Although California is a mighty big state, I think we've had more than our fair share of cults, especially doomsday cults, in which people die on the orders of their leaders. Such was the case this week in 1997, when 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult ended their lives in a rented mansion near San Diego. The exalted ruler of this group, a charismatic New Age charlatan named Marshall Applewhite, told his followers that the Hale-Bopp comet would serve as their transport to the next world, where they'd experience the "next human evolutionary level." Only one catch: they'd have to ditch their earthly bodies to hitch a ride on the spaceship that would follow in the comet's wake.
As Hale-Bopp approached, Applewhite's minions swallowed a lethal combination of Phenobarbital and vodka. Wearing identical jumpsuits and sneakers, they reclined on their bunks, covered themselves with purple sheets -- and died.
I remember the day the mass suicide was discovered, and the pictures from inside the cultists' house of death. It was eerie. And then came the videotaped message from Applewhite -- seemingly from beyond the grave -- explaining his group's "mission." I recall an interview with the sister of one of those who died; her anguish and bewilderment at what drove her brother to follow a leader to his death. What mission could be worth his life?
The first doomsday cult mass suicide I remember took place November 18, 1978. That afternoon I was working at a radio station when suddenly the bells on our ancient teletype machines started clanging non-stop, alerting the newsroom to a major event. We watched as the machine's keys typed out a nightmarish bulletin: the bodies of hundreds of possible suicide victims had been found at a camp in Guyana, in the northern coast of South America. My colleagues and I had never seen anything like this. It didn't seem real.
Eventually, as more information came across, it became real enough. Jonestown -- the outpost of the Rev. Jim Jones' transplanted People's Temple cult -- was paved with the bodies of more than 900 men, women and children. Most of them had consumed a fatal dose of punch laced with cyanide. Others, including Jones, died of gunshot wounds. The suicides were ordered after California congressman Leo Ryan, members of his staff and a network television crew were attacked as their plane touched down in Guyana. They were there on a fact finding mission in response to complaints about the cult. Ryan and several others died in that ambush.
People's Temple survivors and defectors later told how Jones and his lieutenants used violence to control cult members. Unlike the Heaven's Gate group, which promised some kind of eternal extraterrestrial life, Jonestown represented a life of hell on earth.
Click on the images to see footage of the demise of the two cults.