How to Become a Cult Leader (2023) s01e02 Episode Script

Grow Your Flock

[narrator] Thanks to the playbook,
your cult-building project
is well underway.
You've even gained a small
but loyal group of followers.
But to reach the next level,
you have to up your game.
To be a successful long-term cult leader,
you have to grow your audience.
[Julia] The number of followers
is like money in the bank.
The more you have,
the more power you have.
[narrator] Not to mention other benefits.
Incredible loyalty.
Dollars out of every orifice.
[narrator] And let's not forget
Pretty indiscriminate sex
within the congregation.
[narrator] It starts by giving people
something to believe in.
You need people to think you mean well.
You can't have them feel manipulated.
[woman] The moment someone
feels manipulated, you're done.
[narrator] Take a lesson
from the Reverend Jim Jones,
who mixed shrewd recruitment
with a communal vision
to grow his Peoples Temple
from 50 lost souls in Indiana
to an estimated 20,000 devotees
across two continents.
I shall do all the miracles you said
your God would do and never did.
[narrator] He didn't stick the landing.
But give him this,
Jones knew how to draw and hold a crowd.
[tense music accelerates]
[narrator] Jim Jones went
from a storefront preacher
to a larger-than-life messiah
with government leaders on speed dial.
Not bad for a guy
who used to sell monkeys for cash.
[gecker sound]
He was a very charismatic person
who was extremely intelligent.
[Yulanda] He just knew
how to touch your heart.
Thank you for inviting me in.
[narrator] But long before
he became the paranoid ruler
of a doomed jungle community,
Jim was just a young man
trying to find his place.
Wanna see what Jim Jones' story
can teach you on your own path
to cult leader success?
Let's start at the beginning.
[Jeff] Jim Jones grew up in rural Indiana.
There's five churches in town.
He joined all of them,
and would run from parts of one service
every Sunday to another.
[Julia] While other kids were playing
games like doctor and patients,
he liked to play preacher and congregants.
He would dress up and put a white sheet
around his shoulders,
and then pretend to do faith healing,
say, with chickens.
Jones was fascinated by Hitler.
[speaks German]
[speaks German] Sieg Heil!
The glories of Hitler's control
over his followers,
and that
when he was surrounded by enemies,
and when there was no escape,
he killed himself rather than surrender.
He was a civil rights leader,
believe it or not, in the '50s.
[Julia] He was always about this notion
of equality and social justice.
This is why you join Peoples Temple,
was because you believed
his message and his mission.
[Amanda] He had his own rainbow family
of children, of multiple races.
He seemed to be the real deal.
Slowly it evolved
into a high control group
where the leader had total dominion
and domination over his followers.
[narrator] From Hitler-admiring churchgoer
to tyrannical cult leader,
you could say
Jim's story came full circle.
But matching his success won't be easy.
In fact, it's going to take a miracle.
[narrator] Lost souls can choose to follow
any number of charming leaders.
If you want them on your team,
you need to establish a higher authority.
You need to make people think
that you are in some way special,
better, magical even.
[narrator] It's a tried and true formula.
[chill out music slowly playing]
[narrator] Shoko Asahara,
leader of Aum Shinrikyo,
bolstered the ranks
of his Japanese doomsday cult
by publishing
photos of himself levitating.
Polygamist cult leader Warren Jeffs
claimed he inherited
the superpower of talking to God,
which gave him the authority
to assign male followers
multiple wives for all eternity.
While Brazilian cult leader
João de Deus drew thousands of followers
who believed God had blessed him
with the power to heal AIDS and cancer.
He was later endowed
with 600 charges of sexual abuse.
[speaks Portuguese]
[narrator] I'm sure people will appreciate
your miracle work much more.
When Jim Jones set out to grow his flock,
he already knew
a trusty method to lure people in.
In rural Indiana,
there would be revival meetings,
and by God, they'd put on a show.
[Jeff] The shows would involve healings.
Pride refuses to heal,
but Jesus can make it heal. Everyone.
[narrator] Faith healings have been part
of Christian tradition for centuries.
There's no science
involved in faith healing.
Skeptics believe that this is
the power of positive thinking,
but if you believe that your pastor
is a divine messenger from God,
you wanna believe in miracles.
[narrator] After Jones opened
his first church,
he started by claiming
he could sense people's pain.
But it wasn't too long
before he expanded his repertoire
into full-blown healings.
And the crazy part?
Some of them actually worked.
[exclaiming and clapping]
My dad was a Baptist minister.
[Yulanda] He had sustained a heart attack.
He said, "Your doctor, he said
that you'll never be able to work again."
He said, "Do you believe in God?"
And my dad said, "Yes."
And he said, "Do you believe
God sends prophets?"
My dad said, "Yes."
He says, "Do you believe
prophets can heal?"
And my Dad said, "Absolutely."
And next thing we knew,
Jim Jones did something with his hands,
and he said, "Reverend, I want you
to run around this whole church."
He says, "I know you can do it."
And I said at that point,
"God, thank you so much for Jim Jones."
[narrator] Was his power real?
Jones claimed he didn't know.
Sometimes it'd work,
sometimes it wouldn't,
so as his congregation grew,
what he then resorted to was to fake
these faith healings.
[narrator] Before long, Jones started
diagnosing followers with cancers
no one knew they had
and showing
he could cure their afflictions.
They would cough up
a growth from their lungs.
They would show that all around
very ceremoniously.
[narrator] Another Jim Jones miracle?
Not quite.
That cancer victim was really
one of Jones' most loyal followers.
And the so-called tumor?
It was usually chicken parts,
some gizzard or lung or heart
or something that they would
supposedly cough up into a hanky.
[Jeff] Assistants were told,
"Don't let anybody get close."
And if somebody
tried to grab it away from them,
the assistants were instructed
to put it in their mouths and swallow.
[narrator] Legit or not, the healings
become Jones' biggest calling card,
with even the skeptics
going along for the ride.
You might have been thinking in your mind
that this is just a lot of BS,
but you're saying this to yourself.
[Herbert] You're not gonna say
to the person next to you.
You might not know
what the next person is thinking.
[narrator] Thanks to the power
of a good show,
the crowds continued to build.
You mix in this artistry
with the deception,
but when you add God into the mix,
then you have something
that makes people think,
"I will follow this man anywhere."
[narrator] Your miracles are a hit
with the tent revival crowd. Bravo.
But not everyone goes
for that particular kind of show,
and you need to expand your audience,
so follow the playbook
and spread your wings.
[slow tempo music playing]
[narrator] As a cult leader on the rise,
you need to find a way
to reach people from all walks of life.
And on this front, Jim Jones was a legend.
[Yulanda] Jim Jones
was a master manipulator.
You felt like you were important
and that he was speaking
specifically to you.
[Jeff] He's so charismatic.
He could connect with three,
four, five different types of audience
at the same time.
[narrator] Jones' secret,
a time-honored technique
called "code switching."
Code switching might involve
alternating between
different dialects or different languages
within the space of one conversation
or even the space of one sentence.
[narrator] We all do
a bit of code switching sometimes.
The stakes of code switching can be as low
as using "pop" instead of "soda"
if you're a Midwesterner
to show you're from where you're from.
[narrator] But Jim Jones raised the bar.
[slightly upbeat music playing]
[narrator] Jim Jones' rise takes him
across America,
and wherever he goes,
Jones shifts his delivery
to connect with his local audience.
[Jeff] Jones started in Indianapolis,
and the first people who come to see him
are mostly elderly Black women.
[narrator] Here, he uses
the spirit-filled speech
of a Pentecostal preacher.
When he moves the church to conservative,
mostly white Redwood Valley, California,
he's all about wholesome family values.
And when students
from a local college turn up
He would quote Nietzsche and Mao.
He would talk of Karma
and more Eastern philosophy
that was trendy at the time.
[narrator] Finally, when Jones
moves the temple's headquarters
to its permanent home
in downtown San Francisco,
he reads his audience
and talks about radical social revolution.
[Jones] But we shall have our freedom
here and now!
[cheering] Yeah!
[narrator] And if attention ever waned,
Jones could always deploy the message
he knew everyone would respond to,
telling them they're all going to die.
We don't need
more concerns about the tomorrows
because every day will be heaven.
The content, the ethics didn't matter,
but his ability to speak to the masses
and cultivate power did.
We started with about 141 people,
and from that we've grown
to a thriving congregation
of a few thousand.
[narrator] Of course, it's one thing
to get people to join your cult,
you have to make sure they stick around.
The playbook's next lesson
shows how to keep
your growing flock committed
by embracing the power of sharing.
Say what you will about cults,
they bring people together.
It feels good to connect
with other human beings.
It feels good to chant and to dance
and to do things
that might be considered "cultish."
[narrator] Nothing says connection like
forcing adult strangers to live together.
All good cult leaders know this.
Shoko Asahara bonded his acolytes
by forcing them to shack up
in communal living quarters,
which were riddled with pests
because his teachings
forbade killing any living creature.
Followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh
pitched in to build
a self-contained city, Rajneeshpuram,
where they could
securely practice their faith,
including free love
and nude therapy sessions.
Members of the Buddhafield cult
pooled their free time and money
to serve their guru, Jaime Gomez.
They even built him
his own ballet theater.
Jim Jones had his own
clever and profitable way
of uniting his followers
around a common purpose.
He called it "apostolic socialism."
The apostles all lived together,
Jesus' 12 apostles,
and they lived communally,
so he thought his members
should also live in communes,
and then, to fund this communal living,
to sign over all of their worldly wealth
to the church, to Jim Jones.
Aren't you retired?
Not around you I'm not.
He would easily convince people
to sell off any real estate they had,
cars, and turn it over to the church.
[narrator] And if anyone
needed a little extra convincing
He always made us feel guilty.
He told us he'd made
all of these sacrifices
in his life to help us.
He told us he could have been a rich man.
So when he asks us to do something,
we shouldn't give it a second thought.
[narrator] Jones used his followers' cash
and unpaid labor
to expand the temple's outreach.
You could serve meals
in the temple's soup kitchen,
distribute food to the needy,
or read to the elderly
in a temple nursing home.
You could fix cars in the temple garage,
spend all week writing letters
to government officials praising Jones,
write or edit the temple newspaper,
or work delivering
the finished product around town.
The opportunities were endless,
and so were the hours.
It's just not a Sunday type of thing.
This is your whole life,
so you are all in at this point.
It was a way of making people
feel they were contributing,
and it was a way
of gaining total control over their lives.
[narrator] Even with
communal success at home,
there's still a whole world
of potential followers
who have no idea what you can do for them.
Time to tackle that challenge head on.
[melancholic music playing]
[narrator] If you want to be
the one true Messiah,
you'll need to be more
than the big fish in a small pond.
If I'm setting myself up
as the be-all, end-all prophet,
I don't want somebody else
in the next town over
having three times
as many followers as I do.
How's that look?
[narrator] Not good.
And one of Jim Jones' greatest qualities
as a cult leader
was that he was never satisfied.
He knew exactly what to do
to get what he ultimately wanted,
which was money, power, and people.
Jim Jones bought a fleet of buses
and he would take his show on the road,
and at the end of the service,
he would tell people,
"Come back to California with us."
[narrator] The Jim Jones experience
was a sight to behold.
On a typical tour,
the temple caravan rolled into town,
unleashing the reverend, a band,
and hundreds of loyal worshippers
to liven up Jones' service.
Of course, no traveling festival
would be complete without a merch table,
fully stocked with portraits of Jones
that were said to cure
a wide array of ailments.
Sales, healings, and other donations
raked in ten grand at a single service,
while audience members were encouraged
to pack up their lives
and come to San Francisco.
Many did.
But not every stop was a success.
In 1971, Jones brings 200 temple members
to a dinner at the estate
of his lifelong hero,
the late pastor
and faith healer, Father Divine.
Jones' goal?
Take over Divine's flock.
At dinner with Father Divine's widow,
Jones makes a surprising claim
that he is, in fact,
Father Divine reincarnated.
[narrator] Mother Divine is not impressed.
She calls him the devil.
Mother Divine and her followers
chase out Jones and his group
under threat of violence.
You could see Jones' gambit
as bold or even crazy,
but he didn't leave town empty-handed.
He was able to steal
some of Father Divine's sheep
that then went on the buses
and came back to California with him.
[narrator] Jones' outreach efforts
paid off.
By the end of 1971,
the temple mailing list
had more than quadrupled.
Yes, Jones was hitting the big time.
But you know the saying,
the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
One of the things
that is most disastrous about cults,
at some point, it's going off the rails.
With Jim Jones,
this happens once he got into drugs.
[slightly upbeat music playing]
[narrator] When these problems do arise,
if you want to stay in charge
and out of trouble,
you're going to need to enlist
some steady hands.
It's good at the top.
The view,
the amenities,
the walk-in closet
full of skeletons.
[narrator] That's why you need
the right sort of allies
to keep your nose clean.
Cult leaders are very good
at having a group of people around them
who are part of the machine.
They keep their secrets,
and they know not to talk about
what happens from behind the scenes.
[narrator] Take it from these guys.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
relied on his spokeswoman,
Ma Anand Sheela,
to protect his reputation.
And when an unfriendly prosecutor
started poking around,
she tried to have him killed.
NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere
had high-ranking member Lauren Salzman
force female recruits
to provide compromising photographs
to make sure they remain faithful
to him and the group.
While members
of Shoko Asahara's inner circle
killed a lapsed disciple who threatened
to spill the cult's secrets,
then incinerated his body
in a giant microwave.
But few cult leaders had an inner circle
as loyal or organized as Jim Jones.
Jim Jones' inner circle
was called The Planning Commission.
[Julia] This was about 30
of his closest followers.
These were people Jim Jones
knew would go to bat for him.
[narrator] And despite
the temple's diverse population,
these insiders had one thing in common.
The inner circle was all white.
It was basically a hierarchy,
and the white folks were in charge.
They knew about his lies
and the fake healings,
but they believed
that the means justified the ends.
[narrator] As Jones' increasing power
starts to go to his head,
maintaining his divine reputation
takes a village,
especially now.
To keep up with his demanding schedule,
Jones begins popping
an impressive amount of pills.
Amphetamines for energy
and Quaaludes to come down.
Despite his commitments,
Jones still finds time to have affairs
with several of his parishioners,
which naturally need to be kept quiet.
Then in 1973,
Jones is busted at a local movie theater
for revealing his "staff"
to an undercover cop.
Not the best look for a messenger of God.
It was something that,
if it had become public,
could have ruined him.
[narrator] But when it comes
to indecent exposure,
you can only cover up so much.
[Jeff] They had to keep it quiet,
so he cut a deal.
[narrator] Jones pleads guilty,
but his lawyer,
also a loyal temple member,
makes sure the record's kept sealed
from the public and his followers,
which was actually a mixed blessing.
Once he got away with something like that,
why not do something else?
What happened with Jim Jones
is he started getting sloppy.
There were disenchanted people who left
and who knew about the drug use,
about some of the money-making operations
that are going on behind the scenes.
[narrator] Even you do everything right,
some people just won't get off your back.
The playbook's advice?
Turn this speed bump
into a pathway to paradise.
[man singing]
[narrator] Like dancing, leading a cult
often works best when no one's watching.
So if outsiders
begin prying into your affairs,
it may be time
to find a less judgemental refuge.
You've gotta get the hell away
to some place
where you're not gonna be getting
outside criticism.
This is typical of so many cult leaders.
[narrator] Jones had a good reason
for wanting to get away.
Jim Jones hears
that there is this reporter
that's sniffing around,
trying to talk to former temple members,
sniffing around the finances,
trying to dig up dirt.
[narrator] And by the spring of 1977,
the reporter begins preparing
a bombshell exposé.
It is damning.
It blows the lid off of the temple.
It talks about his affairs,
it talks about him
coercing money from members.
[Julia] It talks about beating children.
[narrator] Jones' connections in the media
tip him off about what's coming.
[Jeff] They didn't use anonymous sources.
They had the names of the people,
they had their photographs.
It was the crack
that was going to widen into a fissure,
and Jones knew it.
[narrator] Luckily, he already had
an escape plan in mind.
[reporter] But this fascinating country
on the northeastern coast
of South America, Guyana,
vividly contrasts the old and the new.
[narrator] Guyana checked
all of Jones' boxes.
It was English-speaking,
it was socialist,
and far beyond the reach
of pesky investigative reporters,
as well as another
of Jones' mounting concerns,
Cold War nuclear crossfire.
An added bonus,
Guyana was in dire financial straits,
so the government wasn't in a position
to turn down
an infusion of sweet cold cash.
Jones has Peoples Temple
lease 3,800 acres of jungle
in Guyana to build his Eden.
By this time, this article
in the San Francisco magazine comes out.
[Jeff] There are about 75 people
clearing land,
building cabins, and so forth.
[narrator] Feeling the heat,
Jones immediately
runs off to Guyana with his family,
and wastes no time
trying to get more followers to join him.
He told us we needed to have a place
where we could have our own utopia.
[narrator] Jones sends back
home movies to the temple,
which paint the settlement as paradise.
We saw big oranges and bananas,
and everything
supposedly growing on these trees.
Mm, mm, mm!
You don't know what you're missing here.
They make their own buns
and hamburgers and green vegetables.
[Yulanda] He said
we wouldn't need police officers.
There would be food aplenty for everyone.
You didn't have to go to work,
you could just relax and just enjoy life.
We have so many lovely insects
and animals who don't harm at all.
They've never been harmed
by anything down here.
[narrator] In all, Jones convinces
over 1,000 temple members
to relocate to the settlement in Guyana,
or as Jones christens it,
But upon arrival,
the reality is not exactly as advertised.
The fruit that they claimed
was growing on the tree,
there was no fruit.
[Yulanda] They couldn't grow anything.
They said there were gonna be
individual houses for families.
That was not true.
There were no real beds.
[narrator] Oh, and one more thing.
It becomes abundantly clear
once they arrive in Jonestown
that they cannot leave.
[Yulanda] There were armed guards
around the complex 24/7.
It was like a concentration camp.
I mean, I've never been on a plantation,
but, my God, it was a plantation,
and he was the master!
[narrator] Jones forces temple members
to work 12 to 14 hours a day, hard labor.
And anybody who tried
to push back or argue with him,
those people would end up
in the "Special Care Unit"
drugged up with Thorazine.
[narrator] Some tried to escape,
but were brought back
by Jones' security team and punished.
Fear begins to permeate Jonestown,
but Jones,
high on increasing amounts of drugs,
doesn't seem to mind.
[ominous music playing]
Their only means of survival
is listening to Jim Jones
and doing what he says.
They have Jim Jones and that's it,
and in some ways,
that's a cult leader's dream.
[narrator] But the tricky thing
about Eden is,
you have to keep out the snakes.
Relatives of people in Jonestown
who are worried,
they appealed
to Congressman Leo Ryan from San Mateo,
"Will you please go to Jonestown
and check in with our relatives?"
"We wanna make sure
they aren't held against their will."
[reporter] Tuesday, November 14th.
Congressman Leo Ryan had left
the United States for Georgetown, Guyana.
[narrator] Company's coming.
Better make sure
your paradise is presentable.
When the congressman finally arrived,
everything was carefully orchestrated.
- [man] You're happy here?
- Very happy.
Best place I've ever been.
[Julia] There is song and dance.
They play music.
It appears that Jim Jones
has pulled the visit off.
It's a pleasure to be here.
I appreciate the hospitality
you've shown me.
[narrator] But all it takes
to sabotage your work is one weak link.
Unbeknownst to Jim Jones,
one resident has slipped
the NBC reporter a note that says,
"Help us get out of Jonestown."
[reporter] Doesn't it concern you though
What can I do about liars?
Are you people gonna
Leave us. I just beg you. Please leave us.
[narrator] Jones allows
the disgruntled members
to leave with the congressman,
but then he has a change of heart.
Jones sends people with guns after them.
[reporter] Five people died in the gunfire
that came from men on a flatbed truck
pulled by a tractor trailer.
[narrator] Congressman Ryan himself
is killed at the airstrip
before his plane can take off.
Within hours, Jones and more than 900
of his followers are dead as well.
He told them that they were all
going to commit revolutionary suicide.
There was no alternative.
[narrator] But the evidence tells
a different story.
On so many bodies,
they found injection mark bruises
in the neck or behind the knee.
This wasn't mass suicide,
it was mass murder.
I think about all of those 900 people
that just made a mistake of following
this evil man to the point of no return.
[narrator] Jim Jones' jungle utopia
ended in tragedy,
giving cult leaders everywhere a bad name.
But don't despair.
The playbook offers another path
to creating your own heaven on Earth
without going half a world away.
You just have to hack
into your followers' minds
and never let them go.
Stick around for a lesson in persuasion
from the man who used a failed porn career
as a springboard
to discovering his true calling.
The Be-Speedo'd Master of the Buddhafield,
Jaime Gomez.
Previous EpisodeNext Episode