Thursday, January 29, 2015

"The Luminous Hyper-World That Shimmers Beyond The Great Nocturnal Barrier."

It's a continuing source of amazement how many of the themes I followed on the blog over the years have re-entered the newsstream since I began blogging again, especially so in the past month. 

I'm sure a lot of you have heard that The X-Files is returning to television as a limited series (something I'd been lobbying for in lieu of feature films since the series went off the air) and from what I've been told that's a done deal, with Chris Carter, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson all coming back. 

Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz probably won't be returning, since he's producing the adaption of Man in the High Castle for Ridley Scott, now airing on Amazon.*

Which brings us to another recent news story, the publication of a major scholarly text on the Heaven's Gate cult entitled Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion by Benjamin E. Zeller, a professor at Lake Forest College (not to be confused with Wake Forest University). 

And although the book is a fairly typical serving of lukewarm Ivory Tower wordsoup, Zeller did uncover a curious detail about the 1997 suicides that ties back to The X-Files mythology in a strange and tantalizing way.

Just don't expect anything that goes against the usual media narrative on the cult.

There's no mention of The Mysterious Two, the absolutely insane 1982 TV movie based on Heaven's Gate's prior incarnation of HIM and their widely publicized disappearance into the Oregon wilderness (a film that had TV megastar John Forsythe portraying Applewhite and Steven Spielberg's future mother in law portraying Bonnie Nettles), the comic story in UFO Flying Saucers and no mention of the work Jacques Vallee did on HIM in Messengers of Deception or Brad Steiger's interviews with Applewhite and Nettles in Gods of Aquarius (Steiger is cited for another, lesser text). 

There's certainly no mention of the fact that the Gate's suicides were preceded by one of the most widely publicized UFO flaps in recent times (given the Gate's Net savvy, they may well have been aware of the Phoenix Lights, even though the story didn't go national until after their deaths) or the bizarre episode of the The Outer Limits that allegorized Applewhite's wildest fantasies and aired the week of the suicides.

Worst of all, he continually describes the Gate's doctrine and practice as being consummately Gnostic, yet the term "Gnostic" never appears once in the text. Zeller: 
By the end of 1996, the members of Heaven's Gate had reconfigured their worldview in a starkly dualistic manner, they upheld two forms of dualism: one a metaphysical dualism that distinguished the body from the true self, found in the mind or soul; the other a second form of dualism that I call "worldly dualism," which distinguished the members of Heaven's Gate and their movement as good, saved, and wholesome, and separated from a bad, damned, and corrupt outside world. 
In other words, Applewhite was preaching good, old fashioned Manichaeism. A first year divinity student could tell you that. Zeller does not.

Given the fact that Zeller is a professor of religion and a self-styled specialist in New Religious Movements (a specialty that's becoming increasing archaic in this age of Borgsong media immersion and suicidalist secularism), it boggles my mind that he can continually describe the doctrine and practice of the most austere and world-denying forms of Gnosticism among the Gate without naming them as such.
Members therefore saw themselves as more alien than human, as engaged in only a temporary sojourn on Earth but destined to return to the Next Level. One of the earliest and most explicit examples of such occurs in a 1994 statement that Applewhite or other members of the group wrote but did not distribute. Using the third person to refer to themselves. they wrote, "[t]hey began 'touching down' on Earth (evacuating their bodies and the crafts they came in) in the 1940s and subsequently began incarnating in adult human bodies in the 1970s and will evacuate this planet within the next year." 
This is Gnosticism 101:
The fundamental difference that separates the Gnostics from their contemporaries is that, for them, their native `soil' is not the earth, but that lost heaven which they keep vividly alive in their memories: they are the autochthons of another world. 
Hence their feeling of having fallen onto our earth like inhabitants from a distant planet, of having strayed into the wrong galaxy, and their longing to regain their true cosmic homeland, the luminous hyper-world that shimmers beyond the great nocturnal barrier. 
Their uprooting is not merely geographical but planetary 
The Gnostics by Jacques La Carriere
Zeller also sees UFO religions as some 20th Century novelty: 
Within Heavens Gate, science played a central role as a rhetorical tool used to understand the movement, its identity. and its relationship with outsiders. As a UFO religion, this is hardly surprising. Historian of new religions John Saliba has postulated, "UFO phenomena are a new type of religion that attempts to formulate a worldview that is more consistent with the culture and technology of the twenty-first century." 
Again, as much as secular minded theology professors want to chalk this all up to some postwar quirk, some glitch in the Matrix of naturalist perfection, these beliefs are ancient. See Fragments of an Alien Faith; the ancient Gnostics may not have understood the "clouds" and "wheels" and "light beings" in the context of science fiction as the Gate did but they certainly couched their visionary experience in the language of the pop culture of the day, which was religion.

Though I've never seen any evidence that Applewhite was reading Gnostic literature (though given the overlap between Gnosticism, UFO lore and conspiracy culture in the 90s, it's difficult to imagine the Gate not stumbling upon it), the developing cosmology came straight out of Hypostasis of the Archons:
The poster indicated that humans today were "enslaved; that all existing religions were "corrupted by malevolent space aliens," and that the Next Level would soon begin "the process of recycling Earth's environment and inhabitants." 
This may have also been the X-Files influence at work. But there's another, more explicit influence; the growing acceptance among the cult of the doctrine of the 'walk-in', the migrating non-corporeal intelligences who travel by starlight seeking out bodies to inhabit. According to Zeller, this doctrine came to dominate Gate thinking in the days leading up to the suicides. 

Although most observers were puzzled or amused by the Gate's language of "exiting their vehicles" and speaking about themselves in the third person, the Gate meant it all quite literally. They believed that they were extraterrestrial wayfarers trapped in inferior human cages. Note that the walk-in concept has also been the topic of the novel The Host (and a feature film) by Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight juggernaut. Zeller:

 By the end of the group's existence members spoke of themselves as something akin to popular psychic Ruth Montgomery's concept of  'walk-ins:' spirits from the Next Level who had long ago been human, but had abandoned their humanity in order to become Next Level creatures, and now returned to complete a predetermined task.
But according to Zeller, the Gate may have gotten the idea from The X-Files.
Member of the Class might have discovered the concept of walk-ins by reading Montgomery's 1979 book on the topic, Strangers Among Us: Enlightened Beings from The World to Come, or they might have encountered the term on the television series The X-Files, which featured multiple episodes exploring the topic. 

The X-Files
featured multiple episodes on the walk-in theme but only one that aired before the Gate exited their vehicles; 1994's 'Red Museum'. It's known that the Gate watched The X-Files religiously, a fact that confused the show's producers, given the fact that they portrayed aliens in such a negative light. 

But whereas Zeller equivocates, I believe the Gate's devotion to the show proves that it was indeed 'Red Museum' where the Gate first encountered the walk-in concept, or at least where they latched onto the concept as their raison d'etre and the justification for their final exit.


Because 'Red Museum' portrays a cult that is remarkably similar to Heaven's Gate, so much so that Applewhite may well have seen the episode as a message specially meant for him and the group. (The Order of the Solar Temple, which would see its own mass suicides- if you can call them that- were the probable inspiration for the Red Museum. Carter and co. would draw on Solar Temple's historiography all the way to the series' ninth season).

"The Church of the Red Museum" is a cult that believed in an apocalyptic event destined for 2012, led by a charismatic preacher who left his profession as a doctor to lead a nomadic, separatist cult that believed they were the hosts of enlightened, non-corporeal aliens who would survive the coming catastrophe.

In the story the Red Museum are first seen as suspects in a series of kidnappings (or abductions, if you prefer) but are later portrayed as heroes, protecting the town's children from a hitman tasked to erase all evidence of experimentation involving alien DNA being injected into the children and to livestock.

In the growing anti-governmental paranoid mindset of the Gate, this episode must have seemed like a bolt from the blue. Applewhite may well have thought the aliens were using the show to send messages to him, since the cult then started down the road that ended in March of 1997. 

What's ironic is that 'Red Museum' may have been initially inspired by Heaven's Gate's 1994 recruiting campaign, in which they held their final public conferences. A classic feedback loop. But knowing that were so would have only strengthened Applewhite's resolve.

But we're left to wonder- how did a tiny, monastic cult with zero influence on the world outside leave such a large footprint in Hollywood, even long before the suicides?

Aside from a few scattered USENET postings, the Gate's legacy is a forlorn, archaic website, adrift in the Sargasso Sea of Cyberspace. No one is inspired by them, no one follows in their footsteps, no one sees them as anything but objects of pity or contempt. Yet they linger out there, like pixelated ghosts. So what was their appeal to the alpha males of Tinseltown?

I've heard baseless theories of the Gate being used as MK guinea pigs and all manner of silliness following the suicides, but none of it adds up to much. The cult were indigent and nomadic for most of their existence and their literature was as paranoid and conspiracy-minded as anything that circulating on alt.militia back in the day. They were true outliers. Maybe that's why they persist.

When the walk-ins were revisited after the 1997 suicides, Carter cast Kim Darby as their prophetess and curiously portrayed her in the androgynous style of a female Heaven's Gate cultist, with the bowl cut, lack of makeup, etc. 

Darby starred in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, directed by Andrija Puharich's comrade John Newland but more significantly - and synchronistically - with William Shatner in The People, another Gnostic parable made for television in the Magonian 70s.

In the end, the Gate's fate was inevitable. Those of you who've read Messengers of Deception saw a cult that made unbelievably outrageous promises, promises it could never, ever keep, in the childish hope that the power of wishing would make it all so. 

Though the Gate held Gnostic tenets, it did so in a reductive, simplistic, literalist fashion more akin to the Fundamentalist milieu Applewhite and Nettle emerged from than the Sethians or the Ophites.

They never seemed to question the nature of reality, indeed they took the bread and butter of consensus reality for granted. They simply plugged the sci-fi elements of Gnostic doctrine into their naturalism and tried to will it all into reality. 

But the archons and the aeons are only part of the equation; hacking the nature of reality itself is hardwired in the Gnostic worldview as well. That offers more constructive solutions to the human dilemma than exiting your vehicle.