Some brief questions and observations from a depth-psychological perspective
by Cliff Bostock
The recent suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate
cult in Southern California has focused attention in a new, especially negative
way on a popular phenomenon -- UFO sightings and alleged contact with
While members of the mass media struggle to explain the events at Rancho
Santa Fe in predictable pop psychology terms -- as a psychopathology of
"brainwashing" peculiar to fringe cults -- in fact the group's beliefs and
its end are relatively unique only in their extremity, considered against
almost any contemporary and historical horizon. Like most marginalized groups,
the Heaven's Gate cult openly exhibited many of the more repressed symptoms
of the culture of which it was a part.
In this essay, my point is not to address the questions of the existence
of UFOs or the validity of accounts of alien contact, but to make some
observations about the subjects from a depth-psychology and mythopoetic
perspective. My principal thesis is that the Heaven's Gate incident and the
popular preoccupation with extraterrestrial intelligence have more to tell
us about ourselves in the postmodern era than about so-called millenial madness
among fringe groups.
In Heaven's Gate, we see rendered a veritable mystery cult of a classic type,
with a salvational myth, but in a language that is peculiarly postmodern
hybrid of technological and spiritual language appropriated from various
traditions. The outstanding symptomatic markers of the cult (and much of
the "ufology" community) are its shadow aspects: wholesale rejection of the
body, rejection of empiricism and a concretizaton of oracular knowing. These,
as mentioned above, are important as aspects of the popular culture.
THE POSTMODERN HORIZON
The postmodern man's quest for meaning is a primarily hermeneutical exercise.
Meaning derives from interpretation in the absence of absolute values. Although
this view is controversial, it pervades and polarizes the culture. One need
not go to a comparative literature department to hear a debate on Derrida's
deconstruction to observe the view's consequences
The popular culture is rife with the debate. The recent debate over "ebonics"
versus "standard English" is an example, expresssed as multiculturalism.
Another, is the effort of "family values" advocates to impose absolute values
on a society that in large measure has enlarged its definition of "family."
More generally, the postmodern man and woman are in freedom to "re-invent"
themselves. Thus radical alterations in self-identification are not uncommon
in contemporary life. Criminals reform themselves and become evangelists.
Gay men become heterosexuals who, identifying as gay again, become victims
of Christian reformers. Jane Roe reforms herself as a an anti-abortionist.
Although Jung can be read as a challenge to this view (since the archetypes
may operate as autonomous collective structures), psychology largely retains
the Freudian notion that the psyche patterns experience in purely personal
terms. But it fails, repeatedly, to explain the pressures that can result
in these radical alterations in self identity, except as pathology. And it
repeatedly founders in the latter effort.
Thus, the story of Heaven's Gate seems altogether confounding to those who
first met the cult's founder, Marshall Herff Applewhite, in the mid-'70s.
The media continually produce a variation of that quote that has become the
ubiquitous description of everyone from mass murderers to philanthropists:
He was such a nice, ordinary person, charismatic, maybe, but you'd never
take him for this sort of thing.... (This statement, of course, has also
been applied to many of the 38 other cult members who killed themselves.)
In fact, Applewhite very much embodied the postmodern consciousness, in the
ultimate Cartesian faith that one can reinvent the self through
self-interpretation and science. Thus, after two scandalous affairs with
male students, he submitted himself to a mental hospital in Houston to be
"cured" of his homosexual impulses.
Here is an example of the arrogance of psychology and the way, by diagnosing
pathology, it can help constellate new symptomology. In the mid-'70s
homosexuality was still widely regarded as pathological, despite redefinition
by the AMA and the gay liberation movement. This attitude largely continues
in the public mind: "...behind the cult's puritanical New Age veneer lay
a sick twisted philosophy based on a madman's lust for young men." (The Star)
(This is an ironic attitude, itself indicative of the postmodern mentality's
shifting reference. While popular media, like The Star, continually
sensationalize and validate UFO sightings and abduction reports, they discredit
the beliefs when they are, like this one, in a context that offends popular
Of course, Applewhite, son of a preacher, was not "cured". Instead, one may
speculate, his "sexual demons," as Newsweek calls them, were driven deeper.
About this time, he also suffered a near-death experience following a heart
attack and, according to news reports, he was dabbling in hallucinogenic
drugs and heard voices. (Newsweek, p. 21).
It is unnecessary to cite the literature on treatment of homosexuality to
observe how common this response is. The pathologization of one's sexual
identity (as an inappropriate choice or a psychodynamic deviation) is damaging.
Extending the false promise of a scientific "cure" compounds the damage and
leaves one hopeless. It is interesting to speculate what Applewhite may have
encountered during his near-death experience and his experimentation with
hallucinogens. It is almost certainly true that his mind was flooded with
archetyypal contents. It is not at all unusual for people under the influence
of LSD to encounter extraterrestrial and angelic figures (Grof), as Applewhite
claimed to do in a vision.
Applewhite found stability in Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse with an interest
in astrology and religion. The two became platonic lovers, celibate, and
opened the New Age Christian Arts Center in Houston. When the center flopped
-- and Applewhite lost his last job as a musician at the same time -- the
pair responded by identifying completely with the figures that haunted their
imagination. They concretized the archetypes. They claimed to be
extraterrestrials (or angels, the same thing, in their cosmology)
Thus, Applewhite completely reinvented himself. We may speculate by saying
that, in the failure of science to cure him of his own nature, he cured himself
by reinventing himself as a celibate emissary of what he called "the level
above human." Yet, he enlisted religion, his father's occupation and the
principal source of his shame, and images of advanced aliens, a population
with a science more advanced than our own, to keep his sexuality repressed.
In so doing, Applewhite expressed a dilemma of the postmodern age: When identity
is random and relatavized, does the truth have any meaning at all? (Indeed,
one could argue that borderline disorders are a "normal" manifestation of
this situation, since they describe a condition in which the self has an
It is easy, as the media try to do, to dismiss the question as irrelevant,
as if Applewhite suffered a singular delusion. In fact, he did not. Over
the course of his career as a cult leader, he attracted hundreds of followers.
More to the point, thousands and thousands of Americans claim to have seen
UFOs and to have had contact. Others channel extraterrestrial entities. Harvard
psychiatrist John Mack claims that as many as 1 million Americans have been
abducted by extraterrestrials.
Yet it does remains true, as it did at the time Jung wrote his own treatise,
Flying Saucers, that there is not a single documented case of abduction or
contact. Even if we regard extraterrrestrials and UFOs as "unphotogenic,"
to use Jung's word, because they exist, so to speak, in another dimension,
we are left with the question of their meaning -- causally or
THE BODY DENIED
For Jung, of course, the flying saucer was a projected image of the Self,
a mandala, in the process of becoming a myth. Its projection, he claimed,
was the result of post-World War II angst, of the world divided against itself.
In my own reading of the literature and in my clinical practice (with several
people who claimed to have had alien contact), this archetype most often
arises within people who, like Applewhite, are divided against themselves
in a particularly extreme version of a common fragmentation: a rejection
of the body, particularly its sexual impulses.
In fact, if you read statements by Heaven's Gate members on the internet,
loathing of the body, called the "container" or the "vehicle," is more commonly
expressed than anything else. The members left "Earth Exit Statements." Here
is an excerpt from "Glnody":
"...lower sources have succeeded in totally addicting humans to mammalian
behavior. Everything from ads for toothpaste to clothing elevates human
sexuality. Being from a genderless world, this behavior is extremely hideous
to us. Even if we go to an outing as harmless as visiting the zoo, the tour
guides lace their commentary with sexual innuendoes, even when the group
they are addressing is full of small children....Even the medical profession
promotes sexuality. Procedures such as liposuction, breast enlargements,
and even sex-change operations are considered perfectly acceptable, but ask
a physician to neuter your vehicle for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven
and you will more than likely be referred to a psychologist who will help
you get in touch with your sexual desires." (www.heavensgate.com/exits)
The extent to which cult members went -- castration and removal of breasts
-- is a shadow expression of the dominant culture's sexual preoccupation
(and thus points to our own obsessions).
Not at home in their bodies, and disguising them under loose clothing and
short haircuts, the cult members could not find a home on the planet, either.
Everywhere they looked, they said, they found an emphasis on sexuality --
either in its direct emphasis or in prescription of gender roles. Glnody
"We examined relocating to other areas, such as Europe, Australia, and New
Zealand, but all of these nations are Christian-oriented...Ironically, Christians
have been the quickest to condemn us...We examined the Muslim nations...India,
Thailand, and the Buddhist world...We almost moved to Mexico...But there
is no place for us, it is time for us to go home, to God's Kingdom, to the
Interestingly, this is probably an accurate observation. The prescription
of gender roles is in itself a sexualization and objectification of the body.
In Heaven's Gate, cult members really had no place to go -- since "place"
requires occupancy by a body and their bodies were not "correctly" identified?
Is this not a question, in a less extreme respect, that has haunted women
in modern culture?
Similarities may be drawn to Greek mystery cults in regard to the treatment
of the body. In fact, in his "mission statement," Applewhite (calling himself
"Do" after the musical note), writes eerily like one describing the Eleusian
"Two thousand years ago, a crew of members of the Kingdom of Heaven who are
responsible for nurturing 'gardens,' determined that a percentage of this
Garden (Earth) had developed enough that some of those bodies might be ready
to be used as containers for soul deposits." (www.heavensgate.com)
Here, there are echoes of the Eleusian metaphor of agriculture for human
life -- of planting, death and rebirth. In the choice to die there are echoes
of even earlier rituals of human sacrifice, because of the pervasive ancient
notion that one creates life by creating death. (Otto).
But, here, the ecstatic body is completely banished. In the place of Dionysos,
stands a puritanical version of "the body that was called Jesus," now represented
by Do himself. Jesus, and Do, command for salvation, which is a celestial
ascension via a spaceship, that one leave "..behind this world: sensuality,
selfish desires, your human mind, and even your human body if it be required
of you - all mammalian ways, thinking and behavior."
In other words, if the flying saucer is the symbol of the Self, one must
repudiate all earthly desires to become fully individuated.
In the common experience of people who claim to be abducted, the sacrifice
of death is not exacted. Instead, they must undergo mutilation of the body
(a possible reference to shamanic dismemberment). Anal probes and implantation
of embryos are common analogues of the body's death. This has so entered
the public imagination that it is now a part of comic lore (see Figure 1).
One may commonly read on America Online this kind of statement in chat rooms
about alien abduction: "I have also had childhood visitations when I was
about 12 years old. The result of the last visit was the beings taking a
large tissue sample from my hip."
It is worth noting that in many of the mystery cults, androgyny was celebrated.
Dionysos himself often appeared as an androgynous figure. Again, though,
the effort in the ancient rituals was to integrate the aspects of gender,
not to eliminate them. Heaven's Gate's practice of androgyny is a shadow
It is also true that the Internet itself performs as a "ritual space" for
the disembodied. As Marshall McLuhan said 30 years ago:
"As electric media proliferate, whole societies at a time become discarnate,
detached from mere bodily or physical 'reality' and relieved of any allegiance
to or a sense of responsibility for it...The alteration of human identity
by new service environments of information has left whole populations without
personal or community values." (McLuhan, p. 379)
In other words, cyberspace serves the purpose, by disembodying it inhabitants
of relativizing values. As a consequence, the bizarrest notions are given
complete credence there but their relevancy to real time and space are rarely
discernible. Thus, the Heaven's Gate Cult could announce its suicide well
in advance without attracting attention.
THE ORACULAR SHADOW
Marshall Applewhite could find no relief in the science of his time. But
rather than reject the duality of mind and body that contributed to despisal
of his own impulses, he created his own science -- a pseudo-science based
on religious concepts hybridized with science fiction, even apparently fashioning
his appearance after a "Star Trek" actor.
One can speculate that his ego completely consumed his Self, so that what
appear to be on the surface oracular gleanings and teachings were actually
constructs and projections of the ego's will. The screen for these projections
was the heavens and the black space of the Internet (where one may travel
Thus, when rumors that a spaceship was trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet circulated
on the Internet, they registered with him with the same intensity as empirical
truth with a scientist. This, at last, would be the ship that would take
him to the "level above human." Pathetically, he dispatched members of the
cult to buy a $3,000 telescope to track the alleged spaceship. When the telescope
didn't reveal the spaceship, the cult returned it as faulty, rather than
considering that the spaceship wasn't there. Their "spiritual" or oracular
senses were, they claimed, more trustworthy.
Such bizarrely exaggerated mistrust of the empirical is commonly accepted
in the UFO community today. "Remote Viewing," a psychic means of gathering
information, is now taken for granted as concretely true (see figure 2).
In his book, Cosmic Voyage (1996), Emory University professor Courtney
Brown recounts his experiences of communicating with alien civilizations
-- as well as with the Buddha and Christ -- through this process of psychic
knowing developed by intelligence agencies. To any reader of psychology,
it is an obvious example of active imagination and oracular skills, but in
the world of ufology, the information revealed is concretely true.
In summary, we can say that for all the "looniness" with which Heaven's Gate
and the UFO community are charged, they actually represent a kind of denouement
of the postmodern view -- one in which body and mind have been so completely
split that their interaction with archetypal forms yields a shadow expression
unique only in its extremity. If there is a millenial apocalypse at hand,
it is almost certain to point toward the recovery of meaning apprehended
in the body.
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