Posts Tagged ‘Jan Harold Brunvand’

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

January 12, 2021

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

Fighting Racism Means Restoring the Welfare State

July 17, 2020

One of the most important things I learned when I was studying Geography for ‘A’ level nearly forty years ago was that poverty leads to political extremism. Part of the course was on the Third World, although I now gather that term, coined by Gandhi, is now out of favour. It was fascinating. We were taught that the countries of the Developing World varied in their levels of economic development and that many of their problems stemmed from the neocolonial system put in place when the European imperial power granted their independence. In return for their political freedom, the former colonies were required to confine themselves to primary industry – mining and agriculture. They were forced into a relationship with their former masters in which they were to trade their agricultural and mineral products for finished European goods. Punitive tariffs were imposed on industrial goods produced by these nations. They are therefore prevented from developing their own manufacturing industries and diversifying their economies. And as the primary resources they export to the global north are produced by a large number of countries, competition works against them. If one country tries to raise the price of copra, for example, the developed countries can simply find another nation willing to supply it at a lower cost. And so the Developing World is kept poor. And that poverty will drive people to political extremism – Communism and Fascism.

Poverty, Economic and Political Crisis and the Rise of Fascism

The same forces were at work behind the rise of Fascism in Europe. Part of the impetus behind the formation of Italian Fascism and German Nazism was frustration at the international settlement at the end of the First World War. Italy was angered by the great powers’ refusal to grant it the territories it claimed, like the Yugoslavian island of Fiume. Germany was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and the imposition of crippling reparations. The new democratic system in both countries was unstable. The Nazis made their first electoral breakthrough as the champions of the small farmers of Schleswig-Holstein in the 1920s. But arguable what gave them the greatest spur to power was the 1929 Wall Street crash and the massive global recession this caused. Combined with the breakdown of the ruling Weimar coalition between the Catholic Centre Party, the German  Social Democrats – the rough equivalent of the British Labour Party and the two Liberal parties – the crisis boosted Nazism as a mass movement and allowed President Hindenberg, then ruling by decree, to consider giving them a place in power in order to break the political deadlock. He did, and the result was the twelve years of horror of the Third Reich. Faced with rising unemployment, national humiliation and social and political chaos, millions of people were attracted by the Nazis denunciation of international capitalism and Marxist Communism and Socialism, which they blamed on the Jews.

The Collapse of Louisiana Oil Industry and the Witchcraft Scare

Sociologists and folklorists critically examining the witchcraft scare of the 1990s also noticed the role poverty and wealth inequalities have in creating social panics and the persecution of outsider groups. From the ’70s onwards a myth had developed that there existed in society multigenerational Satanic groups practising child abuse and infant sacrifice. A critical investigation by the British government over here – the Fontaine Report – and the FBI over the Pond found absolutely no evidence that these sects ever existed. But large numbers of people uncritically believed in them. As this belief spread, innocent people were accused of membership of such cults and their mythical atrocities. As the American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out, this witch hunt emerged and spread at a time when the gap between rich and poor in America was increasing. One of the places hit by the scare was Louisiana. Louisiana had a strong oil industry, and the state levied a tax on its profits to subsidize local housing. This was fine until the industry went into recession. Suddenly ordinary, hard-working Louisianans found they could no longer afford their mortgages. There were cases where the banks were simply posted the keys to properties as their former owners fled elsewhere. With poverty and insecurity rising, people started looking round for a scapegoat. And they found it in these mythical Satanic conspiracies and in real, New Age neo-Pagan religions, which they identified with them.

1990s Prosperity and Positive Challenges to Affirmative Action

It’s a truism that poverty creates social and racial conflict, as different groups fight over scarce resources. There was a period in the 1990s when it looked like racism was well on the wane in America, Britain and Europe. Blacks were still at the bottom of American society, but some Blacks were doing well, and challenging stereotypes and the need for affirmative action. The Financial Times approvingly reported a self-portrait by a Black American artist, in which he pointedly exaggerated his ‘negrotic’ features in order to make the point that these didn’t define him. There were cases of Black college professors turning down promotion to senior, prestigious positions at their seats of learning because they didn’t want people to think that they hadn’t earned them through their own merits. They hated the idea that they were just being given these places because of their colour. Whites further down the social scale were also challenging the need for affirmative action in a different way, which didn’t involve racist abuse and violence. The FT reported that four American firemen had changed their names to Hispanic monickers, as this was the only way they believed they could get promotion under a system designed to give preference to ethnic minorities. Back in Blighty, some TV critics naively applauded the lack of racism in a series of Celebrity Big Brother, before that all shattered as Jade Goody and one of her friends racially bullied Indian supermodel and film star Shilpa Shetty. Sociological studies revealed that people’s accent was more important than their race in terms of social identity and acceptance. And then when Barack Obama won the American election in 2008, the chattering classes around the world hailed this as the inauguration of a new, post-racial America. But wiser voices reminded the world that the terrible racial inequalities remained.

Austerity, Poverty, and the Destruction of the Welfare State Behind Growth in Racism

All this has been shattered with the imposition of austerity following the banking crash, and the increasing impoverishment of working people across the world. The crash has allowed Conservative government to cut spending on welfare programmes, force through even more privatisations and cuts, and freeze and slash workers’ pay. At the same time, the top 1 per cent has become even more incredibly wealth through massively increased profits and tax cuts.

One of the many great speakers at last Saturday’s Arise Festival on Zoom – I think it was Richard Burgon, but I’m not sure – remarked that talking to people in the north, he found that they weren’t racist. They didn’t hate Blacks and ethnic minorities. But they were worried about access to jobs, opportunities and housing. He made the point that we need to restore these, to fight for all working people and not allow the Tories to divide us. He’s right. If you read rags like the Scum, the Heil and the Depress, the line they take is of virtuous Whites being deprived of employment and housing by undeserving immigrants. Who also sponge off the state on benefits, like the White unemployed the Tories also despise. But they’re obviously not going to tell the world that they are responsible for the shortage of jobs, the insecure conditions for those, who are lucky to have them, and that the shortage of affordable housing is due to them selling off the council houses and defining ‘affordable’ in such a way that such homes are still out of the pocket of many ordinary people. Even if enough of them are built by companies eager to serve the wealthy.

Austerity and Black Lives Matter

It’s austerity that has given urgency to the Black Lives Matter movement. Blacks and some other ethnic minorities have been acutely affected by austerity, as they were already at the bottom of society. If prosperity had continued, if the banking crash had not happened and austerity not imposed, I don’t believe that BLM would have received the wave of global support it has. Blacks would still have occupied the lowest rung of the social hierarchy, but conditions would not have been so bad that they have become a crisis.

White Trump Voters Whites Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action

At the same time, some disadvantaged Whites would not have given their votes to Donald Trump. While Trump is a grotty racist himself, who has surrounded himself with White supremacists and members of the Alt Right, some sociologists have counselled against accusing all of his supporters as such. Years ago Democracy Now’s anchorwoman, Amy Goodman, interviewed a female academic who had done a sociological survey of Conservative White Trump supporters. She found that they weren’t racist. But they did feel that they were being denied the jobs and opportunities they deserved through unfair preference given to other ethnic groups. She likened their mentality to people in a queue for something. Waiting at their place in line, they were annoyed by others pushing in ahead of them. And this was made worse when the queue jumpers responded to their complaints by accusing them of racism. I think the sociologist herself was politically liberal, but she stated that the Conservatives Whites she’d studied should not automatically be called racist and it was dangerous to do so.

Conclusion

It’s clear from all this that if we really want to tackle racism, we need to restore jobs, proper wages, trade union power, real affordable and council housing, and a proper welfare state. These are desperately needed by all members of the working class. I’ve no doubt that they’re most acutely needed by Blacks, but this certainly isn’t confined to them. Restoring prosperity would bring all the different racial groups that make up the working class together, and it would stop the resentment that leads to racial conflict by one group feeling disadvantaged for the benefit of the others.