The cult Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in 1997. They sedated and then suffocated themselves in bunk beds, all wearing brand new black Nike Decade sneakers. They believed they were about to commune with an alien space craft that was following the Hale-Bopp comet. Among the dead was Thomas Nichols, brother of the actress Nichelle Nichols—Uhura in the original Star Trek.
The website for Heaven’s Gate is still up and running, and it is a fascinating, sad window into extreme belief. Heaven's Gate members thought Earth was about to be wiped clean and rejuvenated and that the only chance to survive was to leave it behind, immediately. They believed their human bodies were vessels, and often used the word ‘vehicle’ to talk about their flesh and blood. A few “final exit” interviews of members are available on YouTube.
Their passionate belief that the soul can be forced free of the body is prophetic to our current era of religious extremism run amok. “If you quickly choose to take these steps toward separating from the world, and look to us for help,” says the cult leader Marshall Applewhite (known as Do), “you will see our Father’s Kingdom.”
But their website, as creepy and cultish as it is, is also a glimpse at ‘90s web design, making it strangely nostalgic trip into what author and developer Paul Ford calls, “the early personal web” where links are underlined, fonts are large, and everything is color coded.
Above all, the artifacts available online are a valuable, multifaceted look into the ideology of a destructive belief system. Rather than distancing yourself from them, their records help you connect with these flawed fellow humans. You begin to feel empathy for them, because no matter how warped, they wanted what we all want: communion, peaceful rest at the end of our lives, deliverance.