May 20, 2010
"Let the Night Roar with It": Dark Tourism at Jonestown
— Brian Collins
The title of this essay is a quote from the last recorded sermon of the Revered Jim Jones. The speech was accompanied by an exultant ululation from him and his people – a penultimate act of defiance against the U.S. government emissaries they believed had come to Jonestown, Guyana to destroy their way of life. Their ultimate act of defiance was far more consequential.
Jones delivered the sermon on November 18, 1978, the infamous “White Night” in which he led approximately 900 inhabitants of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project to their deaths by murder and mass suicide. Now, after thirty years of trying to understand what happened to the hundreds of hopeful Americans who tried to build a communal paradise free from bigotry and exploitation in the South American jungle, a growing movement wants to turn the site of the massacre into a “dark tourist” attraction.
The term “dark tourism” refers to the type of tourist industry that has grown up around places like Auschwitz in Poland and Alcatraz prison in San Francisco. An article that appeared earlier this month in The New York Times describes a diversity of opinions among the Guyanese about adding Jonestown to the list. Recently, Guyana’s environmentally destructive rice, sugar, and mining economy has been supplemented by green investment from Norway, an effort to preserve the rain forests that cover seventy-five percent of the country, including what used to be Jonestown. For some, opening the site to dark tourism would be a welcome economic boon, but to others it would be an uncomfortable reminder of the past. “The government’s green initiatives redeem us from a crime which was overwhelmingly committed by Americans on Americans,” says Guyana’s UNESCO delegate David Dabydeen, reminding us that America’s largest civilian loss of life prior to September 11, 2001 occurred outside our borders in an impoverished-post colonial nation – and with no contribution from the natives.
There is nothing necessarily ghoulish about the idea of turning Jonestown into a tourist spot. The idea of tourism as we now know it goes back to the European Grand Tour of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in which young elites spent months visiting historical destinations and cultural centers across the continent. The purposeful travel of the Grand Tour, with stops at the ruins of long-gone classical civilizations, was the capstone of a pupil’s education. The great Indo-European epics that pupils read before they embarked on the Grand Tour endorse the idea of travel as a necessary part of entering maturity. And in many epics, like the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and the Indian Mahabharata (which the Grand Tourists did not read), the hero’s travels include an instructive visit to the world of the dead. Odysseus summons and speaks to the ghost of the seer Tiresias, Aeneas follows the Cumaean Sibyl into the Underworld and speaks to his dead father, and Yudhishthira, hero of the Mahabharata, descends into the coldest and darkest region of hell as part of a test of his virtue.
In the classically informed European worldview and the pieces of it we have inherited, travel is education. And learning lessons from the dead, either through examining their crumbling ruins or communing with them in a ghostly netherworld, is a necessary part of that education. The 900 dead at Jonestown clearly have something to teach us. But it is far from clear, even thirty years on, what exactly that is.