'Shea, one of the few escapees from Jonestown, sleep deprivation was one of the most effective methods of controlling Jones's followers.

    O’Shea said, "One time Jim said to me... 'Let’s keep them poor and tired, because if they’re poor they can’t escape and if they’re tired they can’t make plans.'" Jonestown residents were forced to work six days a week and were made to feel guilty if they slept for more than a few hours each night.