The curious online afterlife of a 20th century suicide cult

The curious online afterlife of a 20th century suicide cult

On May 8, 2014, I sent an email to the inbox of the Heaven’s Gate ‘cult’, the bulk of whose members took their own lives on March 26, 1997. It was short and to the point:

How many emails a day do you get from people who found out that you still reply?

Just over four hours later, I received my first communication from the couple who maintain the group’s website, preserved just as it was on that spring day in 1997. Their message was equally concise:

A couple of dozen a day.

That brevity is representative of all the emails I’ve exchanged with the pair, who have never used their real names in the correspondence, and who I’m not going to name despite their identities being easily discoverable online.

I have kept up my communication with them on and off ever since. They are unfailingly polite, prompt to reply and conscientious in their adherence to the instructions left for them by the group.

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I’m far from the first journalist to discover that the group’s website is still online or that emails to its address receive replies. It’s been a source of fascination on Reddit for quite some time and Gizmodo wrote an extensive piece on group’s history and aftermath.

But there’s been a big misconception in almost all of the reporting around the enduring life of Heaven’s Gate online. Because the website remains – and the group ran an early web design business to generate cash – many people have characterized it as an ‘internet cult’. It was never anything of the sort.

Watching the world and Wikipedia

I asked the custodians of the Heaven’s Gate website why they continue to maintain it 18 years on. Their reply was simple:

We were in the group for 12 years and will always follow through with what they asked us to do.

They have normal lives and jobs outside of running the email account and ensuring the Web site remains online. And they do read what people write about the group:

…nearly all of it varies from misinformed to outright distorted.

I asked why they feel that is and whether they want to correct what they consider to be inaccuracies:

It is natural for people to react in fear to the information and lash out with anger and sarcasm.

 Sometimes they ignore it and others ridicule it. We have dealt with it since 1975 and try to understand it without reacting to it.

Many times in reviewing what is written about [the group], we see people laying misinformation on top of misinformation and calling it journalism. Very few have really dug down to the truth. They don’t have to believe any of it, but there should be a desire to deal with the facts of it. We are here to provide correct answers regarding the information.

We don’t write or edit the story, we just provide the facts. That is when they even ask us.

We recently got three college professors to work together to write the true story in the distorted Wikipedia. That new and factual presentation will be made available to the world via Wikipedia later this summer through all the standard protocols of that site.

Initially that sounded as though the pair were aiming to have the article rewritten to represent their perspective, which would be against the spirit and rules of Wikipedia.

I asked them: “How did you come to connect with those professors? Won’t that be a necessary partial account if it’s one that you approve? Have you seen any journalism that you have felt was fair?”

They were quick to clarify:

We have been dealing with sociologists, psychologists and all members of the academia since the early 1980s. When true scholars try and get the true facts, they eventually come to us.

We don’t think you understand, as we stated before, we don’t approve anything. We just provide verifiable facts. We will not be writing or editing the Wikipedia page. It is totally in the hands of the scholars to present their information. If you look at a lot of what is on Wikipedia, some of their source material on other subjects is dubious at best.

At least this one will have been looked over by experts on this subject from different points of view.

A recent book on this subject, ‘Heaven’s Gate – America’s UFO Religion’ by Benjamin Zeller has been the best work we have seen so far.

That’s when I wrote to Professor Zeller and things started to get really interesting.

The beginnings

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Heaven’s Gate’s origin story begins in a hospital. In his book ‘Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults’, Jacques Vallée, the French venture capitalist and UFO researcher, gives a contemporaneous account of the beginnings of what was then called Human Individual Metamorphosis (H.I.M):

In November it was discovered that the two people who claimed to be the leaders of that outer-space organization were in fact quite ordinary humans: M.H. Applewhite, 43, born in Spur, Texas, a musician and opera singer, the son of Presbyterian minister; and Bonnie Nettles, age 48, a nurse who met him in Houston in the early ‘70s while he was recovering from a mental breakdown. They had first created meditation centres, then about 1973 they began recruiting for H.I.M.

The pair came to believe that they were the two witnesses referenced in the Book of Revelation 11:3:

And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1.260 days, clothed in sackcloth.

Vallée reports that “the Two”, who used a variety of aliases – most notably “Bo” and “Peep” – before setting on “Do” (doe) and “Ti” (tea), met with initial but fleeting success:

They found many people to listen to them. At the Stanford meeting [which Vallée attended], they made half a dozen new converts. Later, however, they began losing members. The people who left their group would just go home and, for several weeks, simply stare at walls.

Though their early recruitment efforts seem to have been ineffective, Do and Ti’s theology remained relatively consistent from the start, leaning heavily on ideas of resurrection, salvation, apocalypse and the notion that believers were students waiting to ‘graduate’ from a class.

Professor Zeller explains:

The basic theology of Heaven’s Gate was that life on earth was relatively unimportant compared to life in the heavens, which should be our ultimate goal. Put that way, that’s what most Christians believe, particularly evangelical protestants who are a major force in America.

The sociologist Robert W. Balch, like Vallée, encountered the group in its earliest incarnation. He writes in foreword to Zeller’s book:

Late in 1975, David Taylor and I infiltrated H.I.M to find out for ourselves what was really happening ‘behind the scenes.’ Suffice to say, instead of a dangerous cult, we found a group so lacking in leadership and structure that it appeared to be falling apart. Shortly after we finished out fieldwork, the group stopped recruiting and disappeared from public view…

One potential reason for the group’s disorganized state at that time was that Do ended up in prison. In August 1974, he was arrested for failing to return a rental car and jailed for six months. It was during his period that he began to shift his theological thinking towards extraterrestrial life.

Throughout 1975, Do and Ti began to gather followers. During this time they were using the “Bo” and “Peep” monikers and arranged at least two public events to wait for the arrival of UFOs. When a spaceship failed to land at a gathering in Waldport, Oregon, the group still gained 30 new followers.

They then settled on a nomadic lifestyle moving across the United States. In April 1976, Ti announced that the group would no longer hold public meetings and its membership dropped dramatically – from more than 100 to around two dozen.

The group lived in campgrounds with Do and Ti beginning to establish stricter demands on their followers to bind them together. Zeller told me the culture was spartan:

There were a lot of people who left the group because they couldn’t handle the religious practices like celibacy, communal living and dedicating their whole life to the group. They were living as monks and nuns. A lot of people left because they didn’t want to commit to that degree. In the same way that there are Catholics who wouldn’t want to be monks or nuns.

Despite the strict rules, there are no disgruntled ex-Heaven’s Gate members to speak of. Unlike other notorious groups such as the Branch Davidian and Jonestown which were brought down by former acolytes, people who left Do and Ti remained fond of them.

‘The Two’ were careful to ensure good relations as Balch explains in his essay ‘Waiting For The Ships: Disillusionment and the Revitalization of Faith in Bo and Peep’s UFO Cult’:

Bo and Peep were good salesmen, but people shopping for new cars routinely encounter much more pressure and manipulation. People joined the UFO cult with virtually no pressure to convert, and they enthusiastically adopted group norms even before the socialization process began.

Zeller adds:

The other interesting thing about Heaven’s Gate is that because they believed in reincarnation, ex-members believe they’ll get another chance.

That’s part of the reason the keepers of the group’s online presence remain so committed – they still wholeheartedly believe in the teachings. They told me how they explain them to people they meet today:

We just talk about the main understandings of it. The information is actually timeless. The basic core truth goes back to the beginning of man on this planet and will be part of human aspiration forever. If they bring up the suicide issue, we deal with it head on and explain it to them the best we can.

The decisive death

In 1985, the mass suicide was still 12 years away, but death touched the group significantly. After two years suffering with cancer, Ti died. Do told his followers that she had gone to ‘the Next Level’ because she contained too much energy to remain on Earth, and had abandoned her Earthly vessel for the journey.

Following the loss of his companion – the pair were not lovers – Do began to adjust and evolve the theology of what would come to be renamed Heaven’s Gate. He decided that Ti’s consciousness had been conveyed to a spaceship when it had left her body. Previously the group’s teachings had focused on actual physical ascension, but Ti’s passing had made that belief untenable.

Essentially, as Zeller has noted, Do’s theology was that of the Christian Bible filtered through a belief in aliens and heavily influenced by science fiction, particularly Star Trek. It’s no coincidence that the 39 Heaven’s Gate members who took their own lives called themselves ‘the Away Team’, nor that several of their videoed ‘exit statements’ include references such as “39 to beam up.”

Do believed once the group had reached ‘Evolutionary Level Above Human – the Next Level’ they would be able to leave their physical ‘vessels’ and be transported to heaven – a literal planet – on a spaceship controlled by extraterrestrials. One of those beings was Jesus. In Do’s doctrine, Jesus was a gateway to heaven, but on his first visit to Earth found humanity to be unready for ascension.

For Heaven’s Gate members to be ready for ‘the Next Level’, they had to shed their attachments to human concerns and, ultimately, leave their bodies behind them. Their earthly existence with the group was “the classroom” from which they would inevitably graduate.

Another central tenet of the theology was that planet Earth was about to be “recycled” – in Do’s words “refurbished, started over” – and that leaving would be imperative.

The appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet in May 1996, which grabbed the attention of the world’s press, provided the catalyst for the group to take its final action. In his book, Zeller explains that there were other facts that drew their attention:

…claims about a mysterious object, a ‘companion’, following the comet that seemed to move unnaturally and even influence the movements of the comet became the focus of the group.

While these claims would later be debunked, and the members of Heaven’s Gate ultimately indicated that the nature of the mysterious object was in fact irrelevant, the interest in the companion and the comet among members of the fringe and conspiracy-orientated alternative media attracted the attention and interest of the group’s adherents.

Heaven’s Gate’s belief system meant they were inclined to begin preparing their exit from Earth, even if the mysterious object might not be the spaceship they had been anticipating for so long.

If it happened today, the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members who be the stuff of memes in the darkest corners of the internet. The details were precise – black uniforms with matching “Away Team” patches, new white Nikes, purple shrouds. Each member with rolls of quarters and five dollar bills in their pockets, and duffle bags beside them.

The means of death was not Kool-Aid – ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is one of those phrases whose dark origins are breezily forgotten – but apple sauce laced with the barbiturate phenobarbital, chased down with vodka. While the members who consumed that deadly cocktail knew they were going for good, they didn’t neglect to make preparations to communicate with the people left behind.

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Spamming Star Trek groups on Usenet

The continuing existence of the Heaven’s Gate website, a gaudy memorial built with GIFs and basic mid-90s graphics, is initially confusing. It’s not surprising that many people who have come to write about it assume that it existed as a recruitment tool. I was only 13 when the group came to its dramatic end. At best, I remember it as a brief flash of shocking images on the news.

Heaven’s Gate’s careful preparations to maintain its online presence and careful documentation on video of its aims, gives the impression to late comers to the story that it was an ‘internet cult’. Zeller explains that the website had a different purpose:

It was important as a repository of information. They made a digital book that they uploaded. They put transcripts of their videos, had they had the bandwidth and the technology they would have hosted them there. But it was too early. The site was one directional. It wasn’t really about interaction.

And it didn’t lead to new followers during the group’s lifetime either:

Their attempts to interact were total failures. They posted to Usenet a lot but the response was uniformly negative. Most people didn’t respond and the ones that did respond were mostly making fun of them.

In 1995, Do posted a rambling messaged titled ‘Undercover Jesus Surfaces Before Departure’, declaring himself Jesus, and received little more than scorn. The following year, Heaven’s Gate posted hundreds of variations of the same message to numerous Usenet groups, including ones related to Star Trek using the title ’THE REAL Q – AN E.T. SPEAKS OUT.’ Those posts were similarly dismissed.

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Not an ‘internet cult’ by design

Another aspect of Heaven’s Gate’s story that has led some to conclude that they were in some way a tech cult is Higher Source, an early web development company that the group ran as one of its means of support. It built sites in Java, Visual Basic, SQL and C++, with the same clunky approach the group applied to its own internet presence.

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Higher Source’s clients include movie producers Kushner-Locke Company, and The San Diego Polo Club, but they were kept in the dark about the developers’ other activities. In her exit statement video, Heaven’s Gate member JWNODY recounted:

…as a quote ‘monastery’, we had a little business that we called Higher Source, from which we earned our income so we could consume while we’re on this planet. We always were self-supporting, which a lot of entities in our position might not be.

But we’d like for those individuals we worked with to remember how they felt about us, what kind of work we did for them, and to try not to be influenced by what the media might say. Because we suspect, knowing the track record of the media, that it might not be all too favourable or objective. There’s been more than one client who suspected there was something unusual about us…

So while, the existence of Higher Source could lead you to conclude that Heaven’s Gate was intrinsically tied to the early Web, the reality was more mundane. It was simply a reflection of the limited development skills of some of the group’s members and an attempt to bring in some money – “to earn sticks” as they put it – by using them.

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Zeller says:

They had the Higher Source business but it was very late in the movement’s history. The internet was a way to make money and get ideas out, but in no sense were they an internet cult.

However, reports in the immediate aftermath of the mass suicide were quick to connect the Web business to the group’s wider beliefs. One CNN report featured this speculation:   

“One of the intriguing aspects here, and it could be a first, is the connection to the computer world,” [said] Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who has studied hate groups on the Internet.

It goes on to quote two computer experts who were far from impressed with Higher Source’s work:

“They weren’t very good Web designers. I don’t know what kind of money they were making. They have white outlines on the edges of the text that kind of mooshes it against the background,” said Kevin Rardin, a technical communications expert in Mountain View, California.

Morgan Davis, operations director of CTS Network Service, one of San Diego’s largest Internet providers, agreed.

“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.”

i.e., like every website from that period looks to our modern eyes.

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The task of TELAH

During the evolution of the group, the concept of ‘the Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH)’ became so key to its beliefs that it registered a legal entity, the TELAH Foundation, to maintain the website and its intellectual property after it was gone.

That’s one way the custodians of the Heaven’s Gate site still identify themselves. Before they turned on WHOIS privacy, the site was registered in that name.

The website itself only came online in its current form on December 22, 1996, when the group purchased the HeavensGate.com domain. However, only one member joined the group as a result of discovering the trove of online material. Zeller says:

Only one member of the group who committed suicide encountered them through the internet. The members who joined in the 90s were still people they met through face-to-face meetings. There were a few people who emailed them. And there was one person who emailed them and then left.

While the site did not prove to be of huge importance prior to the mass suicide, the group realized it would be pivotal once they were gone. It sent a press release, copies of the ‘exit statement’ videos, keys to its storage lockers and specific instructions about the website to its current guardians:

We uploaded the HeavensGate website to an ISP in Romania and we also FedEx’ed the Romanian webmaster the diskettes containing the final press release and the Earth Exit Statements by Students (these final statements are on a separate disk which hopefully RKK [another ex-member] will be able to upload, however the Romanian fellow will have the entire site on diskette as back-up.)

We have prepaid two months of web hosting on this Romanian server under the name Sister Michael Remi…The webmaster speaks and writes English well enough for us to communicate with him, and seems to be an agreeable fellow. All he knew about us however, before now, is that we are a small interfaith monastery with some new ‘non-traditional’ views. So we’re not sure what his response will be to this most recent event.

The mundanity of that last phrase – “this most recent event” – is indicative of how calm and matter-of-fact the Heaven’s Gate members were about death. They did not see it as an act of ending their lives, but one of extending them.

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In a sense, the continued existence of the Heaven’s Gate website is another effort in life extension. But, its custodians do not update or amend it in any way. Zeller says:

They see the website as a legacy or a memorial. The class is over, to use the terminology they use. There’s nothing left to add.

And what will happen when they are gone? I asked them about their contingency plan. Their response was as concise as ever: “We think we have a plan for the website, so it should be taken care of.”

Zeller expands a little on that, based on his time with the couple:

I suspect they’ll want to have it preserved in a university archive. They’ll be the ex-Heaven’s Gate members who run the website for the rest of their lives.

I got the sense that they were pretty normal people. We had to schedule the interviews and our meetings around their work and personal lives. They have normal jobs and friends.

The pair’s trust in the academic – “[He] is willing to pursue a fact no matter where it takes him. Like a CSI TV program, he is willing to come across information and conclusions that are not run of the mill…” – led them to attend a symposium at the American Academy of Religion for other interested researchers last year, and answer questions about their time in and outside the group.

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Though they are the only ex-Heaven’s Gate members in control of the group’s legacy and archives, there are other former adherents.

One, Rio DiAngelo wrote a book about his experience. Another, Sawyer, has a frequently updated blog, and often appears in the comments of articles and YouTube videos about the group.

The response from the Heaven Gate’s website admins gives a hint at the underlying tension between them and other ex-members. When I asked them about Sawyer, they replied:

There is one other person who was in the group who writes a blog but the group did not give him any instructions when they left and he hasn’t been in the loop of what is currently going on with their information. Simply said, he is doing his own thing.

Zeller told me:

There’s a lot of discussion about whether people should add to and explain the group or just let it be over. There’s a lot of debate over who owns the copyrights.

The twilight of the cults

Since 1997, when the bulk of the group took their final actions, we haven’t witnessed any true internet cults. Extremist groups like ISIS are obviously very active and effective at recruiting online, but new religions like Heaven’s Gate have not emerged.

Zeller believes that’s because the internet has made individual expression much easier:

There’s just as much interest in alternative spirituality and religiosity today, but people are more willing and able to consume on their own.

In the 60s and 70s, if you were into those ideas there were some book stores to go to, but most for most people their weren’t outlets for it. If a charismatic figure turned up in town, you could then explore that with them. Now you just pop onto Amazon or download a podcast.

And for people intrigued by what Heaven’s Gate meant and stood for, there are the videos and, of course, that email address.

Image credits: The Telah Foundation

Special thanks to Professor Benjamin Zeller 

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