Old Trauma and New Horror? The Contemporary Resonance of the Jonestown Massacre as Reimagined in The Sacrament

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Multiple innovative voices have emerged from the horror genre in the last decade, one of these being Ti West, whose career began to gain traction in 2009 with the release of House of the Devil; a satanic panic narrative with 80s horror aesthetics. The focus of this paper, West’s The Sacrament, is also imbued with horror nostalgia. Although in this case, not through the use of 16mm film or a retro title font, but through its grim reimagining of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, which, with 914 dead, stood as the largest loss of American life in a single event until 9/11.

By using one of the most horrific cultural touchstones of the 1970s, a decade also well-known for its horror genre output, this paper will explore how The Sacrament works as a re-imagining of an event that took place 40 years ago, while simultaneously engaging with multiple contemporary anxieties. The film, released in 2012, resonates with prescient themes such as media mistrust and fake news, as well as the fear of religious extremism that has permeated American culture since 2001. This paper will also demonstrate how The Sacrament provides a space to address the trauma of Jonestown, an event that has only been memorialised publicly in the last few years.

This paper will explore West’s decision to make The Sacrament as a faux-documentary, with the characters bearing witness to a massacre in the name of immersionist journalism. This choice not only positions the film as a visual interpretation of the controversial audio “death tape” reclaimed from the site of Jonestown, giving rise to the possible accusation of exploitative filmmaking, but also gives the narrative resonance in a contemporary culture fixated on recording both mundane and spectacular events alike.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018
EventFear 2000: Horror Media Now - Sheffield Hallam University
Duration: 6 Apr 20187 Apr 2018


ConferenceFear 2000: Horror Media Now


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