The online legacy of a suicide cult

By James Cook on September 23rd, 2013

On 26 March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were found dead inside their rented mansion in San Diego. It remains one of the most infamous mass suicides in American history.

The Heaven’s Gate cult had been preparing for suicide. They purchased special embroidered graduation robes, they mixed the poison with vodka and apple sauce, they died in stages so that they could cover their fellow members with square purple cloths, and they also left behind a digital legacy entrusted to selected survivors.

The website of Heaven’s Gate hasn’t been updated since the days before the mass suicide of the cult members. The garish fonts and old-fashioned backgrounds are testament to the web design trends of the nineties.

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Indeed, the cult members used to work as web designers, forming their own company called “Higher Source”. Ownership of the company and its client base was split amongst the surviving cult members after the deaths. A portion of the text from the original Higher Source website is available to read in an archived CNN article:

We try to stay positive in every circumstance and put the good of a project above any personal concerns or artistic egos.

The homepage of the now-deleted web design site ran by the cult members.

The homepage of the now-deleted web design site ran by the cult members.

While it might appear to be a ghost site abandoned in 1997, heavensgate.com is very much alive. The hosting bills have been paid every year, and the domain name is still registered. The Kernel emailed the Heaven’s Gate website asking who runs it, using the email address listed on the site. Instead of a mail delivery failure notice, we received a reply within hours.

The TELAH foundation still runs the website.

Our research has shown that the TELAH foundation is one of several business entities created before the cult deaths to safeguard their teachings on the internet. An archived WHOIS search reveals that two former cult members run the foundation: Mark and Sarah King of Phoenix, Arizona. After the deaths, the Kings sued for Heaven’s Gate’s property, but lost the case. They do, however, retain ownership of the logos, imagery and videos created by the group.

“TELAH” is believed to stand for “The Evolutionary Level Above Human”, a term used by the cult to refer to their leader and other beings who had “evolved beyond humanity”.

When CBS Las Vegas emailed the Heaven’s Gate email address back in 2012, they asked what the surviving cult members thought of the rumours that the world would end on December 21st 2012. “Our own opinion is that it is a bunch of nonsense. The world will still be here on December 22,” read the reply.

Heaven’s Gate took steps to make sure that their modest website would remain online in perpetuity. They were concerned that US authorities would consider the pages dangerous and force the hosting company to remove them. Thus, a Romanian company was courted, and they secured space for a back-up version.

According to one of the cult’s final letters, they chose the Romanian company because “the webmaster can withstand the controversy”.

Along with their website, it’s possible to find some of the material that the cult posted on the internet while they were still alive. An archived mailing list shows an email sent from the same email address that we received a reply from. This email sent in 1996 to a conspiracy mailing list details the beliefs of the Heaven’s Gate cult.

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In the days leading up to the deaths, the cult scrambled to send out videotapes, as well as safeguarding their digital legacy. According to letters sent out to their associates, the intention was to make their teachings available for ever.

Documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux had asked the group if he could visit them for his series Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends. They denied his request, explaining that “at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on.”

Days after the Hale-Bopp comet streaked across the sky, signalling that it was time for Heaven’s Gate to depart their “vehicles”, a package was received by one of the cult members who had been instructed to remain on earth.

Package

Inside the FedEx envelope were two videotapes and a letter addressed the to cult survivor, Rio DiAngelo. As part of their carefully-planned deaths, cult members videotaped a series of final messages, along with teachings to be released after the suicides. DiAngelo had agreed to leave the main group shortly before the comet’s appearance so that he could supervise the protection of their teachings.

The videotapes are available to watch online, just as the cult intended. The TELAH foundation keeps these videos on the internet, maintaining a Vimeo profile to share the teachings.

Videos are still being uploaded, with the most recent appearing two months ago. The TELAH foundation is quick to caution against anyone trying to join the long-dead organisation: “The posting of this video does not indicate there is another group to join as there is none.”


A YouTube account also exists to share the Heaven’s Gate videotapes.

Rio DiAngelo was not the only survivor. It has been estimated that between five and ten Heaven’s Gate cult members were left behind to spread the word. Two of the survivors who had been tasked with spreading the message arranged a suicide pact. They met in an Encinitas motel in May 1997, where Wayne Cooke, the husband of one of the original members, died.

In the two months after the mass suicide, he expressed regret that he was not there at the end. Cooke was found wearing black Nike trainers and covered in a purple shroud: he had died in exactly the same way as the other cult members.

The body of Wayne Cooke being removed from a hotel in California.

The body of Wayne Cooke being removed from a hotel in California.

The other member of the suicide pact, Charlie Humphreys, was revived by paramedics at the scene. Humphreys had made the final update to the Heaven’s Gate website, uploading the prepared press release from a disk labelled “Earth Exit, final press release, and index page.”

Copies of the disk were also mailed to the two hosting companies responsible for the back-up versions of the site, along with hand-written instructions on what to do. Humphreys was found to have killed himself in a tent in the Arizona desert in February 1998.

Another Heaven’s Gate survivor known only by his cult name of “Oscody” was part of the team that established the hosting of the website and distribution of CD-ROMs containing the group’s teachings. It is rumoured that “Oscody” committed suicide in 2000. This death means that it is only Mark and Sarah King who have access to the Heaven’s Gate email account and website.

One former Heaven’s Gate member is still alive, creating new teaching materials. Sawyer continues to spread the word of the cults leaders “Ti” and “Do” through the use of woodwind instruments and lengthy monologues on his YouTube channel.

In the immediate aftermath of the mass suicide, American media were quick to blame the internet. The presence of a Heaven’s Gate website was, they claimed, evidence that the internet spread suicidal thoughts. Pam Dixon, a computing author, said at the time:

I’m hearing a lot of comments from terrified parents that this is a computer cult. But actually it’s not a computer cult. This is a cult who happened to have a Web site.