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  Columnist: Arnold Isen

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Dead Space and the Heaven's Gate cult

Posted on Thursday, 2 October, 2014 | 2 comments
Columnist: Arnold Isen

Gamers have often tried to compare the fictional Church of Unitology, featured as a villainous cult in the popular Dead Space sci-fi horror videogames, to cults that really existed. One of the most common comparisons is the Church of Scientology. However, other than their names and the fact both are represented as futuristic modern religions, there is actually no striking resemblance between the fictional Church of Unitology and the real-life Church of Scientology. Scientology may be controversial in its own ways, but it is more commonly criticized for its use of fees (“specified donations”) and its celebrity connections rather than any of the truly frightening features found in apocalyptic or suicide cults.

Scientology, while sharing the same devotion to secrecy found in many esoteric religious groups, is not really comparable with a suicide cult like the fictional Church of Unitology. A far more compelling comparison can be made to the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, led by Marshall Applewhite (“Do” in the cult’s naming system) and Bonnie Nettles (“Ti”) in the 1990s. In fact, the similarities are so striking that it is hard to deny Dead Space’s artists and story-writers could have been unaware of them. As Heaven’s Gate is the only real life case of a suicidal UFO-religion, it is likely that it was used as the main source material for the fictional Unitology religion, which adopts many of the same features.

Although I was quite disturbed to find it, the Heaven’s Gate cult’s website,, is still preserved as a kind of online memorial to the people who died in the group’s widely publicized mass suicide in 1997. Heaven’s Gate members believed they were on a spiritual path to “evolve” into transhuman aliens. They held this belief so fanatically that they eventually killed themselves in 1997, to rid themselves of their human bodies, which they had come to regard as an encumbrance. Including the bizarre and uniquely “Heaven’s Gate” notion of spiritually “evolving” into an alien, a lot of the group’s language appears to form the basis of the storyline of the Dead Space games. In fact, Dead Space itself appears to be entirely constructed as an elaborate parody of Heaven’s Gate’s beliefs.

At the heart of the story of the Dead Space games is an alien artifact known as the “Marker”, revered by members of the Church of Unitology as a sign of the existence of both God and extraterrestrial life (these are synonymous, according to Unitology). Within the backstory of the Dead Space games, the original Marker was allegedly discovered on Earth by the founder of Unitology, Michael Altman. Fans of Dead Space have already noted in their wiki that the Unitology leader’s initials are the same as Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, and that both of these would-be prophets resemble one another.

The alien “Marker” featured in Dead Space may be entirely based on something described by Heaven’s Gate. When the group became aware of rumors about an object (believed to be a UFO) behind the Comet Hale-Bopp, Heaven’s Gate specifically described the phenomenon as “the "marker" we've been waiting for”. These exact words can still be spotted on the homepage of the group’s website, and are also uttered by the devout Unitologist Challus Mercer during the events of the first Dead Space game. In two fragments of a holographic recording of Mercer, the words, “we have found a “marker”… this is what we have been waiting for!” are used – the same crazy remarks made in the final days of the Heaven’s Gate UFOlogist cult.
Another important element of the Heaven’s Gate belief system, and central to the Dead Space plot, is the idea of the entire world imminently being “recycled” in an apocalyptic event. One form of this might be the “planet-cracking” of entire worlds by the giant mining space-ship USG Ishimura in Dead Space. Another is the way the necromorph enemies seem to “recycle” the dead for their own purposes, intent on transforming human bodies into alien forms. A third form of recycling that resembles the Heaven’s Gate cult’s warnings is the way the necromorphs seem intent on gathering around the markers, where they eventually form a larger super-organism in a “convergence event”. Faced with the gruesome nature of their deeds, both the Heaven’s Gate cult and Dead Space’s fictional Church of Unitology similarly call on their members to ignore “physical” matters, asking them to let go of the world being destroyed around them and promising them a superior body after death.

In the first Dead Space game, corpses left by the suicides of Unitology believers are encountered in many settings, and appear to have been deliberately prepared for the arrival of the violent alien necromorphs. They are usually found with their heads bagged, as if they asphyxiated themselves in preparation for the aliens to use their bodies, exactly as members of Heaven’s Gate are reported to have done to themselves.

Finally, in the second Dead Space game, the playable character discovers scenes even more purposely intended to resemble the gruesome coverage of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. Dead Unitologists are neatly placed on beds, and their heads are wrapped with purple cloths. The use of purple cloths and beds are almost exactly based on accounts and footage of the Heaven’s Gate suicide, and it is difficult to deny that Dead Space’s writers and artists must at least have been inspired by that media coverage when they were creating the game.

Although the Heaven’s Gate suicide took place many years ago now, it is still recent enough to be a source of grief to some of the victims’ family members. Although the Dead Space games may serve a parody purpose, they are not a mockery of people who have fallen victim to cult suicide. Rather, like the reactivation of the Heaven’s Gate cult’s own website, the game is an attempt to caution people against similar UFO cults and the dangers they present to impressionable followers.

Heaven’s Gate is not the only UFO-religion that promoted a view of extra-terrestrial visitors as divine creators. The Raelian Movement, still strong today, is very similar in its portrayal of aliens as a superior race, although there is no sign that they have the same level of contempt for their bodies and belief in imminent apocalypse like Heaven’s Gate.

Article Copyright© Arnold Isen - reproduced with permission.

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