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Zeller weighs in on Heaven’s Gate suicides
Associate Professor of Religion Benjamin Zeller was tapped as an expert in a San Diego Union-Tribune article on the 20th anniversary of the Heaven’s Gate suicides.
20 years later, Heaven’s Gate lives on — via internet, scholarly debates
By John Wilkens
The San Diego Union-Tribune
The jokes started right away, even though 39 people had died. Heaven’s Gate felt ripe for ridicule.
It happened 20 years ago this month. In a Rancho Santa Fe mansion, Marshall Applewhite, a preacher’s son and former seminarian who had fashioned a religion that merged evangelical Christianity with New Age science fiction, led his followers in a ritualistic “exit” of their human shells. They were convinced they would literally ascend to a better world via a spaceship riding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Then they ingested barbiturates swirled into applesauce or pudding, chased it down with vodka, tied plastic bags around their heads, climbed into bunk beds and died. They went in three waves over several days, so that those still earthbound could tidy up after those who had just left, draping purple shrouds atop the bodies.
Before their departures, group members filmed themselves making statements that explained why they believed what they believed and why they were happy about the opportunity to escape the impending Armageddon and move to what they called the “Level Above Human.”
They didn’t refer to it as suicide. They called it graduation. To them, those who stayed behind were the ones killing themselves.
Copies of the goodbye tapes were sent to former members, including one who drove down from Los Angeles, went into the 9,000-square-foot, two-story mansion and saw all the corpses. He called 911. And soon enough the whole world began hearing about Heaven’s Gate.
That’s when the jokes started. One website riffed on Nike’s slogan: “Just Did It.” Another spoofed the cult members who ran a software company: “We kill ourselves working for you!” Late-night TV host David Letterman delivered one of his Top Ten lists, “Signs you are in a bad cult.” (One of the signs: “Cult website is called www.nutcase.com.”) “Saturday Night Live” did a skit.
When all the laughter faded, people moved on to other stories, got on with their lives. The mansion was razed, the name of the street where it sat changed to discourage looky-loos, and Heaven’s Gate settled into its place as a bizarre footnote in San Diego County history.
For sociologists and religious studies scholars, though, Heaven’s Gate remains in orbit. They continue to evaluate and write about the group’s foundations, arguing whether it was fundamentally Christian or New Age, trying to put it in context with America’s long history of spiritual yearning. They debate whether members were brainwashed into joining and staying. They discuss the timing of the suicides.
And they ponder a provocative question: Are the forces that helped shape Heaven’s Gate still in play in American society?
Or, to put it another way, could it happen again?
Gallows humor has long been a way for people to deal with tragedies, to give themselves some distance and relief from the horror. But with Heaven’s Gate, there may have been something else at work, according to Benjamin Zeller, an associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College near Chicago and the author of a 2014 book about the cult.
“In some ways, I think it was too close for comfort,” he said.
Too close because many of the beliefs that group members held are similar to those found in more mainstream religions. Belief in a heavenly father. Belief in the importance of the soul over the body. Belief that they were engaged in the eternal fight of good vs. evil. Belief in salvation, in an afterlife somewhere up there. Belief in end times.
“It’s too easy to just dismiss them as nuts,” Zeller said.
Of course, they differed in significant ways from established theology — primarily the belief that heaven is a literal place, and that you get there on a spaceship — but that fits, too, into the broader American counterculture movement that emerged from the 1960s and spawned all kinds of new religious thinking.
“We saw the mainstreaming of angels, crystals, shamans, ascended beings — all that otherworldly stuff,” said Janja Lalich, a Chico State University sociologist who also has written a book about Heaven’s Gate. “You saw it with TV shows like ‘Touched by an Angel.’ Cults that built themselves around this kind of a belief system had an easier time because it didn’t seem so strange.”
Applewhite started the group in the 1970s in Texas with a Baptist-raised registered nurse and astrologer named Bonnie Lu Nettles. They called themselves Guinea and Pig, Bo and Peep, and finally Ti and Do, “The Two,” messengers from God sent here to shepherd the flock to the next level. People who wanted in to their nomadic monastery had to cut themselves off from their families and their previous lives. There were rules that controlled what people wore and ate, not to mention what they believed.
And those beliefs shifted over the years, especially after Nettles died in 1985, a development that created a crisis of faith. They had believed they were going to ascend with their bodies, not just their souls.
Several hundred people joined the group over the years, although the vast majority left for a variety of reasons. Some who left came back. Those who remained to the end were largely longtime devotees. Twenty-one were women, 18 men. They ranged in age from 26 to 72 with more than half in their 40s.
Almost all of them were veteran seekers of spiritual truths, people who had tried other religions, tried tarot cards, tried hallucinogenic drugs.
“Members joined not because of some sort of magical psychological or spiritual truth that the leaders conjured,” Zeller writes in his book, “but because they were looking for something and believed that they found it in Heaven’s Gate.”
Once they were in, though, Lalich — herself a former member of a political cult — thinks free will pretty much disappeared. “Nobody held a gun to their heads, but by that point they were in a place where they could not imagine existence outside the cult,” she said.
As the number of Americans who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated rises — 23 percent now, according to the Pew Research Center — a significant part of the population traffics in the supernatural.
Polling by Gallup shows 24 percent believe extraterrestrials have visited Earth in the past; 25 percent believe that astrology (the position of stars and planets) can affect our lives; 37 percent believe that houses can be haunted; and 21 percent believe that people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died.
“The same demographic forces (that helped spawn Heaven’s Gate) are still at work,” Zeller said. “People are looking for truth, meaning, community and not finding it in existing religions. So they look for new ones or form their own.”
He’s no fan of what the group believed and ultimately did, Zeller said, but that’s not the point. “You can’t just dismiss them as different,” he said. “Even the largest religions of today were once small and new. Who’s to say what will one day be world religions with hundreds of thousands of followers?”
While some wonder about the next Heaven’s Gate, the old one remains operational, at least on the internet. The website, heavensgate.com, is maintained by two former members who live in Phoenix.
The site has the flashing “RED ALERT” at the top, the same wording sheriff’s deputies saw on computers when they were called to the mansion on March 26, 1997, and discovered the 39 bodies. There are links on the site to videotapes, “Earth Exit Statements” and other religious material.
Responding to emailed questions from The San Diego Union-Tribune, the former members who run the site declined to identify themselves, but others who have tracked the website’s digital fingerprints say they are Mark and Sarah King, a married couple. (That’s why they’re former members — they wanted to get married, and the group didn’t allow that kind of relationship.)
A year after the suicides, the Kings got into a legal fight with San Diego County officials, who wanted to auction off the cult’s belongings to reimburse the families of the deceased for funeral expenses. The Kings said they had done video and audio work for Heaven’s Gate, and the group wanted them to safeguard its property, especially the religious teachings.
Although a judge ruled against them in 1999, they negotiated an agreement to buy the writings, artwork and other items for $2,000. In return, they agreed not to profit from the sale of any of it.
In their emailed responses to the Union-Tribune, they said they were in the group for 12 years. Why keep the site running? “They asked us to do it and we were honored to perform the task.” The information, they said, “is still timeless and we are here to provide it to those who ask.”
Interest from around the world “is very high,” they said. Most people get information from the site, but some order copies of an anthology, “How and When Heaven’s Gate Can Be Entered,” which includes teachings dating to 1975 and the text of a “final offer” ad the group placed in USA Today in 1993.
They said there are a few other former members spread around the country, but “there is no group.” Asked what they want people to know about Heaven’s Gate, they said, “The simple understanding is that there is a real, physical level above the human one here on Earth. It is not a spiritual existence. It is real individuals, in real bodies, in real crafts taking care of the issues of their planet.”
Do they anticipate one day joining their former colleagues?
“Yes, but probably not until our next reincarnation on this planet. We just have to live this life out and wait.”