Looking back on the Jonestown massacre today, the horror is almost unfathomable.
On Nov. 18, 1978, Jim Jones orchestrated the mass suicide of 918 members of his cult in a remote commune in Guyana, South America. The men, women and children — members of The People’s Temple — killed themselves by drinking a cyanide solution laced with Flavor Aid, an inexpensive knock-off of Kool-Aid.
It was the single greatest loss of American life in a non-natural disaster until 9/11.
Nearly 40 years later, many people have forgotten the horror — but many people who were close to the cult are speaking out on the Reelz Channel’s docuseries, Murder Made Me Famous.
Cult member Jordan Vilchez managed to escape death because she happened to be in the People’s Temple office, 150 miles away. She says on the show that she probably would have committed suicide had she been in Jonestown that day. “I would’ve been in such shock about seeing babies and children dying that I would’ve probably done it, not even knowing what I was doing, just from the sheer shock of it,” she says.
While she might have gone along with the idea, Vilchez doesn’t believe she would have been excited about the suicide. “I wouldn’t have been like, ‘Oh yeah, give it to me. I wanna die.’ I don’t think anybody wanted to die. I mean, who wants to die? Right?”
The FBI eventually retrieved chilling audio recordings of the mass suicide. The gut-wrenching audio, known within the FBI as the “death tape,” gives a rare insight into the way that cult leaders manipulate their followers.
While Murder Made Me Famous has always used recreations to depict famous crimes, the Jim Jones episode will mark a first: producers play large sections of the authentic FBI audio recordings of the fateful mass suicide. It provides an eerie soundtrack to the reenactment. (An exclusive 30-second clip of the episode is above.)
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
“I was in shock,” cult survivor Vilchez says on the show, and stresses that most of the cult members’ motives were pure. “There were intentions of doing a lot of good on the part of people,” she says. “I think people sort of thought, ‘Well, I don’t agree with this, and I don’t believe this. But what we’re standing for is really wonderful.’ ”
Could Jonestown Happen Today?
In the 39 years since the Jonestown Massacre, the case has been studied by countless criminologists and historians. The question is always raised: in the world of social media and 24-hour news, could a similar event happen in 2017?
“Do I think there’ll be another one as massive as that? I certainly hope not,” says Patrick O’Reilly Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in cults and has authored several books and articles about the Jonestown Massacre. “But where there’re power hungry people, there’re also vulnerable people, and people looking for a purpose in life, uh, looking for structure, looking for a religion, a spirituality.”
Biographer Jeff Guinn agrees — and says that social media would have helped Jim Jones. “If Jones is alive today, he’s going to master social media,” Guinn told PEOPLE last month. “He’s going to use Facebook and Twitter to get his message across unfiltered.”
Murder Made Me Famous combines reenactments, exclusive interviews and never-before-seen photos and video to tell the story of infamous murderers. The show is hosted by PEOPLE Senior Writer Steve Helling.
The Jim Jones episode airs Saturday (8 p.m. ET) on the Reelz Channel.