No apparent links exist between the Heaven's Gate cult in California and the Order of the Solar Temple in Quebec. But the two share at least one belief - that suicide would allow their disembodied spirits to be transported into outer space.
Heaven's Gate members believed the comet Hale-Bopp to be a "marker" and expected a nearby alien space ship to bring their souls on board. For Solar Temple's believers, five of whom died in a group suicide March 22, death by fire was to release their souls for a "voyage" to another world.
"[These cults] have reconstructed a spiritual world that draws from popular culture," especially science fiction, says David Reed, professor of pastoral theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. They "have had their world view altered."
In light of the mass suicides, many are trying to understand more about people who would so radically alter their world views. There's no single "type" of person who joins such groups, experts say, but certain traits may make some more susceptible to coercive or "spiritually abusive" sects.
"Such groups tend to attract individuals who share their sense of isolation from the rest of society, who are struggling with a sense of identity or purpose in life," says Mark Muesse, professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. Often, such people are naive about cults and charismatic leaders. Some have experienced "situational vulnerabilites" - such as divorce, loss of a loved one, illness, job loss, or college graduation, he says.
"The myth is that people who get into cults are uneducated, lonely, vulnerable, or misguided people, and some are," says Joanne Flaherty at the Center for Freedom of the Mind in Cambridge, Mass., which helps people leave cults. "But many are also very bright, highly educated, and motivated people. In fact, that's who they prefer to recruit."
That may be one reason many groups target their recruiting efforts at college campuses. The Rev. Robert Watts Thornberg, dean of the chapel at Boston University, says he became an expert on cults out of necessity. He has seen plenty of blank-eyed students who have lost their individualities to the lock-step doctrines of such organizations. "A key phrase is peer pressure," says Dr. Thornberg.
Dr. Reed also cites fear, insecurity, and loneliness. "We are attracted to groups that welcome us with open arms, and I think that partly explains the suicides," he says. "Members are attracted to the cult by friendship and a communal embrace. The one event in our lives that is most fearful is death. It can be seen as an attractive option to die communally and ritually, as Solar Temple has done and as seems to have happened in California."
For mass suicide to occur, he says, individuals in the group first must have had their previous world - with relatives and friends - dismantled so that no attachment to the real world remains.