The Mysterious Heaven’s Gate Website
The September 17, 2014 article on Gizmodo “The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind” (http://gizmodo.com/the-online-legacy-of-a-suicide-cult-and-the-webmasters-1617403237) by Ashley Feinberg describes the Heaven’s Gate cult and the post-mass-suicide maintenance of its website. It explains the background of the cult’s leader, Marshall Applewhite, and the formation of the Millenarian group who committed mass suicide in 1997 in hopes that their souls would enter a spaceship that was riding in the tails of the comet Hale-Bopp. The article describes some of the complex psychology behind the movement, including its transition into a highly exclusive, reclusive group with little desire to recruit members – a point that makes it difficult to understand the motivation behind maintaining a website after all but two of the members had died. The article also describes the cult’s business venture, a web design company, and their crowning jewel, the website heavensgate.com. The article’s main focus is on the website and the two people left behind to maintain it, Mark and Sarah King. While the article goes into significant detail about the cult and the website, it fails to explain why the website is important to the legacy of the Heaven’s Gate and to new religious movements as a whole.
Though the exact reasoning behind having the website remains unclear, it can be viewed as a symbol and part of the legacy and canon of the cult. In the textbook New Religious Movements, Hammer and Rothstein (2012) discuss different religious texts and categorize them as canonical – being from a source that transcends this world – and extra-canonical – from more mundane sources that attempt to explain the canon. Though the group had a print book, How and When “Heaven’s Gate” May Be Entered, after an online search I was unable to find a single copy of the book available anywhere other than the website. Furthermore, the article explains how web-based the group was/is – they left two people behind to maintain a website, and their main business venture was Higher Source, a web design company. Therefore, we should consider the website as the closest to a canonical text for the Heaven’s Gate and the emails, answered by the Kings, as extra-canonical texts. Interestingly, the Heaven’s Gate canon is not just textual, but much of it consists of videos and corresponding transcripts of Marshall Applewhite’s testimony – a feature only found in canons of very new religious movements.
The article emphasizes how outdated the website is. This problem suggests a larger issue for many technology based Religious Movements – technology evolves so rapidly, the religions must have the ability and resources to evolve at an equal pace. In this case, as soon as the Kings are no longer able to maintain the website, the entire religious canon risks being lost forever. Perhaps, as Hammer and Rothstein suggest, if the group would have lasted longer, they may have “inevitably incorporate(d) offline activity.” (2012, p.40).
To learn more about the Heaven’s Gate from their perspective go to their website heavensgate.com.