Yet however outlandish their exit may appear, the only surprise is that it does not happen more often. If you consider that 222 million Americans, or 87 per cent of the population, believe they will go to heaven; that 125 million believe in the existence of UFOs; and that 200,000 believe they have been abducted by aliens - then the decision by 39 people to hitch a ride to eternity on a passing spaceship does not seem as strange as all that.
Indeed, as the millennium approaches and more people begin dwelling on last things as the Internet broadens its proselytising scope, mass suicides may become increasingly common. The prophets of doom who populate the Internet have a captive audience in the lonely souls who spend their days trawling through cyberspace in search of love and companionship, a sense of belonging and community they hunger for in "meatspace" but cannot find.
The cultists who ceremonially quaffed hemlock at the luxury mansion in Rancho Santa Fe last week all belonged to that misfit tribe who roam the Internet to escape the void of their inadequacy. "Heaven's Gate" was the name of the website the 39 called home. Where "Heaven's Gate" came from there is plenty more. Home pages abound blending technological virtuosity with atavistic warnings that "the Day of Tribulation" is nigh.
It is the age of the computer, but the message the terrorised faithful heard as the year 1000 approached has not changed. Then, as now, visions of comets and other celestial disorders presaged the destruction of the world; then, as now, close readings of the Psalms and Revelations taught that "the End of Age" had arrived.
A website titled "Apocalyptic Signs in the Heavens", one randomly selected among many in the same vein, combines numerological readings of the scriptures with a study of the chaotic motions in the heavens to argue that "the countdown" has begun, that "1997 should be considered the final warning before the Tribulation".
"Psalm 98 describes in the same fashion as Ezekiel 38 the battle of Gog and Magog," the Internet doomsayer tells us. "Psalm 98 describes the result of God's destruction of His enemies, whom He rained fire upon. Psalm 100, which would correspond to the year 2000, describes perfectly the rapture of the saved."
And then, as if the Biblical evidence were not convincing enough, we are told that there have been three eclipses in the past year, followed now by the comet Halle-Bopp, which is traversing the heavens from Sagittarius to Orion. "According to the Talmudic sages," our omnivorous webmaster informs us, "a comet crossing Orion signifies the destruction of the earth."
Most netsurfers alighting on such pages will move on briskly to the interactive sex chat rooms and suchlike; some will read on, and maybe even subscribe to the publications and audiotapes on offer at $19.95 each, especially - as is often the case - if some UFOs are added to the Biblical-astrological mix. Only a pathetic handful will go to the extreme of taking steps to prepare for Armaggedon - but the Net helps to bring them together.
The danger with all these ravings is that some people will take the lunatic premises postulated on the Web to their terrible logical conclusions. Such was the case, a court in Colorado will contend tomorrow, with Timothy McVeigh, the man charged with the Oklahoma bombing - the Net is also the main instrument of propaganda for the far-right militias, who call on their followers to take up arms in defence of the republic against the dark forces advocating "one-world government".
The Heaven's Gate cult expressed the most refined distillation of all the millennial mania out there. People of powerful technological competence, computer programmers all, they drew from Biblical, extra-terrestrial and astral myths to create a life-denying theology whose only end was suicide.
Their rejection of the world led them to devise an idiosyncratic vocabulary where people became "vehicles" or "containers"; Jesus Christ, "the Captain"; life-after-death, "the Next Level". Marshall Herff Applewhite, the founder of the cult and one of the 39 who died, wrote this impassive commentary on the death in 1985 of his companion, Bonnie Lu Nettles: "She separated from her borrowed container and returned to the Next Level."
Cybermonks and nuns who all dressed in black and wore their hair close- cropped, they shunned sexual activity, fearing it would contaminate the purity of their immortal souls. Thus in their writings did they express disdain for "vehicular gratification" and "mammalian behaviour" and, thus, did the male members of the cult banish the temptations of the flesh forever by having their testicles surgically removed. The coroner at San Diego said most of the men whose bodies he had inspected were eunuchs.
From voluntary castration to suicide is not, perhaps, a difficult step to take. A more impressive act of will was displayed by two of the women in the group who killed themselves in the full knowledge that they were leaving behind children, one of them a baby seven months old.
All of which suggests these people once led ordinary lives, though we know nothing about them as yet save for Applewhite, whose father was a Presbyterian minister and who himself trained for the church before switching his attention to music. In 1969 he obtained a master's degree in music at the University of Colorado before moving to Houston, where he sang with the Grand Opera as well as teaching at the University of St Thomas.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Applewhite went into a psychiatric hospital in the early 1970s and asked to be cured of homosexual impulses after an affair with a male student led to his dismissal from the university. It was during his hospital stay that he met a nurse, Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, a mother of four and a part-time professional astrologer.
The Heaven's Gate site describes their meeting thus: "In the early 1970s, two members of the Kingdom of Heaven (or what some might call two aliens from space) incarnated into two unsuspecting humans in Houston... They consciously recognized that they were sent from space to do a task that had something to do with the Bible."
They began their task by opening a bookshop called the Christian Arts Center that sold information on metaphysics, astrology and theosophy. Applying their minds to this eclectic reading matter they began formulating a set of beliefs whose consummation came with the arrival of the comet and the UFO spotted trailing in its wake. "We fully desire, expect and look forward to boarding a spacecraft from the Next Level very soon," reads one of the last entries in the cult's website. "Halle-Bopp's approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for."
And then with clinical efficiency they supped together from their poisoned chalices, lay face up on their bunk beds and covered their heads with purple Easter veils. But, for all the cold clarity of purpose they espoused, they betrayed their confused humanity with two pathetic touches. They packed their belongings neatly in canvas bags next to each of their bunks and made a point of slipping their passports into their shirt pockets. Just in case there was immigration control at the Pearly Gates, and their souls in paradise might need the gratification of a change of clothes.