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Episode 129 - The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 3

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Recap: Comet Hale-Bopp put on a fantastic display for Earth-bound skywatchers for over two years, often considered "the" comet of the 20th century. But, conspiracies and fear marred the event and led to the suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult. In this Part 3 of 3 episodes, I discuss the cult's belief system, their suicide, and the continued pseudoscience about Comet Hale-Bopp after their deaths.

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Episode Summary

Recap from Parts 1 and 2: To recap from the last two episodes, Part 1 focused on how the main pseudoscience surrounding Comet Hale-Bopp started: With a photograph taken by amateur astronomer and UFO-fan Chuck Shramek, who took it straight to Art Bell who took it straight to remote viewer Courtney Brown, who went on the radio that night to an audience of over 10 million listeners to state that not only was there scientific evidence that there was a spaceship four times the size of Earth traveling behind the comet, but that it meant a lot of spiritual things. This was repeated and expanded on over subsequent weeks along with claims of real professional astronomers about to hold a press conference about it and having hard proof that, as soon as the photographic “proof” was released, was shown to be fraudulent. Part 2 focused more on the remote viewing aspect and how, in my own personal and non-slanderous opinion, Courtney Brown really fed the flames and should be held accountable for his statements and what I was able to show were outright lies. Those two episodes have been leading up to this one, perhaps what many consider the climax of the Comet Hale-Bopp pseudoscientific tale, the suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult.

Heaven’s Gate Cult: Background

I debated for a long time how to really go about writing this episode to be both sensitive to the issue at hand and the surviving family members. That is, despite, what one commentator wrote in the September 1997 edition of “Sky & Telescope:” “There are, after all, more than five billion people on Earth, and only 39 of them chose to [commit suicide.” That callousness and only reminder in this episode of the larger population aside, I think a similar linear approach to the last two episodes is best.

So, let’s start with a brief bit about the cult’s background. Before they became international headlines in 1997, many had never heard of them.

But, the group began in the early 1970s by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, who later became known as “The Two,” which was a reference to two witness spoken about in the book of Revelation 11:3 in the Christian bible. Applewhite was recovering from a heart attack during which he claimed to have a near-death experience, and Nettles was his nurse.

The two developed a set of beliefs that mixed Christianity, new age, and UFOs. They drew heavily from Christian beliefs in salvation and the apocalypse and merged those with the requirement and vehicle to that end being a UFO. Applewhite himself claimed to believe that he was directly related to Jesus which he preached meant he was an “Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human.” Noted UFOlogist Jacques Vallée included them in his 1979 book, “Messengers of Deception.”

Besides using many aliases - including “Bo and Peep” or “Do and Ti” - the group also had a variety of names, including the Human Individual Metamorphosis. They reinvented themselves many times and had many recruitment methods.

And, as is typical with cults, they preached separation and insulation, stating: “To be eligible for membership in the Next Level, humans would have to shed every attachment to the planet.” Meaning that members had to give up all their possessions, friends, and family, becoming wholly dependent on the cult.

Heaven’s Gate Cult: Belief System Specifically Related to Transcendence

Heaven’s Gate was also an end-times cult. Towards the end, in response to their critics, they wrote, “The weeds have taken over the garden and truly disturbed its usefulness beyond repair. It is time for the civilization to be recycled — spaded over.”

The cult believed that the comet was a signal about the arrival of another celestial object, a “space craft from the Level Above Human.” They expected to travel off-Earth via that spaceship and get to Heaven, which is actually outer space in their belief system. Perhaps key to this is the requirement that the soul’s transfer to the extraterrestrial paradise requires “final” and “willful separation” from the human body.

It’s hard to get around that kind of language really meaning suicide, which means that the cult can be considered - just by its doctrine if not its later actions - to be a suicide cult, one whose climax must end with the taking of their own life.

With that in mind, their website, which is still online, has a page entitled, “Our Position Against Suicide.” I’m not a psychologist with a focus on cults. But from my psychoanalytical armchair backed by four undergraduate courses taken over 10 years ago, the letter seems to be an attempt to create a straw man about what suicide is, say they are against that, while not saying anything specific against the common definition. For example, the letter states, “The true meaning of ‘suicide’ is to turn against the Next Level’ when it is being offered.”

What it does not state is that they are against the death of their physical bodies, but rather talks around it by saying, “We fully desire, expect, and look forward to boarding a spacecraft from the Next Level very soon (in our physical bodies).” Doesn’t say anything about those bodies being alive. You might accuse me of being overly skeptical here, but I think that skepticism is justified by their other statements.

And, the cult members would routinely refer to their bodies as “vehicles” simply meant to help them with their journey.

Heaven’s Gate Cult: The Suicide

I have to, of course, also address their suicide in this episode. It was a planned event of the 21 women and 18 men, aged 26 to 72, and it took place over the course of three days, March 24-26, 1997, with each subsequent group specifically laying out the bodies of the previous group. Fifteen the first day, fifteen the next, and nine the final day. Marshall Applewhite was the third-from-last to commit suicide. Each person had recorded a brief statement, the essence of which was they were going to a better place.

Each person wore black sweat pants, black Nike athletic shoes, and black shirts. They had armband patches that stated, “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” a reference to Star Trek. Each body’s face and torso was covered with a square, purple cloth, and they were lying in bunk beds. Each member also carried a $5 bill and three quarter-dollar coins in their pockets, which was the claimed interplanetary toll. They had bags packed, ready go to on their voyage, fully consistent with the cult’s beliefs - something later questioned by Richard Hoagland.

The method of death was ingestion of phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and washed down with vodka, capped off by tying plastic bags around their heads to asphyxiate. Phenobarbital is a barbiturate used as anti-seizure medication but is also a sedative. Barbiturates in general suppress central nervous system activity.

Link to Comet Hale-Bopp

It can be difficult without very clear and obvious statements by those who committed suicide to know the exact reasons for it. If we take them at their word, I think it is pretty clear that the UFO cult’s leader saw this as the fulfillment of what he had been saying for twenty years. That there was a UFO behind Hale-Bopp and that was the spacecraft that would take them to the next level, and hence trigger their “willful exit.”

Missing from my archive of Coast to Coast episodes is anything immediately after the cult’s suicide. However, from media reports at the time, Art was pilloried even as he tried “to distance himself from the very controversy he had spent so much time promoting.” [Skeptical Inquirer]

The Skeptical Inquirer reported:

Links previously advancing the UFO story — including audio files of the November shows containing the early Hale-Bopp “companion” discussions — disappeared from Bell’s Web pages. (Bell says that all of the audio files from those November shows were lost when a hard drive crashed.) […]

Despite the blatant reversal of position, Bell says he doesn't regret having publicized the Hale-Bopp UFO story. “You have to remember I had several sources,” Bell explains. “In addition to Shramek’s photo, I had a university professor at Emory who supplied us with photographic evidence of what he said was true.” Keep in mind this is the same professor who, for a mere $3,000, will teach students enrolled at his “Institute” to communicate with extraterrestrials. Nevertheless, Bell maintains that Brown and Shramek’s evidence constituted “sufficient material,” and he seems unconcerned that his sources eventually proved to be totally unreliable.

[…] Bell doubts the cult members incorporated the “companion UFO” story into their mass suicide decision. He says that in the weeks following the Courtney Brown debacle, the “entire fraud was heavily exposed” and that the revelations all occurred two months before the Rancho Santa Fe suicides. And in a further attempt to paint himself as just another innocent reporter at the mercy of his sources, Bell asserted that “the media had it totally, utterly wrong” in their initial reports of the numbers and ages of suicide victims, as if to compare his show’s unsubstantiated and pretentious banter about a massive, comet-trailing alien craft to the act of gathering details during a breaking, tragic news story. Most important for Bell, though, is that the Heaven’s Gate members appeared to have been aware of the Hale-Bopp UFO debunking. The first line of their now infamous Web site reads:

“Whether Hale-Bopp has a ‘companion' or not is irrelevant from our perspective.”

However, the cult’s Internet link to the Art Bell homepage also indicates it’s likely they first heard about an approaching spaceship during Bell’s two-month-long UFO escapade.

But whatever the Heaven’s Gate cult members or anyone else may have done with the information presented on his radio show, Bell feels that is not his responsibility. “I'm not going to stop presenting my material because there are unstable people,” he insists. “That’s what the First Amendment is all about.” Constitutional rights aside, Bell’s wild Hale-Bopp tales have clearly extended beyond the confines of harmless late-night entertainment and have contributed yet another ominous paranormal myth to a public of both stable and “unstable” people regularly misinformed about science.

In my opinion, the problem with this argument about it already having been debunked two months before the suicides is a hollow statement that he has to know is beside the point. All you have to do is put an idea “out there,” and then no matter how much it’s debunked - especially when you yourself were backing it up even after part of the claim was proved fraudulent - there will still be people who think it’s real and they’ll invent new conspiracies to support it. Remember, Art said this that night that he booted Courtney Brown from his program: [clip from Coast to Coast AM, January 16, 1997, starting 1:38:40]

"I am still as angry as I was at the beginning at the uh, response uh to Chuck Shramek's photograph. Poor Chuck, who simply rendered up a photograph and said, 'Hey, what's this?' and we put it up on the web page, and uh, the rest of the uh, amateur community, including uh, Mr. Hale of Hale-Bopp, and Mr. Sykes, and others, just came down on him like a ton of bricks, I-I don't change my feelings about that-that reaction one bit." [Whitley was interrupting during this.]

I think Art knows his audience better than to think that all because one part of the group of claims was debunked that his audience would disbelieve the rest of it. It’s a conspiracy-mongering show … I mean, come on!

With that in mind, I still don’t think we’ll ever REALLY know if there was an absolute, direct cause-and-effect here. It’s clear that the cult knew of Art Bell’s guests’ claims. It’s clear from their mythology that this was pretty much what they were looking for as their conveyance to a higher plane. Whether Applewhite just got sick of the thing and used that as the trigger or whether he really believed it is almost beside the point.

In my opinion, Art Bell and his guests deserve at least some responsibility in their deaths. How much responsibility is up to each of us to decide.

Even After, More PseudoScience: Richard C. Hoagland

With the discussion of Heaven’s Gate fairly complete, there is still more to discuss about the pseudoscience surrounding Hale-Bopp. Mainly, what continued to happen.

Among other guests that Art Bell for some reason continued to have on espousing pseudoscience about Comet Hale-Bopp, the infamous Richard C. Hoagland made at least one appearance. Nearly a month after the cult’s suicide, Richard was on and stated: [clip from Coast to Coast AM, April 17, 1997, starting 55:06]

“I have grave suspicions that these people [the Heaven’s Gate Cult], Art, did not commit suicide.”

The reason was that the government wanted a mass suicide to squash investigation and public interest in UFOs, proving along with other examples that, in my opinion, there is no tragedy so sad, small, large, or unfortunate that Richard Hoagland will not take advantage of it for his own gain. As his evidence, Richard went to one of his four primary methods of argument: Anomaly hunting.

He pointed out (a) that a source told him that the cult leader was a government agent; (b) that these peoples' belief was that there was a physical transition but that had nothing to do with suicide, so why should there have been a suicide; (c) claims that the uniform included a "tetrahedral triangle" thing; (d) they had backpacks packed, why would you pack something if you're going to commit suicide; (e) did the coroner look for needle pricks?; (f) the deaths occurred "at 33° North latitude."

For clarification for you who are listening who are fortunate enough to not know the ins and outs of Richard Hoagland’s mythology, the tetrahedral triangle fits into his hyperdimensional physics thing, where you have a pyramid inscribed in a sphere channel energy from higher dimensions. The patch he’s talking about is a “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patch, proving that you don’t have to be Richard Hoagland to use Star Trek references.

The 33° has nothing to do with his fake physics, but he claims it has more to do with secret societies. And for the record, the mansion in which the cult members committed suicide was at 32.84° N latitude.

Even After, More PseudoScience: Millennium End-Times

For a completely different set of mythologies, some different Christian sects and cults believed that the comet heralded the End Times mostly because of its very close to the turn of the millennium, and various millennium cults were gearing up in 1997. Since the Christian Bible states that their deity will use signs in the heavens, fitting right in with the classic doomsday ideas associated with comets from thousands of years ago, people twenty years ago did the exact same thing.

One example is the Bible Prophecy Corner website, which stated that Hale-Bopp was a biblical sign of the approaching End Times when Earth will be burned clean and readied for the Second Coming of Christ.

Another website was the Angelic Conspiracy & End Times Deception. They blended biblical prophecy and new age stuff to claim Hale-Bopp heralded a war in Israel (as predicted in the Book of Ezekiel) and worldwide cataclysm. Links were also drawn between the comet and pyramids supposedly found on Mars — refer to Episode 104 for those.

(I should note that both of these are reported in a contemporaneous Time article, but the websites are now defunct.)

Even After, More PseudoScience: Nancy Lieder of ZetaTalk Chimes In

Another person to use Hale-Bopp in their mythology was Nancy Lieder. You may recall her from Episode 51, The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 4. She was the person who claimed Planet X would swing by Earth in 2003, and she claims to communicate with aliens she calls the “Zetas.”

Nancy claimed that Hale-Bopp was nothing more than a diversion. She stated that, according to the Zetas, the comet was simply part of a conspiracy to deflect the world's attention from the ''true messenger of death,'' the 12th Planet.

Tying Up Lose Ends: Lee Shargel

With respect to lose ends after this three-parter, one such end is “Dr.” Lee Shargel. I introduced in Episode 128 as an example of a person who fanned the flames at the time, for he claimed that there was indeed a companion, he had pictures, other astronomers had pictures, and that it was emitting radio signals that he had decoded — it was both a greeting and a warning. And conveniently, this was exactly what he had written in a book in 1993. He claimed that the warning was about a neutron pulse that was going to wipe out life on Earth.

After many in the cult committed suicide, Lee Shargel claimed to be the chosen replacement for Marshall Applewhite. In part, this may be because the cult visited Shargel at a book signing and Applewhite specifically told him that he thought Shargel’s books contained messages for the cult from aliens.

Consequently, he got a lot of television and other news interviews, and he stated that he didn’t care if his publicity was positive or negative, so long as his name was spelled correctly.

Tying Up Lose Ends: Courtney Brown, a Decade Later

For the final lose end, Courtney Brown. Last episode, I talked about how Prudence Calabrese pretty much fell off the map within a few years, but while Courtney Brown remains banned from Coast to Coast, he is a repeat guest on other paranormal programs. A bit more should be said about him.

A month and year almost to the day of the suicides, Art Bell had on stalwart remote viewer Major Ed Dames. Ed has been on and continues to be on Coast to Coast for the last two decades. And yet, his remote viewing predictions are just as bad as Courtney Brown’s. Why and how he has any credibility with the hosts is also beyond me, and why he has not been banned like Courtney and like the late horrible claimed psychic Sylvia Browne is something I will never know.

Ed Dames stated: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, April 24, 1998, starting 2:27:54]

"Courtney didn’t know that. He assumed that this was an object behind Hale-Bopp, and targeted that idea. And-and ended up with a bunch of uh, uh nonsense and spurious data, which he tried to pigeon-hole into a preconceived notion. So it was a -- It was a doomed project from the— from the start. [Art Bell: Alright.] Prudence Calabrese went right along with it. In fact, she was the primary endorser of that, unfortunately; uh, his lieutenant at the time."

In his book a decade later, “Remote Viewing: The Science and Theory of Nonphysical Perception,” Courtney wrote this:

“… [A]fter my final appearance on this talk-show host’s program in January 1997, a former military remote viewer returned to [the] talk-show host’s radio program, claiming that our original remote-viewing data were not collected properly. He then discussed how his own group of remote viewers had collected their own data (this time done properly) involving the Hale-Bopp comet, and he made the frightening announcement that the comet was carrying a plant pathogen bomb designed by aliens that was going to drop on Africa and wipe out all plant life. He also began to market a remote-viewing instruction kit. [...]

Strangely (to me, given my past with this radio host), the talk-show host did not seem interested in forcefully challenging the predictions of planetary disaster made by this former military remote viewer. Instead, the host seemed to enthusiastically support this guest. I am not accusing the talk-show host of anything illegal or immoral. I simply did not understand why he would challenge one guest more than another. Nonetheless, it was clear that the talk-show host felt the former military remote viewer was an interesting guest to have on his show.

This leads me to his book and my very, very brief e-mail exchange with him. I e-mailed him about two months ago, giving my first name, and saying I was working on a report on Hale-Bopp and that his name had come up, and I would like to know the answer to two questions that I hadn’t been able to resolve. One was whether he ever gave the name of the astronomer who sent him the images. The other was if he still believed the remote viewing results from the Hale-Bopp stuff.

He never responded to my second question. For the first, he referred me to the foreword to his 2005 book, where the above quote came from, for it is freely available on his website. Pages 19 to 28 of the foreword discuss the saga under the rather innocuous heading, “A Note of Caution Regarding the Media.”

I’m not going to belabor all 10 pages in this episode, for I think you got enough of Courtney in the last one. Suffice to say, some of the highlights are that he never refers to anyone who is still living in that section by name. It’s always the “talk-show host,” a “person whose identify I did not know with any confidence” (as opposed to “top-ten university professor”), and the “web master.” That would be Art Bell, the mysterious person who I have my doubts as to the existence of, and Prudence Calabrese. But as I said, he does not name them.

Courtney pretty much says what he did in that long clip I played in Part 1. He defends himself. He says the only gave Art the photos out of duress and because he was told they would not be released by Art. He did so because Art asked him if he could do anything to help Chuck Shramek, who was getting a lot of heat. Courtney wrote: “We (and the Institute) thought there was a clear verbal agreement between myself and the talk-show host (later disputed) that the images were not to be released to the public. […] It is important to emphasize that I was very wrong to think that a media personality would not release the photos to the public indefinitely.”

Courtney also wrote: “The astronomer from the University of Hawaii [who took the photos that were manipulated] appeared in his writings to be quite upset with me, which dismayed me deeply since it was obvious that (1) I always said the photos were not ours and that I did not know their origin, and again (2) I never released the photos to the public in the first place!”

About Heaven’s Gate, he wrote: “Neither the radio talk-show host nor anyone else outside of that group led those people to commit suicide. Indeed, their aging fanatical leader was probably on the lookout for an opportunity to wrap up his adventure into cult worship without having to tell his band of loyal castrati that it had all been a big mistake. […] In general, the media acted responsibly and fairly by not associating myself or The Farsight Institute with this group or that terrible event.”

He ends his foreword by pointing out that it has been his retreat from the media that let The Farsight Institute thrive to where it is now - or was then in 2005 - and cautions people that if they conduct controversial research, they should keep their heads low. While this would seem to run contrary to some of his recent media appearances and publicity-seeking with his September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks stuff, it certainly is something that I think he learned the hard way, and perhaps needs to learn again.


By way of starting to wrap this up, for the last three episodes, including this one, I’ve tried to take you on a journey from two decades ago. It’s one of the only cases where we can point to that a basic bit of astronomical pseudoscience probably led to the suicide of 39 people.

Most other pseudoscience that I address on this podcast and in my blog deals with fringe topics. They seem benign, and most of the time you wonder why anyone would really believe this stuff. You laugh at the silliness, hopefully learn a bit of astronomy or geology or physics along the way as I explain some of the easier ways to debunk it, and then you eagerly await the next episode where I’ll talk about something else, completely different.

Everything in those last few sentences could just as easily have applied to the Hale-Bopp scenario with Chuck Shramek, Courtney Brown, Prudence Calabrese, Whitley Strieber, and Art Bell, before March 26, 1997. It was a fringe topic. It seemed pretty benign - a space ship following Hale-Bopp ready to raise our consciousness - and you’d wonder why anyone would take it seriously. Hopefully you learned some astronomy, image analysis techniques, and technology from Episode 127, and hopefully you learned about the bulls--t that is remote viewing from Episode 128.

But, then the 39 members of the Heavens’ Gate cult committed suicide. They specifically believed that a spaceship was trailing Comet Hale-Bopp and that by committing suicide, a UFO would bring them to a higher state of existence.

It is of course impossible to know what will set normal people off - let alone crazy people. As Phil Plait wrote at the time, “If people had never claimed to see a UFO near Hale-Bopp, would this have all come about? Perhaps they might have committed suicide anyway, finding some other reason.” Applewhite may have simply seen this as his way to finish this and be done with it. Or, Shramek’s photo, Bell’s and Strieber’s promotion of it, and Brown’s and Calabrese’s adamant support for it at a time when Art was near his peak and courting millions of listeners per night could have driven them over the edge. We will likely never know.

But what we can do is look at where we are now. When I started this very long wrap-up discussion, I pointed out the obvious parallels between current crazy fringe claims and the claims surrounding Hale-Bopp. My point is that we never know what craziness will tip the next person over the edge. The 2012 phenomenon and everything that people associated with it had many people seriously scared. Fortunately, there were no reports of mass suicides as a result. To be honest, I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised.

That goes to show how hard predicting this stuff is. And it shows the importance of remaining vigilant.

People have sometimes asked me why I do what I do. Especially when I was going back-and-forth with Mike Bara in the summer of 2012 about the claimed ziggurat on the moon. My response at the time is that it was clear pseudoscience, but in exposing it, you can not only learn about how to debunk that specific kind of claim, but you can also learn basic critical thinking. I don’t really care if you believe in a hollow Earth, it’s not going to affect your every-day life. But if you believe in a hollow Earth, chances are that you believe in a lot of other crazy stuff that COULD negatively affect your daily life, and learning some basic critical thinking skills - using ANY kind of claim, such as an examination of the hollow Earth claims - can help.

As Walter Wild wrote in the August 1997 edition of “Sky & Telescope,” sent in by listener Graham, “We must do our part to disseminate both scientific reality and scientific reasoning to the public. We must stress critical-thinking skills […] thus enabling future generations to discard the demons lurking in the apocryphal imaginations of those who would mislead and profit by ignorance.”

Now, just in writing this wrap-up, and it could be because I’m more sensitive at 11PM when writing this, I think I’ve convinced myself that there’s another reason even though it is even more remote: You really never do know when the next Heaven’s Gate cult will commit suicide as a consequence of hearing about some otherwise seemingly crazy, fringe claim.

John Lear claims there is a giant soul catcher on the moon. Could that do it?

Nancy Lieder got a huge amount of play in 2003 with Planet X, including telling at least one interviewer that she killed her dog to spare it the consequences. Could that do it?

Harold Camping convinced many followers to sell all their belongings and tell people that Judgement Day was happening on May 21, 2011. Again, fortunately, no mass suicides, but again, many followers were thereafter left without any money or means to support themselves.

You just never know. And so, I’m going to continue what I do, addressing these kinds of claims, even if they do seem really, REALLY fringe. At the very least, it hones my own ability to think critically about things and bring disparate physical fields together to analyze a claim. And maybe you’ll come along for that ride. At the very most, someone listening may start to re-examine some of their own beliefs and think more critically about things, and who knows, that could lead to saving their life some day.

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