The latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult, “Drink the Kool-Aid,” opens with a sequence that chronicles the rise of three different real-life cult leaders: Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, and Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple. Evan Peters steps into the acting shoes of all three men, whom we meet through what resembles old found footage (but is really carefully created by director Angela Bassett, a frequent AHS actress, as excellent behind the camera as she is in front). Evan Peters’ Kai narrates the footage, giving a brief rundown of the accomplishments each of these dangerous men and the various ways they were able to influence their followers.
Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian minister, which acquainted him with Biblical prophecy from an early age. He met a woman named Betty Nettles in a psychiatric hospital (she the nurse, he the patient) in 1972, and the two joined forces to create their own doctrine of prophecy, believing they were brought together by extraterrestrials. Together, Applewhite and Nettles — who went by the nicknames Do and Ti — researched almost every corner of theology and scripture. They were influenced by everything from the King James Bible to science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, and movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ultimately, they came to believe that they were beings from the “next level” who experienced revelations that they would be witnesses to the Biblical apocalypse. Applewhite also believed he was the direct descendant of Jesus Christ.
David Koresh, The Branch Davidians
Koresh had a difficult childhood: he was born to a 14-year-old single mother, bullied incessantly through much of his life, gang-raped by older boys when he was 8, and grew up between homes. His tough life led him to the church, and in his 20s he became a born-again Christian. He eventually joined the Branch Davidians, a sect of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Like Applewhite, Koresh believed he had the gift of prophecy, which helped him ascend to a leadership role in his church. After travels in Jerusalem, Koresh returned to Texas, believing the Mount Carmel Center in Waco would be the site of the new Davidic kingdom he hoped to establish. After much in-fighting among other Branch Davidians, Koresh rose as their central figure.
Jim Jones, Peoples Temple
Perhaps the most magnetic and interesting cult leader in history, Jim Jones is also the deadliest. Born in 1931, Jones began his religious quest at the age of 10. He attended several different churches in his home state of Indiana, using what he learned at different parishes to craft his own ideologies. In 1952, he became a minister, and gained a reputation as a healer. He was also known for integrating his services so that no one was ostracized because of race, which was a radical notion in 1950s America. In 1955, he created his own church, eventually known as the Peoples Temple.
Kai has a lot in common with his three personal heroes. Like Applewhite and Koresh, he believes he’s a prophetic Christ-like leader who either is or will spawn a messiah. As we learn in “Drink the Kool-Aid,” he’s given his followers new names, which was common in Heaven’s Gate (the Manson family also renamed all of their members). His members also dress in uniform and are forced to eat healthy to rid their bodies of toxins, something Heaven’s Gate members did as well. Though he hasn’t been seen with anyone underage, Kai is similar to Koresh in that he takes lovers at will and seems entitled to them: he wanted Winter to carry his child, and convinced Meadow to die for him after a sexual relationship. Like both Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians, his followers live in a house compound.
But Kai has the most in common with Jones, who mixed politics into his ideologies, and who was known for his excellent public speaking skills. As Kai rises through local government, he sounds more and more like the impassioned and smooth-talking Jones, whose ability to influence large swaths of people is what resulted in one of the largest-ever mass suicides. Kai is already working towards a similar goal. He tests his followers with a Kool-Aid drill not unlike Jones, and his ideas are generated from a larger figure — like Marx steered the wheel for Jones, President Trump is Kai’s guy. Is all of this building towards a large-scale death event? We’d certainly bet on it.