UNTIL WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON at 3:34, http://www. heavensgate.com was just one of hundreds of thousands of electronic destinations on the World Wide Web. While it's true that most Web sites don't discuss how the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp marks "the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to 'Their World'," most experienced Net surfers wouldn't have given it a second mouseclick. Just one more wacko location on the Web.
Once 39 bodies were discovered in Rancho Santa Fe, all that changed. Heavensgate.com became a mandatory attraction point for virtual rubberneckers, a cyber-space equivalent to Nicole Brown Simpson's Brentwood home. The curiosity quickly turned to dismay as Internet users learned that the group's cyberspace activities did not stop at merely hosting a Web site--they were actually Web designers. By crafting commercial Web sites, the hot job of the wired '90s, they sat at the heart of the information revolution. In an Internet Age, we now have an Internet Death Cult. Inevitably, the question arose: should cyber-space, already on the line for copyright violations, smut and bad stock tips, share the blame for this tragedy?
Undeniably, the Net is a powerful, extremely low-cost information amplifier that promulgates the ravings of millennial head cases as effectively as it moves speeches by Bill Gates or ads for Zima liquor. Millions of people sample the Web, and some, like 38-year-old Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, a Cincinnati mother of five, are for some reason susceptible to someone urging them to evacuate planet Earth. McCurdy-Hill, described by her friends as a "computerwhiz," apparently came upon Heaven's Gate via the Net and left her kids to join the group, staying until the putative black-shoed rendezvous with Hale-Bopp.
"I think the Net can be an effective cult recruiting tool," says Tal Brooke, who edited a book called "Virtual Gods." "It's like fishing with a lure--Little Johnny Latchkey gets behind the keyboard and hears someone say, 'I'm the dad you never had'." Child predators aside, there is considerable online activity among fringe religious and hate groups, including more than 500 Web sites, claims Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He cites the unbeatable economics. "Why put fliers under windshield wipers when for a few dollars more you could go to the Web?" he says.
But the Internet is a free market of information that offers not only a channel for recruiters to find followers but a way for skeptics and even disgruntled former cult members to criticize and expose charlatans and extremists. "The Net is basically neutral," says Larry Pile, a researcher for the anti-cult Wellspring retreat. "Lots of cults have their pages, and lots of anti-cult groups have their pages."
The Heaven's Gate group found this out firsthand. During its long history, the leader "Do" and his flock tried a variety of techniques to attract followers. In 1993 and 1994 they took out ads in USA Today and local alternative weeklies. These were followed by lectures and meetings around the country along with "countless newspaper, radio and TV appearances." Then they discovered the Internet.
But the Net did not bring flocks of adherents to Heaven's Gate. In the fall of 1995 the group sent unsolicited messages (or "spams," in cyberspeak) to nearly 100 special-interest Usenet groups. As a group member named "Jwnody" later wrote, "the reaction was. . .somewhat mixed. The loudest voices were those expressing ridicule, hostility, or both." Could this Internet rejection have been the last straw? "This was the signal to us to begin our preparations to return 'home'," wrote Jwnody. But before its dramatic departure, the group began its one truly unusual Internet cult activity: commercial Web design. On July 4, Higher Source Contract Enterprises opened for business. But the group's business activities seemed to be well insulated from its spiritual pursuits. The Higher Source Web site is, well, businesslike, promising to build Web locations with the latest in cutting-edge technologies. The celestial theme of its graphics is perfectly in keeping with the futuristic sheen that permeates everything cyberspace. In the local cybercommunity, Higher Source operated under the radar, taking on relatively small jobs and working at dirt-cheap rates. Its workers seemed competent, although sometimes they turned to groups on Usenet for free help. But its customers were delighted. "What others in this business charge $100 an hour for, these people charged $15 or $20," says David Sams, whose Keep the Faith site was created by the group. "I've been sitting around all day thinking how am I going to replace these people."
So what stands as the flagship of the group's recruiting efforts? That would be its own Web site. Heavensgate.com was a marked contrast to its commercial site. Web purists would call it "shovelware," a repository of dozens of documents outlining the cult's history and its leaders' addled philosophy. The group tried to draw traffic by more spams on Usenet (greeted by more hoots and insults). They also tried to engineer the page so that it would appear more frequently to people searching the Net for specific keywords like "UFO," "angels" or, strangely, "misinformation." But the site had little to hold those who stumbled upon it. Instead of offering adherents the chance to live in a warm climate with congenial companions, there is page upon page of dense ravings about Evolutionary Levels Above Human. Not until its creators were discovered dead in bunk beds did the Heaven's Gate Web site become one of the most popular draws in cyberspace.
If there are lessons to be learned for the Net from this sad story, they are the same ones that cyberspace has already been grappling with since its recent emergence as a major force. The Internet is simply a medium that boosts the reach of all speakers, benevolent and otherwise. Those on the receiving end should use caution--and parents, of course, should convey this to children. And if the price your Web designer quotes you seems too good to be true, it probably is.