Heaven's Gate

Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion

Benjamin E. Zeller
Forword by Robert W. Balch
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Heaven's Gate
    Book Description:

    In March 1997, thirty-nine people in Rancho Santa Fe, California, ritually terminated their lives. To outsiders, it was a mass suicide. To insiders, it was a graduation. This act was the culmination of over two decades of spiritual and social development for the members of Heaven's Gate, a religious group focused on transcending humanity and the Earth, and seeking salvation in the literal heavens on board a UFO.andnbsp;andnbsp;In this fascinating overview, Benjamin Zeller not only explores the question of why the members of Heaven's Gate committed ritual suicides, but interrogates the origin and evolution of the religion, its appeal, and its practices. By tracking the development of the history, social structure, and worldview of Heaven's Gate, Zeller draws out the ways in which the movement was both a reflection and a microcosm of larger American culture.The group emerged out of engagement with Evangelical Christianity, the New Age movement, science fiction and UFOs, and conspiracy theories, and it evolved in response to the religious quests of baby boomers, new religions of the counterculture, and the narcissistic pessimism of the 1990s. Thus,andnbsp;Heaven's Gateandnbsp;not only reflects the context of its environment, but also reveals how those forces interacted in the form of a single religious body.andnbsp;andnbsp;In the only book-length study of Heaven's Gate, Zeller traces the roots of the movement, examines its beliefs and practices, and tells the captivating story of the people of Heaven's Gate.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-2539-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    The subject of this book—the UFO religion Heaven’s Gate—has fascinated me since my first encounter with it in 1975. The group, then named Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM), had been in the news for weeks because dozens of people had suddenly disappeared after hearing its message. Yet almost nothing was known about life inside the group or the identities of its founders. About the only thing anyone knew for sure was that at least one hundred people had given up everything they had in hopes of boarding a spacecraft that would take them to a better world.

    Late in...

    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Black uniforms. Matching “Away Team” patches. New Nike shoes, the “Just Do It” swooshes still vibrant white. Purple shrouds. Rolls of quarters and five-dollar bills in their pockets, duffle bags at their sides. Circumscribing themselves with these elements, in March 1997, 39 people in Rancho Santa Fe, California, ritually terminated their lives. They did so in waves, with each wave cleaning and tidying after the previous, until all 39, including their founder and leader, lay dead in a multimillion-dollar mansion in a posh San Diego suburb. Days after the suicides began, a former member, tipped off by his compatriots as...

  7. 1 The Cultural and Religious Origins of Heaven’s Gate
    (pp. 17-42)

    One problem that scholars have had in studying Heaven’s Gate is that the movement changed radically over its twenty-five-year history. For example, the group that we call Heaven’s Gate only used that name to refer to itself in its final days on Earth. For much of its history, the group members called themselves Human Individual Metamorphosis, Total Overcomers Anonymous, and often simply “the Class.” Today we know this new religious movement as Heaven’s Gate—and I will continue to call it that—but its name often changed. (While admittedly anachronistic to refer to the movement throughout its history using the...

  8. 2 The Spiritual Quet and Self-Transformation: Why People Joined Heaven’s Gate
    (pp. 43-63)

    In the first academic study of Heaven’s Gate, Robert W. Balch and David Taylor’sSalvation in a UFO(1976), the authors asked who joined the movement that they were studying, then called simply “the UFO group” or alternatively Human Individual Metamorphosis, the name its founders used for the group at that time. Based on their fieldwork, Balch and Taylor summarized that “nearly all were long-time seekers of truth” who had joined and left numerous other new religious groups, and would leave the UFO group as well.¹ A year later in a different study, the two sociologists provided an even more...

  9. 3 The Religious Worldview of Heaven’s Gate
    (pp. 64-89)

    In the immediate hours after the discovery of the bodies of Heaven’s Gate’s adherents in Rancho Santa Fe, the news media began a frenzy of producing copy. The sheer oddness of the suicides—the uniforms, the incongruity of mass death in an exclusive gated community, the media-savvy way that the group had left behind a web page and videotapes—attracted international media attention. The vast majority of the articles that the media quickly spun out attempted to frame or characterize the religious beliefs and practices promulgated by Applewhite and the members of Heaven’s Gate. Yet this was no easy task....

  10. 4 Understanding Heaven’s Gate’s Theology
    (pp. 90-125)

    Until recently, most scholars in the field of religious studies have traditionally studied religions through a careful consideration of the beliefs promulgated by those faiths, focusing on doctrines and various theological positions. This approach has come under notable critique in the last half century on the basis of the need to also consider popular or vernacular practices and beliefs, social dynamics, and non-institutional forms of religion. Such critique has reshaped the field of religious studies.¹ Yet in the field of the study of new religious movements we have sometimes had the opposite problem; until relatively recently, few scholars have used...

  11. 5 Religious Practices in Heaven’s Gate
    (pp. 126-170)

    Most of the scholarship on Heaven’s Gate has focused on the group’s social dynamics, their history, or increasingly on their religious beliefs, as the last chapter did.¹ Yet Heaven’s Gate had a thorough set of religious practices that they developed over their two-decade history. Studying these practices presents more difficulties than studying their social dynamics, history, or beliefs, since practices leave fewer remnants. One can track membership and interview current or former members to assess a group’s social dynamics, assemble archival material to get a sense of the group’s history, and analyze the textual material to ascertain what members of...

  12. 6 Why Suicide?: Closing Heavens Gate
    (pp. 171-218)

    On March 22 and March 23, 1997, all thirty-nine active members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide, exiting the Earth, as they referred to the act. In three waves, members ingested a poisonous mixture of barbiturates and alcohol, and as their breath slowed and bodies shut down, they asphyxiated under plastic bags that they had tied over their heads. Members followed guidelines they had researched several years earlier, and laid down their earthly lives in what can only be called ritual precision and attention to detail. In keeping with the group’s customs, each member wore an identical uniform, but in their...

  13. Afterword: Heaven’s Gate as an American Religion
    (pp. 219-226)

    In 2012, the British synth-pop band Django Django released a song and music video they titled “Hail Bop,” which drummer and producer David Maclean indicated in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) meant “something that passes by once in a lifetime like a comet.”¹ Despite the misspelled name, fans and listeners widely took the song as a commentary or contemplation on the Heaven’s Gate suicides. Its lyrics invoke the religious sensibility of members of Heaven’s Gate, the quest for heavenly salvation but the implication that it entails a separation from the Earth. “Always look at the white sky and...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 227-256)
    (pp. 257-274)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 275-286)
    (pp. 287-287)