The Cult, the Comet, and the Web

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
March 30 1997 3:30 AM

The Cult, the Comet, and the Web

From Rancho Santa Fe to Heaven's Gate.

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The Heaven's Gate mass suicide promises to be the first great Internet mystery. When the members of the UFO/computer cult "shed their containers," they left behind a trove of clues on the Internet about their work, their suicide, and the Hale-Bopp comet. Here's an introduction.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Early news reports link the Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., group to a loopy, apocalyptic Web site called Heaven's Gate. (Warning: This site and most others described below have been overwhelmed with traffic since news of the suicide broke. Don't be surprised if you're denied access.) According to the Heaven's Gate introductory page, the Hale-Bopp comet heralds the imminent arrival of an alien spacecraft "from the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the Kingdom of Heaven)": The UFO may be traveling in the comet's wake. (For more on the Internet controversy about the Hale-Bopp UFO, click.)

The spacecraft is coming to transport "us" (whoever "us" might be) back to the "Kingdom of Heaven." This ascension will constitute " 'graduation' from the human evolutionary level. We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew."

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The Heaven's Gate Web site chronicles, if opaquely, the purported history of the group. A message from the group's leader--the "Statement by an E.T. Presently Incarnate"--relates that he and his female partner ("Do" and "Ti") are actually genderless aliens from the Kingdom of Heaven. They and their "crew of students" arrived on earth "in staged spacecraft (UFO) crashes." In the early 1970s, the leaders became human by taking over the bodies of a middle-aged man and middle-aged woman. Before becoming human, they presumably looked like this "member of the Kingdom of Heaven." He/She/It is a dead ringer for the stereotypical Unsolved Mysteries alien--big baby eyes, bulging alien forehead, tiny ears, silver skin.

Heaven's Gate warns explicitly that the authors and their associates are considering suicide. "Our Position Against Suicide," which ought to be titled "Our Position in Favor of Suicide," hints darkly that "the powers that control the world" could torture or imprison the group "as occurred at both Ruby Ridge and Waco." It praises the legendary mass suicide of Jews at Masada as a "more dignified" method of escape. "We have thoroughly discussed this topic (of the willful exit of the body under such conditions), and have mentally prepared ourselves for this possibility." Not that suicide is anything to worry about: The spacecraft would still transport them to the Kingdom of Heaven. When they leave, the rest of us are in big trouble: According to the transcript of a video called Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It's Recycled, "[T]he planet is about to be recycled, refurbished, started over. That doesn't mean it's going to be destroyed. ... But it does mean that it is going to be spaded under."

The site makes a weak attempt to enlist new members for the voyage to the Kingdom of Heaven. The introductory page invites readers to study the Heaven's Gate site and tells them that "you may even find your 'boarding pass' to leave with us." MSNBC and other news services have reported that Heaven's Gate members trolled Internet chatrooms to find potential recruits.

But the suicides were more than just UFO cultists. They were also computer entrepreneurs. They ran Higher Source, a Web-design firm in Rancho Santa Fe. In retrospect, it's easy to see something sinister in the Higher Source site. It is decorated with the same astral images that appear on the Heaven's Gate site, including several prominent pictures of comets. The site brags about Higher Source's "crew-minded effort," and mentions that the "individuals at the core of our group have worked closely together for over 20 years." (Heaven's Gate hints that the cult was founded in 1975.)

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But the site makes clear that what the Higher Source designers did is no different from what other Web designers do. They programmed in Java, C++, and Visual Basic, used Shockwave, QuickTime, and AVI, and claimed familiarity with Unix and Novell Netware. Their choice of customers was more ecumenical than cultish. They designed Christian sites (Keep the Faith sells Christian music) and low-culture sites (Pre-Madonna hypes an early Madonna record). They did snooty culture--the San Diego Polo Club, a topiary company, and a firm that specializes in fancy British car parts. These sites betray no trace of Heaven's Gate's weirdness. They are, if anything, banal.

The suicides will strand Higher Source's clients, but the firm has certainly delivered on one promise it made them: to promote "Strategies to Increase Web Traffic." As strategies for increasing Web traffic go, a mass suicide can't be beat.

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