It was 16 years ago last month:
Heaven’s Gate was an American UFO religion doomsday cult based in San Diego, California, founded in the early 1970s and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985). On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an alien space craft following the Comet Hale–Bopp, which was then at its brightest.
Something powerful must have been at work to convince 42 people to commit suicide (3 committed suicide shortly afterwards), the ultimate commitment to a belief system. They believed that they were actually aliens inhabiting human bodies, the so-called “walk-ins,” a popular idea in the New Age subculture of the time. An amateur astronomer photographed the comet showing an ambiguous fuzzy image discussed on the conspiracy-minded Art Bell radio program as possibly a UFO accompanying the comet. That was the sign to a group that was looking for a sign.
Things to note:
- Their beliefs were in line with the contemporary New Age subculture
- They had invested in their belief system by giving up their assets
- The Internet was the primary way the group disseminated their beliefs
We know that the Heaven’s Gate beliefs are wrong because the world didn’t come to end in 1997, although there is still (as of 2007) a survivor of the group saying any day now.
Heaven’s Gate was possible because a subculture evolved in which their belief system was considered normal and reinforced. They took random events as evidence. They are a little like the birthers, who believe equally irrational nonsense, living in their online subculture of conspiracies and fuzzy photographs revealing to them what the know must be true. They are convinced that concrete, irrefutable proof exists that Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery, although Maricopa County Bill Montgomery says there’s not even enough to take to a grand jury.
Some worry about a lone wolf excited by birther myths doing some act of violence. I’m more worried about a birther cult springing up in a retirement community doing something to themselves in 2014 based on crazy beliefs about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act going into full effect or some other doomsday totalitarian government scenario.