The Online Legacy of a Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

By Ashley Feinberg on at

Every month, the bills get paid on time. The emails get answered, and any orders filled. Which, for HeavensGate.com, is positively extraordinary. Because as far as the public is aware, every last member of the suicide cult died 17 years ago from a cocktail of arsenic and apple sauce. A few stayed behind, though. Someone had to keep the homepage going.

Today, at first glance, the fully functional, 17-year-old website seems like just one more of the many GeoCities-era relics that litter the internet. Visitor counts, flashing text, Word Art gradients; the whole gang's here and then some. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find that almost every link adds yet another layer to a wildly extensive dogma, totally earnest in its interweaving of disembodied space aliens, Jesus, secret UFOs, prophets to whom aliens speak, comets coming to save us, and the suicide it takes to get there.

It's not just text (though there is plenty of that); Heaven's Gate's internet remains also include hours upon hours of video recorded some time between 1993 and 97, the year the majority of the group committed suicide in anticipation of sublimating to the spacecraft that trailed comet Hale-Bopp.

Those recorded statements from "students" before their deaths (as well as their leaders' own testimony) exist not only as videos on the site, but as transcripts. These were intended to last. And they have, thanks to the guardians of HeavensGate.com.

Today, only a few Heaven's Gate believers remain. Two of them sit on the other end of the website's sole contact email address, and will promptly respond to your inquiries. Which seems odd for a group whose members are all widely believed to be dead.

The people who respond to HeavensGate.com queries refer to themselves simply as "Telah" and "we". They'll answer questions if you ask — that's part of the gig — but they've grown weary of the rubberneckers that have passed through ever since their fellow active members committed suicide in 1997. Which is perhaps to be expected when you're the only official contact point for one of the largest, most bizarre mass suicides in human history.

In fact, what's most surprising about the Heaven's Gate website is that for all the hundreds of pages of sermons and prophecies and transcripts held within the site and its advertised wares, the bizarre, often incoherent text really doesn't tell you all that much.

And what it does tell you isn't half as interesting as the people who are doling it out.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

In 1972, Marshall Applewhite had a heart attack. In some bizarre permutation of the Florence Nightingale effect, he then came to the realisation that he and his nurse, Bonnie Nettles, were very likely the two witnesses prophesied in Revelation. Bonnie agreed. The unlikely apocalyptic pair changed their names to Bo and Peep (a natural fit for two long-awaited shepherds) before ultimately adopting the monikers Ti (Bonnie) and Do (Marshall). You know, like the notes of a scale.

The two spent the next several years spreading their message and gaining followers through in-person evangelising, travelling around the country to give their prophetic talks. But as Robert Balch, a sociology professor at the University of Montana who infiltrated the group during the 70s, explained in his book Waiting for the Ships, "even during public meetings, members insulated themselves from outsiders".

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

Ti and Do in the late '70s during one of their many public presentations at college campuses. Image via Robert Balch.

Contrary to our common assumptions surrounding cults and brainwashing tactics, Ti and Do weren't looking to keep people in the group against their will. They only wanted to associate with people who actively, adamantly wanted to be there. Balch goes on to explain:

Bo and Peep were good salesmen, but people shopping for new cars routinely encounter much more pressure and manipulation. People joined the UFO cult with virtually no pressure to convert, and they enthusiastically adopted group norms even before the socialisation process began.

Part of this was to ensure that only true believers stayed with the group, but it was also a clever defence tactic: at least in Balch's eyes, Ti and Do wanted to forestall trouble as much as possible, particularly in the form of a group of family members of cultists who banded together to try to save their loved ones. As he explained to us over the phone:

They were super paranoid about outsiders, and there was a network of the group's outside family that formed in 1980. And even though the woman that started that was about as sympathetic as anybody could have been, I think Ti and Do really feared the worst. They wanted anybody who left the group to leave on good terms.

And their casual (as far as cults go at least) attitude towards defectors seems to have worked; there has never been a contingent of angry former Heaven's Gate members. Unlike those few remaining members of the similarly infamous Peoples Temple in Jonestown, no ex-Heaven's Gaters have anything particularly horrible to say about their time spent in the group. Most likely because Ti and Do were more than happy to let unbelievers leave, and because once you made a commitment that deep, it was nearly impossible to claw your way out.

To accept Ti and Do's teachings, you had to accept a lot. Religious zealotry was substantial part of the group's culture, sure, but it was mixed with an odd interplay of technology and science—space travel, in particular. Do even referred to the classroom where he proselytised before his so-called students (many of whom were several generations younger) as "God's astronaut programme". This wasn't mysticism. It was evolution.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

Heaven's Gate's own depiction of what you can expect from the Next Level.

The Heaven's Gate doctrine in its entirety is convoluted and, unsurprisingly, not all that consistent, but here are the basics: Earth was about to be recycled (read: wiped clean, Apocalypse-style), and those who wanted to live on needed to reach something called "The Evolutionary Level Above Human," which consisted of a genderless, bodiless, spiritual existence aboard a spaceship. Several of these already-evolved creatures were coming to save those on Earth who had successfully shed attachments to their human "vessel" (i.e. body) enough to satisfy the Next Level's tastes. These beings had visited Earth only once before, though that time they took a human form. You might know him as Jesus Christ.

Ti and Do were, of course, the only ones able to converse directly with the Next Level, so the Heaven's Gate members had to take it on faith when they were told that, as the Hale-Bopp comet approached, a UFO was hiding just out of site behind the comet's tail, ready to snatch them up. And the only way to get aboard this believers-only spaceship? Leaving your vessel behind. In this case, that meant donning matching uniforms all the way down to their Nikes, chasing phenobarbital-flavoured apple sauce with vodka, and lying down to await their cosmic, evolutionary reward.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

It's easy to look back and colour Heaven's Gate's formative years with what we know now. But for most of the cult's existence, the topic of suicide was rarely even broached, much less seriously considered an option. Ti and Do would ready the group for the spaceships coming to take them away, only to change the narrative when the time to exit Earth came and went without fanfare. When Ti died of cancer in 1985, it cemented the notion in Do's mind and the minds of his followers that death was the only way to send oneself to the next level.

In the years after Ti's death, the group became progressively more reclusive. Do amped up the alienation from modern society, which seems quite a feat considering that, by this point, the remaining members had already chopped off their hair, donned matching, androgynous uniforms, and, in a few cases, subjected themselves to castration. Their corporeal forms were minimised to the absolute essentials and made as uniform as possible. After all, if they wanted to prepare for the imminent Next Level, they were going to need to stifle their human urges as much as possible. There was no privacy, no sex, no freedom from routine. Essentially, there was no individuality whatsoever. The members lived together with the ultimate goal of becoming a singular, buzzing hive, primed for entry into the great beyond. Whenever that might come.

Until then, though, they needed to make money. Earthly vessels require food and shelter. So several Heaven's Gate cultists looked to what they knew best to sustain themselves: web design.

Of course, the group also comprised cooks, mechanics, waiters, and other rote jobs. That several of them were web-savvy was incidental. But they did introduce Do to the internet's potential, and everything that could mean for disseminating his message.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

The archived home page for the Higher Source web design firm.

They called their business Higher Source, advertising themselves as able to not only build sites that would "enhance your company's image" but to also "make your transition into the 'world of cyberspace' an easy and fascinating experience."

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

As far as early '90s web-design firms go, Higher Source did it all. And looking back at the archived site for the group's occupational design firm, while they never directly mention their affiliation with the Heaven's Gate cult, subtle references to the company's origins abound. With Higher Source, you were getting "a crew-minded effort" from people who have worked "closely" together for 20 years. Of course, close in this case meant literal bunkmates.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

"The Higher Source Difference."

You were getting a lot more than that, though. UFO and suicide cult connotations of hindsight aside, this is one of the most pristine testaments to early internet web design around. Not only could Higher Source program in Java, C++, and Visual Basic as well as use Shockwave, QuickTime, and AVI, they could gradient the hell out of your word art, too.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

One of many sample graphics available on the Higher Source website.

In other words, they seemed like any other enterprising young web-design team of the day. According to a Seattle Times article that came out just weeks after the mass suicide took place, one of their former clients "noticed that Higher Source staffers were 'strict in diet and dress'. But they showed 'a good sense of humour, and they were exceptionally smart'". They also had their marketing lingo perfected, assuring interested parties that "whether using stock or custom photography, cutting-edge computer graphics, or plain HTML text, Higher Source can go from 'cool' to 'corporate' like a chameleon."

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

The sample graphics on the Higher Source web page included quite a bit of space imagery.

The matching, sexless outfits and uniform haircuts were Heaven's Gates way of paying as little attention to their earthly bodies as possible. The internet provided that same anonymity as a matter of course.

Plus, Higher Source was just the side project. The group's real lasting, virtual impact is the website they built for themselves.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

Despite growing up in a different era than most of his followers, Do must have had at least an inkling of what the internet would ultimately become. As Balch suggested, it seems that Do saw HeavensGate.com as the group's eternal imprint and his own personal Ozymandias. For someone who'd supposedly done away with base, mortal urges, he certainly had a flair for the dramatic.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

The current Heaven's Gate homepage.

In the group's early days, Ti and Do were adamant that they would eventually fulfill the prophecy in Revelation 11:3 by first being assassinated and, eventually, resurrected. The UFO would come, their death broadcast to the world, and Ti and Do would be free to take their place next to Christ in an updated, UFO-centric pantheon. But when their martyr's death never came despite several decades of opportunity (and after Ti died of cancer), Do did what any self-chosen second coming would: cover a manifesto in word art, stick it on the internet, and SEO the shit out of it.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

That is not a figure of speech; Heaven's Gate was all about search-engine optimisation. Scroll to the bottom of the homepage, highlight, and see for yourself.

Though a need for recognition certainly played a part in Do's decision to pursue the earliest form of internet fame, he did still very much believe in what he was doing. Balch contends that, in addition to pursuing a legacy, Do may have also just wanted to ensure that some form of his truth was accessible to anyone who might need it.

In Do's mind, if you or I sincerely recognised the information as being true but didn't exit with the group, our souls would essentially be put on ice until the next opportunity for a harvest on Earth. So that could be a reason why they left it up—just for anybody who was still here and able to recognise the 'truth'.

As far as lasting, potentially wide-reaching stores of information go, the internet is as safe a bet as any. At least, it is for as long as you can keep somebody hanging around to pay the web hosting bills. Somebody who, ideally, was fully dedicated to the cause, but also willing to forego the journey to the next evolutionary level. Those people, for Heaven's Gate, were Mark and Sarah King.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

After the cult had shed its larger numbers in favour of a leaner, more devout following in the late '80s and early '90s, the increasingly genderless members spent their days paying rapt attention to Ti and Do in a setting they called "the classroom". It was here that they learned how to best emulate the disembodied beings of the next level. How to leave their worldly, self-involved concerns behind in favour of an ever-elusive, greater understanding. In other words, they were learning how to forego every instinct and emotion they had ever known.

This came easier for some than it did for others. When we asked the people behind the Heaven's Gate email address (listed on the site) why they left, the response was metered and, unsurprisingly, vague:

We left the Group in September, 1987 because we were going to take care of some other things in our lives... Free will and choice are the cornerstone of what anyone does, especially in the Next Level. Individuals in the Group could come and go as those chose to do, and many did just that over the years. We had an open door policy, and it swung both ways. People came and went all the time.

However, another ex-Heaven's Gate member — one of the few ex-members left (the only other we could find traces of was someone named Juan in Venzuela) — named Sawyer was a bit more forthcoming in why the Kings left and who they were. Apparently, Mark and Sarah weren't quite ready for everything the Next Level entailed. Speaking to us over YouTube messages, Sawyer elaborated:

I was there when they were instructed to leave the classroom because one of them did not want to try to abide by the "lesson step" that was called "I could be wrong," a step towards accomplishing what Jesus called "deny yourself". In other words giving your will to your Older Members... The other of these two simply decided to side with the other. Do and the crew tried to help the one with this but he wasn't receiving the help so Do instructed them to both take a car and some money and leave the group.

When these two were instructed to leave, they were told they could come back whenever they wanted to abide by the "I could be wrong". The way the lesson was given was to preface what we say that is a statement of judgement with "I could be wrong". It would be an extreme to say, for instance, "I could be wrong but it's pouring outside when it was."

Even though the Kings — who married after leaving the group — were no longer direct members of Heaven's Gate, they still played crucial roles. Under the guise of the TELAH Foundation (a name they still go by, and an acronym for the ever-aspired-to "The Evolutionary Level Above Human"), Mark and Sarah supposedly acted as a "communication and clearing house" for the group's various public appearances and interactions, which became increasingly more prominent towards the end of their time on Earth. In 1993, for instance, they placed a full-page ad in USA Today costing upwards of $30,000.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

A copy of the "ad" Heaven's Gate took out in USA Today.

When Do decided that a spaceship hiding behind Haley's Comet was the group's key to reaching the Next Level, he began preparing Mark and Sarah for the end — or at least, Do's end. As far as Mark and Sarah were concerned, this was training for the rest of their natural lives. As they explained to us over email:

They trained us on how they wanted emails to be taken care of, how to relate to the public, and how to disseminate their information. In March, 1997 our task load increased as they delivered us all their physical, legal, intellectual and personal property over several days as they departed.

Their words were "here is your mission, if you chose to accept it" and we did and have for over 17 years. What the Telah Foundation (it's legal entity name) does is provides a system to secure, protect, archive and maintain the Foundation's (Group's) intellectual property and their elements of understanding. What we do each day is answer emails, disseminate information, provide their book and tapes and handle the affairs of the Group.

The intellectual property in question consists of tapes, still available for a reasonable $3 through the website (which contain each member's "goodbye" statement), and the entirety of Ti and Do's prolific writings.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

Copies of the video tapes and book of collected teachings available for purchase on HeavensGate.com (cash mail orders only).

Today, Mark and Sarah King are the guardians of Heaven's Gate's legacy, tasked with the burden of all that that entails. After all, the only role they played in the website's creation was putting the thing online — and of course, keeping it there. Which, they added, is easier said than done:

The website was created by the Group in the fall of 1996. It has had some issues of crashing in March 1997 due to being overwhelmed. It has also had to be moved due to host servers going out of business.

The information on the site is still the same information that gave us in 3.5 disk format on March 25, 1997. We loaded in their departure updates then and it has remained with the same information ever since. When we had to move it a few years ago due to another ISP failure, we used the same 3.5 diskettes to load the information in.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

The original discs used to upload the website in 1997. Image via Mark and Sarah King.

And should they ever have to change hosts again, they will rely on those very same floppy disks given to them back in 1997 to carry on their promise.

The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind

It's not at all surprising why Mark and Sarah were chosen as to run the website. They'll answer your questions, but will never offer any information that hasn't been directly prompted. They are weary; they have every reason to be. And that quiet reservation is what allows the website — not its keepers — to take centre stage. You wouldn't even know anyone was behind the scenes unless you knew where to look.

But why keep HeavensGate.com running? As far as Mark and Sarah are concerned, it seems to be more about keeping a promise than anything else. And if they do know what Do truly had in mind, at least for now, they're keeping their mouths shut. But as Balch says:

[Do] was also very intent on going out with a splash, as one of the ex-members told me. Way back in the very beginning, they believed that they were going to fulfill prophecy by being assassinated and resurrected. Then the UFO would come, the space ship, and they called it a demonstration because this was going to be proof to the world of who they were. More than that, they believed it was going to be witnessed by thousands and broadcast around the world, So when they committed suicide, I think even though they didn't use the term demonstration, it was the same thing. Going out with a splash—and they certainly did. So the website certainly could be the legacy of that.

The other possibility, of course, is that it simply exists as a light post. A beacon of information to guide future lost souls towards the evolutionary level above human. That's not to say there's going to be a second group; the Kings were incredibly adamant that their goal wasn't to recruit for and recreate Heaven's Gate anew.

Rather, the site simply exists to keep any inquiring minds informed. Or in our case, to act as a reminder of a bizarre, horrible, and heartbreaking act, forever preserved in the amber of internet infamy. As long as someone's there to keep the lights on.