Back Story: Recalling the Heaven's Gate mass suicide
March 26 is the 20th anniversary of a grisly discovery in Rancho Santa Fe: the corpses of 39 members of a religious group called Heaven’s Gate. They committed suicide believing their souls would travel on a UFO to new bodies in a better world.
In today’s Back Story, staff writer John Wilkens discusses how two decades of academic study and debate are reshaping our understanding of the group.
Q; How big of a deal was Heaven’s Gate?
A: Before the bodies were discovered, not big at all. The group had drawn some media attention in its early days, but then went underground and was known mostly by cult watchers. That was a source of frustration to them, and may have contributed to their final exit. The name itself, Heaven’s Gate, was a fairly recent development.
Q: What kind of splash did the suicides make?
A: Huge. It was front-page news in probably every major newspaper in the world. There were specials on network television. A Time magazine cover with a close-up photo of wild-eyed group leader Marshall Applewhite is one of the signature images of the 1990s.
Q: How was the group perceived back then?
A: They were widely mocked and ridiculed. Every late-night comic made jokes. David Letterman did one of his Top Ten lists. Jay Leno pointed to the previous year’s Republican National Convention in San Diego and quipped, “It was the biggest suicide in San Diego since the Republicans nominated Bob Dole.” On this relatively new thing called the internet, people spoofed the group’s website.
Q: What do scholars make of the group?
A: Opinions vary, as they often do in academia. Ben Zeller, a Chicago-area professor who specializes in an emerging sub-field called New Religious Movements, cautions against dismissing Heaven’s Gate as a nutty aberration. He sees it as something that reflected and responded to various forces in American life that remain in play today. His 2014 book, the most recent written about the group, makes this point:
“We need to take seriously the religious beliefs, practices, worldviews, and life choices of adherents of alternative, belittled, and discredited religious movements. It is far too easy to dismiss the members of Heaven’s Gate as either insane or victimized, and in both cases we fall into the same sort of trap of demonization that colors the dehumanizing political discourse of the 21st century.”
Q: Does that mean that scholars like him believe the souls of the Heaven’s Gate folks actually caught a spaceship riding behind the Hale-Bopp comet?
A: Not at all. They take a neutral position, arguing that the group’s claims — like those of all religious groups — are beyond any kind of empirical assessment. To them, what’s important is the way history and culture shape a group’s origins, teachings and activities. That Heaven’s Gate promised heavenly salvation isn’t interesting because other religions do that. But exiting Earth on a flying saucer? What was it about America that made them believe that was possible?