The fascinating world of (researching) cults: What I learned about Heaven’s Gate

Pot pie: a cult favorite

So, I’m writing a book. Part of writing a book, in my opinion, is a massive, nearly-problematic tendency to fall into research rabbit holes. This is also the tendency of someone working in a library. You learn how to research.

Really, you learn how to Google.

Part of working in a library as frontline staff means that people think you are a fount of knowledge; you work with books, therefore you must have a card catalog and multiple databases installed in your brain. And in a way, we do. It’s just called The Internet, Research Skills, and the Ability to Ask One Very Important Question of that research: Who is the source? Are they trustworthy?

Being a skeptic is about 75% of my job.

So when it comes to researching cults, bizarre religions, and strange group behaviors surrounding Some White Guy That Wants Your Money (because that is usually the case), the trick is knowing how to take the source and filter it with that grain of salt. Because every “cult” website thinks it is 100% accurate and that spaceship is, indeed, arriving for us very soon.

I find this fascinating.

What makes a religion? There’s millions of people out there who think they know the answer. Usually based on the Bible, typically it’s some random prophet’s iteration of what, exactly, that Jesus guy meant to us, and how, exactly, God plans on destroying us all/bringing about the end of the world.

Doomsday cults are my favorite. Like Heaven’s Gate, the infamous purple-shrouded-Nike-wearing followers Do (Marshall Applewhite), who convinced 39 people to commit suicide in order to make it to their spaceship on the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997.

I was 11 years old when this went down, and it kicked off my weird fascination with cult behavior (not that I wasn’t already doomed, after reading The Shining at 9). I remember the news footage. I’ve been intrigued by it for a couple of decades now.

Perhaps my favorite thing about HG: they really liked chicken pot pie. Reportedly, they ate these as their last meal at a local Marie Calendar’s, followed by cheesecake topped with blueberries. Sounds good to me.

I heard on a great podcast (aptly titled, Heaven’s Gate, hosted by Glynn Washington) that the members really didn’t have beef with anyone, and were friendly enough (though they, themselves, may have been persuaded to be, y’know, castrated). They also had a sense of humor. The whole $5 bill and quarters in their pockets thing was downright snarky.

After choosing their poison in pudding or applesauce, the members bid farewell to this realm inside a rented a 9,200 square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. The house was subsequently purchased by neighbors and leveled. The street name was changed. Those rich folk really don’t want to be bothered.

Here’s the thing. The mass suicide of 39 people might seem to us like a bizarre, twisted tragedy. But to Applewhite and his crew, maybe not. Maybe they did catch that ride, and I hope that they did. None of us know that they were actually, 100% wrong (just like any religion). That’s just my opinion, though.

The good news: the Heaven’s Gate website still exists, supposedly run by 2 remaining members (the group did, after all, make extra money by designing websites in the early ages of the internet). It’s a fantastic resource. Bring your grain of salt for some excellent further reading.