Who's next through Heaven's Gate?

John Carlin in Washington and Tim Cornwell in San Diego on the millennial mania behind the suicide cult

The 39 cultists who "shed their containers", or committed mass suicide, in San Diego last week already seemed to have divested themselves of many of the trappings of humanity. The first police on the scene thought they were all youngish men, because of their shaved hair and uniform clothing; it turned out that more than half were women, and mostly well into their 40s and 50s. Several of the men, it also emerged, had been castrated.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick