Drinking the Kool Aid

It still kind of shocks me to read or hear people using that phrase to describe positive buy-in to a new idea. As in, “We’re extremely excited about our company’s new product. Everyone has been drinking the Kool Aid, and the entire sales team is really pumped.”

Apparently it takes fewer than 40 years for a phrase’s original meaning to be lost. On this date 38 years ago (November 18, 1978), more than 900 Americans died in a mass murder-suicide after drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid at a religious commune in a Guyana jungle. More than a third of these people were children. Although some drank it voluntarily, many others, including babies, were forced to drink the poisoned liquid. We know the details because of the few people who managed to escape into the surrounding jungle.

The photos of the dead still haunt me. Bodies scattered like litter around the compound. I don’t want to post any of the pictures here. They make me too sad. But you can find them online easily if you do a search for “Jonestown.”

What was going on in America during the late 1970s and early 1980s that led people to join religious cults like Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple [sic]? I’d forgotten all about this strange period of our history before thinking about the Peoples Temple today.

I can personally recall seeing people selling flowers all summer at the northeast corner of Water and Wisconsin in downtown Milwaukee during the early 1980s—haggard-looking young men and women surrounded by white buckets of flowers, chanting over and over: “A dollar a bunch, a dollar a bunch, any bunch one dollar.” They were in a cult, everyone told me, Hare Krishna.

And who could forget the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church and the mass wedding ceremonies he performed (like the 1982 Madison Square Garden wedding of 2,075 couples).

The various” cults” (which was the word used in the media; perhaps it would be more accurate and less biased to call them “churches” today?) were very aggressive in their proselytizing. In fact, “brainwashing” was a term commonly associated with cults.

The movie Airplane! (made by Milwaukee natives Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker 🙂 ) is funny even if you don’t get any of the many, many satirical references. But to really appreciate it, you practically need footnotes—like reading a Shakespeare play. There are the homages to the 1970s-era airplane disaster movies and way-too-many-to-count references to popular culture (Saturday Night Fever), to politics (Howard Jarvis and the Proposition 13 tax revolt in California), and to cults and their aggressive proselytizing.

One “cult” reference is found in the inclusion of two Hare Krishna passengers on the plane (one of whom is David Leisure, later famous for playing Joe Isuzu in television ads and Charley Dietz in the television comedy “Empty Nest”).

The other is in this introduction to Robert Stack’s Capt. Rex Kramer, a no-nonsense tough-guy called in to help land the plane after the pilots are sickened by bad fish. Although the impatient, violent responses establishing his character no doubt elicit laughter on their own, only knowledge that public places in the 1970s were rife with such aggressive proselytizers provides the context that elevates slapstick to satire.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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5 Responses to Drinking the Kool Aid

  1. I also remember those people in California who killed themselves during Haley’s Comet so they could ride it to heaven. What a strange time that was… and still is?

  2. MELewis says:

    The more things change….this clip reminds me what a classic Airplane was. Would probably enjoy it more today with a bit of perspective.

  3. Sara Cissna says:

    I’m not sure I’ve heard “drink the Kool Aid said as a positive. I heard it in reference to Trump followers just recently especially the day after the election, but it was in the Jonestown metaphor of a bad, bad thing, something that is done mindlessly after mind-numbing indoctrination. I don’t think I’ll ever hear that phrase and think something positive. Maybe one had to be there (alive and the time and aware of the carnage) to see it only as a decisively evil. I wonder if anyone has compared the rhetorical methods of Jim Jones and Donald Trump and how they moved people away from any semblance of truth and toward acceptance of the dark side (as Star Wars would put it).

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