A young student at your local college walks to his locker, head down, face ashen as he holds a paper indicating his failing grades. His fellow students all but ignore him as he makes his way to his locker. He lays his head against the locker door, appreciating for a moment the coolness of the steel against his forehead balancing the rock in the pit of his stomach. Secretly wishing someone would reach out to him, to say something to him, to notice him the final disappointment sinks in as no one comes. He raises up, cautiously looks left and right, opens his locker and stops. He stares for a moment at the cold steel pistol sitting in his locker. A moment of indecision crosses his face, then he sighs and steels his nerves, his face resolute.
Again, he glances around to find no one watching. He pulls out his phone to check if perhaps his ex-girlfriend (as of a week ago) has changed her mind. Nothing. He chokes back a tear, pulls the pistol from his locker and quickly places it in his jacket pocket. Quietly places his phone in his locker, silently closes the door and slips unnoticed into the crowd.
Fast forward to the parking lot, the young man sits in his car pistol in his hand. Tears streaming from his eyes, feeling as if his life is over. "All I have done is failed. I'm a failure just like dad said! " he thinks aloud. "I can't live with all this, it's too much! I wondered if she is texting me? I doubt it. I can't go back home, I'm a college washout." He wonders, thoughts suddenly flooding his mind. He looks back to his hand, the pistol gripped tightly, now warmed to the touch, the grip feeling suddenly very natural. A thought drifts like a serpent through his mind, "This is the way out, this is the path to peace. Just do it, the one thing you won't fail at." Mesmerized by his self talk, he lifts the weapon to his temple. His heart begins to pound, hand begins to shake as adrenaline floods his system. He fights back his own will to survive. He begins to sob loudly as he works up the inner strength to pull the trigger.
Suddenly, his reverie is invaded by a loud knocking on the window. Startled, he drops the pistol into the passenger seat and squints against the sun in his drivers window seeing a figure. He lowers the window to see a man's face, gentle, sweet, a peaceful smile. Calmly the man opens the drivers door and offers a hand, "Kevin?" the man asks, the young man, confused by this bold yet welcome gesture, simply nods. "Kevin, you don't have to do this. Come, come with me, I have a better way." The young man, staring into the man's eyes, nods. The man, turns off the car and closes the door. He then reaches over and takes the boy's backpack "You won't be needing this anymore." He looks at the young man, smiles gripping the boy's shoulder. "It's all going to be okay now. We're here for you. Follow me." This was the last time the young man was seen alive.
I know the above story seems a little extreme. But in truth, it's fairly accurate. This past week Al and I had the pleasure of speaking with Benjamin Zeller, a researcher and professor of religion. He has researched "alternative religions", fringe beliefs or what we commonly call cults. Specifically we spoke mostly about the recent cult/ mass suicide of the "Heaven's Gate" cult.
In the early 1970s, founders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles – a Texas music teacher and nurse that he met during a stay in a psychiatric institution – renamed themselves Bo and Peep (after experimenting with other names such as Guinea and Pig) and finally settling on Doe and Tee and took a six-month-long road trip across the United States. Around 1974, they assembled a group called "the crew." For the next two decades, they lived all around Southern California. Although Nettles died in 1985 of cancer, Applewhite kept the group together. Her death though presented a problem to the group, forcing Applewhite to change certain aspects of their beliefs from the physical towards the more spiritual. Meaning, our bodies were simply vessels in which alien being have inhabited, the world was quickly coming to an end and the group had to begin quickly recruiting to save as many as they could. When the Internet was introduced to consumers in the early 1990s, they began using the new technology to share their beliefs with a wider audience. The reclusive group also used it to make a living, deriving a large portion of their income from designing web pages.
Dr. Zeller explains the cult's philosophy took its roots from Applewhite's Presbyterian upbringing – his father was a minister – and essentially grafted belief in extraterrestrials onto Christian theology. Applewhite told his acolytes that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, that God was an alien, and that they were living in the end times. They read the Bible, especially, Revelation Chapter 11 in the New Testament, a section about two witnesses that would prophecy. At the end of their prophecy, they would have to battle demons, which Applewhite and Nettles called "the Luciferians.". After some years, Applewhite grew more depressed, reclusive and paranoid moving the group from place to place and finally settling in a large home outside of San Diego, California. Still, much of their income came from designing websites.
The groups practices, at the insistence of Applewhite, grew more and more bizzare. Aside from abandoning your family and turning over all your money, cult members were asked to cleanse their bodies of the impure influence of things like fast food and impure sexual thoughts. That often involved things like the Master Cleanse, invented in the 1940s by Stanley Burroughs and republished in 1976 in his book The Master Cleanser. Cult member Rio DiAngelo, tells that the group took it much farther than the diet's other So-Cal acolytes – they drank nothing but the mix of lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for three entire months. Applewhite and other members underwent the procedure of castration to help ensure they remained celibate.
But then, in late March 1997, 39 members including Applewhite wearing black track suits and sneakers, ate apple sauce laced with barbiturates and washed it down with vodka. They then put bags over their heads, purple shrouds over their bodies, and laid down to leave their earthly vehicles behind. This occurred in three waves over 3 days. They weren't killing themselves, they thought, but freeing their souls from their bodies so they could ascend to a spacecraft flying in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet – which at that point was passing by Earth – and were going to be taken to their new home in space. They went as far as explaining this in testimonial videos sent to family and friends, timed to be received after their mass suicide. Instead, police found their bodies on March 26th after a call from a former member, and the images of the white and black Nikes poking out from under a purple cloth would be burned into the eyes of a generation.
So, the question begs asking. Why would anyone join this type of a group? Led by a very strange man, who if you ask me is not even attractive or particularly charismatic? Is there something wrong with them? In the wake of the Heaven's Gate cult suicide, I have heard several media personalities ask these questions of former and current cult members. The questions make me laugh, because they're a perfect example of how the wrong questions can frame and obscure an issue. Even when cult experts correctly point to the powerful environmental constraints generated by cults, rather than to the personalities and backgrounds of individual cult members, these media personalities single-mindedly press the question, "But what's wrong with cult members?" The answer, for the vast majority of inductees, is that there was nothing "wrong" with them--at least, not until they were persuaded to join a cult.
For the most part, normal, average people join cults--people like you and me. Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of cult members are psychologically healthy people that come from normal families. The remaining third are likely to have depressive symptoms, usually related to a personal loss--perhaps a death in the family, a failed romantic relationship, or career troubles. Let me point to my young man in my opening story. A young man in a weak moment of his life, failing school, relationship issues, family strife all culminating to a perfect moment for recruitment. Only 5 to 6 percent of cult members demonstrate major psychological problems prior to joining a cult Cults don't want, and don't recruit, people with psychological problems or physical handicaps--they represent a loss rather than a gain of cult-oriented productivity. A "Crazy" person doesn't give credibility to the cult! Cults prefer intelligent, productive individuals who are able to contribute money and talent to "the cause," whatever it may be. Dr Zeller reminds us, in Heaven's Gate, many were engineers, Computer experts, average everyday people.
Dr. Benjamin Zeller
There appears to be no reliable personality factor that predicts cult membership. However, certain situational elements make people more vulnerable to cult recruitment, and they include: loneliness (as experienced by someone who has recently moved to a new location); depression (as we feel after a failed relationship); and uncertainty about how to proceed (as I felt when I first went to college). These situations create the desire for quick, simple solutions. Cults provide a myriad of "solutions," which are more importantly accompanied by structure, authority, and close social contacts--elements that people want, need, and which most of us take for granted in the course of our everyday lives.
So, be wary when your new neighbors move in. Is there a lot of traffic in and out? Do they appear "TOO" normal? Maybe "TOO" happy? What about the strange flyer in your mailbox waiting for you outside? Or the new church down the street with no markings? Or when your at your wits end, the kind man who comes to you, lends a hand with...."A better way".
I have to admit, when I heard that Dr. Samuel Zinner reached out to The House of Mystery to speak more of the Jordan Codices, I was elated! I am a fan of decoding ancient history, learning little factoids about our past and changing the way people see history. Al and I had done a show a couple months ago featuring the Jordan Codices and Dr. Zinner wished to elaborate and share his findings. I never expected what he shared.
Dr Samuel Zinner is a researcher and scholar of ancient history, literature and ancient languages, working primarily out of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. In case you missed our first show, The Jordan Lead Codices, (or the Jordanian Codices), are a collection of codices allegedly found in a cave in Jordan and first publicized in March 2011. So far up to 70 ring-bound books (codices) made of lead and copper. Many of them are sealed on all sides. Scrolls, tablets and other artifacts, including an incense bowl, were also found at the same site. Some of the lead pages are written in a form of archaic Hebrew script with ancient messianic symbols. Dr Zinner suggests some of the writing appears to be in a form of code. Scholars generally disagree on the purpose or origins, and some even the authenticity of these plates. But as we talked, I couldn't help but be excited about Dr. Zinner's news. Then he delivered a coup de gras!
See, many translate these plates to speak of a messiah, some even attribute this to Jesus himself. But here is the surprise. Dr. Zinner as a scholar and educated in ancient languages suggests these plates are actually memorials, written records if you will, dedicated to soldiers who fell during the rebellion led by a jewish ruler named Simon bar-Kokhba. The importance of this is historically Bar-Kokhba came to be seen as a messianic figure by the jews as he led a relatively successful rebellion against the current Roman rule. As a Jewish man, this was a complete and pleasant surprise. Add this to the fact that these codices were found on shelves inside caves......or were they tombs? Why were they hidden? What is with this code? why, why, why? The questions continued to come, and Samuel patiently answered each one.
Perhaps they weren't hidden. They were simply placed as an obituary in a safe place in hopes they would be found and the memory of these individuals would live on. As for the code? Remember, the land had to be reconquered again by Romans, Hadrian if my memory serves me right. They would not tolerate any more admiration or inspiration of Bar-Kokhba, so these had to be written in a manner only they would understand. Zinner made absolute sense!
In all fairness, i reiterate that many debate the authenticity of the codices. As for their meaning, if you ask a hundred researchers you will get a hundred answers. But it was great to speak with a great man about a great Jewish hero, who may changed history, gave a people hope and maybe, just maybe is memorialized in the Jordan Codices.