Ars Moriendi 2.0: Brad Phillips on Heaven’s Gate


Six days after the attack on the World Trade Center, a day we’ve been somehow forced to refer to as 9/11, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, speaking at a Hamburg musical festival, called the event “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” People did not like this. But, Stockhausen was not alone. He may have been alone in seeing it as the greatest work of art, but not in seeing it as art.

Others had viewed the unheimlich spectacle of two aircrafts slicing through steel columns in the sky like hot knives through butter, as an aesthetic perfection. His error was in vocalizing that sentiment. Tragedy needs time. In comedy, a good joke about a bad thing is often formulated as the equation Tragedy + Time = Laughs. For some people though, a really funny joke shortens the distance between tragedy and comedy. In that narrow space lays the disquieting wrongness that can give birth to ashamed laughter. Stockhausen however wasn’t a comedian. He was opening his mouth in front of the wrong audience. What is the right audience, and are you a member?

It’s true that others saw the events that took place in New York that September morning as a visually stimulating display. This does not mean they didn’t also see the tragedy and the suffering. The audience in Hamburg did not allow for those reactions to exist co-instantaneously. Perhaps some quietly did, but they were the minority. The majority could not, because their minds were more affected by empathy and dismay.

For the audience that was capable of seeing the beauty in such a tragic event, their response was one they also could not help: their minds were more affected by beauty and spectacle.

I am a fan of the joke told too soon. In fact, I don’t believe in the idea of a “too soon” moment to begin with. And on that morning, working at a bank on Front Street in Toronto, I found myself unwillingly struck by the aesthetic beauty of something I also recognized was tragic and horrific. Throughout that week, I watched the footage play unceasingly on television. My sense of sadness, my participation in a global mourning experience, vanished quickly. What persisted was an inability to stop seeing two jet planes disappear inside of impenetrable steel monoliths as a perfect, unprecedented artistic singularity.

Grief has a brief life-span when it’s generated by strangers through the media. Things unseen by human eyes made manifest, I learned that day, have incredible staying power. Nonetheless, the suffering that occurred on September 11th, and more importantly perhaps, the much greater suffering that followed concomitantly—that persists today while I write this—makes it difficult to view the attack on the World Trade Center as a work of art. Luckily, there is another example of an uncanny event—unintended as art, yet resembling it very much—that we can look to without the need to feel guilty. An event where there truly were no victims, where everyone involved was a willing participant. Where, in fact, the “tragedy” that transpired was felt to be a beautiful, liberating, and religious experience.

The 20th anniversary of the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide passed without a mention, much to my surprise, March 19th through the 21st of this year. It’s a three-day anniversary because the deaths spanned seventy-two hours. I would contend that Heaven’s Gate is the only truly genuine cult in history—where the leader was not a sexual deviant, a con-artist, a profiteer, or a CIA operative—because those in charge felt as much conviction in their admittedly absurd belief system as even the lowliest adherent. Where during the mass suicide, the leader did not survive or leave the country, but in fact was not even the last to die. Marshall Applewhite, terrifying as his face may have been, went with other male members of the cult to Mexico to undergo castration precisely to signal his sincere commitment to their shared beliefs. A Mexican castration is an undeniable expression of fidelity. To understand the unique status of Heaven’s Gate—almost forty people from all over the world living in a gated community in San Diego, pooling their funds, building websites for people outside of their world to pay for their food and lodging—it’s important to look at other cults and (and so-called “cults”) familiar to most of us.

The Jonestown Massacre in 1978 is generally accepted as having been the mass suicide of the People’s Temple cult. It takes very little research to discover that Jonestown itself, a community set up in Guyana with funds from the CIA, was a massive experiment in mind control operated far from prying legislative eyes by drug-addled, long-time CIA operative Jim Jones. Over eighty percent of the “cult members” were forcefully injected with cyanide or shot in the head, not because of any religious timeline, but because an American congressman had brought journalists to Guyana to investigate the community after complaints from relatives of cult members. That congressman, Leo Ryan, was shot and killed along with members of the media by Guyanese paramilitary officers (and people described as looking “American”) before their plane could leave the tarmac with members desperate to escape the community. The massacre began immediately after that event, so that Jonestown’s true purpose would not be discovered. As occurred after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, witnesses describe seeing government officials, with black tape over the signifying patches on their jackets, collecting scores of documents to be loaded into trucks before allowing first responders to attend to the dead and dying.

Certain followers of Shoko Asahara’s Aum Supreme Truth cult in Japan (perpetrators of the Tokyo Subway sarin attacks) were seen as having participated in some small-scale joint suicide. In truth, they were tortured and manipulated. Asahara sold his bathwater to his followers, ex- scientists and doctors, who had handed over all their money to him so that he could furnish his lavish house, replete with tigers, and clothe himself in the finest silk robes. He had numerous previous arrests for fraud.

Many members of The Order of the Solar Temple committed suicide, but were doing so under the tutelage of Joseph Di Mambro, to whom they had given all their money. Di Mambro was a longtime con-artist with numerous arrests, who had a particularly persuasive and hypnotic personality, and had studied techniques for brainwashing while serving a stint in prison.

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians may have been doomsday-oriented, but so are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not a cult, but a religious community which splintered off from the Seventh-day Adventists and had a history dating back almost one-hundred years. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, suffering from bad PR due to the murders they committed at Ruby Ridge, were looking for a way to restore their image. Designating the Branch Davidians a cult allowed them to utilize the language of fear that justified gassing—and picking off with sniper fire—over one hundred men, women, and (mostly) children; all peaceful Christians who had come from all over the world to hear the teachings of the particular prophet.
The Family—previously The Children of God, in which River Phoenix and his siblings were raised—is one of the more notorious cults and still thriving today, littered with suicides, predominantly by members who left and could not bear to live with the memories of their time within the cult (a survivor’s website lists over 120 suicides as of April 24th 2017). It existed simply as a way for “Moses David” David Berg to rationalize his pedophilia, and have access to children. Preaching that he had a direct line with God, Berg wanted people to know that God had told him children were extraordinarily sexual creatures. He encouraged parents to have sex with their children, and children with their siblings. Essentially, he preached that God wanted everyone fucking children and children fucking each other. Berg spent much of his time watching, observing, and teaching the proper way to make love. He also, of course, as the conduit to God, had sexual access to everyone within his flock.

In 2000, 778 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in Uganda (if you have only heard of them now, with only a slightly smaller number of dead than Jonestown, think about why) but, were found in mass graves covered in stab wounds and strangulation marks. Which would be a noble and heroic technique for suicide, were it not just murder committed at the hand of a delusional narcissist.

Above: Marshall Applewhite, leader, and police crime scene photos of Heaven’s Gate suicide

There are hundreds more. Some exist as simple Ponzi schemes, some stay below the radar, like the Gloriavale Christian Community in New Zealand, where twelve-year-old girls are married off to seventy-year old men. There are essentially only two types of cult leaders: narcissists on the psychopathic spectrum who establish cults for financial and psychological benefits, and pedophiles who create a vast and convincing belief system which allows them access to the children of their followers. Look hard, and you will have great difficulty finding any other cult that does not fit into either of these two categories.

There is a third category, although it is still helmed by either a pedophile or narcissistic con-artist. This category of cult can always be traced with some diligence, and the reading of actual paper books, to having been established and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m interested in cults. Because cults offer something I myself have searched for my entire life, predominantly in ways deleterious to my health and the well-being of those who love me—they offer the elimination of thought, of free will. Cults exist as complexly imagined narratives—and doomsday cults exist as highly imagined narratives that justify ending one’s own life. Cults are religion for those that need a real god, not God.

Marshall Applewhite appears to be the only cult leader who was neither a sociopath nor pedophile—he more resembled someone with a perception disorder who had truly come to believe in the insane story he told himself about how this world operates. There are no stories of him abusing his followers, no sexual transgressions; he did not ask his members to give him all their money so he could he live differently than they did. He was a fanatic, and a seemingly beneficent one.

The members of Heaven’s Gate all had the same bowl haircut. They all wore the same clothing. They all spoke with the same cadence and assurance. Interviews with members are startling in that they are incredibly serene. This serenity, which may be related to having had their own free will beautifully stripped from them, is also a symptom of knowing that they will die. Their faces resemble those of people who have just heard good news when they were expecting otherwise. The corollary between the relief of knowing you will live, and the relief of knowing you will die—both register as peacefulness.

So, believing that a spaceship was hidden behind the imminent Hale-Bopp comet that would take all members to a “level beyond human,” beginning on March 19th, 1997, thirty-eight people, plus leader Marshall Applewhite—all with Fordian efficiency—committed suicide over the course of three days. Each member took a combination of phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and vodka. All were wearing identical brand new Nike Decade sneakers, square purple cloths covering their faces and bodies. They secured plastic bags over their heads after they ingested the cocktail. They were all found lying peacefully in bunkbeds. Those who died on the first day were cleaned up and put away by those who died on the second, as in turn was done on the third day by the remaining few. Applewhite was the third last to die—the remaining two women who assisted him were the only ones found without bags over their heads. This points to the helpfulness and complicity of every member in assisting each other to exit the planet. All members wore “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” arm patches. Of the 38, one member, Thomas Nichols, was the brother of Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in Star Trek. Each dead person had in their pocket a five-dollar bill and three quarters. This was the toll they had estimated would be required for passage into the next life.

Richard Ford, a member of Heaven’s Gate, left the group with permission from Applewhite, only so that he could survive and disseminate the videos and beliefs of the group after they had “evacuated planet Earth before it was recycled.” Later in 1997, two members who had left earlier, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys, entered into a suicide pact similar to the one enacted in the San Diego house. Humphreys survived but was successful in ending his life the following year.

Nobody left behind to spend the hoarded money. Nobody in prison. Nobody massacred by the ATF. Nobody secreted away by the Central Intelligence Agency. Over those three days everyone died, and did so willingly, with the entrenched belief that this was a spiritual decision. Atypical for suicide, they died happy. For these reasons and many others, I feel confident that these sci-fi loving nerds, with the strong ability to swallow bullshit fantasy narratives, were members of the only true cult mass suicide in history.

How beautiful it was though, the video shot by the first officer on scene. On tape he can be heard making that most postmodern claim—“it looks like something from a movie”—a phrase that was repeated in the weeks following 9/11. And it did look like a movie to me, but perhaps not in the same way as it did for Officer Chuck Curtis—it looked like a movie I wished I’d made.

Unlike the beauty some saw in New York that September morning, in San Diego nobody was harmed. Applewhite made a video during the suicides beaming, with others about to die smiling behind him, exclaiming, “They’re excited! We’re all excited to leave!”

There was an element of installation art. The identical brand new shoes. The purple cloths lying triangularly across the bodies. The matching bunkbeds. The consistency of the postures of the bodies. The almost unbelievably juvenile armbands and sci-fi accoutrements. Were I to see what the police videos showed in the setting of a museum, I would be moved, and I would be visually pleased.

Good art should do that—should make us feel something, an emotion we don’t have language for, and it should be beautiful—as subjective as that word is. The images from those three days in San Diego do both of those things. It also shares with 9/11 a sense of the uncanny, a certain inscrutability that the mind cannot register, which elevates good art to great art.

For twenty years, I thought I was alone in my feelings about what happened, or at least part of a small community, until discovering very recently that Heaven’s Gate lives on, with a replica display at the San Diego Sheriff’s Museum in Old Town. Perhaps those in charge of the police museum had different motives for creating a miniature diorama of the events. What that motive might have been escapes me, unless they felt as I did, but needed to frame it differently. Public awareness campaign? Beware of cults, Nike Decade sneakers, purple fabric? I know that it’s the only mass suicide that’s ever been reproduced by the police as an object which serves only to be looked at the way we look at art. I don’t believe in coincidences, and that’s a very strange one.