A look back at the doomsday cult that funded its operations—and eventual mass suicide—by building websites.
On March 26th, 1997, 39 people in matching black sweatsuits and Nike sneakers were found dead in a rented mansion in a San Diego suburb. They were members of a religious group called Heaven's Gate, and they had committed suicide, cleanly and methodically, by ingesting large doses of phenobarbital and vodka. In each of their pockets, authorities found a five-dollar bill and three quarters—interplanetary toll fare.
Their motive was to hitch a ride to the "Next Level" on a heavenly spacecraft hidden behind the rapidly-approaching Hale-Bopp Comet. They didn't believe they were committing suicide. Instead, they were abandoning fallible physical "vehicles" in order to progress to the "Next Level" above human, a commitment they'd honed while living in isolated compounds in Salt Lake City, Denver, and the Dallas Forth-Worth area, before moving to their final resting place in Southern California.
Beyond the spectacle of their exit from this world, what's most interesting about Heaven's Gate, looking back, is their complicated relationship to technology. While we remember the Nike sneakers, the purple shrouds, and the bunk-beds meticulously lined with bodies, what most people don't know about these 38 devotees and their leader, Marshall Applewhite (known to them as "Bo" or "Do"), is that they paid for their lifestyle by building websites.
Yes, Heaven's Gate were web designers. The group ran a firm called Higher Source, and counted the San Diego Polo Club, a local topiary company, and a Christian music store among their clients. In the heady early days of the World Wide Web, this crew of androgynous roommates in matching close-cropped haircuts and baggy, modest clothes practiced what they called "Higher Source-computer programming" in Java, Visual Basic, SQL, and C++.
They also implemented Intranets ("we're proficient with Windows 95/NT, Novell Netware, and Unix, to name a few"), did systems analysis, and developed multimedia applications. They were a one-stop shop; of their graphic design, they promised, "Higher Source can go from 'cool' to 'corporate' like a chameleon."
Byond the technical know-how, what Higher Source brought to the table was their rigorous, collective work ethic. Unlike most web design firms, Higher Source's staff lived together in a spartan home and followed strict dietary and social rules—this made them, to say the least, an effective team. To the end. "Individually and collectively," the Higher Source site promised, "we have focused on outgrowing the artificial limitations this society has programmed all of us to accept in personal conduct and task efficiency…we can produce at a level of efficiency and quality unequalled in the computer industry."
Although their lifestyle might have been progressive, their design was far from cutting-edge. It's a little hard to tell, because all websites from the 1990s look equally ridiculous to our contemporary tastes, but they weren't very good web designers. A technical communications specialist quoted in a 1997 CNN story on the Heaven's Gate suicides put it this way: "I don't know what kind of money they were making. They have white outlines on the edges of the text that kind of mooshes it against the background."
Seventeen years after the Hale-Bopp exodus, Higher Source's website is long gone, although enterprising retro-future archeologists can easily dig it up on the Internet Archive. The Heaven's Gate website, however, is still online. With its Comic Sans header and star-spangled black background, it has the uncanny quality of a dead person's Facebook page—half monument, half tombstone. You can still read "Earth Exit Statements" penned by members and browse the press release for their mass suicide. Its hosting bills are footed by the TELAH (The Evolutionary Level Above Human) Foundation, which, it turns out, are Mark and Sarah King, two surviving members of Heaven's Gate dedicated to carrying on—or at least preserving—the group's message.
Heaven's Gate might have been the first high-profile cult to use a website for evangelism; rather than standing on a street corner with pamphlets, they uploaded their doctrines and hawked videotapes online. Then as now, the Internet was the perfect medium for discreet indoctrination; these days everyone, from Bronies to Jihadists, finds their tribe through the conduit of a Google search.
Great paradigm shifts often engender religious sentiment or fervor, either in reactionary fear or evangelical embrace, and new technologies are frequently employed to test the edges of belief—from the spirit photography of the late 19th century to the death-defeating mind uploads of Ray Kurzweil and Co.
Applewhite and his followers conflated cyberspace with outer space, imagining the connective technologies of the web as a medium for disembodied exaltation. This tendency has taken root and blossomed in the years since their mass suicide; today, proponents of the Technological Singularity anticipate being divorced from their mortal vehicles by accepting symbiosis, and eventually merger, with the machines. I can't help but wonder if Heaven's Gate, had they stayed the course a little longer, might not have made excellent—albeit particularly kooky—Singulatarians.
Their failing, it seems, was that their attachment to technology was largely semantic. If they'd truly sought to ascend to the "Next Level" beyond the physical body, they might have sussed out that the medium of their message itself was the key. Suicide, after all, is a biological solution to a biological problem.
When exactly Heaven's Gate first became mixed up with computers is unknown, but it was likely catalyzed by their fascination with emerging communication technologies and space travel. Their literature is written in a web-inflected religious idiom: they considered "N.L. (Next Level) Base computer language" a way to express higher levels of Biblical understanding, and wrote that those with similar "computer programs" and "software" will resonate higher than the average person.
This language seems hopelessly naive now, but it's not surprising that the burgeoning internet of the mid-1990s could have been so easily adaptable to mysticism. Great paradigm shifts often engender religious sentiment or fervor, either in reactionary fear or evangelical embrace, and new technologies are frequently employed to test the edges of belief—from the spirit photography of the late 19th century to the death-defeating mind uploads of Ray Kurzweil and Co. Even the Church of Scientology still calls its gospel a "Spiritual Technology."
Further, this kind of language wasn't uncommon in the mid-1990s. In nascent online communities and among the cyberdelic cognoscenti, the web was seen as a kind of postlapsarian Utopia. "I have experienced soul-data through silicon," Kevin Kelly, the executive editor of Wired, said in "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace". And William Gibson, in his cyberpunk Ur-text Neuromancer, praised "the bodiless exaltation of cyberspace."
For outsiders like the 38 fragile souls who made up Heaven's Gate's core community, this "bodiless exaltation" was a revelation. This is a group, after all, who in life—as in death—donned matching sexless outfits, wore their hair identically, and even underwent voluntary castration in Mexico in order to maintain their ascetic lifestyles. Free from the distraction of physical impressions, the web enabled them to speak in one united voice. As cybernauts in a disembodied digital stream, they were creatures of the ether—like angels, perhaps, or the silver-skinned members of the Kingdom of Heaven they sought to join behind the comet's tail.