A crazy lunatic and the deadly story behind drinking the Kool-Aid
On television and radio talk shows I often hear the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" to describe a person who follows someone mindlessly, without thinking about the consequences. In many cases the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" is used in conversation as mindlessly as the person it describes. I often wonder, does the person using the phrase really understand the very ugly event associated with that phrase.
The connection of the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" with the actions of an individual who mindlessly follows some idea or individual comes from one of the largest mass murders in modern human history. In 1978, cult leader Jim Jones persuaded over 900 of his followers to drink a fruit drink laced with cyanide. The event known as the Jonestown Massacre has been called a mass suicide by some, but survivors have told the story of mind control and manipulation that lead to one of the greatest cult tragedies in modern history. The tragedy at Jonestown included the murder of a U.S. congressman and NBC News correspondent during an incident that took place prior to the mass murder that resulted in the deaths of more than 900 people.
Charismatic cult leader Jim Jones
The leader of the Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, had a vision for a Utopian world. In 1956 Jones started the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana as a racially integrated church that focused on helping people in need.
Jones moved the Peoples Temple to Redwood Valley in Northern California in 1966. California seemed much more open to accepting an integrationist church than Indiana. As the Peoples Temple expanded into the San Francisco Bay Area they established homes for the elderly and the mentally ill. They also helped addicts and foster children. The work done by the Peoples Temple was praised in newspapers and by local politicians.
At first people trusted Jim Jones, and believed he had a clear vision for his followers. As his community grew larger, Jones became infatuated with power, and his delusions grew as well, as Jones began to describe himself as Christ. Fueled by drug usage Jones became paranoid and believed that the government was after him.
Utopian commune in the jungle turns deadly
Jim Jones moved the Peoples Temple from California to the jungles of Guyana in South America to create his vision of a Utopian commune. The conditions at the Jonestown commune were far from Utopian and Jones began to tightly control the members of the Peoples Temple.
Upon hearing stories of various human rights abuses, concerned relatives of the Peoples Temple members pressured the U.S. Government to investigate. A group led by U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan of California, along with NBC News correspondent Don Harris and various other members of the media, took a trip to Guyana to visit Jonestown in November of 1978. The trip ignited Jim Jones's fears of a government conspiracy that was out to get him.
Congressman Ryan was joined by a group of Jonestown defectors hoping to leave Guyana. The group drove to a nearby airstrip and boarded planes. Armed Peoples Temple members named the Red Brigade opened fire on the group. Congressman Leo Ryan, three members of the media, and one Peoples Temple defector were killed in the attack. Those who survived the attack ran off into the jungle.
Jim Jones called a meeting of his followers under the pavilion in the early evening in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Before the meeting, aides prepared a large metal tub with grape Flavor Aid mixed with a lethal combination of drugs such as Valium and cyanide. There are various versions and transcripts of the so-called “Death Tape," an audiotape of the moments leading up to and during the mass deaths. In the final words of the death tape Jim Jones states, "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world." According to the website "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple," Jim Jones describes “revolutionary suicide” as an appropriate alternative to being taken prisoner or going into slavery.
Drinking the Kool-Aid mixed with drugs
Even though the actual beverage laced with drugs in Jonestown was Flavor Aid, the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" became popular to describe the members of the Peoples Temple and the events of the massacre. Perhaps the mix of Kool-Aid and drugs made more sense or sounded better because of the book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." The nonfiction book by Tom Wolfe, published in 1968, describes a mix of LSD in Kool-Aid, dubbed "Electric Kool-Aid." Wolfe's book chronicles the adventures of novelist Ken Kesey and his group of followers called the "Merry Pranksters," as they travel the country in their party bus offering to share their "Electric Kool-Aid."
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test did not have a tragic ending, but it did have a few eerie parallels. Ken Kesey is portrayed as a captivating spiritual leader starting a new religion. Kesey forms a group of close followers who participate in the drug-fueled lifestyle in the woods of California. The phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" describing a drug laced fruit came a decade before the deaths at Jonestown.
Questy remembers one crazy lunatic
Sadly, the tragedy of over 900 deaths caused by one crazy lunatic are remembered by the phrase "drinking the Kool Aid." For many years I have thought about creating a section in the World of Questy to discuss the origins of many popular idioms.
The idea for this article get stirred up in my mind every time I hear the phrase "drinking the Kool Aid" used like it is a punchline to a joke. Maybe as you learn more about the origin of the phrase, and the gruesome details of the event, you will think of coming up with a new phrase to describe a mindless follower of an idea.
References and resources to learn more:
“Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” (http://jonestown.sdsu.edu) provides quite a bit of information on the events surrounding the tragedy of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown massacre. The site is sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University .
The Tao of Questy is about love and laughter and being human. It's about sharing ideas and being a little bit crazy in order to stay sane.