Heaven's Gate and the Culture of Popular Millennialism
Stephen D. O'Leary, April 1997

The suicide of the Heaven's Gate sect was timed to coincide with the nearest approach to Earth of the comet Hale-Bopp--a celestial event that, like many comets throughout history, has been greeted in apocalyptic circles as a harbinger of cosmic change. Perhaps coincidentally, it also fell within Holy Week, when millions of Christians around the world celebrate the divine mysteries of death and resurrection. A week and a half after the suicides, groups of millennial activists and partiers around the world celebrated the fact that there are now fewer than 1000 days until the year 2000. Clearly, we have now entered the "hot zone" of millennial time--the optimum span of one to four years distance for apocalyptic predictions, in which hopes and expectations are raised to a fever pitch and believers sustain a maximum level of missionary and preparatory activity. The work of those who study and measure the millennial zeitgeist will become increasingly crucial in the coming years. At the Center for Millennial Studies, we hope to provide a useful clearinghouse for information about millennial groups that is being gathered by a network of scholars, and to direct the attention of media and interested publics to sources that will assist in the understanding of millennial trends and events.

The CMS has been sounding the trumpets of alarm for some time; but aside from short bursts of attention from the media in the wake of certain recent tragedies, the full implications of the upcoming millennial crisis have failed to attract the attention of policy makers and the public. The Heaven's Gate tragedy offers an appropriate moment to ponder the approach of the new millennium in light of a series of events over the past few years in Waco, Tokyo, Oklahoma City, Montana, Switzerland, and Canada. If the Branch Davidian deaths, the poison-gas attacks of Aum Shinrikyo, The Oklahoma City bombing, the Freemen standoff, and the Solar Temple suicides were not enough to wake people up to the fact that the millennium is serious business, then perhaps the fate of the most recent deluded messiah and his thirty- eight earnest followers will serve as a grim prophecy of what is to come.

The Heaven's Gate Web pages declare that we are in the "End of the Age" and that the earth is soon to be swept clean of civilization. The disturbing truth about this group's suicide is that the members are far from atypical in their anticipation of end times and catastrophe. They differ from millions of Americans not in the content of their beliefs, but in their intensity, and in the extreme action to which these beliefs led them. They blended an eclectic mix of Christian millennial prophecy, UFOs, government conspiracies, and science fiction scenarios straight out of the "X-Files," "Star Trek," and "Star Wars." Much like the Tokyo subway gas attacks of Aum, a doomsday sect with more followers in Russia than in Japan, and the eerily similar suicides of the international Solar Temple, their action may best be explained as an impatient attempt to anticipate the fulfillment of prophecies that receive the attention, if not the full allegiance, of millions of credulous Americans.

Some who fear the power of the Internet are now warning of the dangers of "spiritual predators online." But why should we expect the Internet to be different from the social world it reflects? Certainly, it offers a means of propagating rumors, conspiracy theories, and prophecies to numerous groups whose beliefs may lead to violence and tragedy. However, if one is going to look for technological explanations of the recent events near San Diego, one might as well blame television as the Internet. Heaven's Gate gives a new and terrifying significance to previously innocuous media products which had long enjoyed what are commonly, and unthinkingly, referred to as "cult followings": the "X-Files," "Star Trek," and "Star Wars."

The importance of film and television in the group's belief system is evident from the video suicide notes they left behind, which contain repeated references to science fiction scenarios. The farewell statement by the group's leader referred to Heaven's Gate members as "body snatchers," a reference to a 1956 sci-fi classic remade in the late seventies. One follower's video statement offered these words: "We watch a lot of Star Trek, a lot of Star Wars, ...it's just like training on a holodeck... it's time to put into practice what we've learned." Most strikingly, the following self- description from the group's Web page, with which they sought to explain and justify their mission, puts the role of the popular media into sharp relief: "To help you understand who we are, we have taken the liberty to express a brief synopsis in the vernacular of a popular Tscience fiction' entertainment series. Most readers in the late 20th Century will certainly recognize the intended parallels. It is really quite interesting to see how the context of fiction can often open the mind to advanced possibilities which are, in reality, quite close to fact." The document continues with a theme familiar to science-fiction buffs worldwide: "Extraterrestrials Return with Final Warning."

The members of Heaven's Gate were surely deluded about the existence of alien rescuers and the redemptive value of suicide, but their insight on popular culture is both accurate and profound. The media play a significant role in the social acceptance and growing plausibility of apocalyptic beliefs and millennial scenarios. There is ample evidence that the willing suspension of disbelief demanded in our narrative fictions and our tabloid press now extends to religion and politics in new and distressing ways, and that this effect is not confined to suicidal cultists.

Consider these symptoms of our premillennial condition. In Japan, the works of Nostradamus continue to sell in the aftermath of the Aum affair. Closer to home, nearly half of all Americans, according to a 1996 Newsweek poll, believe in UFOs; an approximately equal amount believes that our government is concealing the truth about these phenomena. Twenty percent of Americans (more than four million people) believe that the UFOs are piloted by alien life forms from other star systems. Author Whitley Strieber's purported accounts of alien abductions are bought and presumably read by millions; and close observation of the alien abduction movement confirms that this movement is growing increasingly preoccupied with tales of impending planetary catastrophe. Art Bell's radio show, now notorious for having publicized the rumor that an alien spaceship was hidden in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp, is broadcast on more than three hundred stations; his web page boasts a million and a half visits. _The Celestine Prophecy_, a smarmy New Age tale which places dubious insights on personal growth alongside psychic phenomena and predictions of a coming global transformation, has been on the bestseller lists for months. In the last few years, major television networks have run big-budget specials with titles like "Mysteries of the Millennium" and "Ancient Prophecies," which give credence to the catastrophic predictions of New Agers anticipating "Earth Changes" as well as variants of Christian fundamentalist prophecy. The militia movement, galvanized in the aftermath of the Waco tragedy, continues to flourish in urban and rural areas around the country, fueled by rumors of apocalyptic paranoia that read like "X-Files" episodes. This is not surprising, given that the scriptwriters read the newspapers and watch the news shows and the movies as obsessively as any millennial conspiracy theorist.

The significance of the fact that Heaven's Gate derived inspiration from popular science fiction in equal measure with religious scripture has yet to be realized. The media coverage of Heaven's Gate gives ample evidence of the media's tendency to marginalize these groups by emphasizing their differences from the rest of us while neglecting their similarities. One theme that came through in interview after interview with those who had had recent contact with the sect members was the reporters' insistent questioning about signs of mental illness or indication of suicidal tendencies. The interviewers were clearly nonplussed by the responses, which emphasized the friendliness, professionalism and reliability of the individuals in the group. The profiles of the members and interviews with their families in _People_ magazine likewise showed few clues, with their depressing lists of perfectly ordinary disappointments. But confronting the ordinariness of the sect is nearly impossible, for it casts too much else into doubt. Without histories of trauma or mental problems that could be used to explain away their deaths, we can only fall back on the dubious theory of the charismatic and hypnotic cult leader, whose blandishments are so insidious that exposure to the message can cause normal citizens to give up their family lives, surrender critical reason, castrate themselves, and die to demonstrate committment.

Death and self-castration are not choices that will ever become popular, no matter how much television or how many science fiction movies people watch. But there is precedent for even these extreme actions within the established religious traditions. The Heaven's Gate members compared themselves to the Jews of Masada, who chose death over slaughter and subjugation by the hated Roman power. One of the greatest Christian theologians, Origen, castrated himself at twenty in an attempt to control his sexual desire. And with Easter Sunday following in the immediate wake of the suicides, one could not simply condemn the group's faith in a heaven that awaited them after death. This is not to blame Christianity or any religious body for what happened in Rancho Santa Fe; there will always be those who take ideas to their limit and pass beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. The same is true for the products of popular media. The millennial themes that run as a constant thread through our films and television shows cannot directly cause events such as poison gas attacks or group suicides. Rather, they provide a sociological Petri dish, a culture in which such virulent strains of apocalyptic as Aum and Heaven's Gate can flourish. In marginalizing these groups, or assisting them as they choose to marginalize themselves, we must remember our own participation in the culture that created them. And this line of analysis leads not to theories of cult brainwashing, but back to ourselves. These television shows and films are popular because we flock to see them; it is our own preoccupation with aliens and prophecies that causes Hollywood to pump out product after product to fill the void left by the waning of traditional religion.

As we approach the end of the millennium, we can assume that there will be more bizarre incidents and gruesome deaths, either in anticipation of prophetic fulfillment or in the aftermath of apocalyptic disappointment. We would do well to remember two lessons of the recent episodes of millennial madness. First: look closely at the ingredients of whatever religious snakeoil is being sold. (For this, the Web can be a useful tool; the signs of impending suicide were there for all to see.) Second, don't be quick to dismiss such beliefs as crazy. We may be entering a time when this "insanity" is being normalized. Millennial prophets today bear little resemblance to the cartoon caricature of the bearded, white- robed figure with the picket sign proclaiming that "The End is Near." They can be found in business suits, at church, at work, on television and on the Internet. Their followers are too easily dismissed as hypnotized cultists. They watch the same films and television shows and read the same newspapers as we do. They are our children, our parents, our brothers, our sisters, and potentially ourselves.


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