Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, The Branch Davidians and The Order of the Solar Temple are names which are ingrained in history because of the final acts these cult movements carried out. Acts which resulted in the collective deaths of hundreds of people and almost all were deaths at their own hands. Known as mass cult suicides all were instigated by the same handful of individuals. Men who placed themselves at the highest level of these groups and had their followers hanging off their every word; the pathological narcissistic cult leader.
These are groups that using different methodologies and for a range of different motives committed suicide en masse. Horrific scenes of multiple bodies laid out either on the ground where they fell or neatly positioned in beds, dressed in ceremonial robes and matching armbands, ready for their souls to pass through into the next life they believed they were going to.
Cults can emerge in a number of formats and not all are based on religion. Political agendas, enlightenment for psychological well-being, and commercial ventures can all find themselves falling within the infamous cult category.
A cult itself is generally led by one authoritative individual who the rest follow obediently with the key identifying characteristic of such a group being the agenda behind the organisation. The cult generally exists to serve the purposes of the leader and not to enrich and support the lives of its members despite what their literature may read. Cults can also be spotted through the levels of control and strict discipline applied by the leader.
“They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged.” – Former FBI Agent Joe Navarro
Manipulation, intimidation and fear tactics are often used to keep members or followers in line and meeting the standards and expectations of the overbearing leader. Almost all cult leaders are narcissists and a narcissistic personality can be powerful, manipulative, cunning and charming but with a distinct lack of empathy. They strive for control and power and fully believe they can achieve it and they are entitled to have it.
A religious sect is a perfect place for a narcissist to thrive. However, without all the people who fall under their spell, the followers and devotees who believe in them, encourage them and, in the case of cult movements, can give up everything they own in order to follow their message, they could not obtain the levels of power over the lives that they do.
Feeding a narcissist is a dangerous business but those who do, genuinely believe in what this person is preaching to them. However, this does not mean all those who join a cult have issues themselves. The majority of people who join cults are healthy individuals with no mental health problems or terrible family backgrounds to explain why they would join such an organisation.
The key is that the cult itself lures people in with false promises and keeps them there through various psychological tactics. Furthermore, when religion is involved, many people can wholeheartedly believe the message from a cult leader and once that belief is set it is difficult to shake. There are characteristics which may make a person more susceptible to a cult control environment which include loneliness, depression and a feeling of no purpose or looking for answers in their lives.
“The church gave me a community and a sense of belonging to something that was larger than me, and I felt a sort of pride in that my life had meaning” – Jordan Vilchez, Jonestown survivor.
People with these issues may be more likely to latch onto a cult environment thinking the beliefs and promises will provide the answers and movement forward they are looking for. Equally, a feeling of belonging and a shared understanding should not be underestimated in the human psyche as it can be a powerful force for all of us.
In November 1978, leader of The People’s Temple Disciples of Christ, Jim Jones, gathered his almost 1000 followers together at their compound in Guyana in South America and announced the authorities were closing in. Already responsible for the ambush on Congressman Leo Ryan at the airstrip nearby to keep people away and buy himself time, Jones was drug fuelled and feeling under threat and knew he had nowhere to run. He had already taken his sect into the jungle rainforests of Guyana, far away from society and civilization in order to isolate and discipline his followers without interference, and now he was no longer hidden.
Jim Jones instructed his followers they would be harmed, tortured and separated should authorities get into the compound and his solution was for the entire group to take their own lives before they did. Flavor Aid laced with cyanide and valium was mixed. Those who could not or would not drink themselves were helped. Children were given the punch to drink by their own mothers.
In total, 917 people including 276 children fell to the ground as the poison kicked in. Jim Jones also died that day but from a bullet, rather than the poison he instructed his followers to ingest, either from an order to one of his lieutenants or inflicted on himself. The scene that greeted the authorities when they arrived was an unbelievable sea of bodies piled up next to each other with empty plastic cups strewn around them.
There are different reasons why cult groups commit mass suicide and in the timing that they choose to do it. In Jonestown, these acts were instigated by Jim Jones because he had begun to feel like a rabbit in headlights. The activities at his remote compound tucked away in the jungle were under scrutiny and he knew it would soon be discovered how he had been treating his people and that the dark stories of those who had escaped were true. As a result, he had nowhere left to go.
In a final stand of defiance and control, he instructed his entire group of hundreds to commit suicide with him, which they dutifully did. “Those of us who grew up in People’s Temple were indoctrinated to think that one day we might have to die for the cause,” says Jonestown survivor Leslie Wagner Wilson, “…but I always thought it would be by forces outside of us, not inside,” she continues.
Tune in to Sword and Scale Episode 50 if you would like to learn more about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple.
The Branch Davidians
15 years later, David Koresh the leader of the Branch Davidians came to a similar conclusion when he felt threatened. Death, he thought, was preferable to surrender and he took almost 80 of his followers and his own children with him. David Koresh was a man who had announced himself as a Prophet of God and had amassed followers all over the United States. In late February 1993, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Unit had surrounded his Mount Carmel compound in Waco, Texas and Koresh was not prepared to give himself up.
For 51 days the group remained inside the compound refusing to come out or negotiate with authorities other than the rants of Koresh which he wanted broadcasted to the world. On 19th April 1993, the FBI threw tear gas into the building and soon fires began to break out. Fires, it is believed, that were set by Koresh and his followers. Few are unfamiliar with the dramatic photos of the compound engulfed in flames with the knowledge that the people inside were making no efforts to escape.
“We believe David Koresh gave the order for a mass suicide,” an FBI spokesman said after the incident now widely known as the Waco Siege. The few who did survive reported David Koresh did not allow his members to leave the compound during the conflict or when the fires started, shooting those who did try to leave. When the fires took hold, there was not an outpouring of members escaping from the burning building, they stayed inside and almost all succumbed to the smoke and flames that took over.
Not everyone is comfortable with the events on that day or with the Branch Davidians demise being labelled a mass cult suicide but, there is no getting past a large group of men, woman and children dying a horrible death alongside their trusted leader, David Koresh.
Heaven’s Gate on the other hand, another cult movement, was an entirely different scenario. Those in this group did not see the act of suicide as ending their lives; nor did they agree or succumb to it through fear. They welcomed it, seeing death in this life as a means to enter into the next level of an existence they believed was their destiny.
In March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their own lives in a mass suicide mission in the group’s mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. All wearing black, they drank poison masked by vodka and placed bags over their heads. The suicides took place in three phases and over a number of days. After the first group committed suicide, the next group arranged their bodies and covered them in identical robes before they went on to take their own lives. All were found with armbands that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”.
Marshall Applewhite founded the group in the 1970s, along with partner Bonnie Nettles. They were from the ‘Next Level’ they said and their job was to prepare their followers for getting there themselves. Described as a movement which “combined Christian and some Theosophical doctrines with beliefs in UFO’s [and] extraterrestrials” by Professor of Religious Studies Catherine Wessinger, they toured around the United States preaching their message and began to amass followers who believed in their teachings.
After Nettles died of cancer in 1985, Applewhite needed to re-group. When the Hale-Bopp comet passed close to earth in 1996, he jumped on its idea and claimed that the alien reincarnation of Nettles was behind the comet in a UFO and it had come to collect him and the disciples of the cult. Applewhite recorded a number of videos before the suicides explaining that in order to get to the UFO they had to “break away from the world”.
Interestingly, two members of the cult were instructed to say behind on earth. Their job was to ensure the Heaven’s Gate website was maintained and remained in a frozen time frame of the exact day the suicides took place. Instructions, according to reports, these two members have followed religiously for the last 20 years. They are believed to be a couple from Arizona who are now in their 60s who don’t’s advertise their roles. Most around them, they say, have no idea of the couple’s past and what they do now. This couple also firmly believes that one day Applewhite will come back to earth.
The members of this cult were not forced into death because of fear of being found out, arrested or somehow not able to continue with their activities as they wished. Their mass suicide, to them, was how they would pass through to the next stage in their lives and move forward in a positive way to the next level. It was almost a joyous act for them and members by all accounts before they took their own lives were excited at the prospect.
“The suicides resulted from a deliberate decision that was neither prompted by an external threat nor implemented through coercion. Members went to their deaths willingly, even enthusiastically, because suicide made sense to them” – Sociologists Robert W Balch and David Taylor.
Learn more about the fascinating case of Heaven’s Gate on Sword and Scale Episode 86.
The Order Of The Solar Temple
Three years earlier, a series of deaths were discovered in Switzerland that had been related to another cult group, the secretive Order of the Solar Temple. Founded by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret, the group’s beliefs were based on the mythology of the Templar Knights but they also incorporated astrology and Christianity. In a similar fashion to the Heaven’s Gate cult, they believed that death would bring the next stage. For them, death in this world would mean a rebirth on a star called Sirius.
The cult had its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland but had branches in Canada and Australia. They owned property across Switzerland, Canada and France and it is believed they were involved in money laundering and arms trafficking. The cult reportedly believed the end of the world was coming and were stockpiling weapons in preparation. On 5 October 1994, a total of 48 bodies were found across Switzerland, all believed to be members of the cult who had died in what appeared to be a mass suicide.
23 bodies were found in a hidden chamber below a farmhouse in a small village called Cheiry in Switzerland after emergency services were called to a house fire.They found the owner of the farmhouse, 73-year-old Alberto Giacobino, shot dead with a plastic bag over his head. Clearly a murder, rather than a suicide. When searching the rest of the house they found the chamber beneath the house, the walls covered in mirrors and the 23 bodies laid out neatly, many with gunshot wounds and plastic bags over their heads. They were dressed in robes and their bodies were lying in the shape of a star.
In another house in the town of Grange-sur-Salvan, a further 25 bodies were found. Children were amongst the dead and they were found to have died from either gunshot wounds or asphyxiation and there was evidence that some had been drugged. Clearly, the majority of these deaths were the result of murder, however, authorities believed some members of the cult actively participated in a mass suicide.
The two founders of the sect, Luc Jouret and Jo Di Mambro, were also found among the dead. It is believed they had been taking money from their members and had later convinced them that they had to die in order to enter the afterworld and be reborn. Both houses were set up with automatic systems to start the fires and investigators believed the idea was for the bodies to all be burnt, possibility to tie in with the founders’ beliefs that you have to be burnt by fire to enter the afterworld correctly.
Mass ritual murder sounds like a more appropriate description for what happened in Switzerland and certainly after taking a look at the reports surrounding the events at the time, both ‘mass suicide’ and ‘mass murder’ are terms used with many concluding these deaths were a combination of the two. The official verdict from investigating judge Andre Piller in the Solar Temple case, however, was determined to have been a case of collective suicide.
Mass Suicide or Mass Murder?
While in some mass cult suicides the members have agreed to take part, the question has to be asked whether these are truly suicides or are in reality mass murders. “I have come to think of the tragedy as a combination of collective suicide and a massacre,” says Leslie Wagner Wilson on Jonestown. “Children don’t commit suicide. More than 300 children died in Jonestown. They didn’t kill themselves”.
Suicide, by its definition, is an act carried out at a person’s own hand that results in their death. Most members of these cults who died did so due to drinking poison themselves, however, it cannot be said they weren’t influenced or pressured into doing so. In a broader sense, the cult itself is the instigator for these acts.
The belief of the leader passed onto the group’s disciples is all within the realm of brainwashing and preying on the vulnerable. In that way, these people have been convinced and persuaded to end their lives based on theories and suggestions of what their deaths will signify. That it is not a death, but a decision to exit the current world in order to enter the next. In this sense, these events can be seen as mass homicides with the leader of the cult being the person responsible.
”The techniques of many cults fall under the general rubric of brainwashing. Consciously and manipulatively, cult leaders and their trainers exert a systematic social influence that can produce great behavioral changes.” – Margaret T. Singer, Professor of Psychology
It is certainly believed that at Jonestown and The Order Of The Solar Temple the stronger and more dedicated members of the group may well have killed the less dedicated and unsure, before taking their own lives. The large number of children often involved in these events is a prime example. The fact that some of the deaths involved in the Order of the Solar Temple incidents in Switzerland were shot and most likely not by themselves, does not sit comfortably within the mass cult suicide label. A distinction seen in the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide from other cult groups is that their actions were indeed suicide by all members and no children were involved. Children, they believed, were not yet ready to make the decision on moving onto the next level.
Why do some of these groups go forth in a method of mass suicide and others don’t? The Heaven’s Gate suicide was the last in the US but there are plenty of other movements considered to be cults that are currently active. The Church of Scientology, Raelism, Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints and Kashi Ashram are just a few which have thousands of members and most also have some less than positive reports on what is going on behind the scenes.
Whether such groups have just evolved past ideas of death being required to move onto the next stage or are haunted by the ending of groups such as the Branch Davidians and those at Jonestown and ensure they don’t fall into the same trap, it is not known. What we can be sure of is that cult movements will remain and people will continue to join their ranks. We can only hope history in terms of mass suicides within these groups does not repeat itself.