Tag Archives: suicide

138 – Heaven’s Gate: 20 Years After The Science Fiction Cult Suicide

On March 26th, 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate religious group were found dead in a mansion near San Diego, California. They were all wearing Nike Decade sneakers and identical black sweatsuits with patches on them that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”. They had happily taped Farewell Videos to say goodbye before they transitioned out of their physical bodies to “The Evolutionary Level Above Human”. At the dawn of Internet journalism and the ramping up of cable news competition, it was a mesmerizing tragedy and it dominated the airwaves that Spring.

heavens gate
C’mon, the Packers should get some kind of royalty for using the logo

In the late 90s, there was apocalypse in the air. And it wasn’t just the Doomsday Preppers who felt it or the über-religious, they’re always predicting the end of the world. Humans love round numbers (ten fingers and ten toes sure did a number on our evolutionary psychology) and the rounding of the 1999 to 2000 was freaking everyone out a little.

I was a huge Art Bell fan that would listen every night when I went to bed. Y2K was on Coast To Coast AM several times a month. Pop culture about the end of the world was at a fever pitch from Bruce Willis fighting a Texas-sized asteroid (a global killer) in Armageddon to Arnold fighting Satan in End of Days. The X-Files (the most 1990s of TV shows) had a spin-off called Millennium, for Christ’s sake. Even Doctor Who got in the act with the TV movie being about how he needs to stop The Master from destroying Earth on December 31st, 1999.

Marshall Applewhite was a Presbyterian preacher’s son that was originally a music teacher. While he got married in 1952 and had two children, he ended up getting divorced in 1968 and a short time later suffered a nervous breakdown, which was rumored to be because of an inappropriate relationship with a student. Being this was Texas in the 1960s and the student was the same sex and Marshall was a religious man, it led to some serious internal conflict.

Bonnie Nettles was a registered nurse with an interest in astrology. They met when her son was a drama student at the school that Applewhite taught at. She did an astrological forecast with him that said they were destined to work together. On New Year’s 1973, she left her family and Applewhite left his life behind and they took their spiritual mission on the road to figure out what their destiny was.

Applewhite was arrested for rental car theft and ended up in prison for six months and that’s where they refined the beliefs of Heaven’s Gate. That Applewhite and Nettles (who called themselves “Ti” and “Do”) were reincarnations of Jesus and God and that they could help people cast away their earthly (read: sexual) urges and ascend to a level without gender or race, to the “Level Above Human”.

heavens gate
I would so go to this and you know you would too!

[http://offbeatoregon.com/assets-2016/1606a.heavens-gate-ufo-cult-394/heavens-gate-ufo-poster-1780.jpg](If I saw this poster, I would be there in a second)

Their idea was that the Earth was a garden developed by extraterrestrials designed to grow souls and the aliens were coming back to harvest the souls who were ready and then the rest would be plowed under to make room for a new garden. So, it was the usual apocalyptic “we’re the only ones who are going to be saved”.

They first made national news in 1975 when they hosted an event in Waldman, Oregon and twenty people ended up going with them. 3% of the town just took off with the group without even saying goodbye.

At the group’s prime, they had almost 200 followers and lived at campsites, often performing rituals in order to rid themselves of their human impulses (8 members eventually even castrated themselves, including Applewhite. )In the beginning, the aliens were only supposed to pick everyone up, but then Nettles got cancer and died in 1985. And that changed things. How could Nettles have died? Didn’t they predict that she would be alive when the aliens came by to pick the true believers up?

Nope. Applewhite had to think fast. All of a sudden, you had to get rid of your “earthly vehicle” in order to ascend to the Level Above Human. Bonnie Nettles just went early so that she could prepare the way.

heavens gate
Look at these two, what could go wrong?!

In this episode, we talk a lot about how the beliefs of Heaven’s Gate aren’t that different than any other mainstream religion. It’s perfectly normal in our society when someone joins the priesthood and lives a celibate life. While the life of a monk or a nun might not be the most traditional American path, it’s not that weird when someones decides to do it. The idea that we are spiritual creatures living in physical shells who need to control our base sexual impulses is written into every religion there is! I’ve even done similar things to the Master Cleanse (juice fasting, and it actually feels pretty great, so I’m not going to say anything bad about it, ha!) and I bet a lot of you have too.

The pantheon of Christian Saints is full of martyrs who died for their beliefs. In Catholicism, when you’re confirmed, you take a confirmation name. I took the name of Saint Cyprian who was beheaded by the Romans for his beliefs. Is it strange that people can be led to believe that they too can become martyrs for their beliefs and ascend to a better, happier afterlife?

heavens gate
Hey, it’s St. Syprian being beheaded, how nice!

In fact, Heaven’s Gate used that in their recruitment efforts. Christianity was the original cult, they said. The normal church that every single American president has claimed to believe in started off as a persecuted cult in the Mediterranean. So, who wouldn’t like to get in on the ground floor of the next Christianity?

Marshall Applewhite felt so conflicted over his own sexual urges and how they were considered evil by his own religion, that he decided to make up his own. And Applewhite was someone who knew how to take advantage of the times. His original followers were hippies from the communes who were disillusioned with their former lives. When fascination with UFOs was at its peak, he and Bonnie used the plausibility of extraterrestrial life to talk to a generation raised on science fiction. They watched Star Wars, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, and Star Trek frequently. Applewhite used sci-fi concepts that people could understand and presented a spiritual belief that already had a basis. 77% of Americans believe that aliens have visited Earth and 63% of American adults say they are absolutely certain there is a God . Applewhite put it together like chocolate and peanut butter.

heavens gate
Wouldn’t you believe this man? Seems reasonable to me!

It’s not what Heaven’s Gate believed that made them dangerous. That belief system could have been anything. It was the Millennial Fever that the feeling that the end of the world was coming, it was the slavish dedication to their leader, Marshall Applewhite, and the belief that he was the reincarnation of Jesus. He was infallible, but he knew that wouldn’t last forever.

That’s the real danger. It’s the person who understands how to manipulate those beliefs in order to get what they want. And Marshall Applewhite wanted to die.

“Do” knew that he had to put up or shut up. Whether it was some kind of final power he wanted to feel over others, whether he believed he and Bonnie Nettles were the “UFO Two” and decades of living his own dogma had convinced him of its veracity, or whether he was just tired of being alive. He thought that it was time for him to go and he was taking his followers with him.

When it came to the end, Applewhite was no different in understanding the zeitgeist in how to manipulate people to their end.

  • He used the Hale-Bopp comet as the sign that the time had come.
  • He used the “companion” UFO to the comet that people had talked about on Coast to Coast AM as proof.
  • He took advantage of the end of the world Millennialism
  • He used modern technology to solidify their beliefs in permanent format by videotaping the goodbyes

And here’s something that’s even weirder. It’s been twenty years and we know that there was no “companion” riding with Hale-Bopp, we know that there wasn’t any spaceship that picked everyone up. But one of the former followers, who left in the early 1990s has had dreams where he believes that Do (Applewhite) still speaks to him, that he needs to spread the message. And the Heaven’s Gate website is still up! Two decades after the mass suicide, the word is still getting out.

We wrote this week’s song, “Arthuriana” by Sunspot, about how our little obsessions and interests can keep us going. How even our smallest beliefs keep us motivated, but sometimes we need to bend the truths of those beliefs to keep them close.

You are the sword,
I am the stone.
You are the lighthouse
In the storm.

Little obsession to pass the time,
Arthuriana.

You are the lady,
of the lake,
You are the comet,
of Heavens Gate.

Little obsession to keep even,
Arthuriana.

You are Gawain,
Versus Green Knight.
You are St. George and you always win the fight.

A fantasy where you’ll come back to me,
Arthuriana.

You are the grail,
From that I drink,
You’re the saddest of the angels,
I won’t blink.

Little obsession to keep us sane,
Arthuriana.

You are the knight who says nee,
You don’t capitulate or bend the knee,
All these thoughts that stalk around my mind,
Arthuriana.

Reality,
is something queer.
You were always more Morgaine than Guinevere.
The long dead still alive in my head,
Arthuriana.

You are the sword,
I am the stone.
You are the lighthouse
In the storm.

Reality,
is something queer.
You were always more Morgaine than Guinevere.
The long dead still alive in my head,
Arthuriana.

68 – Buried at The Crossroads: Superstitions and Myths About Suicide

The topic this week is a difficult one to approach. It’s very personal and it’s about as unpleasant as they come. It’s just something that we don’t like to talk about. And during the Holiday season where it’s treated as a fact that more suicides occur than at any other time of year, it’s a topic that we thought was worth discussing.

Just to say something right away, if you ever have serious thoughts about harming yourself, please talk to someone as soon as possible. You don’t have to be alone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a ton of resources and people that are ready to talk to you 24 hours a day.

I became interested in the lack of conversation about suicide when I worked at a television station in the early ‘Aughts and there was a suicide cluster in a nearby town that we didn’t cover on the news. It seemed like something we should be tackling versus hiding, but they were worried that the more attention was given, the more chances of it happening again. There may be some truth to that, but since it feels like such a topic that we shy away from due to its uncomfortable nature, I wondered whether or not it was a good idea.

But one of the first myths about suicide we can dispel is the increase in suicidal activity over the Holiday season, which isn’t true at all, suicide rates actually decline over the Holiday season. That’s kind of one of those “facts” that people just believe kind of like the idea that more people get arrested when it’s a full moon than at different times of the month, even though that doesn’t actually happen. In a Psychology Today article, it says:

One of the primary buffers of stress and depression is our social identity. The holidays, if anything, maximize social connection for most people. Hence, suicide rates are lower. Heat also is associated with higher suicide rates. And for most people, the Christmas holiday season isn’t exactly a scorching hot affair. Even in hot climates, this time of year isn’t especially hot relative to the rest of the year (think Florida in the winter, warm, but not hot).

And when it comes to the paranormal and ghost stories, suicide victims are overrepresented. Even in Madison where we live, ghosts of suicides are said to inhabit two of the theaters downtown as well as the state Capitol. The idea that spirits will become restless after killing themselves is an old ghost story trope and it comes from the Christian view of taking one’s own life.

And the Devil appears, behind all of our self-destructive thoughts and behaviors…

Indeed, in an article in Cult Nation, writer Mark Laskey makes a big deal of the “Rules of Desecration” where in Christianity, suicide didn’t just become a sin, but it was the Devil himself who was causing these people to take their own lives, and suicides from Germany to England would be buried in different parts of the cemetery, or at crossroads, because it was thought that the restless spirit would wake up confused and not know which way to go when it came out of the ground. They would further outcast the body of the poor soul by not dignifying it with a proper burial.

Also, crossroads were supposed to be places where witches met and portals to the next world. Not surprising to us, since we talked about the famous Robert Johnson Crossroads in our very first episode, “Making A Deal With The Devil”. But it was legal in England until the 1820s to bury a suicide victim at a crossroads and put a stake through his heart(!) Right, that’s incredible. The last person buried like that was in 1823 and his heart was actually staked to prevent him coming back as a vampire. Of course we still associate so much stigma with this act, people believed at one time it might create a monster in death. So much so that they felt free to desecrate the corpse.

And in Western Society, we still associate suicide with the demonic. The opening of M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil shows a suicide as bringing the Devil forth, half the people that Damian manipulates in The Omen (which was the inspiration for Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast”)  end up killing themselves, and in Wristcutters: A Love Story, suicides are sent to a special Purgatory to contemplate their sins.

So, no wonder that Ozzy Osbourne was sued for his song, “Suicide Solution” in 1984 after California teenager John Daniel McCollum shot and killed himself and the parents saw the record spinning next to his dead body. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed and Ozzy to his credit, did sympathize with the parents, but said that the song was about alcohol and the death of Ozzy’s friend, Bon Scott (whose ghost we talk about in our interview with rock journalist, Susan Masino).

When I was younger, I thought it was ridiculous to sue an artist for the death of your child. And while I feel the lawsuit was frivolous, I believe Ozzy knew that the song would be provocative. Heavy metal deals with transgressive themes, it’s all about provocation. People who are disturbed are going to pick up on that. Poor John Daniel McCollum needed help. Ozzy isn’t responsible for his death, but provocative themes can set people off. As an artist, you need to understand that your work can have a powerful effect. It doesn’t make it your fault when something horrible happens, but the effect shouldn’t be denied either. Ozzy was deliberately transgressing traditional morality in those years and that comes with consequences , whether it was just for marketing or not. But that’s just my opinion, I know that your mileage may vary on that one.

Japanese culture famously thinks differently about suicide than Western culture. Seppuku, or ritual suicide, was a way for a Samurai to die with honor rather than die by his enemy’s hand or bring shame upon his family. With conformity and acceptance being two traits highly prized in the culture, many people believe it is more honorable to kill themselves as a way to preserve their legacy.

There’s a forest in Japan near Mount Fuji called Aokigahara , but is also known as “The Suicide Forest” where dozens of people go each year to end their lives. There’s a sign at the front encouraging people to think about their families and there’s been several films made about it (including one with Matthew McConaughey!)

Hangings and overdoses are the most common forms of suicide at Aokigahara

Could certain places be cursed and encourage people to hurt themselves? That was the theory of a Ontario-based paranormal group that did an investigation at Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto which is the city’s most popular place for suicides (I liken it to the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis) and they wanted to discover whether they could find more paranormal activity there than other places. The investigation didn’t turn anything up, but it was an interesting thought. Do certain places attract people to hurt themselves? Or can just hearing about a place put the idea in a suicidal person’s head?

When I first heard David Lee Roth talk about what “Jump” was about, I was a little shocked. He said that when he was coming up with the lyrics he thought of a news report the night before with a man threatening to leap off a building to his death. When a crowd formed below him, Roth said that there’s always some guy watching who says, “Might as well jump! Go ahead and jump!” Yeah, bet you’ll never hear the song the same way again. That’s why it ended up on Clear Channel’s suggested list of songs not to play after September 11th.

While many family members of the victims will go see mediums and psychics afterwards to try and get some comfort (here’s actually a hopeful article from Erin Pavlina who was married to a self-help author that Wendy and I both liked to read a few years ago), I hope these mediums really believe in the messages they’re getting because there’s a special place in Hell for people who try to exploit another human being’s sadness. And there is little that could be sadder than losing a loved one to this.

And it’s a scary and uncomfortable thing to talk about, but sometimes we absolutely need to. Otherwise it gets shrouded in superstition and myth, and that stigmatizes the people who need to talk about it the most.

This week’s song is “Dig Your Grave” from Sunspot, which was unfortunately inspired by the loss of one of our friends. It’s a track about forgiving someone you love’s suicide, “Dig Your Grave” is about letting it go. Frustration, sadness, anger, and hate add up to eventual understanding and finally, acceptance of what happened. We made a video for it using clips from LOST (so don’t watch if you care about getting spoiled for that show), you can also listen to the track right here.

This one is for fans of Concrete Blonde or early 90’s alternative, that’s really the sounds we evoked when we were creating it.

I guess we all could have used a little less irony,
and a little more Polyanna.
I’m praying for the proof that there’s something worthy,
to come from the black hole of your sadness.
So is it better on the other side, the other side of the door?
And on the final ride, the final ride, you found what you’re looking for?
How you must ache,
The way you went and left us all behind.
I’ll dig your grave,
if it quiets down the screaming in your mind.
If it quiets down the screaming in your mind.Yes, we forgave you in your eulogy,
What did you think that we would say?
Did you hope that all our anguish,
would make up for all your pain?
Did you see this in your letter,
did you know how it would go?
The way Mom pleaded with God,
and the way Dad hardly speaks anymore.
So is it better on the other side, the other side of the door?
And on the final ride, the final ride, you found what you’re looking for?
How you must ache,
The way you went and left us all behind.
I’ll dig your grave,
if it quiets down the screaming in your mind.Nothing will ever be the same,
and this was a living Hell.
I tried but I could never hate you,
as much as you hated yourself.
Nothing could ever be the same,
and this was a living Hell.
I tried but I could never hate you,
as much as you hated yourself.Tell me it’s better on the other side, the other side of the door?
And on the final ride, your final ride, you found what you’re looking for.How you must ache,
The way you went and left us all behind.
I’ll dig your grave,
if it quiets down the screaming in your mind.
How you must ache,
The way you went and left us all behind.
I’ll dig your grave,
if it quiets down the screaming in your mind.

If it quiets down the screaming in your mind.
If it quiets down the screaming in your mind.
If it quiets down the screaming in your mind.
If it quiets down the screaming in your mind.