If we’re very, very lucky -- and I’m talking here about the kind of luck that would get you rudely expelled from even the highest-class Las Vegas casino -- the star Betelgeuse, located 640 light years away from us in the top-left corner of the constellation Orion, will die within our lifetimes. Betelgeuse is much larger than our sun, which means that its lifespan is correspondingly shorter. Its death throes will manifest in a supernova -- a stellar explosion of such magnitude that it will put out apocalyptic amounts of light and energy. Stars operate on eonic timelines, so Betelgeuse could erupt in the next ten seconds, or the next hundred thousand years. If our luck holds, we’ll see it almost as a second sun -- it’ll rival the moon in the night sky. We’ll be able to read by its light. For a few brief months, Betelgeuse will put on an inspiring show.
Most of us will stare at it and see something gorgeous. Others will be quietly terrified -- the heavens rarely speak unless to say something, and nothing good can come of a message sent through the death of another solar system. Still others will marvel for a day, until the wonder of the thing recedes into banality, long before the star itself dims.
For at least one person -- and I don’t yet know who that is, but I’ll near-guarantee he or she exists -- the supernova won’t be inspiring, or terrifying, or banal. It’ll be an excuse. Time to go. Time for everyone to go.
Marshall Applewhite -- slight, wide-eyed, with the calm conviction of an airline pilot -- saw his excuse in the comet Hale-Bopp, whose passing was perhaps the most widely-observed celestial event in human history. Applewhite’s cult, Heaven’s Gate, counted among its beliefs the idea that the Earth was seeded long ago by ancient aliens. One day, according to Applewhite, those aliens would return to harvest all those who truly believed. They would take their charges off this planet, into a new age of transcendence. Hale-Bopp, said Applewhite, was just a cover for said aliens’ spaceship, which would only pass by the Earth once on its way into interstellar space. Heaven’s Gate, or some form of it, had discussed leaving the planet by suicide for many years, but in Hale-Bopp, there was finally an end to that narrative.
There’s a certain incongruity to modern cults. We’re not immune to superstition, but we like to believe that we’ll limit ourselves to things like horoscopes or palm-reading -- a little harmless indulgence for the part of the brain that can’t quite reconcile randomness and coincidence. They’re quirks at worst, entertainment at best. Cults upend that framework. The members of Heaven’s Gate were true believers in Applewhite’s sci-fi theology, to the point where several of them actually had themselves castrated* in imitation of him. You can see Applewhite’s conviction in video messages several of these members recorded before their suicides -- they unblinkingly refer to their bodies as “vehicles”, make awkward little jokes, and give you the impression that they’re really, really looking forward to killing themselves.
* It’s probably significant that, out of every other detail about the suicides, the castration (surgical, not chemical) comes up the most. It’s one thing to believe your body is a vehicle; quite another to lop off the stick shift.
It’s the awkward jokes that really get to me. Cults attract misfits. It’s rare for anyone to get involved in one, but a person even the slightest bit secure in his or her place in the world is not cult material. The members of Heaven’s Gate seem normal enough, but there’s a strain running through their testimonials that is heartbreaking. They’re just slightly off, different enough from the norm and unleavened by exceptional talent so that daily life must have been confusing and lonely. What do you do if you never asked to be born in the first place? Do you soldier on, trying to make a little place for yourself in a world that will forever look at you sideways? Or, as Applewhite’s 39 doomed followers did, do you search for kinship?
The members of Heaven’s Gate who are left -- the ones you’ll see in this documentary -- are insistent on referring to the cult as a class. This is instructive, as you don’t commit a complex mass suicide without a little bit of learning, but it also doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The word they meant to say was family.
We create little families everywhere we can--in our group of friends, our sports teams, our military units, or in church or camp or class. They seem to be a prerequisite for true happiness, because we retain large swathes of our DNA that scream at us to buddy up, to huddle around the fire with as many people as possible because the world seeks to harm us and the only way we can face it is with a united front. This is why the lone suicide is despondent, but the mass suicides seem to go with a degree of joy. You may be dying -- leaving this world on a premise that would seem absurd to anyone else -- but you’re dying with those you consider your own blood. Applewhite himself lost family after family before Heaven’s Gate; he was estranged from his children, fired from his job, and lost his confidante -- Heaven’s Gate’s co-founder Bonnie Nettles -- more than ten years before the suicides. Perhaps he wanted this one to end on his own monstrous terms.
I really do hope Betelgeuse goes off within my lifetime. I hope you see it too. I just know that, when it does happen, there will be an elder somewhere on this Earth who will behold it, turn to his flock, and say “My children. Rejoice. It’s time.”
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.