Sunday, March 26, 2017

20 years ago: The Heaven's Gate mass suicide

On March 26, 1997, police officers in the San Diego–area community of Rancho Santa Fe, California found the bodies of 39 members of the unidentified flying objects transhumanist cult Heaven's Gate in the mansion which they rented. The dead included the movement's founder and leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, 65. The people who committed suicide--consuming a combination of phenobarbitol and apple sauce, washed down with vodka, followed by securing plastic bags around their heads in order to cause asphyxiation--did so in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft following Comet Hale–Bopp, which was then clearly visible from Earth.

Heaven's Gate exhibited numerous classic characteristics of cults: the deadly mixture of a little truth and much error (a smattering of Bible passages on end times, but heavy reliance on extrabiblical sources of truth, with especially heavy doses of New Age teaching and literature); authoritarian leadership (especially dangerous when the leaders believe themselves to be directly fulfilling prophecy; a fortress mentality; and bizarre economic and lifestyle practices (including voluntary castration of Mr. Applewhite and seven other men).

As far as I know, the members of Heaven's Gate who committed suicide haven't yet been transported to Comet Hale-Bopp. I don't know the comet's current whereabouts, but it's somewhere--out there. Surprisingly, the website for Heaven's Gate still exists; it's reportedly maintained by surviving members, but that's far from obvious to the casual visitor.

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