Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 26

Eleven years ago, 39 bodies were discovered in one of the wealthiest communities in the US, a small outpost in San Diego County called Rancho Santa Fe. The dead had been members of a religious cult known as “Heaven’s Gate,” and as far as they were concerned, they had just abandoned their home planet for a ride on a spaceship traveling the universe in the 20-million mile long tail of the Halle-Bopp comet.

The journey was a long time coming. In the early 1970s the cult’s founders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, met at a Houston psychiatric hospital; Nettles was a nurse and Applewhite a patient who had admitted himself in hope of curing what he believed to be his errant sexual appetites. After severing ties from their families, “The Two” began a spiritual quest that took them from Texas to the woods of Northern California. There, Applewhite and Nettles -- who began referring to themselves as “Bo” and “Peep” -- founded a small band of followers who would call themselves many names over the next two decades before settling Heaven’s Gate a few years before their mass suicide.

Led by the teachings of Bo and Peep, members of the group came to believe that they had received “soul deposits” from the Kingdom of Heaven and that when the time was right, these souls would have the opportunity to leave their bodies and travel to a higher plane of existence. Meantime, the group foreswore earthly pleasures including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and sex. They pursued an ascetic lifestyle, dressed androgynously, and waited patiently for a spaceship to carry their souls away.

When the first rendezvous failed to materialize in Waldport, Oregon in September 1975, Bo and Peep shepherded their flock to the Colorado national monument. Again, the followers were disappointed, and by 1977, the group’s membership had dwindled from around a hundred to fewer than 20. By this time, Nettles and Applewhite had adopted new names -- “Ti” and “Do,” respectively -- and muddled along for next few years, migrating throughout the southwest and trying to rebuild their organization in preparation for their eventual “graduation” to the Next Level. When Ti died of cancer in 1985, Do explained to the group that she had done so in order to take over as pilot of their rescue craft, which would surely be coming for them soon.

Meantime, the arrival of the internet provided the group with a new means of publicizing their message as well as the financial means of securing a home base for their community. Several members earned their livings as web designers and computer programmers, and by the mid-1990s, their income enabled Heaven’s Gate to purchase a 9000-foot home in Rancho Santa Fe, where they relocated in 1996.

At this point, Do was already convinced that the comet Halle-Bopp -- sighted for the first time the previous year -- was the bearer of a message for which he’d been waiting a quarter century. In an October 1996 videotape, he warned viewers that
Planet Earth about to be recycled. Your only chance to survive or evacuate is to leave with us. Now, that's a pretty drastic statement -- pretty bold -- in terms of religion, in terms of anybody's intelligent thinking. To most people who would consider themselves intelligent beings, they'd say, "Well, that's absurd. What's all this doomsday stuff? What's all this prophetic, apocalyptic talk?" You know, intelligent human beings should realize that all things have their own cycle. They have their season. They have their beginning, they have their end. We're not saying that planet Earth is coming to an end. We're saying that planet Earth is about to be refurbished, spaded under, and have another chance to serve as a garden for a future human civilization.
The tape did not have a noticeable effect on the group’s membership.

On March 21, the members of Heaven’s Gate gobbled their final meal together at Marie Callendar’s, where they were served with pot pie, salad and cheesecake. The next day, with the comet at its closest point to Earth -- a mere 122 million miles away -- the members of Heaven’s Gate cleaned up their house, took out the garbage, and initiated a suicide pact they called “The Routine.” With help from each other, they spent their last conscious moments on Earth eating applesauce and pudding laced with elephantine doses of phenobarbitol. To wash down their final meals, they swigged vodka before climbing into their bunk beds and securing plastic bags over their heads for good measure. Their bodies were discovered three days later.

Several active members of the community were not present for the "Graduation." Two of them committed committed suicide during the next year, when the comet Halle-Bopp was considerably farther away.

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