Bad Shorts: Heaven's Gate
Issue #32, April 1997
When I was an undergraduate in college, I knew someone who had a recording of the moments leading up to the mass suicide in Jonestown, including Jim Jones' speech to his followers. He showed me the record, but for some reason I never listened to it. Maybe it was all a hoax. But it made a huge impression on me anyway. It gave me a giddy feeling to think that the record existed at all. It struck me funny.
It didn't strike me funny a decade earlier. I remember sitting in the kitchen one morning in 1978, listening to late-breaking news about the murder of a California congressman in a place called Guyana. It was the location that confused me. I was accustomed to hearing about terrorism and war. My earliest memories of "hard news" are dominated by the "situation" in the Middle East, countless highjackings of airliners, and the terrorist escapades of American and European radicals like the SLA and the Red Brigade. But as the news reports made clear, Guyana was in one of the least-inhabited portions of South America, far from the usual terrorist targets. What was California Congressman Leo Ryan doing there? And why did he get shot?
I'm not sure I understood, even after I had read the Time magazine story on the mass suicide at Jonestown a few years later. I saw the pictures of the dead bodies. I saw the purple liquid that Jim Jones and his followers had ingested. However, I couldn't really make sense of the images, no matter how much I obsessed on them. In the years that have passed since Jonestown, I have learned a great deal. But I still don't really understand what happened or why — just like I don't really know what the SLA was doing during the Patty Hearst kidnapping; just like I don't really know what the Red Brigade was doing in Italy; just like I don't really know what was going on in Lebanon in the mid-70s. There was something about these media events that defied explanation, at least for someone who lived as far from the cosmopolitan cities as I did.
The recent mass suicide by members of the Heaven's Gate cult in Southern California was on a much smaller scale than Jonestown. And it occurred two decades later. In our accelerated age, this is a long time. You would expect there to be significant differences between the two media events. Superficially, there are. The followers of Jim Jones weren't making profits off the internet. But there are deeper continuities. Just as the L.A. Riots of 1992 bore striking similarities to the L.A. Riots of 1965, the Heaven's Gate tragedy is a lot like the one in Jonestown. Part of it has to do with their status as media events of a particular kind. The L.A. Riots of 1965 were radically different than their many predecessors because they were so obsessively reported. There have been many religiously-motivated mass suicides in the course of history, but most of them were not captured on film (and now internet) in the way that Jonestown and Heaven's Gate were.
In the last issue of Bad Subjects (#31) the "Bad Shorts" feature concentrated on the revival of interest in Star Wars occasioned by the re-release of George Lucas' blockbuster trilogy. Most contributors reflected on the difference between seeing the first film now, in 1997, and then, in 1977 and 1978. As I think about Heaven's Gate, I'm faced with a similar task. In a perverse sense, Heaven's Gate lends itself to packaging — packaging of the sort I've been doing here — as a re-release of the Jonestown "film." The purple liquid has given way to a more high-tech means of extermination, the dead bodies have all been shod in identical Nikes, as if the producers of the "film" needed to acknowledge the corporate sponsors who financed its re-release.
While it can be illuminating to think of media events in this manner, I worry that I'm still laughing at the idea of my friend's Jonestown record. In 1977, I was traumatized by the words and images in which Jonestown was reported. Ten years later I found something about them humorous, even though I didn't know why I was laughing or why all those people were willing to die. Now I just feel like I'm caught up in the narrowing gyre of a mass-mediated history that transforms every tragedy into the re-release of its "influences." Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that I became conscious of my world in the 1970s, a time when the producers of non-fiction and fiction inaugurated the blockbuster era. However, I suspect that most people out there are suffering a less extreme form of this malady. After all, there's a Blockbuster or two in almost every town in the USA. And it's only a matter of time before mass-media superstores like Blockbuster will follow the lead of fast-food emporia in conquering the globe. But I'm dubious about our capacity to overcome our non-comprehension of the past, even if a concert film of the Sex Pistols' reunion tour appears on the shelf of the local video store, even if it makes us laugh.
Highway To Hell
The mass suicide on Good Friday in a mansion in affluent San Diego county should come as no surprise to any of us. Like many recent events in American religious history such as the Oklahoma City Bombing and the standoff with the Montana Freemen, it serves as an indictment of the poverty of contemporary American life. All of the epistemological ingredients for a dystopian verdict on technological and cultural progress are there: An end-time community with a charismatic leader fueled by a traditional millennial eschatology of Christian derivation, populated by a commune of ascetic web page designers with expensive computer hardware who wore the same clothes and got the same haircuts, who referred to their bodies as containers and packed overnight bags with clothes and toilet accessories waiting for a space ship to take them to a better world.
As usual, the whole affair was distorted by the media. Experts on cults were consulted by major news organizations. Pastors and theologians were asked for their opinions; like clockwork they reduced the tragedy to a pathological outburst on the part of a charismatic madman suffering from his own particular brand of fascist megalomania. It was the same old story with the same resolution. We've heard it before. First there was Jonestown, then there was Waco, now we get San Diego. In time honored fashion, as soon as I heard about what had happened, I turned on the radio and tuned into the local Christian talk show to hear what they had to say. "We've been warning the public about the dangers of cults for years," one noted Evangelical talk show host remarked. "And the authorities never listen to us. This should serve as a warning that the church has to start protecting Americans from themselves the way God commanded Christ to protect us."
The overwhelming public consensus about the Heaven's Gate community was that they killed themselves because they were a cult, and cults always commit suicide. Real religious people don't. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Heaven's Gate theology, for all intents and purposes is Christian. In fact, it's so steeped in classic neo-Platonist theological motifs, that it's almost Gnostic. Just because Heaven's Gate substituted a flying saucer for Jesus Christ doesn't mean that their beliefs were any different than those found in certain strands of American Protestantism. In fact they were quite similar. Nevertheless, mainstream American Christians and therapists alike have for years drawn a distinction between cultism and religion in order to deflect criticism from the ethical consequences of certain types of Protestant worldviews, particularly those millennial ones which reject the world out of disgust with its corruption, its lack of meaning and its emptiness in favor of the afterlife. Like the members of the Heaven's Gate cult, Christians who hold these millennial views see death and the second coming as a means to annihilate the fallen world which traps all of us.
We have to learn to come to terms with the psychological undercurrents which inform all of our spiritual dispositions, especially in a country as nihlistic as America. We need to stop taking for granted that spiritual phenomena are separate from material ones, and recall that every aspect of culture, religious or otherwise, emerges out of a rich, historically self-conscious Protestant culture. This means recognizing that the charge of cultism is a reflection of the guilty conscience of certain forms of spirituality which worship death as though it were a cure for a world beyond changing. Once we've begun to make such basic connections, we'll be able to understand events such as the Heaven's Gate suicide better. Only then will we be able to start forming our own opinions about such events instead of believing what we're told by a society in denial of its own suicidal impulses.