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A Heaven’s Gate Scholar Speaks On Lil Uzi Vert, Frank Ocean, & Why Musicians Draw Inspiration From Cults

“Artists have looked to religion and religious symbols for a long time.”

Lil Uzi Vert’s use of artwork inspired by the infamous religious cult Heaven’s Gate for his upcoming album Eternal Atake captivated the internet last week. The Philadelphia rapper has long been known for using satanic symbols to promote his music, and his biggest hit “XO Tour Llif3” inspired much discussion about how he was addressing suicide and mental health. Still, some fans were taken aback that he would use artwork from a group that is best known for the methodical suicide of 39 of its core members in 1997. Former group members who maintain the organization’s website also weren’t pleased, telling Genius that they’re considering legal action for Uzi’s use of the group’s “copyrights and trademarks.”

While Uzi’s Eternal Atake brought the group a fresh round of headlines, Heaven’s Gate has served as the inspiration for other musicians, too. Frank Ocean used imagery associated with the group in his 2016 video for “Nikes,” while bands like Django Django’s (2012’s “Hail Bop”), Flying Lotus (2012’s Captain Murphy album Duality), and Fall Out Boy (2018’s “Heaven’s Gate”) have also referenced them.

To understand more about Heaven’s Gate and musicians' recent interest in the group, Genius spoke to Dr. Benjamin Zeller, an Associate Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College and author of the book Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. He explained the group’s origins, its continued relevance in pop culture, and why we all find its tragic story so fascinating.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity


First of all, how did you ended up involved in the study of Heaven’s Gate in the first place?

I’ve been studying Heaven’s Gate since 1997 when the suicides occurred. I’ve spoken with some family of deceased members and I’ve interviewed an ex-member who later committed suicide. I’ve basically spent twenty years reading material and talking to people involved. That’s my background. I wrote a book on Heaven’s Gate which is the only academic monograph on this subject.

Obviously the suicide aspect of Heaven’s Gate is the catalyst for many people’s interest, but why do you think the public is so grimly fascinated with the group?

For me personally, the suicide part of it is the least interesting. I’m interested in more of the group, which started in the ‘70s and had been around a good 20 years before the suicides. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s this weird mix of science fiction, technology, Christian millennialism, and apocalypticism and UFO studies. If you haven’t studied the group, it doesn’t make much sense when you first look at it. When you combine that with the suicides, and the fact that some of the male members have been castrated, and with the visuals of course. The suicides of 1997 were just at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle. These are visuals we were bombarded with, their Nike sneakers and purple shrouds. Anyone who was alive in the late ‘90s remembers a visual moment from that.

A lot of people are surprised to learn that this group that largely committed suicide years ago still have webmasters and people who functionally work as PR reps. Could you tell me a little about the surviving members and the trademarks and copyrights that the group still own? Essentially, does Lil Uzi Vert have anything to worry about?

What’s interesting about Heaven’s Gate is that they had a network of ex-members of people who left the group who had very good relationships with the community, unlike some groups where ex-members try to break up the group or become critics. The webmasters are ex-members who left the group and remained in good connection with them, and when the members of Heaven’s Gate were planning the suicide, they arranged for several ex-members to take over the websites. Other ex-members were asked to go and find the bodies, while others were mailed videotapes and things like that. When the group ended, they reached out to their ex-members and said, ‘Here’s all of our stuff and here’s what we want to you to do with it.’ Most of these people were willing to do this because these were their friends and people they’ve spent years traveling with and sharing intimate details of their lives with.

The TELAH Foundation, which is the legal entity that is run by the two ex-members who run the website claims ownership of the intellectual property of Heaven’s Gate, and anyone who wants to use it has to request permission. I know some some attorneys elsewhere have challenged that. I have no idea what the actual legal decisions are. I can tell you that they mail cease and desist letters if they think that someone is using Heaven’s Gate materials without their permission, particularly in a detrimental way. They’re very protective of the memory of those people who left their earthly lives. They’re particularly wary of anyone trying to use Heaven’s Gate’s materials either disparagingly or in a way that’s disconnected from the memory of their deceased friends.

What do you think of Heaven’s Gate’s imagery being used and adapted by artists? Particularly in this case, Lil Uzi Vert had adapted it for his album cover. Do you think it’s insensitive or just a natural reaction to what happened?

I think that artists have looked to religion and religious symbols for a long time for different reasons, either to invoke an audience or the allure or the exoticism or the meaning behind the symbol. From Madonna’s early videos or Lady Gaga’s, the way that they used Catholic imagery very explicitly and, for many members of the Catholic church, problematically. For a Catholic, you may look at that and be very offended. The thing about the Catholic church is that it’s the biggest denomination in the U.S. and the biggest form of religion in the world. They have a lot of capital, they have a lot of history. It doesn’t really matter what Madonna and Lady Gaga say or do. That’s a big group that was weathered 2,000 years in history.

Obviously, Christians have a right to be offended, and Christians have run our country for as long as it’s been here. With a new religion or alternative religion, I think the questions are a little stickier.

So because a group like Heaven’s Gate has less of an ability to defend themselves and has less ingrained power within our culture, the criticism affects them more?

I would definitely say the way it’s used is different to. Remember with Heaven’s Gate, the imagery that’s going to come to mind is the suicides, the proclaimed UFO, the comet, and everything like that, which is a very different way of using an image versus when you see a crucifix. I suspect the individuals who run the websites and claim the Heaven’s Gate property will respond in the same way that members of other new religions would if their symbols were used. If you tried to use a symbol from the church of Scientology then you’re going to hear from them in 30 seconds. I don’t think Heaven’s Gate is unique in this way. I think the members and leaders of new religions are acutely aware of their liminal place in society and they have to defend what goodwill and ownership of property they have.

Lil Uzi Vert has used a lot of satanic imagery in his music and visuals in the past, and from my understanding there is a significant element to Heaven’s Gate that is particularly focused on demons. Can you explain some of that and how it overlaps with Christianity and sci-fi?

For Heaven’s Gate, they believed in the universe is populated with good space aliens who were basically like angels who were led by a space alien who people on our planet refer to as God. There were also bad space aliens and those were the Luciferians. Their beliefs basically follow the story of Paradise Lost, which is sort of a reading of The Bible. The idea that Satan led rebellion and that this rebellion in heaven led to war between the demons and the angels.

They’re viewing with the same thing that once upon a time, an ancient society of earth were led astray against the good aliens by Lucifer and the bad aliens are the result of that. It’s connected to the UFO subculture. The good guy aliens are called ‘the greys’ and they have sort of big eyes but then you have sort of these reptile nasty looking aliens. The Luciferians, according to Heaven’s Gate, are sort of the monster-style aliens versus the good guys which are sort of these peaceful and friendly looking grey aliens.

From what I’ve read, a big part of the reason Heaven’s Gate has made people so uncomfortable is because of the incorporation of Christianity. Do you think that’s true?

I agree and for me they’re pretty close to American Christianity. The basic idea was that the Earth we live on has good and evil forces tempting us, and God communicated through Jesus and the disciples and The Bible. Our goal in life is ultimately to try to get to heaven. It’s just that God was a space alien and Jesus was a space alien, The Bible was a recording of contact with space aliens, and heaven is outer space. It’s the same basic message, and just like first generation Christians who willingly walked into combat and were murdered and thrown to the lions by the Romans, the members of Heaven’s Gate said, ‘What we do on this earth doesn’t matter. What matters is we show our dedication to the next level, and if we show our dedication we’ll get into heaven.’

This was an event that happened close to Easter time and this was a group that made explicit use of The Bible. They used Christian language. Their vision of the end of the world was based heavily in the Book of Revelations. They’re basically a Christian group and their basic message was basically a Christian one, just spread through UFOs and space aliens.

You had touched on this a bit before, but in the Frank Ocean video for “Nikes,” he used the visual image of the Nikes, the blankets, and the uniforms that Heaven’s Gate wore when they committed suicide. Why do you think that image has really stuck with people throughout pop culture?

It was a striking image. They were careful to compose that image. Members of Heaven’s Gate saw themselves as demonstrating to humanity the way in which we could leave the planet and become space aliens. They orchestrated carefully to make sure that what is seen could get wide exposure. They wanted us to see it. The suicide was partially intentionally for us to know. The way they did that was the shrouds and the idea of being in uniform and that spoke to their sci-fi aspect. They also referred to themselves as monks and they were wearing effectively monastic garbs, it’s just that their garbs were modeled on what they imagined the members on the next level of flying saucers would wear. I don’t know if they saw humor in the Nike and the “Just Do It" slogan. I know that at least one ex-member I’ve spoken to has said that they would’ve gotten a kick out of that. There were endless jokes on the internet about that. I think that’s part of it, too.

But I want to go back to the fact that this was broadcast live. This was widely covered and we had visuals. This was the build up to Y2K and how there were millennial groups expecting the end of the world. We were all tuned in to the end of the world millennial groups. When we got these visuals from Heaven’s Gate, they struck a chord.

Do you think the public’s fascination with the group has grown over time?

I was writing this book for 15 years basically. I teach classes on new religions and cults, and I’ve found that in the last couple of years, more people at least have heard of Heaven’s Gate. Five or six years ago, most of my students didn’t know what this group was. I don’t know if it’s the 20-year anniversary or if it’s the Stitcher podcast, or the nostalgia for the ‘90s, but I do think there’s sort of a resurge interest in Heaven’s Gate. I’ve always had an interest in the group but to be clear, I am not a member. It’s not my thing, but I’ve always found the group fascinating.

Is there anything else you want to add about Heaven’s Gate and the way they’re depicted in popular culture?

We so quickly dehumanize them. If you read the initial press coverage in like Time or Newsweek, in mainstream outlets, we definitely made fun of them. You expect Letterman and Leno and those outlets to make fun of them, but we all basically made fun of them and said they’re all crazy and they’re all nuts. The ironic thing is they actually already dehumanized themselves. They didn’t see themselves as humans, but as space aliens and they wanted to leave our planet. I’ve spoken with ex-members and have gotten to know them, and also the members who have later committed suicide. I’ve read everything written, I’ve watched everything they filmed. To me, they’re people. That’s the interesting tension there. These are ordinary people, in a way, who chose to do something which is totally unordinary. They each had different reasons for it, but I don’t think the individuals who joined Heaven’s Gate were crazy. I think they made decisions that were crazy, or at least look crazy to the rest of us.