Monday, September 19, 2011

Heaven's not in the tail of a comet

After writing my previous post on the Comet Elenin and a bit of the hoo-ha that seems to be coming with it, I found it impossible to get Heaven’s Gate out of my head.

For those of you who might not remember, Heaven’s Gate was a religious…perhaps “cult” is a better term…organization.  In 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate (HG) took their own lives in a mass suicide pact in their Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego, California. 
The members of HG were led by a man named Marshall Applewhite.  Applewhite’s name appears as early as 1979 in legendary UFO researcher, Jacques Vallee’s book, Messengers of Deception.  In it, Applewhite is described as a man who after a near-death experience, began to cobble together his own faith by mixing New Age beliefs with Christianity as well as a strong doses of science fiction and UFOs.  The tenets of HG were not altogether different from other religions that speak of rapture-like events and paradisiacal times ahead.  To their way of thinking, our world would soon be wiped clean and the only way to survive was for humans to transcend to the Next Level.
That means shedding the “vehicle” as they call it, your human body, when the time comes.  To “purify” yourself, you must also reject the trappings of attachment to the material world, including money, possessions, and sex.  When the time was right, a sign would appear.  At that point, the followers of HG would shed their human shells and move as revenants into an alien spaceship.  In March of 1997, the Comet Hale-Bopp appeared brightly over Earth.  Applewhite believed this to be the sign and that the spaceship was behind the comet.  The members of HG all got dressed into their uniforms: black shirts, black sweatpants, and black Nike Windrunner shoes.  Each member carried a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets.  Together they ate either pudding or applesauce laced with Phenobarbital and then washed that down with vodka.  They got onto their cots and placed trash bags over their heads to induce asphyxiation.  A total of 39 people, including Applewhite, took their lives.

One of the aspects that so morbidly interests me is the connection of HG with science fiction.  Although linking this mass suicide to science fiction is rather like blaming 1980s teen suicides on heavy metal.  In fact, author Harlan Ellison wrote a somewhat terse essay that successfully argues that point.  Still, I’m curious as to the intricacies of this connection.  Heaven’s Gate members were only allowed to watch certain movies and television shows, among those being Star Wars, The X-Files, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.  In fact, the Star Trek influences were especially heavy.  As Wendy Gale Robinson from Duke University cites in a paper she did on Heaven’s Gate, one HG member reported that:

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).

In other words, our day-to-day lives are not reality.  By leaving our bodies we effectively exit the holodeck.  Additionally, there were patches sewn into the black shirts that the HG members wore upon death.  These patches bore emblems which read, “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” a specific reference to the “away teams” of officers that Starfleet would send down to planets.  In another sad Star Trek connection, Thomas Nichols (no relation), the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Uhura on the show, was among those who took their own life at Rancho Santa Fe.

The members of HG were also heavily into Ufology.  Not the research and evidence aspects of it but rather the more quasi-spiritual, New Age, head-scratching stuff.  They attended UFO conferences and just before their suicide pact, bought $50,000 worth of “alien abduction insurance.”  The HG website had an artist rendition of what the aliens coming for them would look like.  It bore great resemblance to a “benevolent” Grey.

It’s easy to shake your head at these people and call them “kooks” as there is much humor mixed with the sorrow.  For example, why carry three quarters with you?  Are there vending machines on the UFO?  Is there Snapple in Heaven?
Really, more than anything, I just feel sad about the whole thing.  I don’t necessarily believe the HG followers to be crazy as much as lost.  Our world is a cruel, unfair, and messed up place.  When forced down by a crushing blow such as losing your job, going through an ugly divorce, or just not being able to find your place in the scheme of things, anything that promises better days ahead can start to look good.  For certain people, science fiction provides this.  For others, the quasi-moral leaders of UFO cults do this.  Everyone wants to belong.  And one word about calling these people "crazy."  Really, at face value, is the Heaven’s Gate notion of a spaceship coming to pick up the worthy any dumber than the fundy notion of Rapture?  I don’t think so.  Why?  Because we’re all looking for answers to the same questions…and we just want a little reassurance.

Comets have long been seen in human cultures as harbingers of evil events to come.  So will the arrival of Comet Elenin bring a similar occurrence to Heaven’s Gate?  In these dire economic times, we can only hope not.

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  1. I must admit that, as a child, science fiction was an escape from a childhood often filled with the hopeless dreariness of poverty, and the painful crudity of frustrated, angry adults. It also sparked an interest in science, a prerequisite of which is the ability to think critically. I still read science fiction, and, depending on the story, I believe it can be either a roadmap, or a warning of the future we would make for ourselves.

  2. I'm right there with you, Louis. It was a similar situation for me. And unlike what Ellison said in his essay, I don't despise "scifi," regardless of how vacuous it can be. That sort of thing got me into science fiction in the first place and made me pick up books by Clarke, Gibson, and Herbert.
    Anyway, like I said, I feel very sympathetic towards the Heaven's Gate deceased. It can be so easy to lose your way in this world.


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