Suicide in San Diego

Were cultists recruited on the Web?

Salon/March 28, 1997
By Jonathan Broder

"The really frightening thing one finds here is the combination of the technology of the World Wide Web and the old celestial astrology that has been around since the beginning of human history."
As of Thursday afternoon, little was known about the 39 men and women who were found dead in a luxurious house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. They were of various ages, sported buzz-cut hairstyles, and were found with purple shrouds covering their faces and chests. They also reportedly worked for a Web design company called WW Higher Source. One of the Web sites designed by Higher Source, according to news reports, was for an organization called Heaven's Gate -- which planned to leave Earth and rendezvous with a spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet. It appears that the victims were members of this organization.

"The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level above human (the 'Kingdom of Heaven') has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp's approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for," a statement on the Heaven's Gate site read. "Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion -- 'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew."

If, as now appears, the 39 people committed mass suicide, what would have been their motivation? Salon spoke Thursday with Larry A. Trachte, assistant professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Trachte, who is also the college pastor, has taught courses on contemporary religions and sects for the past 15 years.

We've had People's Temple, the Order of the Solar Temple and now Higher Source. What makes these groups commit mass suicide?

I don't think they see it as suicide. As bizarre as it might seem to us, I'm sure that they saw it as moving on to another dimension of existence. Much as a Hindu or Buddhist would, in the sense of a reincarnation or migration to another realm of being.

So the people who died in Rancho Santa Fe weren't committing suicide, they were moving on to another adventure in some other dimension?

Yes, and I might add that there are traces of that belief in some Eastern religions. Suicide is often viewed in Buddhism as a noble way. Death is not seen as an enemy or as something to fear or flee. Even suicide is seen in a much more different light than in the West.

Based on what we know as of now, is there anything about this California group that sets it apart?

The really frightening thing one finds here is the combination of the technology of the World Wide Web and the old celestial astrology that has been around since the beginning of human history. You have an interesting dichotomy of beliefs coming together. There are literally thousands of groups like this all over now. All you have to do is search for them on the World Wide Web.

Why is the Web so attractive to these groups?

It adds an entirely new dimension to recruiting and accessibility. It opens up another dimension of cult possibilities and awareness that never existed before.

Many of the people who are drawn to cults are seeking absolute answers. They're often very bright, but they're introverts in terms of social skills and personality. So getting into religion on a computer is perfect for these kind of people. It provides instant access, it knows no geographical bounds, it allows for anonymity and yet a high degree of individuality. So just as people use their telephones for sex, you can use your computer for religion.

Again, based on what we know so far, does this San Diego cult sound like a doomsday or millenarian cult?

No. I didn't hear any of the language you would expect to hear from a doomsday or millennialist group that sits around waiting for the end of the world. It sounds more like a combination of some of the dimensions of a UFO cult, plus the appearance of this Hale-Bopp. Add the fact that it was highly organized -- probably around a leader and therefore highly suggestible -- and you end up with a rather unique combination of things.

And that's true of many of the new groups now. They're very creative. They're creating their own rules and theologies. And to the extent that groups like this have access to tens of thousands of people on the Internet, that's kind of scary. It used to be that you had to stand in an airport to recruit those who wandered by. Now, all you have to do is open up a Web site.

Is there any significance that this apparent mass suicide occurred around the solstice and Easter?

It appears this was a rather eclectic group, drawing from different sources and associations. So given that this is Holy Week, I'm sure that was one part of it. But I've heard their suicide was their way of joining a UFO that was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Some have suggested this was a strictly Christian group, but it doesn't sound very Christian to me. I would say it was more of a contemporary, New Age sort of group with a strong leader.

The age-old question: What kind of people join these groups?

One shouldn't oversimplify, but generally, it's people who are searching, who are discontented. They are idealists. They're often very bright and creative, the kind of people who easily become bored with mainline religion and want a new kind of adventure. At the same time, they are often looking for absolute answers. It's an interesting dialectic. I don't think it's accidental that many people who lean toward the sciences end up as fundamentalist Christians. On college campuses, the science departments often are the most conservative departments. These are people who are quite literal thinkers. They're looking for hard facts, answers, someone to tell them what reality is.

So in these cults, you have, on the one hand, the vulnerability of people who are searching and frustrated, combined with people who have some very creative answers that are exciting, new and adventuresome. But they're often also very isolated, in some ways the misfits of society. They don't have a lot of close relationships. The cults create pseudo-family. It was interesting to hear that even with all these people in the San Diego house, no one was talking to one another. They were always in front of their computer screens.

Yet while they may not have spoken with one another, they all died together. So they must have related to one another in some way.

Or to the leader. The definition of a cult is that it has an absolute leader who exercises absolute authority over the followers. So if the leader says, "This is what we're going to do," that's what they do. And whether that leader is Jim Jones or Do, as they called this fellow in San Diego, or David Koresh, the basic allegiance is to the leader. He is the one who dispenses reality. And if that leader says it's time to check out of this world and go on to the next, his followers check out.

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