The religious group Heaven’s Gate catapulted into 90’s fame when national media went into a frenzy over the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department discovery of 39 dead bodies in the Heaven’s Gate mansion on March 26, 1997. It was the largest mass suicide to happen inside of the U.S.
The cult ceased activity on that day, although its history still garners a decent amount of attention as hundreds learn about the event and its practices every year.
Naturally, many want to know:
The headlines made it seem like the cult came out of nowhere. In reality, the group had actually been practicing as a small religious group since 1974, almost 23 years prior to the mass suicide. Its first national headlines was made in 1975, when 20 members completely retreated from the public’s eye. The cult’s leader, Applewhite, believed he was related to Jesus and combined aspects of Christian millenarianism, New Age, and ufology (yes, the study of UFOs) to form the group’s theology after meeting co-founder Bonnie Nettles in 1974.
At its peak, Heaven’s Gate had around 80 members, mostly recruited through word of mouth and nationwide group meetings near prominent college towns. The group enticed new members to join by sharing the gospel of positive personal transformations and the divine powers and protection of the group leaders.
Today, the Heaven’s Gate website is maintained by two surviving members, although “the portal has been closed”, meaning no new members can join the group.
The origins of the group is believed to have started shortly after Marshall Applewhite met Bonnie Nettles. The group had many previous names during the time they were together, including Human Individual Metamorphosis and Total Overcomers Anonymous.
Nettles was a nurse that shared Applewhite’s interest in theosophy and Biblical prophecies. They both claimed to have a soulmate connection and both abandoned their families to live with one another. However, the arrangement was strictly platonic. Nettles fulfilled Applewhite’s desires to have a deep, loving, non-sexual, platonic relationship, and thus the two never married, had children, or–to anyone’s knowledge–a sexual relationship.
The duo opened a bookstore for religious books and a place to teach theosophy and mysticism in downtown Houston. In 1973, they closed the doors to travel and teach their beliefs on a road tour throughout the Western US. As a result of the Vietnam war, political scandals, and racial unrest, young American culture was especially open minded to new thoughts and ideas in the 1970s. That is how many cults gained following, including the People’s Temple and Mansion family. Heaven’s Gate gained 20 followers within the first 2-3 years.
It’s debatable that Heaven’s Gate would even exist had Applewhite not met Nettles. Nettles had a strong influence over Applewhite and much of the original theology behind the group appeared to be based on her beliefs and prophecies.
Not only was Marshall Applewhite (1931-1997) the founder, he was the leader responsible for the March 1997 plans. Those acquainted with the duo noticed a change in Applewhite after Nettles passed away in 1985. After Nettles’ passing, Applewhite’s eccentric behavior worsened. Many clips and stills of his bizarre interviews were overreported by the news after authorities uncovered the tapes in the mansion.
Applewhite’s weird reputation before Heaven’s Gate fueled the media fire even more. His first job as a professor ended after the discovery of an affair with a male student. He faced issues for his sexuality and eventually resigned from teaching due to mental health issues he claimed started after his rejection by a young woman. He also served jail time for stealing a rental car that he claimed was “divinely authorized” to use to promote his religion during the early days of the group.
Applewhite’s later plans sounded like the workings of a psychological serial killer, but the situation involved a voluntary belief system that made it more complicated (and controversial) than that.
Aliens, stars, UFOs, and Jesus. No exaggeration.
The actual belief system behind Heaven’s Gate is extremely complicated and to a certain extent doesn’t make any sense. It’s natural to be confused by some of the theology, however we will do our best to explain it in a simple way for better understanding.
The central belief was that following the doctrine would make them eligible to be biologically (and chemically) transformed into aliens and physically sent aboard a spacecraft to “the Next Level” (aka heaven) upon death. This was later changed to include mental consciousness when Nettles passed from cancer and her body (or “vehicle” as they frequently called it) was left behind.
Following the doctrine meant members had to give up relationships (friends and family), their sense of style and individuality, their job and money, any “worldly possession”, and any sexual desires or relationships (several male members even voluntarily castrated themselves to observe this). Furthermore, the cult was not allowed to have close relationships–even within the group.
Their other beliefs included:
A common misconception is that Heaven’s Gate welcomed or sensationalized suicide. In fact, Suicide was actually prohibited in the group. To them, suicidal behavior meant “turning against the Next Level when it is being offered”. Their bodies were “vehicles to help them along the journey to the Next Level”. Suicide would mean an interruption of the journey their consciousness was taking to enter “the Next Level”.
The events leading up to March 26, 1997 were considered a special case. It was considered one of the ways one could enter “The Next Level”. Applewhite and his crew believed that a TELAH spacecraft could physically pick up “a vehicle” and bring them to the next level, similar to a rapture. Other ways one could enter the next level is by natural death, accidental death, death by random violence, and death by prosecution.
Applewhite believed a TELAH spacecraft was following the Hale-Bopp Comet as it came its closest to Earth on March 26, 1997. He started preparing the group for transportation up to a week prior to the event.
The group had been living in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California since October 1996 (prior to 1996 they had been living in a compound near Manzano, New Mexico). With the upcoming Hale-Bopp comet nearing the Earth and the suspected UFO, Applewhite planned how to lead his group so they would be able to leave their vessels with dignity.
Here’s a brief timeline of the March 1997 events leading up to the comet:
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department responded to an anonymous tip (later revealed to be reported by former Heaven’s Gate member Rio DiAngelo) through 911 suggesting that they check on the welfare of the mansion residents. A single deputy arrived at the home and entered through a side door and was immediately enveloped by pungent decomposition odors. The deputy discovered 39 bodies in total, all which had been rapidly breaking down without air conditioning in the hot California climate.
37 members had been neatly placed on their respective beds with purple shrouds covering their heads and torso for privacy. Under the shrouds, each member wore identical black sweat pants and shirts with embroidered armband patches that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”–in reference to Star Trek–and brand new black-and-white Nike Decades. The Nike Decades had been chosen by Applewhite because he had gotten them at “a good deal”. The remaining two from the last group were found without the purple shrouds and only a plastic bag covering their head.
It was the largest group suicide involving U.S. citizens since Jonestown and became the largest group suicide to occur on American soil. No one in the mansion was alive, although two Heaven’s Gate members had been specially requested “to stay behind” by Applewhite. Their responsibility was to continue to maintain the website, answer emails, mail, and distribute VHS tapes and documentation about the religion.
As of 2022, the Heaven’s Gate website remains active.
When the tapes and documentation was uncovered from the mansion, it was shocking for America to see the lifestyle the members elected to. This, combined with the outlandish beliefs and shock surrounding the events, likely contributed greatly to the media frenzy. The irony is that the members were consistently cheerful and positive–even the members that voluntarily castrated themselves.
Unlike Jonestown, whose leader had exhibited sociopathic behaviors and also enforced his guards to brutally ensure the group’s suicide, Heaven’s Gate was both peaceful and blissful. Members were allowed to leave and rejoin the group at will, without consequence–although those that did judged themselves for not completing their journey.
Being a part of the group meant following the Procedures Book, which required members to follow a strict regimen.
The group had their own nonsensical labels for common terms, including calling a bra a “slingshot” and breakfast, lunch, and dinner the first, second and third experiment, respectively. Your home was your “craft” (think spaceship) and any “job” was referred to as an “out of craft task”.
Although it may be an “out of craft task” for non members to think of, the 39 individuals–some which had been a part of the group since the beginning–voluntarily consented to allow the group choose their decisions. They thoroughly believed in their teachings and–by the insistence of many victims–were “the happiest they’d ever been”. They had been able to leave voluntarily with short term financial assistance, without any consequence, and some even returned. They had also been encouraged to contact and visit family a few times in the early 1980s–however some families felt their happy appearance was really superficial.
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