The Long View: The Apocalypse Kit

All these years later, the Heaven's Gate webpage is still up and running. That is an apt metaphor for John's point here: millennialism is a permanent [well, really really stable] feature of the human mind. You see the same pattern over and over again, in widely separated times and places. It is an idea that manages to survive the death of its adherents, over and over again.

I haven't got a theoretical explanation for that, but I also think you don't need one to acknowledge the fact.

The Apocalypse Kit

“The avatars of the New Age, as the Irish mystic A. E. realized in a vision fifty years ago, will not be the solitary male, but the male and the female together.”

--From “The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light” (1981) by William Irwin Thompson, Page 254

Do and Ti. Bo and Peep. Guinea and Pig. Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles. These two variously-named founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult first achieved the eminence of a New York Times Magazine feature story in February of 1976. Then they were just a couple of eccentric people on the West Coast who came to public attention because they had begun to recruit people to fly away with them in a flying saucer. They had some success with the recruiting. As time went on, they no doubt believed they had some success in communicating with the flying saucer people, too. They then disappeared from public view for twenty years, invisible to all but a few cult-watchers.

While in obscurity, they practiced meditation techniques, lived in rural encampments and learned the Internet. They took on a few new recruits, but the bulk of the membership seems to have remained the people who joined in the ‘70s. Many of the men had themselves castrated in order to escape the temptations of the flesh and the peril of reproduction in an evil world. Some of the people who joined were lonely losers, but the most striking thing about the membership was how many of them were somewhat superior people, with degrees and careers and happy families. In any event, the world next learned of them at the end of March, 1997, when we heard that 39 members of the group had killed themselves neatly, antiseptically, without so much as a library fine left unpaid. The contrast with the bloody mess left by the suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple, the Camp Davidians and Jonestown could not have been greater. This terrifying tidiness was the only unique thing about them.

To me, at least, the significance of Heaven’s Gate is the way it adhered so closely to ancient patterns. It was as if the whole thing had been constructed from a kit, a collection of ready-made parts that the principals did not invent. You cannot call on psychology or sociology to explain what happened to Heaven’s Gate. The small personal crises of Applewhite and Nettles in the early 1970s perhaps provided occasions for what was to come, but these accidents did not determine the content or trajectory of the cult. Neither does the cultural crisis of those years have much explanatory power. People in entirely different societies under entirely different pressures have done very much what Heaven’s Gate did, in whole or in part. In Heaven’s Gate, you had something close to the Platonic ideal of a passive millenarian movement. You will learn little about America or late modernity from studying it. You will, however, learn a great deal about one of the more dreadful capacities of the human condition.

What is a millenarian movement? Basically, it is a group that believes that the world, or an age of the world, is about to end. The end they conceive need not be catastrophic, but it often is. The group is usually concerned with surviving the transition, or preparing to escape the catastrophe, or quite often with engineering the catastrophe themselves. Millenarianism is not an attribute only of cults or small sects. Whole societies can become millenarian for decades at a time. When that happens, some version of apocalypse is often enacted in literal fact. The short explanation for the rapid Spanish conquest of Mexico, for instance, is that the arrival of the Spanish occurred at a time when the belief was already widespread in Mexico that the “Fifth Sun,” the final age of the world, was about to end. Similarly, the catastrophes of the first half of the European 20th century were preceded at both the popular and the elite level by a growing sense of a “trembling of the veil,” of impending wonder and disaster.

In Christianity, millenarians usually look forward to the Second Coming of Christ after a period of tribulation. As a rule, Christian millenarians also look forward to a literal “millennium” on the other side of that event, an age in which they themselves will help to rule. Christian millenarians in the United States have traditionally been politically passive, though this is changing with the increasing political mobilization of the evangelical vote. Some millenarians, on the other hand, form revolutionary armies, like the Fifth Monarchy Men of the English Civil War. These reactions are really matters of degree. The passive millenarians seek to retreat into an end-time community, while the aggressive ones seek to make that community coextensive with the world.

It must be emphasized that millenarianism is not confined to Christianity or the West. The nineteenth century was particularly rich in millenarian activity of every description. The Plains Indians “Ghost Dance” cult was a millenarian phenomenon; the Indians danced in hope of the end of European settlement and the return of the Buffalo. A generation earlier, the Millerites of western New York State bravely announced a date certain for the Second Coming (two, in fact), thereby producing the Great Disappointment of 1844. By far the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century was the “Tai Ping” rebellion in China in the 1850s and 60s, which sought to install the Age of Highest Peace on Earth. One of the curiosities of colonial history was the career of Charles Stuart Gordon, the British general who made his reputation helping the Manchu government of China put down the Tai Ping. So great was his fame that 20 year later he got the assignment to hold Khartoum in the Sudan against the Mahdi Rebellion, another millenarian uprising, this time inspired by Muslim eschatology. This posting was less successful, since it terminated with the fall of the city and the loss of Gordon’s head. The Mahdi’s Jihad was only one of a number of similar uprisings in Africa, Asia and Polynesia.

Actually, the 20th century has, if anything, been even more affected by millenarian patterns of political behavior. The Marxist theory of history, many observers have long noted, retains the shape of the Judeo-Christian model. For the Tribulation of the Last Days read Late Capitalist Immiseration, for the Second Coming read the Revolution, and for the Millennium read the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. On the other side of the political spectrum, the expression “Third Reich” is an old term for the Millennium. (It refers to the Third Age of the world, the Age of the Holy Spirit, which the 12th century Abbot Joachim of Fiore suggested might begin in 1260 AD.) For that matter, there is good reason to believe that such 20th century institutions as annihilation bombing of civilian populations were inspired rather directly by H.G. Wells’s secularization of the Book of Revelation in many of his stories. In a way, then, the return of self-consciously religious millenarianism at the end of the 20th century is simply a return to normal.

Of all the exotic things about Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the group’s surgical approach to androgyny attracted the most media interest. This is not the sort of thing they tell you about in journalism school, probably for good reason. Nevertheless, the notion of sacramental castration is nothing new, even within Christianity. The “proof text” for this practice is Matthew 19:11-12, which reads: “Not all can accept this teaching, but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs that were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This passage, of course, comes at the end of a discussion of divorce, and it may be taken in various senses. However, in apostolic times it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to interpret it as an injunction to literal castration. For that, we have to wait for the third century writer Origen, who probably, though not certainly, castrated himself as a young man.

The most systematic recent practice of sacramental castration that I am aware of occurred in the sect of the Skoptsi, the “Castrated Ones” of Russia. The group began as an outgrowth of Russian flagellant sects in the middle of the 18th century. The police attempted to suppress it as soon as they became aware of it. However, under their leader Kondratji Selivanov, the Skoptsi not only survived but enjoyed a measure of patronage by Czar Alexander I in the early 19th century. Even when the political climate turned against them again, they continued to find converts at all levels of society, not only in Russia but in the Balkans. Remnants of the sect may have survived in Romania as late as the Second World War.

Deliberate communal suicide is a rare phenomenon in any context, millenarian groups included. Of course, millenarian societies often have beliefs that are suicidal if put into practice. The Xhosa of what is now South Africa, for instance, destroyed their cattle in an act of mass sacrifice in the 1840s, in the belief that this would spark a new age in which they would be free of the British, the Boers and the Zulus. The result was mass starvation, and only a remnant of the people survived. More generally, it was widely held among insurgent millenarians fighting European armies in the 19th century that certain prayers or amulets would turn their enemies’ bullets to water. How this bad idea spread is one of history’s minor mysteries, but it had a great deal to do with turning what might otherwise have been merely lost battles for native insurgents into massacres.

The chief instance of mass suicide before Jonestown in 1978 was probably represented by the early stages of the Raskol, the “Great Schism” in Russian history. The event is perhaps an extreme example of what can happen when you do a liturgical reform badly. By the mid-17th century, Russia was coming out of a long time of troubles, and so it sought to put its house in order in many areas. Among these was a reform of the Orthodox Church. There were a number of reasons why a reform was a good idea. Corruptions had crept into the texts of the old Slavonic liturgy and Bible over the centuries, as the Greeks often pointed out. Additionally, the system of ecclesiastical discipline and administration had to be rationalized in response to the Jesuit-lead Catholicism of the Polish Empire, which the Russians were in the process of beating back militarily as well. The Synod that decided on the reforms was held in the ill-omened year 1666. The opponents of the reforms became known as the “Raskolniki” or “Schismatics.” They christened the Synod itself “The Synod of Antichrist.”

To an outside observer, the changes implemented by the Synod do not seem very great. Certainly there were no major theological changes. However, many of the reforms were needlessly intrusive into traditional practices, down to “correcting” the Russian pronunciation of the name of Jesus. Aggravating the situation was the personality of the Patriarch Nikon, who was not much interested in diplomacy or compromise. The result was that, while almost all the higher clergy reluctantly conformed, in the provinces all hell broke loose. Particularly in the north of the country, peasants became convinced that the age of Antichrist and the end of the world were upon them. To save their souls, the populations of whole villages killed themselves. In some cases the people gathered into a large building and set it afire. In others, the people starved themselves to death. In later years, the Raskolniki, who called themselves the “Old Believers,” were objects of perennial persecution by the Czarist authorities. In turn, the Raskolniki were ever after an important element in popular revolts and general unrest. Dostoyevsky did not choose the name “Raskolnikov” for the subversive protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” by accident.

This brings us to what many imagine to be the more strictly modern elements of the Heaven’s Gate story. Folklorists love flying saucers, or at any rate they love the people who believe in them and have reorganized their lives to take account of their existence. Partly, this is because beliefs about flying saucers so closely reproduce story patterns that are familiar from folktales. (A very good book on the subject is Keith Thompson’s “Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination” (1991)). Quite suddenly, in the 1950s, supposedly deracinated Americans began telling tales about encounters with fantastic beings, tales that followed the ancient patterns. Stories of meetings with diminutive people from the sky who paralyze their human acquaintances with light and sound are not very different from Celtic traditions about encounters with the Good People. Stories about the deplorable sexual proclivities of the aliens are often indistinguishable from medieval accounts of visitations of incubi and succubi. (In the 12th century, by the way, penitential manuals for parish priests took the sensible position that these things were hallucinatory, but that confessors should not make fun of people who confess to them.) As with the rumors that began to circulate in the 1980s about a witch-underground that sacrificed thousands of children every year, the flying saucer stories were often not just similar to those of 500 years ago; they were the same stories.

Flying saucers began to be incorporated into millenarian beliefs almost as soon as they were first reported, in a prosaic account by an experienced pilot in 1947. Little knots of less prosaic people collected to establish contact with the aliens. They soon formed a subculture that contrived to facilitate communications among its members quite without the benefit of the Internet. David Spangler’s memoir, “Emergence” (1984), is a reasonably lucid account of that milieu by someone who was raised in it and went on to be become a noted channeler and teacher in the 1970s. The popular side of the New Age was in fact little more than the popularization of this subculture for a mass audience.

In later years, the aliens tended to be taken in a more metaphysical sense by many New Agers, Spangler included. However, in the beginning, the motives attributed to the aliens were not thought to be hard to understand. Sometimes the aliens came to warn people that the human race was doomed unless it changed its ways. Sometimes they came to offer enlightenment. Curiously, there were few if any groups formed around the idea that the aliens were dangerous invaders who needed to be resisted, despite the popularity of that motif in contemporary fiction.

Occasionally the aliens came to offer personal rescue from apocalyptic catastrophe. Heaven’s Gate falls into this category. One of the most interesting books in the literature remains Leon Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails,” which deals with a cult in the 1950s that was informed of impending natural calamities through a medium and promised rescue. The chief finding of the book was the fact that the failure of the saucer prophecies to come true actually strengthened the cultists’ faith. Their explanations for why the saucers did not come for them were often quite ingenious. Considering the book now in light of the Heaven’s Gate episode, one is struck by the fact that not only did both groups pack little traveling bags for the trip, they both even prepared “documentation” for the aliens to certify. The difference was that, after a string of failed prophecies, the beliefs of the 1950s cult just snapped. The cult quickly disintegrated in a shower of spin-off groups and disillusionment. The members of Heaven’s Gate, in contrast, took steps to prevent a change of heart.

What lessons can we learn from Heaven’s Gate?

Perhaps one thing we should do is stop blaming the proximate causes. There is, for instance, no special power in old Star Trek episodes or the Hale-Bopp comet to lead people to mass suicide. Neither is the Internet to blame. Anyone who has looked at the cult’s websites can see that they were hardly a menace to human life. (Actually, anyone who has talked to a marketer can tell you it is almost impossible to sell anything on the Internet anyway, cult membership included.) For that matter, neither can religion in general nor Christianity in particular be held liable. As we have seen, millenarianism is not specifically Christian. It is not even specifically religious. It is a way of making sense out of history, which really is episodically catastrophic. As Paul Boyer noted in “When Time Shall Be No More” (1992), millenarians at the beginning of the 20th century had a better intuition of the coming decades than did Wilsonian liberals.

I can come up with any number of social, moral and economic explanations for why just those 39 people killed themselves in San Diego in 1997, but I do not really believe them. Sociology I now believe to be merely a species of rhetoric, and there is no longer any school of psychology that I find persuasive at all. What we are left with is history, and the ancient patterns.


This article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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