It Happened To Me: I Was Recruited at a Star Trek Convention to Join The Heaven's Gate Suicide Cult

My dabbling with Heaven's Gate wasn’t exactly a close call, but the experience taught me that sometimes it’s okay to walk out when a situation turns weird.
Publish date:
June 25, 2014
It Happened To Me, Cult, heavens gate, suicide cult, Star Trek

Girls today need to understand that for most of "Star Trek"’s storied history, there was no Chris Pine. When I was coming of age in the ’90s, William Shatner was already a bloated caricature of himself, and Patrick Stewart –- I mean, let’s be honest -- his character was 55 and played the lute.

Comic-Con existed but it was not yet the frenzy of celeb-vultures looking to rub the elbows of movie stars and the asses of hot chicks in Catwoman costumes. It was a chance to see Michael Dorn without his Klingon forehead. Star Trek conventions were what you did on the weekend between the end of band camp and the start of magic camp. They made Renaissance fairs look like Coachella. Some financial experts speculate that the fanny-pack industry could make a year’s worth of revenue in the week leading up to a Star Trek convention.

This is not a period of my life that I talk about very much.

Any photographic evidence has (I hope) long since been destroyed. But the truth was that I, for some time in my adolescence, was a Trekker -– so much so that I made the distinction between a “Trekker” and a “Trekkie.” I would like to claim faux-Trekker status (and in some versions of this story, I watched "Star Trek" only to win the affections of the 2nd French horn player in the high school concert band, as if that somehow made it better), but I owned a Lt. Commander William Riker yo-yo, a Captain Picard action figure, a pin-on communicator that made eight different sound effects, a T-shirt that said “Make It So,” and a Klingon dictionary. I know. The worst.

Even for a fan, going to the conventions was a bit much -- not so much that I didn't want to go, but enough that the smell of desperation and Fritos made the hairs on my Spock ears stand on end. Sure, I had an autographed poster of Clyde Tombaugh, the guy who discovered Pluto, hanging on my bedroom wall, but I wasn't that much of a nerd.

Tickets weren't cheap for a high-school kid whose main source of income was birthday cards from her grandma, but like any over-indulged child with parents who would rather be phasered in the collarbone than step foot in a sci-fi convention, I could usually rely on my mom for two tickets for me and a friend and a drop-off and pick-up at the door.

One time, I brought my classmate Jeremy. We looked like brother and sister, with our matching shoulder-length curly blond hair and novelty T-shirts. Mine was for the game Asteroids, which was already considered "ironic" by the mid-'90s. A guy would occasionally look at me and say, “Nice 8-bits,” which made me feel good.

We walked around the convention floor of the Cape Codder Hotel, but I found the exhibits of comic books and nerd-merch excruciating. For me, it was all about the Q&As with the "stars," and whiling away the time between panels was more boring than a Dr. Crusher episode.

Jeremy and I were approached on the convention floor by a pleasant-enough-looking woman who I figured to be dressed in a Romulan costume, though distinguishing the B-list species in the Federation was not my expertise. She handed us a pamphlet for an upcoming discussion in one of the hotel's conference rooms.

"Do you believe in UFOs?" she asked us.

"Unidentified Flying Objects, you mean?" I asked.

"Exactly," she said, her eyes shining, her smile placid, her hair bowl-like.

"Well, of course I believe in Unidentified Flying Objects! I don't believe they're alien spaceships, but I do believe that people see objects flying in the sky that they are unable to identify."

This is how teenagers who fancy themselves clever answer yes-or-no questions.

This satisfied her and she pointed in the direction of the stairs that would take us to the presentation in an hour.

First, Jeremy and I went for a few hot dogs, which were steamed and served in gingham-print cardboard boats. They were the same dogs I got on Thursday nights with my grandma at bingo for a dollar, but here, they were three bucks each. These conventions were like weddings -- as soon as the vendor heard the words "Star Trek," all the prices tripled. It was a smart way to bilk people who were obviously never getting married.

I remember sneaking into the conference room a little after the presentation had started. It was the kind of room you'd find in every hotel across America, located on the level below the ballroom, with a patterned carpet, low ceilings and walls made of sturdy tan partitions. The chairs were arranged in rows, classroom-style. The woman from the convention floor gestured for me and Jeremy to come to the front. We were kids so we did it.

We stared at projections of grainy black-and-white photos which might have been aliens or they might have been an ultrasound -– hard to say. A pudgy, pimply man raised his hand and said that sometimes he felt so alone that only "Star Trek" gave him hope in the universe. That there were "others.”

I felt sorry for him; he was such a geek. Call it the narcissism of minor differences if you must.

The serene Romulan nodded and smiled.

"Yes," she said. "We often sense this power, don't we?"

I panicked that she would look at me. I pinched Jeremy's forearm and jerked my head toward the door. His eyes widened at me. We were good kids. We would never stand up and walk out in the middle of an adult talking.

But we were also good kids at a "Star Trek" convention. This was our skate park. No parents. No teachers. If we wanted to walk out in the middle of an alien’s slide show, we would. We had so few opportunities to be bad in our supervised lives.

It was an embarrassing walk to the exit, but I realized that I was embarrassed for the people who stayed. I wasn’t sure how, but I sensed something was off. I’ve always had good instincts that way.

That day marked my last "Star Trek" convention. It was also the day I bought a signed copy of Data’s album of standards, “Old Yellow Eyes Is Back.”

I was in college in 1997 when I heard about the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate Cult, a group of 39 members who believed that if they timed it just right, their souls could ride a spaceship following the tail of the comet Hale-Bopp to a higher level of existence. I recognized the Romulan lady in the news story. Turns out she wasn’t in costume -– her track suit and Nikes were standard issue for Heaven’s Gate members, and her haircut was merely unfortunate.

The cult was based in San Diego, where they ultimately ingested cocktails of vodka, pineapple juice, arsenic and cyanide, but they had been traveling across the country in a VW bus, scooping up potential members at college campuses, sci-fi conventions and new age seminars in the five years leading up to the comet’s passage. They also made a super-creepy, 90-minute recruiting video, which you can find on YouTube if you ever find yourself lacking in nightmares.

In order to belong to Heaven’s Gate, one had to "shed all attachments to this world in preparation for the next," which, according to experts, meant "giving up all human-like characteristics, such as family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money and possessions." In other words, it meant "Star Trek" fans.

My dabbling with Heaven's Gate wasn’t exactly a close call, but the experience taught me a few lessons. It gave me confidence in my instincts, and assurance that sometimes it’s OK to walk out when a situation turns weird.

In fact, your life could depend on it.