An image from the Heaven’s Gate website.
Kate Wagner,  January 30

Haunted by Cybersects

A freaky tour of the extant websites of 1990s cults

An image from the Heaven’s Gate website.
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Oddly enough, Heaven’s Gate—the cult that became infamous in the 1990s—funded itself through web design, via a front company called Higher Source. Indeed, the web was an integral part of the cult, leading cultural theorist Paul Virilio to deem it a “cybersect,” a religious fringe movement marked by an extensive use of the internet to congregate or proselytize. The Heaven’s Gate website, like the Space Jam website, is a primo example of ’90s web-iana. It has the quintessential starry background—a common feature of Geocities-era websites, but particularly poignant when used on the page of a UFO death cult. A “RED ALERT” gif zooms in and out above the proclamation “HALE-BOPP brings closure to: Heaven’s Gate”—referring to the mass suicide committed by members in order to (they believed) evacuate the earth and exit their “physical vehicles” (bodies) by hitching a ride on a spaceship trailing behind the passing comet Hale-Bopp, which made its closest approach to earth on March 22, 1997. The Heaven’s Gate website is lovingly maintained (including, as of 2016, the answering of email inquiries) by two remaining members of the cult, who believe that those who traveled to the “Next Level” (another plane of existence reminiscent of heaven) in 1997 will return to earth, offering passage to anyone who wants to join them.

Taking a deep dive on the Heaven’s Gate website is difficult. During the many times throughout the years that I’ve remembered its existence, I could never muster up the courage to click through the links on the home page. It was too surreal, too close to death; a more superstitious person might say the website feels haunted, and probing it would be like disturbing a graveyard. Part of me was irrationally worried that what I would find inside there would make sense to me, that I would get sucked into the world of Do and Ti (the monikers of Heaven’s Gate’s founders) unironically. One thing, however, causes me, and others, to persevere deeper into this dark corner of the web: the need to understand why these people did what they did. Why would they commit mass suicide in tracksuits and Nike Decades? One page, titled “Our Position Against Suicide,” is particularly chilling; the last paragraph becomes a tool to justify mass death: “The true meaning of ‘suicide’ is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered.”

A more superstitious person might say the website feels haunted, and probing it would be like disturbing a graveyard.

The Heaven’s Gate website led me to wonder about the web presence of the other notorious cults that captured the public imagination in the 1990s. While some millenarian sects like the Branch Davidians lack a web presence, two others—the infamous Christian sex cult Children of God (now called The Family International or TFI) and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese group responsible for the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attacks—both continue to exist (unlike Heaven’s Gate), albeit as reformed or reorganized groups, and both continue to have web presences. All of these websites are equally displaced in internet-time.

The website of Aleph, the primary successor to the Japanese terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo, is, like Heaven’s Gate, definitively outdated; in this case, it’s stuck in the web design of the early 2000s, the Y2K aesthetic. In many ways, the website is actually cute. It’s too small, designed for computers with much smaller screens and lower resolutions, and it’s littered with pastel colors, comic strips, and glowing typefaces. It’s, in a word, Japanese. Pages such as “Nice Workout” depict basic yoga poses and provide instructions for meditation. The “Library” page talks about karma, chakras, and other concepts cobbled together from Buddhism, Hinduism, and various Eastern religions. If it weren’t for the banner at the top of the Home Page titled “The Aum-Related Incidents and Aleph,” one might think they’d stumbled onto the humble website of an average New Age outpost—instead of, you know, the splinter group of a dangerous cult that’s still recruiting disaffected young people and remains under surveillance by the Japanese government.

Unlike the Heaven’s Gate website, the Aleph website isn’t trying to actively proselytize or otherwise justify itself to strangers. Instead, it seems more like a front: a harmless collection of Eastern esoterica serving as a shiny wrapper for the poisonous candy inside. Still, it is deeply unsettling to read the contents of the website of an ex– death cult. It’s the feeling of being in proximity to something extremely dangerous, of being a witness, or, on the remote chance, a potential convert—the feeling of knowing that people in your position, reading on the internet, have been sucked into these dark worlds (and in some cases never came back). One wonders: What is the difference between that person and me? If I had been in a more vulnerable situation, would my actions put me in danger right now?

Still more intense, in a way, is the website of The Family International—the current incarnation of Children of God. For those not in the know, Children of God was founded in the late 1960s by David Berg (also known as “Moses David”), who combined the doctrine of free love with apocalyptic Christianity. Berg positioned himself as a prophet, and his organization formed communes all over the world; he communicated with them via a collection of documents known as the MO Letters. Children of God’s most infamous practices included “flirty fishing”—which encouraged women to use sex in order to win over converts—and the espousal of polygamy and free love between minors and adults. Many second-generation members of the cult spoke out about these practices in the 1990s and 2000s, including celebrities like Rose McGowan. Several members died by suicide, including Berg’s stepson Ricky Rodriguez, who also killed his former nanny.

Googling “The Family International” brings up its new website thefamilyinternational.org as the first result, followed by its Wikipedia article, a few news stories involving the words “sex cult,” and a result for a website called xfamily.org, a Wiki-type archive of the abuses of the cult and its leaders. Another ex-Family website, called exfamily.org, also shows up in the search results. Both are dedicated to meticulously documenting the crimes and preserving the literature of Children of God. Why? Because after Berg died and left the legacy of his church to his wife, then known to followers as “Maria” (her real name is Karen Zerby), an intense purge of information and active disavowal of past acts and crimes of the church eventually followed, known as the “Reboot.”

The courageous survivors of TFI have fought to make sure that the beliefs and actions of the cult will be available for all to witness in the open forum of the internet.

Today, the website for TFI looks like a typical fundamentalist Christian webpage rooted in the early days of Web 2.0 design. It’s crowded with tabs, sidebars, and other widgets. Gone are any references to sex, flirty fishing, or the other taboo doctrines of the Berg era. In its “History” section, TFI sanitizes its wild past and even links to a website commemorating Berg that includes a selection of his most innocuous MO Letters. The group claims that it has terminated its communal centers and is now strictly an online community. In the case of the TFI website, somewhat similarly to the Aleph site, the eeriness comes not from extensive cult material but its absence. TFI’s website diverges from Aleph’s in that it is too anodyne, the Lorem Ipsum of Christian websites. It’s vacuously boring; the scrubbing of any incriminating or suspicious content has left little of substance in its wake.

The ex-Family websites, however, provide a rich history of just how fucked up TFI was and remains. Cobbled together by volunteers, exfamily.org is another quintessential early aughts website—too small for modern screens, it’s framed by a banner, tabs, and a sidebar, barely concealing the naked HTML beneath it. Xfamily.org dons a classic Wiki format, and within its duct-taped-together folds one can find a library of nearly every document issued by TFI. These contents, which include the advocation of incest, sex with minors, and religious prostitution, are, for lack of better words, freaky and horrifying. Unlike Aleph, which has hidden the remnants of its Aum Shinrikyo past away—and the fact that there aren’t many ex-Aum members willing to endure the cult’s intimidation tactics, which have included murder, to set up a Wiki—the courageous survivors of TFI have fought to make sure that the beliefs and actions of the cult will be available for all to witness in the open forum of the internet.

The question of why people join cults—and where to draw the line between a “new religious movement” (NRM) and a cult—continues to preoccupy wider society and scholars of religion alike. Many NRMs and New Age ideologies have had a lasting influence on popular culture, including the practices of alternative medicine (like crystal healing); the popularization of astrology, fortune telling, tarot, and palm reading; and different schools of meditation and yoga. But there’s a definitive boundary between the kooky New Age self-help offerings of a Marianne Williamson type and the destructive beliefs of Aum Shinrikyo. The fact that so many of these groups have their origins in the 1960s and 1970s, and that many met or caused tragic fates in the 1990s, is also fascinating, made more so by their enduring internet presence. That presence enables time travelers in 2020 to experience and interact with their media in a universally accessible way that would have been impossible before the age of cyberspace.

In one respect, these websites are a means of preserving important history, from both a scholarly and pop cultural perspective. But their anachronistic aesthetics are also a means of preserving internet history too: few websites look like Aleph’s or Heaven’s Gate’s or even TFI’s anymore. These websites persist not only as history; they are also memorials to and testimonies of the people involved. Discomfortingly, they remind us that some of the believers and the organizations who did so much harm are still out there, in one form or another.

Of course, there will always be those who present themselves as spiritual revolutionaries, claiming to know the true way, claiming to be on a higher plane, closer to god; subsequently, there will always be outsiders and soul-seekers who are perfectly willing to suspend their disbelief in search of answers in a secular world that offers relatively few of them. It’s why we need these cult websites: to serve as a living testament to the oft-tragic consequences of that search.

Kate Wagner is an architecture and cultural critic based in Washington, DC. She is the creator of the blog McMansion Hell, which thoroughly examines the phenomenon that is the McMansion, and uses it as a tool for architectural education and humorous cultural remarks. Kate has written about architecture, design, and culture for numerous publications including The Baffler, The Atlantic, CityLab, and The Nation and is an opinions columnist at Curbed.

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