One year later, Heaven's Gate suicide leaves only faint trail
March 25, 1998
Web posted at: 9:49 p.m. EST (0249 GMT)
(CNN) -- It was perhaps the strongest sign yet that the Internet was coming of age: it was implicated in a tragedy that shocked the nation. The 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult who took their own lives one year ago were professional Web page designers who used the Internet to attempt to win converts and spread their message.
The cult members committed suicide over a few days in late March 1997. They died in shifts, with some members helping others take a lethal cocktail of phenobarbital and vodka before downing their own doses of the fatal mixture. Police found an eerily placid and orderly scene on March 26.
Heaven's Gate members believed that Hale-Bopp, an unusually bright comet, was the sign that they were supposed to shed their earthly bodies (or "containers") and join a spacecraft traveling behind the comet that would take them to a higher plane of existence.
For a time, the story became a national obsession as the media revealed details about the group. Among the most shocking: several of the cult's members, including leader Marshall Applewhite, had undergone voluntary castrations in the months leading up to the mass suicide.
Internet defenders say the Web wasn't to blame for the events at Rancho Santa Fe; the core of the group had been together for some 20 years, since the days when computers were
room-sized monsters. But the Internet did bring a new dimension to the story, as the most casual reader could jump to the cult's own home page rather than accept someone else's summary of their beliefs.
That ease of access to information led to fears that the new medium offered new opportunities for cults to recruit, and that the sci-fi pastiche of Heaven's Gate was a perfect fit. According to Wendy Gale Robinson of the Department of Religion at Duke University, cult member Yvonne McCurdy-Hill left five children and all her worldly possessions to join the group after finding it on the Web.
Writing in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Robinson said, "Freedom from the physical body and the free reign given to the imagination in cyberspace ... could have contributed to the cult members' decision to go the next, if illogical step. ... It's within the realm of possibility that Applewhite's ministry plus cyberculture was a toxic mix."
Others argue, though, that the sheer number of voices in cyberspace tends to drown out those of cults. "There's between 30 to 40 million Web pages out there," said Karen Coyle of Computer Users for Social Responsibility. "They could have done just as well to go out to the San Diego bluffs and throw a message in a bottle."
If the Heaven's Gate story flourished in the age of instant information, it has faded almost as quickly. Few of the Web pages about the Rancho Santa Fe suicide have been updated since April or May. Like the comet that inspired its members, the story made a bright flash and all but disappeared. But there have been a few developments since.
In May, two more members attempted suicide in a motel room in Encinitas, California. One, Wayne Cooke, died; the other, Chuck Humphrey, was hospitalized and survived. In February, Humphrey tried again, using carbon monoxide and a sealed tent; this time, he died.
Humphrey, whose name in the cult was Rkkody, had a Web site at www.rkkody.com at one point that included pages entitled "The Sole Survivor of Heaven's Gate," "Return from Heaven's Gate - The Book," and "What If They're Right?"
The house where the cult lived and died was offered for sale in a sealed-bid auction. The auction was scheduled to close in December, but a Web page offering the house is still posted (http://www.callagent.com/heavensgate/). Perhaps surprisingly, the page does not downplay the house's history, but trumpets it, even showing the cult's now-familiar "keyhole" logo near the top.
In August, Humphrey and an "away team" -- a "Star Trek" term for a team dispatched to the surface of an alien planet -- gave a video presentation in Berkeley, California. The audience was courteous but skeptical. The group had merchandise available for sale, which Janja Lalich of the Cult Recovery and Resource Center said she thought was "kind of sad." It also highlighted the changing behavior of information-age cults.
"We never had Jonestown mousepads," Lalich said.