March 26th, 1997…
I was nineteen years old, and I remember hearing the news report for the first time. Thirty-nine members of California’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ commune were found lying in bunk-beds, dressed in matching black clothes and Nike sneakers. Each had a bag tied over his or her head, and all had perished from self-administered doses of vodka and Phenobarbital.
Their googly-eyed leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, claimed that the passing comet Hale-Bopp hid a mystical spaceship. Only by ‘shedding their human containers’ could the Faithful be ‘beamed’ aboard the spaceship, after which they would enjoy an epic eternity in the Great Beyond. (Applewhite himself was found among the dead.)
Applewhite was obviously a nut case, and his followers also had a few loose screws. There were a number of disturbing events that led up to the mass suicide, one of which was this: Many male cult members (including Applewhite himself) submitted to castration in order to shed all ‘human desires’. (On a similar note, the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh insisted that all wives and daughters be turned over to him, because only he was ‘pure’ enough to breed.)
Cults are weird, man!
In one sense, I don’t get it. I mean, I’d be damned if I’m gonna have my ‘nads cut off, or drink poison, or hand my wife over to some tin-pot dictator like a party favor. On the other hand, I was once a member of the cult founded by the self-anointed ‘prophet’ Kip McKean. While McKean’s cult doesn’t (insofar as I know) demand the surrender of one’s virility (or wife), the group nevertheless remains notorious for its coercive and abusive control mechanisms.
I think the reason that some people join cults – or at least, the reason I did – is that they’re hoping to have all the accurate, reliable, and complete answers about Life handed to them on a silver platter. Blindly accepting the teachings of some self-described ‘Messiah’ is much, much easier than sorting out those answers for oneself! Some people mistrust themselves so much that they’ll follow any lunatic who’s more assertive than they are. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh talked just enough trash to get his followers to hand over their life savings… which he used to acquire nearly a hundred Rolls-Royces, which he then proceeded to drive like a maniac. Dwight ‘Malachi’ York ran his mystical ‘Nuwaubian Nation’ cult with the apparent end of gaining sexual access to young girls, and so did Tony Alamo of Alamo Christian Ministries.
I can identify two different kinds of cult leaders: Those who are/were actually crazy enough to believe their own baloney, and snake-oil salesmen who just teach whatever happens to be enriching and empowering to them.
Marshall Applewhite and David Koresh were crazy. How do we know this? They died alongside their flocks, swallowing their own delusions hook, line, and sinker. On the other hand, Charlie Manson tried to get outta Dodge before he was arrested, and Japanese cult leader Shoko Asahara harbored no intentions whatsoever of facing the consequences of his actions.
Going ‘way back, I think that Joseph Smith (the Mormons) and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses) were of the ‘crazy’ breed of cult leaders as well: Both predicted dates upon which the world would end within their own lifetimes! There’s no reason to do that except lunacy…
A sane man would realize that the world’s failure to end by its ‘due date’ just might damage his reputation!
But L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology) wasn’t crazy, any more than Charlie Manson or Shoko Asahara. I just finished reading his book Dianetics, and lemme tell ya… Scientology was crafted from day one to become (as the producers of TV’s South Park put it) ‘a global scam’. I don’t think Hubbard was a nut at all; I think he was just pure evil.
Another question that interests me is this: Why do the wealthy – and celebrities – so love to join cults?
The Beatles were involved with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and George Harrison went on to join the Hari Krishnas. The brother of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols was found dead along with the other Heaven’s Gate cultists. Members of the Beach Boys were involved with the Manson Family. John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and many other actors have been involved with Scientology over the years. And most recently, Allison Mack (of TV’s Smallville) and India Oxenburg (daughter of Dynasty’s Catherine Oxenburg) found themselves entangled in Keith Raniere’s cult, Nxivm. (Two heiresses from the Seagram’s whisky family were ensnared by Nxivm as well.)
So why do the wealthy and famous so love to join cults? I think there’s a two-fold answer to that question: Number one, cults attract the wealthy because cult leaders court the wealthy. Duh!
But why do the rich and famous fall for their shenanigans…?
The answer, I think, is pretty simple. The wealthy and the powerful are the same as everyone else, in the sense that they seek a sense of spirituality. As wiser men than I have pointed out, humans are inherently ‘theotropic beings’. We were created in the image of our Creator, and we cannot long abide the lack of a spiritual dimension in our lives.
God, however, has certain expectations of us, rules that He sets into place for our well-being. As Benjamin Franklin put it: ‘Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but forbidden because it is hurtful’. For your average shmoe, God’s expectations aren’t that troubling. I don’t have to worry over-much about falling into adultery, because I’m a not a rock star with beautiful women throwing themselves at me after every concert. I don’t hafta sweat drug addiction all that much, either, because I can’t afford drugs. I firmly believe that people are only as good as they have to be, which is why Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Christianity was the secret of American greatness…
That’s also why America sits upon a precipice now, teetering on the brink of anarchy and collapse: Without accountability to our Creator, people begin to behave like animals. And that, I believe, is why celebrities are easy prey for cults: They’re seeking a convenient sense of spirituality without the inconvenience of moral expectations. I mean, celebrities can afford lots of women and drugs, so they don’t want some religion cramping their style!
The Rajneeshis, the Manson Family, and the Nuwaubians were all about as depraved as they come. I think Anton LaVey (of the Orthodox Church of Satan) summed up the attraction of cults fairly well, in writing about his own: Satanism condones any type of sexual activity which properly satisfies your individual desires — be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or even asexual, if you choose.
But not all cults are debaucherous in nature; many lean more towards monasticism. What’s the appeal of these groups?
Much like a battered wife feels that she ‘deserves’ her husband’s abusive and controlling behavior, I think there’s an element of emotional dependency there. When I was in McKean’s cult, the painful manipulation I experienced mimicked elements of my own unhappy childhood. Because I’d been so conditioned to being controlled and suffering verbal abuse, the outrageous actions of the ‘ministry’ just struck me as… well, part of a normal ‘family’ relationship.
Cults are never ‘normal’!
An understanding of God is a good thing. It draws us into a deeper knowledge of ourselves by virtue of a deeper relationship with the Deity who created us. Enlightened Faith draws upon the nobler side of human nature, and brings out our best qualities.
Cults, on the other hand, are nothing if not a perversion of faith! They pull us deep into the blackest abyss of our own soul, by appealing to needs born of lust, or abuse. Cults draw upon the dark side of human nature, and bring out our very worst qualities.
On the other hand…
Maybe Marshall Applewhite is riding happily around on a comet somewhere…