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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

Hype, Hoopla, and Hysteria: When reason is eclipsed by conspiracy.

J. Basil Dannebohm

Growing up, Marshall Applewhite was the estranged son of a Presbyterian minister. At one point he began hearing voices and having what he described as apocalyptic visions. In 1974 Applewhite, along with Bonnie Nettles, a nurse that he met during a stay in a psychiatric institution, founded what later came to be known as the Heaven’s Gate movement. The cult’s philosophy took its roots from Applewhite’s Presbyterian upbringing, including the popular belief that humanity is living in the end times. Members read the Bible and had a particular fixation on the Book of Revelation, specifically Chapter 11. Heaven’s Gate adherents believed they would one day battle with demons, which they called “the Luciferians.”

Nettles died in 1985, but Applewhite kept the group together. When the internet became more readily available in the early 1990s, Heaven’s Gate began using the technology to share their beliefs with a wider audience. According to a 2017 article written by Michael Hafford for Rolling Stone, “Heaven’s Gate has the distinction of being the first well-known American cult of the Internet era, using the new technology to share their beliefs with a wider audience and also to make a living.”

In 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp was one of the brightest comets to reach the inner solar system in recorded history, visible to the naked eye for about 18 months. Inspired by Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate members believed that a flying saucer was traveling behind the comet. In order to avoid biblical Armageddon, they resolved to leave their physical bodies behind and seek redemption in Heaven upon their arrival via the alleged UFO. The rapturesque vision and subsequent decision led to the mass suicide of 39 Heaven’s Gate members.

Part of the Heaven’s Gate dogma was that everything had to be precisely the same; no new methods or doctrines could be introduced. This is a common tactic for cults – a process called indoctrination. Though much has changed since 1997, indoctrination still remains commonplace. Like Heaven’s Gate, extremist groups have leveraged the internet as a vehicle for reaching the masses. Like Applewhite, social media influencers present themselves as sages and prophets. The so-called “End Times,” demonic influences, and nefarious “infiltrators” remain popular talking points for fear-mongers.

Cosmic patterns have been tracked since the age of the ancient Mesopotamians. In fact, the occurrence of the most recent solar eclipse was known for decades. Irrefutable science, however, has never been particularly favored by fear-mongers or cult-like traditionalists. In the days leading up to the April 2024 solar eclipse, right-wing conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones took to the internet to spread a host of far-fetched rumors of supernatural phenomena that were supposed to coincide with the astronomical event. Republican Congresswoman Majorie Taylor Greene, who previously suggested that “Jewish space lasers” were responsible for California wildfires, alleged that God was “sending Americans a message.” Radical evangelicals declared the eclipse would initiate some sort of “rapture,” predicted to commence, of all places, in Carbondale, Illinois. A fringe group of traditional Catholics, led by a defunct bishop named Joseph Strickland, alleged that the eclipse was an occasion for “satanic and Masonic rituals.”

Like other extremist influencers, the defunct Strickland’s followers were quick to defend his outlandish predictions ahead of the solar eclipse. On social media, one adherent to the Strickland doctrine commented:

“He has right, but you all are so blind to see it. CERN is going to activate on April 8th they accelerator in US to find out how Divine Particle created Big Bang and sends 3 rockets into that darkness. It is tied with Occult ceremony. While dark side is united, God’s mock their own brethren.” (Note: I didn’t edit the individual’s grammar. Personally, I believe it aids in reinforcing the stupidity of the hypothesis.)

After the eclipse, Jones, Greene, Strickland, and the countless other doomsday prophets went silent.

There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from the most recent hype and hoopla. David Meyers, a pastor and Health & Wellness Officer for Albuquerque Fire Rescue, keenly implored and observed:

“Can we finally put all these fear-mongering threats and manipulations to bed? We are the most technologically advanced people the earth has ever seen and yet we choose to still believe in such silly, antiquated, and archaic dogmas. Mass hysteria further pushes us into irrelevancy. We are clamoring for better belief systems. We require better hermeneutics. We so desperately need better imaginations.”

Sadly, however, these won’t be the last far-out theories we hear from extremist types. Like Voltaire once said, “It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.” Furthermore, Erasmus reminds us, “The less talent they have, the more pride, vanity and arrogance they have. All these fools, however, find other fools who applaud them.”

In the 1970’s it was Jonestown. In the 1990s it was Waco. Today, thanks in large part to the internet, it’s commonplace.


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