Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Heaven's Gate Cult

The End is Near

The mind of the fanatic, according to social philosopher Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, needs something to worship, even to the point of annihilation. He will sacrifice everything for the impossible dream. Many fanatical mass movements form in our society but only those that act in some dramatic manner, such as announcing the world's end or committing mass suicide, seem to get widespread attention.

Heaven's Gate was among the most startling.

A peaceful and secretive group, they made occasional forays into recruitment, but most of their time was spent in rigorous training for reaching a higher plane of consciousness. While there's nothing unusual about that, they are among the few cults who went all the way. To understand how they formed the beliefs that led to their ultimate actions, we need to look at cults as a whole that hold philosophies of an approaching Armageddon and a savior messiah.

"All mass movements," Hoffer wrote, "generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and a single-hearted allegiance."

Cults that promise a higher order from such extreme discipline appeal to a certain type of mind:

  • Frustrated with the way things are
  • hungry for change
  • confident of the potential for human perfection
  • eager to believe in a single truth
  • able to envision an unprecedented society
  • ready for action

Religious scholar Catherine Wessinger calls the groups that form around these doctrines millennialists, and in How the Millennium Comes Violently she says that they're motivated by an ultimate concern: "the belief in an imminent transition to a collective condition consisting of total well-being, which may be earthly or heavenly."

Salvation is for the entire group, not just the individual, and it's generally ensured through a charismatic leader who knows how to socialize converts, reinforce beliefs and keep the group organized and focused. Monastic discipline, special diets, and social withdrawal cultivate dependence on the leaders and encourage the loss of individuality.

On A&E's program "Cults" Professor Charles Strozier at John Jay College of Criminal Justice added that "there's an important connection between what occurred in the 19th century and the latter part of the twentieth century in terms of movements of intense spirituality. There's been a large expansion of the number of people joining these groups and claiming they've received a message from beyond, in particular that we're not alone and can be helped to evolve toward greater insight and godliness."

Among them are:

  • The Millerites, founded by William Miller during the nineteenth century, interpreted the Bible to say that the world would end with the Second Coming of Christ on October 22, 1844, but it did not. They awaited the arrival of a comet as a celestial sign of the world's end. Instead they ended up marking the day as "the Great Disappointment." They fixed on several more dates, but none played out as predicted, which discouraged many members. Eventually the lack of veracity in these predictions shriveled the group's numbers. However, some former members then went on to form the Seventh Day Adventists.

David Koresh, 1987
David Koresh, 1987

  • In the 1930s, Victor T. Houteff initially led the Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists who awaited the imminent final battle between good and evil. When it occurred, only the chosen would witness the return of Jesus Christ and be saved. Houteff purchased land for his group outside Waco, Texas, calling it the Mount Carmel Center. When he died in 1955, his wife Florence succeeded him and erroneously predicted that the world would end four years later. When it did not, another group broke off, forming the Branch Davidians, which was eventually taken over by David Koresh. He called himself the messiah and selected girls among his flock who would bear his "soldiers." He insisted that as God's "seventh messenger," it was he who would set off the chain of events that would bring on the Apocalypse. When the group began to collect firearms, the ATF tried to raid the place in 1993, and after a 51-day standoff, Mount Carmel went up in flames, killing Koresh and approximately 80 of his followers.

Mount Carmel compound (AP)
Mount Carmel compound (AP)

  • In 1994, during a police investigation, 52 members of the Solar Temple were found dead in Quebec (Canada), and Switzerland. Fifteen appeared to have been true suicides, while others were lured into ingesting tranquilizers and then were shot. A few people who were regarded as traitors were summarily executed. In 1995, 16 more members of this cult were found dead in Grenoble, France, including three children. Fourteen of the bodies were arranged in a star pattern and burned. They left notes telling those who found them that they were going now to another world. They believed they were the reincarnated Knights Templar, a medieval holy order founded by nine French knights. Two years later in 1997, five additional members committed suicide. These believers thought that death was an illusion and upon leaving the Earth, they would receive solar bodies on Sirius, the brightest star in the universe.

Former Solar Temple in Switzerland (AP)
Former Solar Temple in Switzerland (AP)

"Cults have been part of American life since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock," said TV journalist Mike Wallace in a documentary he made on the subject. Some are highly unorthodox, he added, and among the most bizarre was Heaven's Gate. Members of this group had an ideology crafted by a man and woman who believed they were aliens. For these two, people left families, jobs and friends to devote their lives to whatever it would take to attain ultimate spiritual perfection.

Whatever it would take.

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