(PhD candidate, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, MA, Duke University, BA, New York University) is an instructor in the Department of Religion at Duke University, where she teaches Ethics and the Internet, and coeditor of this issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Her dissertation explores instances of authenticity and identity in popular and virtual culture. In addition to Duke, Ms. Robinson has taught courses on new technology, the Internet, and computer skills in the School of Journalism at UNC-CH and Wake Technical Community College, and she is a research associate of the M.I.N.D. Lab in the telecommunications department of Michigan State University. Responsible for the development and maintenance of several World Wide Web sites, her practical experience includes journalism and public relations in New York City and North Carolina, where until recently she was the weekend online news editor of the News and Observer in Raleigh.
Department of Religion, Duke University, 118 Gray Building, Box 90964, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
In San Diego on March 26, 1997, the bodies were found of 39 similarly dressed men and women who took their own lives in a mass suicide. Led by Marshall Applewhite, the Heaven's Gate cult believed that a flying saucer was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. They chose to leave their physical bodies behind to find redemption in an extraterrestrial “Kingdom of Heaven.” The sect also left behind apocalyptic messages in their Rancho Santa Fe mansion and on home pages on the World Wide Web. This paper looks at online material produced by the cult and the media coverage of their tragic end, it explores the background of the cult and the science fiction and millennial influences on their beliefs, and it considers the group's connection with cyberculture and some of the questions raised by their mass suicide, which perhaps, as David Potz said in Slate, “promises to be the first great Internet mystery” [(Potz, March 28, 1997)].
It was late Thursday evening, March 27, 1997, when the first headlines crossed my desk at the Raleigh News and Observer. I had come to expect a certain decorum at the N&O, but with the Heaven's Gate suicides, the difference in tone was striking: “Cult members were deeply into cyberspace,”“Cult leader believed in space aliens and apocalypse,”“Tapes left by cult suggest comet was the sign to die” [(Nando.net, March 28, 1997)]. At last, I thought, the press has found the bad-news story with an Internet angle that it has been waiting for.
These “keys to the kingdom” link to further information on the Heaven's Gate home page, which serves as the cult's suicidenote and mission statement.
Since the first Internet covers of Time and Newsweek in 1992–93 that legitimized and sensationalized the Internet, followed by the mainstream popularity of the World Wide Web, the Net has been vilified as often as it's been hailed as a panacea to the world's ills, a late twentieth-century electronic Eldorado.  In practice, of course, the Net is in itself neither a utopian nor a dystopian place, but rather is made up of people who for the most part are sitting in front of monitors and keyboards exchanging commonplace information a bit more conveniently, if often with a sense of “virtual community” [(Rheingold, 1993)] within “cyberspace” [(Gibson, 1984)]. Nevertheless like William Gibson who coined the term, the press seems deeply ambivalent about cyberspace and its populace. As Joshua Quittner wrote in “Life and Death on the Web” in Time, “Every time this country extrudes any significant bit of evil at its fringes my editors dispatch me to the Internet to look for its source” [(Quittner, April 7, 1997, 47)].
The Heaven's Gate techno-deaths delivered the sensationalist goods. [(Quittner, 1997)] continued, “Here was obsession, delusion and mass suicide played out in multimedia and hypertext – a horror, finally, best observed online.” Yet most of the early reports spent disappointingly little time looking at Heaven's Gate online. There was abundant coverage of the curiosities – the castrations, the purple shrouds, the comet, The X-Files– but little about the individual cult members as celebrated Webmasters. It seemed to be enough that the group had a Web presence business and used the online medium among other media to disseminate messages to declare the Net guilty by association.
The virtual community reacted with outrage. The suicides and the media's blinkered condemnation came fresh on the heels of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which had been argued with mixed success before the Supreme Court on March 19 (but which was overturned on June 26 [(Reno v. ACLU)]). A groan passed across the Net as members of the community wondered whether the actions of the cultists might influence public policy at a particularly vulnerable time, when free speech and openness, and the Net's importance as an electronic town hall, was a matter of public debate [(e.g., in 1996–97, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Blue Ribbon Campaign, the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, and 24 Hours of Democracy]). In “Deaths in the Family” on HotWired, Jon Katz said:
The killings gave our fearful guardians in politics and mainstream media yet another new Net phobia to warn America about. Cultists momentarily pushed aside pornographers as the demonic and threatening offspring of new technology. The Internet, just last week an interstate highway for perverts, was transformed for a few days into a natural breeding ground for fanatics and zealots [(Katz, March 31, 1997)].
Writing for The New York Times, George Johnson similarly noted in “From Porn to Cults, the Net Looks Nasty”:
For the techno-libertarians intent on keeping the abstract duchy called cyberspace the freest of all lands, the last few months have been a nightmare of bad vibrations rippling through what the electronic elite derisively calls the “old media.” Every day, it seems, television newscasts and newspapers carry reports of unspeakable acts conducted over the Internet. Pedophiles and maybe even prisoners trade pornography and tips on kidnapping, while trying to seduce children in electronic chat-rooms…. From listening to some people's fears, one would think that Internet bandwidth had increased to the point where a distant evil hacker could download your mind [(Johnson, March 30, 1997)].
Rather than informing the public and setting the record straight, the singular Heaven's Gate incident was exploited by the traditional media to fan the flames of suspicion much as pornography had been used all along. The Net of dangerous pictures became the Net of dangerous ideas. The media, which over the past year or so had been colonizing and commercializing the Web, and therefore didn't even seem to be acting in its own best interest, let us down. Again [(Rheingold, 1996)]. As http://Highersource.org, one of the best known parodies of the cult that quickly sprouted on the Net, put it:
The media spin on the suicide of religious cult members is, in a word, inexcusable. Television, radio and print media sources have reported this as if the cult did all their recruiting online and killed themselves by ingesting poison computer parts. The cult was around for 22 years, LONG before the web. They only recently began making some money making VERY bad web pages (http://Highersource.org, March 1997).
A vocal segment of the online community seemed to hold the group in disdain because they did less than stellar Web work in terms of graphic and programming sophistication. While the term “Webmaster” often has little practical meaning, the fact that these apparently minor-league talents represented the majority of people putting up Web pages was felt to be insulting, although the democratization of publishing wrought by the Web does mean precisely this: that anyone with some pages written in HTML can claim Web expertise. Morgan Davis, operations director of one of San Diego's largest Internet providers, typified this attitude when he said, “They're rather mediocre…. Their art work is kind of amateurish. The layout and typesetting is not cutting-edge. It really looks like anything anyone could have done in their spare time” [(as cited in CNN, March 28, 1997)].
Still the scornful Webmasters were hardly alone. With the notable exception of the millenarians, nobody wanted to be associated with Heaven's Gate, not Nike, not the gay community, not San Diegans, Californians, astronomers, the UFO community, or Trekkies [(News and Observer, March 30, 1997; Nando.net, April 1, 1997; Wambaugh, April 7, 1997)]. Even other cultists were backpedaling [(Kendall, March 30, 1997)]. Heaven's Gate's strange amalgam of beliefs made them the fringe of the fringe. In remarks that were widely quoted, the ultimate head of CNN himself, Ted Turner said: “It's a good way to get rid of a few nuts, you know, you gotta look at it that way. Well, they did it peacefully. At least they didn't go in like those S.O.B.s who go to McDonald's or post offices and shoot a lot of innocent people and then shoot themselves. At least they just went out and did it to themselves” [(Reuters, March 29, 1997)]. Gallows humor seemed to be the main statement made by their deaths.
Heaven's Gate quickly became a cyberculture in-joke. By the time I was invited to speak on the topic ten days later [(Robinson, April 8, 1997)], friends were feeding me one-liners. It took all the restraint I could muster not to use the presentation as an opportunity to get my start as a stand-up comic with puns playing on Unix and eunuchs and references in questionable taste to keeping up with the “Joneses” (Heaven's Gate Humor, 1997). But the incongruity between these shallow jokes and sensationalist press coverage and the brutal reality of 39 people choosing to kill themselves upon a sign from the heavens was startling. Here was a group that scorned mortality, who considered their bodies to be nothing more than disposable shells, for whom the most profound issues of life and death and faith must've been part of their daily existence. Yet they seem ridiculous to many of us, whether we consider ourselves to be members of a Net community or not.
The gap between us and them in itself struck me as interesting in both the Freudian, cathartic sense [(Freud, 1922)] and in the way that [(Stephen O'Leary, 1994)] uses Kenneth Burke's conception of the tragic and comic frames to simultaneously embrace the open and closed aspects of the apocalypse. Yes, laughter provides a safety valve for the aggression we feel toward the members of the sect for their apparently complete lack of basic common sense, but it also helps us accept the enormity of the end-times that await us all. Heaven's Gate didn't shrink from this reality; they embraced The End. The headline of their suicidal home page in bold print announced [italics added]: “Red Alert – Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven's Gate ….”
What is it about these people, their chosen end, and what they believed and practiced that touched a common chord? Why were we so eager to dismiss them out of hand? To what can we attribute their thorough alienation, I wondered. After all, while many of us thought that Hale-Bopp was memorably spectacular, few were inclined to read the comet as an omen – or did we? And do we today view Applegate's followers less as flesh-and-blood people with whom we might feel a sympathetic human connection than as representatives of dangerous cults, as signs of the coming millennium, and not least of all, as a case-in-point of what's wrong with cyberculture or, conversely, how the media typifies cyberculture?
Who Were Heaven's Gate?
The facts are well known. The group lived together in a large immaculate house in Rancho Santa Fe, a wealthy community in San Diego. On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 21 women and 18 men, ranging in age from 26–72, were discovered in various stages of decomposition. Several days before, they had ingested applesauce or pudding laced with barbiturates and a shot of vodka, and they had submitted to suffocation from plastic bags placed over their heads. They were identically dressed in unisex black shirts, pants, and Nikes, and had purple shrouds placed across their faces. Many of the men had been castrated. Nevertheless still frustrated with their bodies, they chose to leave their “earthly containers” behind in San Diego to join aliens who would take them to the Next Level with a newly embodied life. The extraterrestrials were believed to reside in a starship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Higher Source is the sect's Web presence business. Clients included the San Diego Polo Club, a mail-order music catalog purveying early Madonna, and a New Age Christian company specializing in inspirational messages (see Keep the Faith's statement on Heaven's Gate)
Much more than a Net cult, Heaven's Gate was a UFO cult. Marshall Herff Applewhite, known as “Do” (formerly “Bo”), and Bonnie Lu Nettles, known as “Ti” (formerly “Peep”), met in Texas and formed Heaven's Gate in the early 1970s. The group settled in the Southwest where they lived in seclusion, eventually attracting as many as 1000 followers [(Niebuhr, March 28, 1997)]. Do and Ti preached that they were Christ-like extraterrestrials who had taken human form. As early as 1975, Applewhite and Nettles (who passed on from natural causes in 1985) told of a spaceship that would spirit true believers away toward a higher level of existence [(Phelan, 1976)]. The Two as they called themselves, after the “Two Lampstands” prophesied in the Bible, always drew as much on science fiction as on Biblical prophecy. Their early chronicler, Robert Balch, wrote about the group circa 1975:
Claiming that [a] biblical cloud referred to a UFO, Bo and Peep promised eternal life in the “literal heavens” to anyone willing to devote “100 percent of his total energy” to overcoming his attachments to the human level. Over a period of six months Bo and Peep recruited over 200 believers, and for a brief time the UFO cult was America's most publicized new religious movement…. Bo was a tall, greying, slightly overweight figure with remarkable stage presence and steel-blue eyes which he could use effectively to captivate an audience. By all accounts Bo was extremely persuasive. A few ex-members claimed their minds went blank in his presence, and one man insisted that he saw a vivid image of a UFO the moment Bo touched him on the shoulder. The experience was so real that even long after defecting, the man continued to believe he had actually put his hand on the spaceship's landing gear [(Balch, 1982, 21–24)].
Heaven's Gate flourished in the Southwest, where UFO sightings have been common since the postwar boom in aviation and the government's use of the region for nuclear testing. UFO mythology resonates strongly in contemporary popular culture. Concerns over the atomic bomb as well as hopes and fears that we aren't alone in the universe have spurred countless Hollywood films and television shows in which beings from outer space warn the people of earth of impending disaster. H.G. Wells in his late phase, notably the apocalyptic The Shape of Things to Come (1933), is a major literary influence. Another well-acknowledged influence is the 1947 UFO sighting and rumored cover-up that took place near the airforce base in Roswell, New Mexico, where some believe two alien starships collided. Located northwest of Las Vegas, the inspiration for last summer's Men in Black is Area 51, thought to be the government's top-secret installation for investigating flying saucers. The members of Heaven's Gate took such science fact and fiction seriously; indeed, they watched The X-Files and Star Trek religiously.
The group recruited with pamphlets and other print publications for two decades before moving to California and actively using the Internet to transmit messages in the mid-1990s. Members of the cult opened a Web consulting business, Higher Source (a name that can be assumed to be intended to evoke both bodily liberation and HTML source codes). Despite what the Net community thought of their work in retrospect, in Southern California they had a reputation strong enough to attract a client list that included the San Diego Polo Club and Kushner-Locke, a Hollywood production company. Their work shows some programming expertise in that they used Java, VRML, audio and video clips, and advanced HTML that many mom-and-pop Web businesses did not provide in late 1996-early 1997. Similarly, Higher Source was ahead of the curve with using meta tags in inventive ways, in their case for evangelical purposes.
Members of the cult believed they were leaving their bodies behind in a chrysalis that would take them to The Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH). According to Balch, these beliefs date back to the early period:
Ultimately the Two held out the promise of eternal life at the “Level Above Human.” There … their followers would become … complete with androgynous bodies forever free of disease, decay, and death. Eventually they also might be able to help with a harvest in some distant part of the universe, or even, like Jesus and the Two, “do the Christ trip” on another garden [(Balch, 1982, 27)].
From the beginning, then, the group made plans to leave this planet and their bodies, which they called “shells” and “vehicles,” for new life in a more evolved corner of the universe. The sign they were waiting for came with Hale-Bopp and its ghostly companion vehicle.
On Nov. 14, 1996, Houston-based amateur astronomer Chuck Shramek phoned Art Bell's “Coast to Coast” to say that he had taken a photograph of a mysterious object traveling behind Hale-Bopp. Art Bell's popular radio program discusses matters of interest to the UFO community. The next night a guest on Bell's show, Courtney Brown, director of the Farsight Institute in Atlanta, asserted that three professional psychics associated with his organization had detected the companion vehicle and found it to be inhabited by extraterrestrials. Although there are conflicting reports as to whether Shramek's call was intended as a hoax or was simply a mistake, the sighting of Hale-Mary, as the companion spaceship came to be known, has been widely attributed to have been enough to break Heaven's Gate's holding pattern and to have perhaps triggered the 39 cult members' exit from their mortal containers. O'Leary is among those who point out that the “suicide of the Heaven's Gate sect was timed to coincide with the nearest approach to Earth of the comet Hale-Bopp – a celestial event that, like many comets throughout history, has been greeted in apocalyptic circles as a harbinger of cosmic change” [(O'Leary, April 1997)].
There is no question that when first reporting the Rancho Santa Fe suicides, the press acted irresponsibly by hastily pointing the finger at the Net although many factors influenced the decision of Applewhite and his followers to end their lives. And the follow-up coverage was never given the prominence of the first few days in which the Net was implicated by the association with UFOs and cult mania. The general public probably still associates Heaven's Gate with the Net and thinks that the Rancho Santa Fe suicides somehow happened because the cult members spent too much time in spooky cyberspace.
The mass media based broad assumptions about the group on the “fact” that they were part of the online community and therefore were taken to be representative of cyberculture. Whether we accept that premise or consider the Heaven's Gate cult members' connection with the Internet to be tenuous at best – as just another medium they used for proselytizing if also for commerce – there is nothing to be lost by examining the online evidence, even if it's not difficult to see that the blame, if any, for their deaths should be shared. In addition to bringing out the significance of celestial influences, O'Leary notes, “Heaven's Gate gives a new and terrifying significance to previously innocuous media products which had long enjoyed what are commonly, and unthinkingly, referred to as ‘cult followings’: the ‘X-Files,’‘Star Trek,’ and ‘Star Wars’” [(O'Leary, April 1997)]. Perhaps the Net encourages pop idolatry. Perhaps the Net encourages addictive behavior. Perhaps any number of assumptions, which is all they can be without examining the evidence first-hand. In the hope that it might be illuminating to explore the ways in which the members of the sect were typical or atypical of the Net and its virtual community, a consideration of the Heaven's Gate Website is in order.
Decoding the Code
The Heaven's Gate Website contains “secret codes” used as keywords for search engines and for proselytizing purposes. To see these codes hidden within the meta tag, click on the graphic and display the source code of the cult's home page on your browser. With Netscape, choose View on the menu bar, then Document Source. The words excerpted below appear behind the top and bottom of most pages on the site.
Much has been made of the liberatory potential of hypertext, of its undoing and decentering of the author, authority, and linearity itself [(e.g., Bolter, 1990; Malthrop, 1991; Landow, 1992; Lanham, 1993; Gaggi, 1997)]. The World Wide Web, however, offers other avenues of exploration. Unlike how we interpret the printed word, with the Web we aren't restricted to the foregrounded text since we can look beneath to see what's embedded in the computer code or literal subtext. We can, in other words, decode the code or do a digital deconstruction of pages written in HTML to uncover what they reveal or suggest. As it so happens, the material below the surface of the Heaven's Gate pages is unusually rich.
Nevertheless, in terms of intentionality, the subtext of the Heaven's Gate pages is every bit as deliberate as the messages that might otherwise be considered the “preferred reading” [(Hall, 1980)]. Already a subculture in the sense of being a cult, Applewhite's followers were cannily in control of their messages on several levels although obviously their audience reception could not be prescribed [(Hebdige, 1979; Fish, 1980; Radway, 1984; Fiske, 1989)]. It's difficult to accept the cynical view that Heaven's Gate might've staged their suicides for laughs or as a publicity stunt. Although Heaven's Gate's suicide page is surely one of the best read open letters to the Net community, its message has proven to be largely incomprehensible despite its intratextual redundancy. Hale-Bopp did not bring closure to Heaven's Gate.
Access the home page of the Heaven's Gate site and view the source code. (If your browser is Netscape, go to the menu bar, choose View and then select Document Source). At the top and bottom is text otherwise hidden from view contained within the meta tag (a.k.a. <meta>). The meta tag is used by some people making Web pages, particularly commercial sites, to supply information for search engines. Some search engines, such as AltaVista and Infoseek, gather information by pulling up the first few lines of code from a file. The reasoning goes that if you want your site to float to the top when a user does a search, you stand a better chance of being found if you control what words the search engine finds. Just as a user chooses keywords when running a search query, you as the Web page designer can help things along by providing keywords to match the expected query.
This is fine in principal, but Heaven's Gate took keywording and developed it to an unusual degree. They glutted search engines in a form of spamming or sending out junk mail on the Internet. Using the meta tag this way is considered poor Netiquette, or bad manners online and an improper use of bandwidth. But the group's use is consistent with how they used other media. Like many evangelical groups eager to spread their message, they used direct mail techniques, broadcast and video, posters, books, pamphlets, and word of mouth. Heaven's Gate's use of the meta tag is in keeping with their media suffusion. It's worth pointing out, however, that just as most of us in the general public don't completely welcome unsolicited mail, the cult's “spamdexing” was frowned on by what we can consider to be the Net community. Their misuse of HTML put the cult at odds with the accepted practices of the Net rather than in accord. Furthermore, Heaven's Gate not only placed these meta tags at the top of their pages, they also ran them along the bottom for reasons that will be discussed shortly but that serve little practical purpose in terms of search engines.
When we examine the meta tag at the top of the Heaven's Gate home page, the first information that comes to view is an advertisement that was posted to a wide variety of newsgroups:
•How and When the Door to the Physical Kingdom Level Above Human May Be Entered
The recruitment ad lays out the four basic tenets of Applewhite's teachings:
1That the physical body can be left behind for TELAH in which the inviolate spirit will live on at a higher evolutionary level,
2That traditional religion is untrustworthy,
3That escape is forthcoming through alien abduction, and
4That this is the final warning.
The latter was a common theme following the death of Nettles. The ending of her life from cancer instead of from alien abduction proved difficult to explain to the faithful. Wojcik notes that after Nettles' death Heaven's Gate disappeared for nearly a decade until May 27, 1993, when they “placed an ad in USA Today entitled ‘UFO Cult Resurfaces with Final Offer,’ which declared that societal institutions and mainstream religions are controlled by a conspiracy involving Satan” [(Wojcik, 1997, 182)]. When they re-emerged, it was in crisis mode.
Heaven's Gate was a doomsday cult with a predilection for conspiracy theory, views they vigorously disseminated. Sixty-two of the group's Usenet postings from http://email@example.com, ranging from alt.bible.prophecy to alt.blasphemy that date from mid-1996, can be accessed through Deja News. The Washington Post maintains a large collection of “Heaven's Gate” Documents, including videotapes and advertisements such as the USA Today ad that cost nearly $30,000 [(Bayles & O'Driscoll, March 28, 1997)]. The Heaven's Gate Manifesto, “Time to Die for God?,” which was posted to a number of newsgroups, can be found on the Pathfinder site. Earlier in 1995, they posted their philosophies on the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), but discontinued after being flamed by members [(Guglielmo, March 31, 1997)].
The Heaven's Gate group's cross-posting did not endear them to the Net community. Indeed, the cult can be considered guilty of deviating from at least the first five of what [(McLaughlin, Osborne, & Smith, 1995)] have defined as the seven “Standards of Conduct on Usenet.” However, it seems as though Heaven's Gate never felt an obligation to observe the tacit rules of the Net; rather, it was the Net community that was supposed to come around. There is nothing in their literature and the interviews with surviving cult members to support the idea that they felt part of cyberculture or that the Internet was anything more than a digital bulletin board on which to affix their messages. The communal joy of connecting, sharing, flaming, ranting that many people associate with what it means to be online apparently was not part of the cult members' experience or interests. In other words, there was no interactivity. Heaven's Gate's messages are one-way, authoritarian. Applewhite, presumably, talks at the world, preaching, proselytizing. Submission is the expected response, not dialogue. In “‘Un-Homey’ Potential in the Public Discourse of Heaven's Gate,” Robert Glenn Howard notes:
The Heaven's Gate group's newsgroup “recruitment” communications display a static and deterministic rhetoric. Railing against the bodily manifestations of human beings, they developed a belief set that allowed them to view suicide as a positive experience. This attitude failed to effect large groups of individuals on the Internet because, for the most part, their rhetoric failed to attempt any sort of persuasion. In their e-mail posts, they made no real attempt to persuade anyone of anything. They simply dogmatically asserted their version of the truth [(Howard, 1997, 51)].
Nor does Heaven's Gate seem to have experienced the medium as a new religious agora. The potential for participatory affirmation called “the ritual view of communication” by [(James W. Carey, 1975)] and celebrated by those who write on the Internet's interfaith networking potential [(Davis, 1995; Brasher, 1996; O'Leary, 1996; Cobb, 1998, in press)] similarly wasn't valued by Heaven's Gate. Posting information on the Net doesn't seem to have been any more meaningful to the members of the cult than buying a newspaper ad, although obviously the Net was quite a bit less expensive. The group wasn't “of” the Net from lack of interest as well as ostracism, which likely fed each other. Heaven's Gate was alienated from the virtual community that they in turn alienated by failing to observe the social contract.
The next set of words within the meta tag is a list of keywords used for search engines. Strung together in this form, the keywords resemble chanting. If you scroll to the bottom of the source code, you'll see two more lists, the first in a meta tag, the other colored black so that it isn't visible against the background. On the home page, they run behind the foregrounded text in the blank space at the bottom (below the footer and information on how to order Applewhite's book). The lists are provided below:
Heaven's Gate Heaven's Gate Heaven's Gate Heaven's Gate Heaven's Gate Heaven's Gate Heaven's Gate Heaven's Gate ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming angels angels angels angels angels angels angels angels angels angels end end times times end times end times end times end times end times end times end times end times end times.
Key Words: (for search engines) 144,000, Abductees, Agnostic, Alien, Allah, Alternative, Angels, Antichrist, Apocalypse, Armageddon, Ascension, Atheist, Awakening, Away Team, Beyond Human, Blasphemy, Boddhisattva, Book of Revelation, Buddha, Channeling, Children of God, Christ, Christ's Teachings, Consciousness, Contactees, Corruption, Creation, Death, Discarnate, Discarnates, Disciple, Disciples, Disinformation, Dying, Ecumenical, End of the Age, End of the World, Eternal Life, Eunuch, Evolution, Evolutionary, Extraterrestrial, Freedom, Fulfilling Prophecy, Genderless, Glorified Body, God, God's Children, God's Chosen, God's Heaven, God's Laws, God's Son, Guru, Harvest Time, He's Back, Heaven, Heaven's Gate, Heavenly Kingdom, Higher Consciousness, His Church, Human Metamorphosis, Human Spirit, Implant, Incarnation, Interfaith, Jesus, Jesus' Return, Jesus' Teaching, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Krishna Consciousness, Lamb of God, Last Days, Level Above Human, Life After Death, Luciferian, Luciferians, Meditation, Members of the Next Level, Messiah, Metamorphosis, Metaphysical, Millennium, Misinformation, Mothership, Mystic, Next Level, Non Perishable, Non Temporal, Older Member, Our Lords Return, Out of Body Experience, Overcomers, Overcoming, Past Lives, Prophecy, Prophecy Fulfillment, Rapture, Reactive Mind, Recycling the Planet, Reincarnation, Religion, Resurrection, Revelations, Saved, Second Coming, Soul, Space Alien, Spacecraft, Spirit, Spirit Filled, Spirit Guide, Spiritual, Spiritual Awakening, Star People, Super Natural, Telepathy, The Remnant, The Two, Theosophy, Ti and Do, Truth, Two Witnesses, UFO, Virginity, Walk-ins, Yahweh, Yeshua, Yoda, Yoga (Heaven's Gate).
The same information can be found in the source code of How and When “Heaven's Gate” May Be Entered, written by Marshall Applewhite, and other Websites made by the cult. After examining the hidden text, what comes through loud and clear for this interpreter is thorough alienation:
1Abduction Mythology and Reification of Alienation: The entire first section is about being rescued by extraterrestrials who are envisioned as New Age angels come to set true believers free in the second coming before the end times. This apocalyptic vision is reinforced by other Heaven's Gate writings posted on the Net. While most of us view alien abduction with a mixture of skepticism and abhorrence, to Heaven's Gate such escape was felt to be affirmative. Life on this planet is fallen and redemption can only come with the next cycle. The words in the second section reinforce this idea: e.g., “life after death,”“past lives,”“resurrection,”“star people.” Since [(Jung, 1964)], flying saucers have often been considered to be manifestations of modern mythology, the archetype of cosmic intelligence we call God, not unlike Zeus appearing before Danaë as a shower of gold or the experience of Moses at the burning bush. Like many UFO cults, Heaven's Gate fervently pointed to passages in the Bible that could be interpreted as proof of extraterrestrial visitation. In this sense, the group happily anticipated their release and demise through alien abduction, even to the extent of taking out abduction life insurance in the amount of $1 million per cult member [(NandoNet, March 30, 1997)]. To see their taped suicide messages and to read their exit statements is to witness unshakable belief expressed as smug certainty: they really thought they were going to a level above the rest of us lowly earthlings and were about to embark on the ride of their lives. They don't show any remorse or concern for the people they left behind.
2Alienation from the Self and Embodiment: A number of the terms above suggest a Cartesian or Gnostic mind/body split: e.g., the entire first section and “abductees,”“eunuch,”“genderless,”“out of body,” and other such terms in the second. The Heaven's Gate cult members were not people who liked their bodies. Their unisex dress and castrations have been well-chronicled.
3Alienation from the World in which They Lived: Again, the entire first section is about leaving the planet. Much of the second is about mundane corruption, the apocalypse, and the “Next Level.” In light of their suicides, a standard reading of alienation seems self-evident. The cult members obviously were estranged from society.
4Existential Alienation or the Dissociation Wrought by the Mechanistic Modern/Postmodern World: Too simply put, the French Marxian tradition from Sartre and Ellul through Barthes to Deleuze and Baudrillard holds that the capitalist system turns human beings into cogs in the machine. By becoming part of the mechanistic process, we lose our humanity and free will and accept naturalistic falsehoods that are intended to keep us from the truth (i.e., “false consciousness”). Consequently in the postmodern world simulated reality has replaced genuine reality. While an existential/postmodern reading of Heaven's Gate springs partially from their writing, it largely can be read into the subtext of their subtext. The cult members were deluded; they believed that the fantastic was true. Yoda, for instance, a Star Wars character, is lumped together with the Messiah in the second half of the meta-tag repetitions. From this standpoint, Heaven's Gate is a singular instance of the pervasive “Disneyfication” of contemporary culture [(Baudrillard, 1981)]. They believed they were entering a pop culture Kingdom of Heaven, not unlike belief in Elvis sightings. Reality and its semblance, scripture and popular culture have been conflated to such an extent that the meaning of life, should there be any more master narratives, has become pathologically skewed. Furthermore, the extremity of their fantasy life tends to both normalize the less bizarre aspects of their beliefs and social existence, which would be otherwise deemed quite bizarre, and conversely to exaggerate what's ordinary, such as the Nikes and spare change in their pockets [(Morse, March 28, 1997; CNN, April 7, 1997)]. It comes as no surprise that the people who joined Heaven's Gate would be attracted to the Net and digital culture in which it can be difficult to distinguish real life from virtual life. To paraphrase [(Sherry Turkle, 1996)], reality wasn't their “best window.”
Their alienation communicates itself to us. We do not feel warmly toward Heaven's Gate; they tend to incite us to mockery. Wojcik says that this reaction on the Net following their 1996 spamming contributed to the cult members' decision to leave their earthly shells: “The group's beliefs were generally ignored or ridiculed on the Internet and this response was interpreted by believers as a sign that they should begin to prepare to return to their home in the heavens, because ‘the weeds of humanity’ had taken over earth's garden” [(Wojcik, 1997, 182)].
Their messages, then, transmitted through many forms of media in addition to the Internet – which includes the secret codes designed for machines, which signify perhaps nothing more than a message in a virtual bottle since for the most part the subtext wasn't “consciously” picked up by either search-engine bots or human beings – with one notable exception that will be discussed shortly, were ignored. Since Heaven's Gate was aware of the poor reception of their messages, we may assume that part of their intent in providing the subtextual or subliminal text within the meta tags was performative. The codes were meant to be shared, sung among themselves, a wall of words, a private understanding. By tuning out the world, they could find strength and solace in each other. It was Heaven's Gate against corrupt, fallen, despicably “mammalian” humanity.
While the assortment of marginalized beliefs Heaven's Gate brought together was strange, the cult didn't emerge from a vacuum. They saw themselves as martyrs, as part of the tradition of Masada, Christian saints, self-flagellating monks, and other true believers who put faith and a sense of mission before self-preservation and self-interest (Our Position Against Suicide), however much these values are out of step with the reigning ethos of the 1990s. There have long been (arguably false) prophets who preached about the coming of The End and End Times, particularly around major ingresses such as a new century or millennium. The group's desire to leave their bodies also draws on the Western metaphysical tradition.
The caption to this image on the Heaven's Gate site reads: “How a Member of the Kingdom of Heaven might appear.” Cult members believed that they were exchanging their earthly bodies for extraterrestrial life-forms, thereby achieving immortality in a physical “Evolutionary Level Above Human.”
As previously stated, Applewhite preached that he and Nettles had been reincarnated from The Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH). They came as dual entities who had assumed human form, i.e., extraterrestrial messiahs who were “doing the Christ trip.” Their mission on the planet was to warn the people of Earth about its coming end. In a scenario not unlike a [(Douglas Adams, 1985)] radio script, the only escape for their followers was to leave their human shells behind and hitch a ride to the galaxy aboard the spacecraft traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet, itself a sign of the coming apocalypse. But however much their separation of mind and body with a sprinkling of New Age mysticism may sound like a variation of Cartesianism or Gnosticism, they weren't seeking transcendence per se. The cult members thought that they were literally, not just metaphorically, leaving their bodies behind to become newly embodied as aliens or beings higher on the evolutionary scale, much as Applewhite claimed, but in reverse. See, for example, this passage from “Heaven's Gate ‘Away Team’ Returns to Level Above Human in Distant Space” on the cult's Website:
The Kingdom of God, the Level Above Human, is a physical world, where they inhabit physical bodies. However, those bodies are merely containers, suits of clothes – the true identity (of the individual) is the soul or mind/spirit residing in that “vehicle.” The body is merely a tool for that individual's use – when it wears out, he is issued a new one (Exit Press Release).
Perhaps needless to say, their belief in cosmic eco-bodily recycling is solidly heretical in terms of mainstream Western Christian thought, whether or not Biblical scripture is cited as evidence. Rather than Christian, these beliefs not only call to mind routine science fiction but reincarnation, Egyptian mystery cults, theosophy, and other forms of Orientalism that the West construes as decadent and “Eastern” [(Said, 1978; Gilman, 1979; Torgovnick, 1990)] although without – indeed, deeply dissociated from – the sensuality generally associated with exoticism.
The Heaven's Gate group was Other in still other ways. The press gleefully uncovered Applewhite's checkered past and problems with homosexuality in the restrictive American South of the 1950s [(Chua-Eoan, April 7, 1997; Daniel, April 14, 1997)]. There has been much armchair psychologizing about what might've driven this son of a Texas preacher to become an evangelist of the anti-body. Much of this line of thought holds that because he hated his sexuality and the misfortunes it brought him, Applewhite looked to the heavens for The Answer. While we'll never be able to pinpoint the origin of Applewhite's calling, surviving cult members tell of strict aestheticism and celibacy, and ultimately castration, of purifying the body to prepare it for a return to TELAH. Androgyny was the norm. In their last days on the planet, many of Applewhite's followers made tapes of their final mortal thoughts. The following is an excerpt from the “Earth Exit Statement: Why We Must Leave at this Time,” of Glnody, who gives the renunciation of the body a biotech prosthetic twist:
These “lower forces” have succeeded in totally addicting humans to mammalian behavior. Everything from ads for toothpaste to clothing elevates human sexuality. Being from a genderless world, this behavior is extremely hideous to us. Even if we go on an outing as harmless as visiting the zoo, the tour guides lace their commentary with sexual innuendoes, even when the group they are addressing is full of small children. Even the medical profession promotes sexuality. Procedures such as liposuction, breast enlargements, and even sex-change operations are considered perfectly acceptable, but ask a physician to neuter your vehicle for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and you will more than likely be referred to a psychologist who will help you “get in touch with your true sexual desires.” It is inconceivable to most humans that you could make such a request and be of sound mind (Glnody, March 19, 1997).
From the unsympathetic point of view of [(Alan Hale, March 28, 1997)], co-discoverer of the comet and an outspoken advocate for scientific reason and against superstition, the Heaven's Gate cult was utterly misguided. For Hale, “for all its beauty … [Hale-Bopp] is a dirty snowball that's orbiting the sun. Nothing more. It has no influence on earthly events.” The scientifically reputable SETI (Searching for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) League similarly released a statement that did not lend support to the claims of “radio emissions emanating from an Earth-sized artificial satellite allegedly shadowing Comet Hale-Bopp…. We in SETI would like nothing more than for these claims to be true, and verifiable. But faith alone is not proof” [(Shuch, 1997)].
It's important to acknowledge, however, that there is absolutely nothing wrongheaded or out of the norm with the cosmic question Heaven's Gate was asking. Who hasn't looked up at the nighttime sky and wondered: “Are we alone?” Author of the 1985 novel Contact, on which last summer's film was based and in which Heaven's Gate can be glimpsed, astronomer and former member of the SETI advisory board [(Carl Sagan, 1979)] wrote in Cosmic Search: “In the deepest sense the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves.” Despite their escapism, or perhaps because of it, the Heaven's Gate cult members were particularly in touch with the childlike wonder that most of us never quite lose. As a UFO cult, they were attuned to the heavens and, in fact, Nettles had been an astrologer [(Chua-Eoan, April 7, 1997)]. While the Heaven's Gate cult members undoubtedly were further out on the continuum, many people have a limited belief in the ability of the stars to portend the future or otherwise attach significance to celestial cycles and events. While this is exactly the kind of superstition that Hale didn't want to taint his comet, it's hard to ignore this deep current within human nature, no matter how much science provides rational explanations and despite no solid evidence from outer space of any other life-forms or earthly visitations. Nor are such feelings entirely irrational: Hale-Bopp like other comets was said to contain the building blocks of life [(DiChristina, Aug. 1997)]. Everything on Buckminster Fuller's (1964) “spaceship earth” is, of course, part of the heavens. We are the stuff of stars. In searching for meaning in the universe, we are also trying to make sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we're going.
If these New Age concerns don't sound so new, there is good reason. These we-are-stardust-we-are-golden ideas are once again making the rounds as we approach the next millennium and can be found in abundance on the Internet. Mostly in their 40s, the Heaven's Gate cult members were of the baby-boomer generation responsible for the PC revolution of the 1980s and that gravitated to the Net in the early 1990s. Their writings speak of God and the heavenly garden, which we have to nostalgically return to, in terms that don't significantly differ from how Joni Mitchell captured the Woodstock moment of 1969. The Heaven's Gate Website links to a few New Age organizations, such as Spirit Web, information and links on angels, channeling, healing light, reincarnation, yoga, and UFOs; Christ Net, Christian resources and spiritual guidance in cyberspace; Origin, a global interfaith networked community; and the Millennial Prophecy Report, “the premiere online news service for the End Times.”
Yet these warm and fuzzy vibes could lead the susceptible astray, much as was feared might be the influence of the “flower children” of the 1960s. One of the Heaven's Gate cult members who committed suicide on March 26 was, in fact, recruited through the Net. Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, 39 years-old, a postal worker and a mother of five including week-old twins, became attracted to the cult after reading Applewhite's teachings on the Web, exchanging email with the group, and experiencing a sense of belonging with the cult that she apparently didn't find elsewhere. With a look of beatific certainty on her face, McCurdy-Hill says on the exit tapes that “there is nothing for me here” (Students of Heaven's Gate Expressing Their Thoughts before Exit, March 21, 1997). Six months after joining Heaven's Gate, she was dead.
But in terms of the Heaven's Gate belief system, suicide was more of a means to an end than The End since their intent was to reunite with the cosmos, not unlike Timothy Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. On April 21, a few weeks after the events at Rancho Santa Fe, a sprinkling of ashes belonging to Leary and Roddenberry and a few others who could afford the interplanetary boost were launched into space on the maiden voyage of a mortuary service called Celestis, Inc. [(USA Today, April 22, 1997)]. Rkkody, formerly Charles Humphrey (a.k.a. Rick Edwards), who currently maintains the Right to Know Website as well as the restored Heaven's Gate site, is among the former cult members who believe that Applewhite and his fellow “crew members” succeeded in their mission. On the Web page “What If They're Right?” (with perhaps an inadvertent allusion to [(Tom Wolfe, 1966)]'s article about Marshall McLuhan, “What If He Is Right?”), Rkkody keeps the faith:
What if Do IS from the Kingdom of God? What if He IS the same mind, the same soul, who was here 2000 years ago in the body of the one called Jesus? What if they are telling the TRUTH about how we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven?… [No] one seems to be asking if maybe these individuals went exactly where they said they were going, to the Next Level (What If They're Right?).
If Applewhite was right, then the 38 crew members have joined Do and Ti within Heaven's Gate. They're flying high through the universe, New Age angels with new genderless cyborg-vehicles that don't feel pleasure or pain, who have an eternity in which to follow their bliss, to watch sci fi reruns and to surf the Net without commercial interruption (in this heavenly vision, bandwidth isn't a problem). Moreover, if he was right, then how long will it be until we start hearing reports of Applewhite sightings?
Is Cyberculture to Blame?
On Easter Sunday, “Paradise Lost,” an editorial by San Francisco-based journalist Richard Rodriguez, appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
Marshall Herff Applewhite's book, How and When “Heaven's Gate” May Be Entered, sets forth the cult's philosophy. Biblical citations are used to substantiate their position.
In the end, the religion propounded by Heaven's Gate owes more to the Age of Bill Gates and Microsoft than to the Age of Saint Teresa and the illuminated manuscript. Today, North County, San Diego, where the sect settled, is home to a global village of high-tech, bio-tech, info-tech…. A brave new line stretched along the Pacific coast … through the famous Silicon Valley, all the way north to Redmond, Washington. Is it a coincidence of demographics or economics that so much technological discovery is happening along this Pacific coast? Or is it again the coastline is encouraging many of us to seek a new world because the ocean reminds us of land's end? We may be living through a period of intellectual discovery and innovation … as great as any in history. Clearly, however, there is a lurking temptation – the temptation familiar to earlier California religious sects – to fear the coastline and fear time, to abandon the dry, scrub foothills of Rancho Santa Fe and enter the cool of cyberspace, floating free in the night….
Click onto the Web. Enter the realm called cyberspace where all information is available to you. Locate Heaven's Gate. There! In several colors, blinking, with its list of options … you are now, safely, forever, in cyberspace. The dead yet speak to us on our computer. One of them said, in an interview before her suicide …“There is nothing for us here.” She meant that there was no way for her to go on living in San Diego, in California, in the sun light. This is not religion. It is the expression of despair in our technological age [(Rodriguez, March 30, 1977)].
Rodriguez is one of the better informed commentators and his thoughts merit some scrutiny. He locates Heaven's Gate's suicidal renunciation more in what technology is attracting to the West Coast than to the influence of the Internet on its pilgrims. He associates the cult's religious beliefs with an unnatural fixation on computer technology and perhaps with technology in general. Rather than staying in their place as simple labor-saving devices, the mechanisms are running amuck and ruining human lives. Instead of enhancing our lives, mechanization is impoverishing them. This is a familiar Luddite or neo-Luddite claim, “It is the expression of despair in our technological age,” and one that isn't possible to either wholly agree or disagree with, since it is founded in point of view [(e.g. Mumford, 1934; Ellul,1954; Postman, 1985; Brook & Boal, 1995; Stoll, 1995; Dery, 1996; Noble, 1997)].
But Rodriguez goes a bit further with his description of cyberspace: “floating free in the night…. all information is available to you …. safely, forever.” Is this heaven or hell? It certainly is imaginative, since most of us probably don't experience cyberspace quite this poetically. We sit in front of our cathode-ray tubes and keyboards to do our business, which often means no more than routine correspondence, and we log off. We don't have time to linger and get entranced by the “colors.” This is cyberspace as drug, as hallucinogen, as Internet addiction. A dangerous place. A place where deluded souls like the Heaven's Gate cult members may take hold and lead others astray. Rodriguez cites the sole cult member who had been recruited online, McCurdy-Hill, who felt there was nothing more for her on this planet. But cyberspace resists simple explanations. Rodriguez uses a restricted palette in this portrait of cyberspace, which contains many colors and means different things to different people [(Jones, 1995; 1997)]. As Jeff Zaleski says in The Soul of Cyberspace, “[trying] to define cyberspace is like trying to tie a bow on a jellyfish” [(Zaleski, 1997, 30)].
Despite the evidence that the cult was more about UFOs and marginalized or pop-culture religion than the Net and the Net was simply one of the means by which they conveyed information, the persistence of the public's fears as filtered through the mass media suggests that these claims deserve to be aired and taken seriously and addressed at least in part. Arguments about Heaven's Gate as a Net accident-waiting-to-happen are similar to what was said about the CDA – in that many felt that it was, and continue to feel that it is, necessary to block harmful information from minds that don't have the critical ability to filter through spurious from true and arrive at a sensible conclusion. Given the potentially widespread acceptance of the Internet and its ease of use, ideas, or in the case of the CDA, pornography, can spread more easily online than through print and broadcast, which have a limited audience or require more specialized skills and equipment in order to publish or transmit information.
Another line of thought that doesn't get much play in the media, but is a pressing concern of the government and military, is information warfare, a form of terrorism. It's easy to view the Heaven's Gate group as more pitiful than threatening – and as Ted Turner bluntly pointed out, practically speaking, they hurt no one but themselves – but nevertheless there are those charged with the protection of the citizenry who feel that such ideas must be carefully controlled lest they get out of hand and encourage mass hysteria, incendiary behavior, and worse. [(President Clinton, March 27, 1997)], who found the suicides “sickening … shocking,” said, “I think it's important that we … try to determine what, in fact, motivated those people, and what all of us can do to make sure that there aren't other people thinking that way out there in our country, that aren't so isolated that they can create a world for themselves that may justify that kind of thing. It's very troubling to me.” Attorney General Janet Reno said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was “monitoring” the case and standing by “ready to assist,” although there was “no indication of any federal crime” [(Orange County Register, March 28, 1997)]. The men in black were prepared to take the appropriate measures, should alien-abduction frenzy have suddenly seized the nation.
In a surprising editorial in Newsweek, Geoffrey Cowley cited Aaron Lynch who drew on [(Richard Dawkins, 1989)]:
[As] the Heaven's Gate tragedy reminds us, hosts who swallow both the heaven-is-ours and the end-is-near memes may conclude the end is theirs to hasten – and hasten it. But a virus that kills its host doesn't always kill itself…“Let's say 100 million people were exposed to the Heaven's Gate meme [on television] as a result of the 39 suicides,” Lynch speculated. “If one in a million of those people contracted the meme, the suicides would have yielded 100 new infections” [(Cowley, April 14, 1997, 14)].
Heaven's Gate could be considered dangerous just because of the existence of their ideas, which could spread through media and take on an untoward life of their own like a mutant virus or cancer. Digital code is alive and seeks to remain alive, obeying nothing like Asimov's “Three Laws of Robotics.” In Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, Wired editor Kevin Kelly says that: “The meanings of ‘mechanical’ and ‘life’ are both stretching until all complicated things can be perceived as machines, and all self-sustaining machines can be perceived as alive…. The apparent veil between the organic and the manufactured has crumpled to reveal that the two really are, and have always been, of one being” [(Kelly, 1994, 13)]. Kelly terms this merging “neo-biology.”
Perhaps if the Net can be thought of as a neo-biological organism, then it can heal itself, protecting itself from ideas that could possibly spread out of control. The ethos of the Net that applies to censorship may act as censorship if, as Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) co-founder John Gilmore anthropomorphically asserted in The Virtual Community, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” [(as cited in Rheingold, 1993, 7)]. Maybe the Net also has the volition to route around evil memes and its own bad neighborhoods. Even if Charles Manson, considered to be a far more dangerous false prophet than Marshall Applewhite, is successful in uploading a home page, it's unlikely that he would be heard above the cacophony of other voices, which surely includes voices that would arise in protest against him. And hopefully most of us online who are thinking adults are unlikely to jump off a cliff, lemming-like, because a charismatic West Coast father-figure commands us, be it Applewhite, Manson, or the Reverend Schuler.
Nevertheless one death is still one too many. Rodriguez reminds us that McCurdy-Hill abandoned her five children and worldly possessions to join Heaven's Gate after being attracted to Applewhite's teachings on the Web. Zaleski says:
Those most vulnerable to a cult's message – the lonely, the shy, misfits, outcasts – are often attracted to the Net, relishing its power to allow communication with others while maintaining anonymity. While the Net offers an unprecedented menu of choice, it also allows budding fanatics to focus on just one choice – to tune into the same Web site, the same newsgroup, again and again, for hours on end, shut off from all other stimuli – and to isolate themselves from conflicting beliefs. Above all, the headiness of cyberspace, its divorce from the body and the body's incarnate wisdom, gives easy rise to fantasy, paranoia, delusions of grandeur. It wasn't a great surprise to learn that the members of Heaven's Gate were described … as being “unnaturally pale,” or that they emphasized nonsexuality even to the extent of castration and hoped to “shed” their bodily “containers” in order to pass on to the “Level Above Human” [(Zaleski, 1997, 249)].
Zaleski gets at the heart of why the Net may have contributed to the events that led to Rancho Santa Fe. Freedom from the physical body and the free reign given to the imagination in cyberspace, the very elements of psychic freedom celebrated by the Net's most prominent spokespeople, could have contributed to the cult members' decision to go the next, if illogical, step. Generational and pop-culture commonality are among the reasons why the beliefs that Applewhite preached happen to fit with some of the most influential ideas circulating within cyberculture. It's within the realm of possibility that Applewhite's ministry plus cyberculture was a toxic mix.
Therefore, rather than dismissing the Heaven's Gate group as extremists – even though the evidence strongly supports such a view – let's instead naïvely consider them to be representative of garden-variety cyberculture, which is what the mass media did in its initial coverage of the Heaven's Gate deaths. Let's examine some of the aspects of digital culture that are most commonly considered to be potentially dangerous and explore them despite the fact that due to his age difference and background in UFOlogy, Applewhite was coming from a different place and probably wasn't much influenced by cyberculture. His New Age followers who worked online and used that medium to communicate probably read Wired, surfed the Web, and participated in Usenet. For the sake of argument, let's assume that this is so and follow through on three sets of ideas central to cyberculture that seem relevant to Heaven's Gate: cyborgs, physical transcendence, and polymorphous online identity.
Cyborg: Meat Machine
In the sense in which [(Donna Haraway, 1991; 1997)] and [(Sandy Stone, 1995)] use the term, the Heaven's Gate cult members can be thought of as cyborgs. Heaven's Gate's neutering, their fascination with fringe faith and science, their identification with technologically mediated gods and goddesses (whether personified as the Messiah, the Two, or a deity drawn from popular culture) not only evinces the dualism of the technorganic merging of human with machine but perhaps points up what can go wrong when the celebration of the deeply unnatural moves beyond theory and into the realm of experience. To paraphrase Stone, the members of Heaven's Gate “fell in love with their prosthesis.”
In “Thoughts on the Status of the Cyborg: On Technological Socialization and Its Link to the Religious Function of Popular Culture,” Brenda Brasher follows John Fiske, as well as Haraway and Stone, to offer a religio-cyborg theory in which subcultures may find their own meanings simultaneous with or oppositional to their producers' intentions:
Maneuvering among the contradictory images, ethics, and narratives of technologically- mediated popular culture … meaning-seeking cyborgs reconfigure the bits and bites of mass-produced culture into popular culture faiths. Evidence attesting to the religious function of popular culture abounds. It has … given birth to a zealot: the Unabomber, a bizarre, antisocial cyborg trying to usher in a technological apocalypse on his own. Today's borged humans may or may not attend an overt religious group; but they probably do view …“Star Trek: The Next Generation”…“religiously” and discuss them with others, treating their fictional or quasi-fictional scenarios as a base for determining behavioral norms and creating new visions of community…. As Thomas Jefferson once treated the Bible, cyborgs sort through the technologically-mediated offerings of popular culture to select what they find religiously useful. Developing their social ethics in television talk shows, their theology in science fiction … cyborg religionists refashion the pleasure offerings of modernity into an anchor composed of the world to ground themselves within it [(Brasher, 1996, 821–22)].
Brasher's thoughts were written before the Heaven's Gate tragedy, but they are very much on target. The Heaven's Gate's cult members can be thought of as cyborgs “who sort through the technologically-mediated offerings of popular culture to select what they find religiously useful.” As users, they identified with their computer systems to the extent that the interface became part of themselves, like an organic or bodily system. This could work in reverse as well, as when prosthetics means a reduction in body parts such as is required to “neuter [a] vehicle.” It's not altogether clear, however, that “the pleasure offerings of modernity” provided much of a grounding for the cult members. It may be that “reality hacking,” as Stone puts it, opened up boundaries into popular culture and cyberspace that the Heaven's Gate cult members were unable to explore without peril.
In “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Haraway outlines her vision of woman as Other, cyborg as Other, and cyborg as transgressor of the boundaries between human, nonhuman, and inhuman, and by extension other naturally assumed patriarchal and national ideologies: “Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” [(Haraway, 1985, 181)]. Haraway prefers deus ex machina to mythological deity as a way of resolving the binaries and atomization intrinsic to digitization and other manmade categories. Empowered as a cyborg, Haraway's transgendered, multicultural goddess is conceived as a kind of postmodern gladiator – not unlike some of Gibson's fictional heroines.
Rodriguez's conception of cyberspace is largely drawn from [(William Gibson, 1984)], as is much of what we think of as cyberculture. Author of the cyberpunk science fiction classic Neuromancer, Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” from cybernetics. Although dismissed by Marvin Minksy [(as cited in Stork, 1997, 30)] as being all “atmosphere,” style with no cybersubstance, Gibson's cyborgs have been enormously influential in the Net community, where its users often overlook Gibson's dark undertones and embrace the fictional world and genre he created. Fitted with artificial body parts imbued with intelligence, the characters in the Sprawl trilogy seek more and greater simulated sensory immersion. The neural Net is alive and pulsating, inhabiting a space where mind and digital code merge and secede from the physical body or “meat.”
In terms of Heaven's Gate, however, what authors such as Gibson, Haraway, and Stone actually say may be less important than how their ideas are received and reshaped by cyberculture, especially since any linkage of their ideas with the cult is conjecture. What matters is that they have a pervasive influence. In Wired, the unofficial voice of the Net, the cyborg is glamorized and romanticized and generally sold to its readers. Haraway's desire to become empowered as a cyborg goddess and Gibson's bleak, mechanized vision informs countless technophilic articles and advertisements, such as the regular “Fetish: Technolust” column. Arthur Kroker notes in “Virtual Capitalism” that what's being sold is: “[not] a wired culture, but a virtual culture that is wired shut: compulsively fixated on digital technology as a source of salvation from everyday life, and determined to exclude from public debate any perspective that is not a cheerleader for the coming-to-be of the fully realized technological society” [(Kroker, 1996, 168)]. We're incessantly reminded that cyborgs are cool, technology is sacred, and “wetware,” or brain plus mind, is the only bodily organ worth recycling [(Rucker, 1997)].
It's not difficult to put zero and one together to see how this techophilic mindset might have influenced Heaven's Gate. Already halfway there because of their avid interest in science fiction and UFOs, through familiarity with the Net and its culture the younger Heaven's Gate cult members who contributed to Usenet and the Web very well might have encountered a lifestyle that underscored the devaluing of the human and the reification of the mechanical that already attracted them in the teachings of Marshall Applewhite. Thus the alienation they already felt was given the luster of some added “cultural capital” [(Bourdieu, 1984)]. But as they seem to have experienced in their other social encounters, online too the Heaven's Gate cult members were outsiders with their noses pressed to the virtual glass. As cyborgs they encountered one more reason to leave their meat behind.
Transcending the Body
Frank Biocca writes on “The Cyborg's Dilemma”:
The more natural the interface the more “human” it is, the more it adapts to the human body and mind. The more the interface adapts to the human body and mind, the more the body and mind adapts to the non-human interface. Therefore, the more natural the interface, the more we become “unnatural,” the more we become cyborgs [(Biocca, 1997)].
Is the technorganic process so insidious and naturalized, as Biocca suggests, that we accept its reality and semblance thereof without critical distance? Biocca's reading of the cyborg draws on McLuhan's (1965) formulation of media, which extends human consciousness, enabling the audience, or user, to have more open channels and greater immersion, to become completely surrounded or enveloped by media, as is the experience of virtual reality or VR. The more successful the interface, the more we are unaware of its effect, as with magic or cinematic tricks in which we don't see the apparatus at work but accept its fiction as reality [(e.g., Baudry, 1975; Comolli, 1980; Metz, 1981)]. In addition to a willing suspension of disbelief, what we are aware of is an enlargement of our consciousness and capacity to receive information. We are there, without matter, telepresent [(Lombard & Ditton, 1997)].
The Heaven's Gate cult members were attracted to the idea of leaving the body for a technologically- or computer-mediated consciousness. We know that they identified with science fiction and fantasized about being “beamed up.” Indeed they thought that they were casting aside their human shells for alien embodiment. Perhaps ideas about VR as opposed to RL, or real life, filtered down to the cult members because of their familiarity with the Net and through working in the field on the West Coast. The dilemma for them, therefore, would've been that they lacked the common sense and perspective necessary to separate fact from fiction, RL from hallucinogenic VR (used here to mean both VR in the technical sense as well as what's popularly conceived of as VR, which is a combination of communication in cyberspace and highly immersive experiences, such as Rodriguez describes).
From this assumption, we might infer that for Heaven's Gate the idea of alien abduction was analogous to a VR “trip”; in other words, that they didn't realize that there was no return ticket. Leaving aside for the moment the thorny question of whose reality is the “real” reality, we would have to assume that somewhere in the back of their minds the Heaven's Gate cult members didn't wholly believe that they were leaving this world for the next, just as the real-life consequences of castration weren't wholly apparent to them. For this interpreter, that's a difficult conclusion to arrive at. On a sliding scale of reality perception, sex and death seem vividly real. Moreover a willingness to commit suicide as an act of faith is just about as strong an avowal as can be made. Suicide and semblance would seem to be mutually exclusive; hence, since suicide cannot be feigned, it must be real. Suicide is a dilemma unavailable to cyborgs – although where do cyborgs go after they die is an interesting spin on the question posed by [(Adele Clarke, 1995)] (“Mommy, Where Do Cyborgs Come From Anyway?”). Nevertheless, however deluded someone considering suicide may be, it seems that a moment of self-preserving clarity would be likely to arise while arriving at the decision to permanently relinquish life in favor of something else, even if immortality is thought to be one of the options available after voluntary death.
But perhaps these reflections themselves are the product of popular culture, the life-flashing-before-one's-eyes of a thousand television commercials and countless second-rate Hamlets staring into the abyss. Therefore, let's dismiss the seriousness with which Heaven's Gate acted and let's assume that they didn't make the conscious decision to end their lives. Instead, let's assume that they were somehow more influenced by the Net than by Marshall Applewhite, however unlikely that may have been. Let's go even further and assume that the Heaven's Gate cult members wholly subscribed to the ethos of the Net arguably best represented by its ambassador at large, John Perry Barlow. Longtime WELL member, EFF co-founder, and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow espoused the online union of minds in “A Cyberspace Independence Declaration,” written on the occasion of the passage of the Telecommunications Act with its CDA provision:
Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live…. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here. Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions [(Barlow, Feb. 8, 1996)].
Barlow describes a cyberspace that is intangible and incorporeal, yet it lives and breathes and defies the material world's preconceptions and containers. It is a world of unparalleled freedom, of freedoms only promised in the First Amendment: freedom of speech, of religion, from law, and from the body. The Internet stretches across national and state boundaries, respecting none. But rather than falling apart into chaos and anarchy, the online world will be governed by “ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal.” Interestingly, Barlow says that his manifesto “passed through me, and as soon as it got out there [on the Net] it took on a life of its own. Literally. And continues to cruise around cyberspace without my doing anything whatsoever” [(as cited in Zaleski, 1997, 37)]. Barlow's ideas circulated through the circuitry of the Net far beyond the intentions of their producer, taking on their own neo-biological life.
A latter day Thomas Paine, Barlow's ideas are intended to provoke and stimulate discussion. But even taken at face value, could the members of Heaven's Gate have confused Barlow's rhetorical flourishes with the bluster of their spiritual leader? To accept this idea, you would have to infer that talk of civil disobedience, by its mere existence, is dangerous, an idea that is absurd in light of the First Amendment (although ideological censorship is obviously one of the uses that might've been made of the CDA). Furthermore, there is nothing in Barlow's commonly known writings that is anything but life-affirming. Indeed, he's talked movingly about the death of his former partner and of “soul data,” or life experiences shared across wires that carry the essence of their senders' humanity [(Barlow, et al. 1995, 38–39)]. Without the human element, zeros and ones are nothing more than information, data without knowledge or wisdom [(Zaleski, 1997)], lacking what Walter Benjamin called “aura” (1936). Barlow envisions a cyberspace peopled with minds who freely exchange ideas without the fear of reprisal that comes with the physical world with its materialist legal structure and bodily punishment [(Foucault, 1975)]. But he is never nihilistic. Rather Barlow could be and often is censured for his tendency to see only the positive aspects of the virtual community, although for Barlow this doesn't come at the expense of experiential life, which for him means living on a ranch in Wyoming.
If not Barlow, then maybe former Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary more properly represents dangerous ideas in cyberspace. A threat to reality lovers everywhere, Leary was generally considered to be the world's foremost authority on mind-expanding experiences from hallucinogens to VR. In Chaos and Cyberculture, Leary expounds on, among other things, the ecstatic joy found in communal sharing in virtual environments, the organic merging with the digital in a realm free of physical constraints that is paradoxically more human than manmade, more spiritual than material: “The closest you are probably ever going to get to navigating your soul is when you are piloting your mind through your brain or its external stimulation on cybernetic screens” [(Leary, 1994, 5)].
Or if not Leary, than maybe we should point the accusatory finger at VR pioneer and musician Jaron Lanier, who similarly unsettles because he doesn't accept empiricist definitions of reality and consciousness. Contra Barlow and Leary, Lanier argues that VR doesn't exist without bodies and that, unlike virtual amusement-park rides, the medium is interactive to such an extent that “if you don't do anything, you won't perceive anything – the only thing that makes virtual reality seem real is your activity” [(as cited in Parker, 1997)]. For Lanier, virtual consciousness is inseparable from bodily consciousness.
These “digerati” [(Brockman, 1996)] hold different views on bodily liberation through virtuality. But what partially sets Barlow, Leary, and Lanier apart from the Heaven's Gate cult members is an insistence on cyberculture. Practicing a kind of cyber-ecology, they've put back into the virtual community whatever they've taken from it, which is quite different from Heaven's Gate, which never seemed to consider the Net to be anything more than a cheap medium for broadcasting messages. These men are or were not ostracized from society and they don't preach estrangement and despair. Barlow, Leary, and Lanier are among digital culture's heroes and icons whose feet are or were firmly planted on the fluid “ground” of cyberspace. Rather than viewing RL and VR as oppositional, they see these ways of thinking about consciousness as being continuous and not even as particularly new. They are comfortable with the idea that as social actors we're increasingly inhabiting a technologically mediated environment in which the boundaries between RL and VR are blurred [(Laurel, 1993)]. But can the same be said of fragile individuals with low self-esteem, the type of people drawn to cults, followers rather than leaders? Might reality-bending media technology conversely limit rather than extend the consciousness of people for whom common-sense reality is already difficult to negotiate?
In their “Earth Exit Statements,” the Heaven's Gate cult members at first glance uncannily resemble MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle's subjects, who notably talk of reality being “just another window” and “cycling through” different personae. Through MUDs and MOOs, Turkle's users have found an outlet for behaviors that might not be acceptable in RL or the conditions of RL may preclude being as fully present as is possible through multiple online identities. For Turkle, the self is protean:
The essence of this self is not unitary, nor are its parts stable entities. It is easy to cycle through its aspects and these are themselves changing through constant communication with each other…. Dennett's notion of multiple drafts is analogous to the experience of having several versions of a document open on a computer screen where the user is able to move between them at will. The presence of the drafts encourages a respect for the many different versions while it imposes a certain distance from them. No one aspect can be claimed as the absolute, true self. When I got to know French Sherry I no longer saw the less confident English-speaking Sherry as my one authentic self. What most characterizes the model of a flexible self is that the lines of communication between its various aspects are open. The open communication encourages an attitude of respect for the many within us and the many within others [(Turkle, 1995, 261)].
Turkle's users are so close to their systems that online life is analogous to multitasking, to having several windows open simultaneously. In a vast improvement over experiential life, there even is an undo button as well as a way to search and replace. Many of us enjoy this level of comfort with our computers and find that simultaneously playing different social roles feels perfectly “natural” online. We may, for instance, carry on several email conversations at the same time or in close succession and have wide variations in tone and intimacy between the messages.
The Heaven's Gate cult members, on the other hand, weren't interested in “open communication.” What they were interested in was leaving the world behind. The sect's Website encourages online visitors to “find your ‘boarding pass' to leave with us during this brief ‘window’” (Heaven's Gate, 1997). Rather than cycling through different aspects of themselves, what they wanted to undergo was a chrysalis from which they would on one hand emerge a cyborg-alien and on the other hand, would never emerge from again. In his or her exit statement, Chkody wrote:
[Our] exit will probably make many feel that we were wrong in thinking the Next Level was a physical place. In reality, we will just have made our transition to a more advanced Next Level vehicle (more physical and real than this body) much easier. You see, it is very much like the caterpillar making the transition towards becoming a butterfly – discarding the old shell so the new one inside can emerge (Chkody, March 22, 1997).
The differences between these cyber-personae styles can be seen through online gaming. Compare what Turkle observes about the players in a Star Trek game:
In an interactive, text-based computer game designed to represent a world inspired by the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, thousands of players spend up to eighty hours a week participating in intergalactic exploration and wars. Through typed descriptions and typed commands, they create characters who have casual and romantic sexual encounters, hold jobs and collect paychecks, attend rituals and celebrations, fall in love and get married. To the participants, such goings-on can be gripping: “This is more real than my real life,” says a character who turns out to be a man playing a woman who is pretending to be a man. In this game the self is constructed and the rules of social interaction are built, not received [(Turkle, 1995, 10)].
… with what one of the cult members, who didn't pretend to transcend gender, who may well have been among those who underwent an irrevocable surgical procedure to ensure it, said on a farewell tape:
We watch a lot of Star Trek, a lot of Star Wars, it's just, to us, it's just like going on a holodeck. We've been training on a holodeck … [and] now it's time to stop. The game's over. It's time to put into practice what we've learned. We take off the virtual reality helmet … go back out of the holodeck to reality to be with, you know, the other members on the craft in the heavens (Students of Heaven's Gate Expressing Their Thoughts before Exit, March 21, 1997).
While Turkle's subject seems to consider online gaming to be serious fun, if perhaps played a bit too close to the edge for those who prefer their reality less equivocal, the Heaven's Gate cult member has, it could be said, gone well over that edge. The “social construction” [(Berger & Luckmann, 1966)] of the cult member's reality not only inverts reality and virtuality from a common-sense standpoint, there just about is no common-sense standpoint. What we might think of as reality, the cult member cited above considered a game, and what the cult member calls reality is nothing like the reality known outside of the sect. Chkody made a similar statement: “Humans have accepted such a fairy tale, that most have no idea of the reality of the Next Level” (Chkody, March 22, 1997).
The Heaven's Gate cyborgs may have lost the ability to differentiate reality from virtuality from hyperreality [(Eco, 1975; Baudrillard, 1983)]. Toggling between mundane and celestial causes and events, biology and science fiction, the self before joining the cult and the androgynous selves they became afterwards, the members of Heaven's Gate seem to have lacked a coherent sense of self. Like Turkle's users, they conceived of their daily existence as cycling or channel-surfing between programs. Life could be turned on and off like a television or computer, the mechanisms of media technology becoming an extension of their I/O identity.
But in an extraordinary identification with popular culture, the cult members seem to have taken fandom to the extreme of seeking to merge with their favorite shows by beaming up to join the pop icons they were dying to meet. Life after death doesn't appear to have been any less certain or significant than flipping the remote to tune in to another show or surf to another Web page. As with a particularly immersive VR entertainment ride, the Heaven's Gate cult member cited above seems to have envisioned death as the ultimate Trekkie trip to the final frontier. It doesn't appear that the Star Trek allusion was meant metaphorically, e.g., committing suicide is like leaving the holodeck. It seems that the cult member literally meant that exiting the planet is a means for entering the “craft in the heavens.” Other than in the unlikely event that their alien abduction was successful, it seems that they desired to enact what [(Minksy, 1980)] originally defined as telepresence, an illusion of synchronous transportation to a real location through telecommunication devices, except that the location of their illusion was unreal, or its reality was death (which may or may not have been what they wished for), and equally unreal was the mode of telecommunication device, the holodeck.
It's tempting, quite tempting, to do some second- and third-hand armchair psychoanalysis on the deceased Heaven's Gate cult members and to view them as borderline personalities, indicative of the kind of postmodern slippage that Turkle describes. Significantly, Turkle too is uncertain as to whether her subjects are dysfunctional, meaning that they may suffer from Internet addiction (which may be analogous to cultism), schizophrenia, wish fulfillment, or a host of other social maladjustments, or whether the phenomena that she's observed over the past decade is developing into a new technormalcy [(Turkle, 1984; 1995)]. But there is an enormous difference between Turkle's subjects and the cult members. Where Turkle's users speak of an abundance of personality and perhaps splintered selves, multifaceted realities, it's not clear that the Heaven's gate cult members had a firm grasp on any identity, singular or plural, real or fantastic. Under Applewhite's ministry, they sought the annihilation of their individuality, then the annihilation of their sexuality, and finally the annihilation of themselves. Arthur Kroker writes on “reverse nihilism”:
Reverse nihilism … the nihilistic will turned inwards, decomposing subjectivity, reducing the self to an object of conscience- and body-vivisectioning. What does it mean when the body is virtualized without a sustaining ethical vision? Can anyone be strong enough for this? What results is rage against the body: a hatred of existence so true and so sharp that it can only be satisfied by an abandonment of flesh and subjectivity and, with it, a flight into virtuality. Virtuality without ethics is a primal scene of social suicide: a site of mass cryogenics where bodies are quick-frozen for future resequencing by the archived data networks. The virtual class can be this dynamic because it is already the aftershock of the living dead: body vivisectonists and early (mind) abandoners surfing the Net on a road trip to the virtual inferno [(Kroker, 1996, 169)].
Fascination with bodily prosthetics turned inward to become self-hating vivisection perhaps contributed to the abandonment of matter and embrace of the bits and bytes of virtuality. Heaven's Gate is now among the living dead, forever digital (or however long “forever” might be online). On the question of responsibility, however, this observer probably wouldn't damn to quite the extent of Kroker, who wrote well before the Heaven's Gate suicides. My position is closer to that of Douglas Rushkoff, who wrote in his New York Times Syndicate column, “Internet Apocalypse”: “Did the Internet lead 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult to commit mass suicide? Of course not. But the way the Internet changes how its users think about themselves and their relationship to the universe may have contributed to this tragedy” [(Rushkoff, March 30, 1997)]. Rushkoff speculated that it was the cult's faulty pattern recognition that may have led Applewhite's followers to look for answers where there aren't any. Or the apocalypse itself offers an answer, however untidy, whereas online there are always more open-ended uncertainties and linkages [(Eco, 1962)].
In digital environments in which users can be human and machine, mind and body, man, woman, and borg, the only nontechnical limits are the imagination and the capacity of the user to cope with the uncharted possibilities of cyberspace. For some people this kind of fourth- or perhaps even fifth-order simulation may prove too much. When there is no “there” there, when the conditions of real life are already fantastic, continued contact with the virtual life could lead to a Rancho Santa Fe. In light of the Rancho Santa Fe suicides that took place on March 26, it's difficult to deny such a possibility or its actuality. While the Net isn't to blame for the Heaven's Gate deaths, it's possible that Applewhite's teachings collided with just enough other factors, including some ideas central to cyberculture, to enable the creation of conditions that might favor mass suicide. Life in the cult ensured alienation from society, and the cult members weren't encouraged to develop selves that could withstand some of the more potent seductions of virtuality. Without the restraints of responsibility, family, and a grounding in the community, cyber or real, the cult members didn't have the real-world anchor they may well have needed. Instead, they were free to drift further and further out in cyberspace and into the cosmos, ultimately unable to connect with the living. Heaven's Gate looked to the heavens for meaning but found answers in pop culture gods and goddesses who visit our homes on television screens and computer monitors, whose talking heads beckon to us from deep within mediated space.
Despite the ample documentation they left behind, we still know little about Heaven's Gate. The cultists remain enigmatic, Other. It's difficult to understand them. The cult members were so “far out” that the inclination is to read into them whatever we want to see because on a superficial level they continue to seem ridiculous. How could anyone believe that the “literal heavens” could be reached by “[backing] out of the holodeck” to hop aboard a flying saucer traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet?
The significance of the fact that Heaven's Gate derived inspiration from popular science fiction in equal measure with religious scripture has yet to be realized. The media coverage of Heaven's Gate gives ample evidence of the media's tendency to marginalize these groups by emphasizing their differences from the rest of us while neglecting their similarities. One theme that came through in interview after interview with those who had recent contact with the sect members was the reporters' insistent questioning about signs of mental illness or suicidal tendencies. The interviewers were clearly nonplused by the responses, which emphasized the friendliness, professionalism and reliability of the individuals in the group [(O'Leary, April, 1997)].
This is what I too have found, both in the interviews I've viewed and read and those I've conducted with a few surviving cult members. The people associated with Heaven's Gate that I've consulted, largely over practical matters such as copyright permission and to get to the bottom of rumors, have been unhesitatingly cooperative and pleasant. As off-putting or alienating as their beliefs might be, as computer-mediated personae (since I haven't met these people face to face) they seem well within the range of normalcy – they seem, for instance, far less remarkable than the people Sherry Turkle interviews. O'Leary partially attributes their paradoxical fervor to millennial fever. He seems to view Heaven's Gate as perhaps the most significant thus far of the bizarre incidents that may take place as we approach the year 2000.
Fellow millenarian Hillel Schwartz might concur. Senior Fellow at the Millennium Institute, Schwartz has reviewed the historical evidence and developed a theoretical framework within which Heaven's Gate might be placed. The great ingresses, Schwartz argues, are not arbitrarily the products of calendars nor are they wholly attributable to cosmic influences. Whatever the cause, many of us seem to feel large-scale numerical changes. The change to the year 2000 is deeply meaningful in human terms, soul data or neo-biology writ large. In “Generational Change, Historical Age, Calendar Page,” Schwartz delineates seven “Tendencies at Centuries' Ends,” paraphrased below:
1Compulsively Counting Down: Reckoning in terms of numbers and seeing patterns. “The numbers that count down to century's end add up, literally, to one's identity.”
2Trying to Keep Up with the Times: The feeling that things are speeding up, trying to avert disaster.
3Feeling Distraught and Depleted:“Centuries' ends are taken to heart as ends of the line…. Suicide is viewed with enormous seriousness, for the ending of one's own life is … resonant of larger ends: toxic pollution, mass extinctions, a dead planet.”
4Getting Confused about Conclusions:“Centuries' ends seem interminable; the end has been held in sight for so long that it seems to take forever for anything decisive to happen.” The desire to bring closure leads people to take hasty action.
5Searching for Signs and Synchronicity:“[No] coincidence can be free of hidden meaning. People are obsessed with conjunctions (astrological or economic), correlations (poetic or politic), convergences (historic or harmonic).”
6Going for Broke:“At centuries' ends people believe that events and inventions are spinning out of control…. Our world is broken; we must fix it, now or never…. People fantasize new sources of energy which can keep humanity humming.”
7Thinking Globally:“We look for ‘universal’ languages or technologies to unite the world. We are inclined toward short-term prophecies of – and speedy therapies for – personal, familial, social, and ultimately global transformation” [(Schwartz, 1996)].
Schwartz's prescient thoughts provide a useful way to contextualize Heaven's Gate. We can view the group less as an anomaly than as a millennial case-study. Indeed, the cult members' “Earth Exit Statements” suggest that they may well have been acting under the influence of Schwartz's seven tendencies or symptoms (counting down, getting confused, searching for signs, etc.). Moreover, we may feel such foreboding ourselves, even if we might not carry through to the extent of Heaven's Gate. Just a week and a half after the Rancho Santa Fe suicides, the countdown of the 1000 days until the dawn of 2000 was widely celebrated by calendar-watchers and other millennial enthusiasts. These cosmic markers have deep personal meaning, which in turn become cultural touchstones like where you were when you heard about JFK or when the Challenger exploded. The poignant ache of expectation associated with New Year's Eve and birthdays will be felt that much more keenly, we can assume, with the change to the year 2000 and perhaps more so with 2001, the true cusp of the third millennium. Other well-wishers recently celebrated HAL's “birthday.” The ambivalent Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic mainframe with the Panopticon-like lens of Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's film 2001 (1968) “became operational” in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1997, not far from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the birthplace of Mosaic and distributed hypermedia. Another strange coincidence? Another sign?
Still Heaven's Gate eludes us. Millennialism is an attractive answer, but like blaming the Net or cyberculture, it may be a bit too convenient, incomplete. As with most handy case-studies, its subjects exceed their explanations just as the group wasn't completely successful with determining the meaning they so ardently desired that their mass suicide would bring, that they went to such lengths to broadcast on the Net and through other media. They are dead, yes, which is as final an end to life as there can be on this planet, as offline as offline can be, but still their story is being inscribed. Hale-Bopp did not bring closure to Heaven's Gate.
Former members have set up new Websites, sometimes in conflict with each other (and over, it can be assumed, interpretations of what will become the Heaven's Gate gospel). At least one former member ended his life and there have been copycat suicides. The sect's former Rancho Santa Fe mansion is on the market. ABC is filming a docudrama of the Heaven's Gate story. Right to Know carries on Heaven's Gate's evangelical work and Higher Source still provides Web services for clients. The access counters on their sites offer evidence that the Heaven's Gate Websites continue to receive a hefty number of visitors, months after the initial prurient interest has passed. The group will continue to be a mass media – not specifically a Net – phenomenon for years to come. Their ideas, dangerous or silly depending on your point of view, may well continue to spread, which is, of course, partially what they hoped to accomplish through their online/offline deaths.
In 1997, the Net became an extension of the mass media. If Heaven's Gate was the Internet's first great mystery [(Potz, March 28, 1997)], then their suicides may also serve in retrospect as signifying the beginning of the Net's demystification process. The maverick status of the Net has become cumbersome, a backward-looking reminder of the good old days of the Silicon Valley gold rush. The cyberfrontier is fading as quickly as did the mythic American West of the previous century. And surely for many, a tamed, suburbanized, sanitized Net is not altogether unattractive. We want a Net that is safe for families, even if the CDA overshot the mark. One of the promises of Vice President Gore's Information Highway, which is roaring through the cyberfrontier like the locomotive and telegraph that preceded it, is law and order, necessary for colonization and economic development. Fringe groups such as Heaven's Gate no longer are completely acceptable to either long-time members of the virtual community or its newbie settlers. The taint of association isn't welcomed by the former, and the latter are afraid of contact with their children.
As discussed throughout, the practices of the Heaven's Gate group were more atypical than typical of Net standards and behavior. They were alienated from and alienated other Net users. Applewhite's followers belong to the traditions of which they were knowingly a part, e.g., religious martyrdom, UFOlogy, messianic cults, millennialism. The Net is almost incidental. But if we want to go ahead and blame the Net and cyberculture, we need the right supporting evidence. Yes, there are some ideas central to cyberculture that, no matter how tangential to Heaven's Gate, may be relevant. And it's true that if we want to make a case, perhaps there is something inherently dangerous about cyborgs, bodily liberation, and multiple online identities for some people who lack a secure sense of self. Perhaps the Heaven's Gate cult members would've been better off if they hadn't been exposed to the Net and those of us on the Net would've been better off if we hadn't been exposed to their memes. But it's equally true that the comet may have come at the wrong time. That the dawn of the year 2000 may account for their lunacy. That exposure to Southwestern UFOlogy unduly influenced them at a vulnerable time. That they may have seen too many episodes of The X-Files. Their credulity and the syncretist nature of their beliefs accommodates a wide range of explanations.
Most of us, perhaps instinctively, view human and machine as antipodal. We partially gauge our humanity by contrast with machines, which may lack immortal souls but are oblivious to the indignities of mortal aging. Who doesn't want to become just a wee bit more cyborg-like if it means improving on our humanity in the here-and-now? To want a nip here, a tuck there is perfectly understandable, particularly if the promise of “being digital” is taken to mean eternal perfection [(Negroponte, 1995)]. Most of us rely on some form of mechanical slave to take care of repetitive tasks. We appreciate the dependability of our home and office machines and take pride in our ability to outsmart their limitations. We clean them with a soft cloth and dutifully maintain their physical condition. We probably even feel some affection for our computers, household appliances, and motor vehicles. But they're inanimate. Manmade. We don't want to become them.
[ Two surviving cult members, Rkkody (Charles Humphrey), and a woman named Crlody, currently maintain the Heaven's Gate Website and provide an accompanying site, Right to Know. Cult mementos such as this Away Team patch, a replica of those worn by the 39 cult members who ended their mortal lives, tapes, mugs, and T-shirts may be purchased from their organization based in Venice, California. ] The mass media's attention to the Net has been a mixed blessing from the start. Time's first cover story was by Philip Elmer-Dewitt, “The Century Ahead: Dream Machines: Technology Watchers Foresee a World Filled with Multisensual Media, Smart Roads and Robots that Are Almost Alive” [(Elmer-Dewitt, Fall 1992, 39–41)], followed by “Cyberpunk: With Virtual Sex, Smart Drugs and Synthetic Rock ‘n’ Roll, a New Counterculture Is Surfing the Dark Edges of the Computer Age,” by David S. Jackson [(Jackson, Feb. 8, 1993, 57–65)]. Newsweek's first cover story on the Net was only slightly less sensational: “Live Wires: More than 12 Million Americans Are Living ‘On-Line’– Looking for Love, Stock Tips and Therapy on Computer Networks,” by Barbara Kantrowitz et al. [(Kantrowitz, et al., Sept. 6, 1993, 42–49)]. Cyberculture, however, was already well underway. Mondo 2000's first issue was published in 1989 and Wired was launched in 1993.
See, for example, John Schwartz's “Characterization of Cult Strikes an Online Nerve” [(Schwartz, March 29, 1997)], in the Washington Post, and some of Jon Katz's Media Rant columns for HotWired, such as “Deaths in the Family” and “Finding the Middle Media” [(Katz, March 31, 1997; April 1, 1997)]. Other literate protests raised by members of the online news “establishment,” such as by Brock N. Meeks for MSNBC and published by E-Media, have since gone offline.
The precedent had been set by Carnegie-Mellon undergraduate Martin Rimm's notorious study, “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway,” published in the Georgetown Law Journal [(Rimm, 1995)], which was picked up by Time magazine, which published Elmer-Dewitt's “On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn” [(Elmer-Dewitt, 1995)], which led to the cyberporn scare of 1995, which in turn fueled the Communications Decency Act (CDA), Sec 5:A of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which within two years traveled up to the Supreme Court and was overturned in [(Reno v. ACLU, 1996/1997)]. See the Project 2000 study, which refutes Rimm's findings, by Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak at Vanderbilt University.
In “The Web Is Ruined and I Ruined It,” noted graphic designer David Siegel claimed that “several dog-eared copies of his book, ‘Creating Killer Web Sites,’ were found at the scene of the Heaven's Gate suicides” [(Siegel, April 11, 1997)]. In personal communication (Nov. 25, 1997), however, Siegel said that his intent was humorous, playing off the word “killer” in the title of his book, which was then on Amazon's best seller list, and the timeliness of his article.
Typical of cyberculture irreverence, the newfound notoriety was celebrated through the Heaven's Gate parodies, as well as through a new online news category, wacky news. See for example Yahoo's Odd News and CNN's Fringe News.
Although the death of Princess Diana has been stretched to fit just about every meaning the media might want to attach to it, it's worthwhile pointing out that on the Net her death was the Next Big Thing after Heaven's Gate. The Net's response to her passing and that of Heaven's Gate were polar. While a few parody sites were uploaded after the princess's fatal accident, just as a few sympathetic sites appeared after the incident at Rancho Santa Fe, for the most part the online Diana shrines were an extension of the week-long mourning felt by the British and shared throughout the world. While Heaven's Gate seems to represent everything we don't want to be, the tall, thin, beautiful, blonde, extremely well-born yet sad princess represents aspirations that now we'll never get to live through her. Her death cheated us of that vicarious pleasure. The Heaven's Gate deaths provide the opposite sort of vicarious, if guilty, pleasure.
The Washington Post provides a timeline of Heaven's Gate, From Houston to Hale-Bopp. See the Post's chronology of cults in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century on the Cult Controversy Website, including the Heaven's Gate page. Other news organizations that provide useful articles and pointers are: CNN, Mass Suicide Links; Nando.net, The Heaven's Gate Cult; the New York Times, Death in a Cult; Time Warner's Pathfinder, Heaven's Gate Suicides (see also “A Level above Human” and their Special Report); and Yahoo, Heaven's Gate.
Last summer marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell incident. See the Website of the International UFO and Research Center, located in Roswell. The Area 51 Research Center is also online. The Mother of All UFO Links is known for being the best online resource on this subject.
Thomas Nichols, the brother of Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhara on the original Star Trek, was one of the members of Heaven's Gate who ended his life on March 26, 1997. The group was known to have been avid fans of The X-Files and Star Trek. They liked The Next Generation better than the original series and decorated their work space at Rancho Santa Fe “with posters of alien beings from The X-Files and E.T.” [(Gleick, April 7, 1997, 33; Corliss, April 7, 1997)].
The Hale-Bopp Companion photographs can be found on the Art Bell site. Also online is the Farsight Institute. The Ground Crew, based in Concord, C.A., and UNARIUS (UNiversal ARticulate Interdimensional Understanding Science), based just outside San Diego, are among the UFO cults that believe in alien abduction and that maintain Websites. See also UFOs and the Bible. Although Chuck Shramek's home page, with photo galleries of extraterrestrial images, is linked from the Heaven's Gate site, Rkkody (Charles Humphrey, also known as Rick Edwards) is skeptical of drawing too much of a correlation between the Heaven's Gate suicides and the comet and coming millennium, viewing such conjecture as terrestrial, thereby at a lower, animalistic stage in the evolutionary process and a misreading of the group's exit (personal communication, Nov. 25, 1997).
There were so many hits on the Heaven's Gate and Higher Source Websites in the first few days after the suicides that the servers and networks they were on crashed – even the mirrored sites crashed [(CNN, March 28, 1997; Neuborne, March 28, 1997)]. Although the FBI was rumored to have shut down the Heaven's Gate site, which didn't come back online until July, Rkkody says he suspects that the site was pulled instead by InterNIC (personal communication, Nov. 25, 1997).
Chip Bayers, at Wired News, in “Viewing Source at Heaven's Gate” [(Bayers, March 27, 1997)], Joshua Quittner, writing for Time, in “Life and Death on the Web” [(Quittner, April 7, 1997, 47)], and Ken Morrill, of http://webdesk.com, in “Pre-Comet Clues Under the Hood of the Higher Source Web Site” [(Morrill, April 15, 1997)] are among those who noticed this peculiar use of keywords but didn't do much with the discovery, although news accounts reported millions of hits and failed servers in the wake of the Heaven's Gate deaths.
Overdoing the meta tag is typical of pornography and soft porn online. Look at the source code of, for instance, Playgirl. For a fee, the Adult Submission Service will help purveyors of adult material obtain greater online recognition in a highly competitive market by providing expertise with meta tags along with other tricks of the HTML trade. Meta Medic is an online service that works similarly to validation checkers, but is designed specifically for meta tags. Users can submit a URL and have the tool analyze the tag for errors. After submitting the Heaven's Gate site, I received numerous warnings about duplication and the tag's exceeding the recommended limit. In other words, the search engine robots that use the Heaven's Gate meta tag would simply ignore most of what they subtextually provided.
Yahoo provides a list of Elvis Sightings pointers. The Original (Unofficial) Elvis Home Page also contains sightings information and a Heaven's Gate Survey that asks users if they believe that the cult members successfully joined up with aliens aboard a UFO.
Many timely articles, from a broad spectrum of periodicals, cited the significance of the comet. See, for example “Comets Spawn Fear, Fascination and Web Sites” [(Johnson, Mar. 28, 1997)]. Ted Turner kept an open mind: “They could be behind that comet,” he said. “It does look good. I've been looking at it. I would kind of like to go up there myself. Is there that much difference in other religions saying you're going to heaven?” [(Reuters, Mar. 29, 1997)].
Rkkody confirmed that McCurdy-Hill was the only cult member recruited through the Internet (personal communication, Nov. 25, 1997).
The threat of national and international terrorism is the ostensible rationale for the (still not defunct) Clipper Chip, or key encryption escrow. Information warfare is considered to be the cutting edge of the military but, due to its classified nature, not much information leaks out other than some VR simulation experiments. See http://infowar.com and Michael Froomkin's papers on the Clipper Chip [(Froomkin, 1995; 1996)].
Isaac Asimov's “Three Laws of Robotics” are: “1) A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law” [(Asimov, 1990, 8)].
At his ninth parole board hearing, coincidentally held on March 27, 1997, the day after the Rancho Santa Fe suicides, Manson is reported to have said after being denied parole again: “That's OK – I'm building a Website.” In fact, Manson is not allowed access to the Net, although there are several Websites devoted to him, most prominently Cease to Exist and Access Manson [(Metzger, 1997)]. Manson's prosecutor, Stephen Kay, says that the Access Manson site is nevertheless run by Manson through Sandra Good, one of the members of his “family,” who befriended George Stimson, who maintains the site [(Raney, 1997)].
See Jonathan Steuer's speculative Vividness and Interactivity Chart (1995), which places the holodeck in the highly immersive upper right quadrant, grouped with Gibson's cyberspace and Bradbury's nursery.
See, for example, the Website that accompanies David Stork's volume, HAL's Legacy: 2001 's Computer as Dream and Reality [(Stork, 1997)] and the official HAL's Birthday site, provided by NCSA. The Millennium Institute provides an excellent list of Internet Resources on the Millennium.
ABC is developing a made-for-television reenactment of the group's tragic end [(Purdum, April, 4, 1997)], based on the life story of surviving cult member Rio DiAngelo (known in the cult as Neody, a.k.a. Richard Ford), who still provides Web consulting services through Higher Source (personal communication, Nov. 21, 1997). There have been copycat suicides [(Purdum, May 7, 1997)]. A dispute seems to have arisen between Rkkody, who currently maintains the Heaven's Gate site, and some other former cult members who are starting their own TELAH organization. Rkkody also tried to end his life a few months later, but survived and feels his destiny is to spread the word about the true Heaven's Gate mission and to combat rumors [(Taylor, May 20, 1997)]. See also Heaven's Gate: The Day After, “a documentary about ‘The Next Level’.”
Congress may try again with the CDA (see Yahoo's Internet Decency news and Brock N. Meeks' WWWashington column for MSNBC). Another bill has been introduced by the CDA's original sponsor, Sen. Dan Coats, that would fine or jail commercial distributors who upload information deemed “harmful to minors” for free. In Dec. 1997, a three-day conference was held in Washington, D.C., Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children, that was supported by the White House, industry, and some civil liberties lobbiests. See the White House's A “Family-Friendly” Internet and The President's Educational Technology Initiative.
[The ‘Heaven's Gate’ Estate” has been put on the market. For $250, prospective buyers can view the premises. Sealed bids were accepted with a check for $50,000. The San Diego Real Estate Directory provides the accompanying Website.]