(Note: This post contains light spoilers for the Oct. 31 episode of “American Horror Story: Cult.”)
“American Horror Story: Cult” has drawn on several real-world events throughout the course of the season, most obviously the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In Episode 9, cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) spends the cold open by discussing three cult mass suicides — and Peters even plays them.
In fact, just like the election and some of the story related to Andy Warhol from Episode 7, the cults Kai mentions were real, and the mass suicides he discusses actually happened.
First, Kai brings up Heaven’s Gate, a cult centered on the Hale-Bopp comet. Marshall Applewhite founded the cult in 1974 with Bonnie Nettles on the belief that alien spirits were going to help humanity get to the “Next Level” of existence — the literal heavens. Heaven’s Gate thought that Jesus Christ had been inhabited by one of these aliens from the Next Level.
When the Hale-Bopp comet neared Earth in 1997, Applewhite recorded a video letting his followers know that it was the signal to leave their “vehicles,” their physical bodies, in order to board a ship and evacuate the planet. In March 1997, 39 members of the group committed suicide by eating applesauce laced with barbiturates, believing themselves to be releasing their souls to make their way to Heaven. Applewhite was among them.
The second group Kai discusses are the Branch Davidians. The Branch is an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, but the specific group of Branch Davidians Kai talks about lived in a commune in Waco, Texas, and came to be led by David Koresh in the 1980s.
Koresh became the spiritual leader of his particular group of followers, and used that power to take several wives. The group also was stockpiling weapons and ammunition. In 1993, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to search the compound, ostensibly believing the commune harbored illegal weapons and that it might be abusing the children who lived there. Koresh and his followers refused to allow them entry, and the agents surrounded the compound. The siege lasted 51 days.
Eventually, a fire broke out in the Branch Davidian compound as ATF agents tried to raid it, and Davidians opened fire on them. Koresh and 82 of his followers, including children, were killed in raid and fire, as well as four ATF agents.
Kai finally discusses Jonestown, a commune founded in Guyana by Jim Jones. He originally founded the group, known as the Peoples Temple, in Indiana in the 1950s as a socialist movement. It moved to San Francisco as it gained in popularity, before Jones moved his followers to South America.
The story Kai tells during the episode is also pretty close to what happened. Some followers had defected from the Peoples Temple and returned to the U.S., and family members of people still in the cult grew concerned. They involved Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to Guyana to investigate whether Jonestown was holding people against their will. In 1978, with a delegation of officials, some relatives and members of the media, Ryan visited Jonestown and tried to negotiate with Jones so that people could be allowed to come and go as they pleased. While he was there, 14 people from Jonestown attempted to defect, but the people Ryan came to interview wanted to stay.
Jones believed Ryan would give a negative report about Jonestown when he returned to the U.S., which would trigger American intervention. Jonestown members shot and killed Ryan and four other members of the delegation aboard a small plane on a nearby airstrip.
That night, Jones convened the Peoples Temple members at Jonestown and served Kool-Aid mixed with cyanide. He urged them to commit suicide, and while some did so willingly, others were reportedly forced to drink the poison. A total of 909 people died in Jonestown as a result, including Jones himself.
Kai admires all of those leaders and the intense loyalty they were able to inspire, or force, on people. If things were bad enough for the members of the cult who are already on the outs with Kai — those that are still alive, anyway — it seems we might be getting a hint of how things might shake out.