Some brief questions and observations from a depth-psychological perspective

by Cliff Bostock
Pacifica Graduate Institute

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 extraterrestrial beings.

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 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 morality.)

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) (www.heavensgate.com).

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 external reference)

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 synchronistically.


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 continues:

"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 Next Level..."

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?

Dionysos Banished

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 fertility cult:

"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 expression.

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.


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 disembodied).

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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