Heaven's Gate was an American UFO religious millenarian cult based in San Diego, California, founded in 1974 and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985). On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group, who had participated in a mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft following Comet Hale–Bopp.
The group no longer exists, as its website states that: "Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven's Gate ... Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion -- "graduation" from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave "this world" and go with Ti's crew."
The son of a Presbyterian minister and a former soldier, Marshall Applewhite began his foray into biblical prophecy in the early 1970s. After being fired from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas over an alleged homosexual relationship with one of his students, he met Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year-old married nurse with an interest in theosophy and biblical prophecy, in March 1972. According to Applewhite's writings, the two met in the psychiatric hospital where she worked during his stay there and quickly became close friends. Applewhite later recalled that he felt like he had known Nettles for a long time and concluded that they had met in a past life. She told him their meeting had been foretold to her by extraterrestrials, persuading him that he had a divine assignment.
Applewhite and Nettles pondered the life of St. Francis of Assisi and read works by authors including Helena Blavatsky, R. D. Laing, and Richard Bach.[incomplete short citation] They kept a King James Bible with them and studied several passages from the New Testament, focusing on teachings about Christology, asceticism, and eschatology. Applewhite also read science fiction, including works by Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. By June 1974, Applewhite and Nettles' beliefs had solidified into a basic outline. They concluded that they had been chosen to fulfill biblical prophecies, and that they had been given higher-level minds than other people. They wrote a pamphlet that described Jesus' reincarnation as a Texan, a thinly veiled reference to Applewhite. Furthermore, they concluded that they were the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation and occasionally visited churches or other spiritual groups to speak of their identities, often referring to themselves as "The Two", or "The UFO Two". They believed that they would be killed and then restored to life and, in view of others, transported onto a spaceship. This event, which they referred to as "the Demonstration", was to prove their claims. To their dismay, these ideas were poorly received by existing religious communities.
Eventually, Applewhite and Nettles resolved to contact extraterrestrials, and they sought like-minded followers. They published advertisements for meetings, where they recruited disciples, whom they called "the crew". At the events, they purported to represent beings from another planet, the Next Level, who sought participants for an experiment. They stated that those who agreed to take part in the experiment would be brought to a higher evolutionary level. In 1975, during a group meeting with eighty people in Joan Culpepper's Studio City home, they shared their "simultaneous" revelation that they had been told they were the two witnesses written into the Bible's story of the end time.
Later in 1975, the crew assembled at a hotel in Waldport, Oregon. After selling all "worldly" possessions and saying farewell to loved ones, the group vanished from the hotel and from the public eye. That night on the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite reported that the group had disappeared, in one of the very first national reports on the developing religious group: "A score of persons... have disappeared. It’s a mystery whether they’ve been taken on a so-called trip to eternity — or simply been taken." In reality, Applewhite and Nettles had arranged for the group to go underground. From that point, "Do and Ti" (pronounced "doe and tee"), as the two now called themselves, led the nearly one-hundred-member crew across the country, sleeping in tents and sleeping bags and begging in the streets. Evading detection by the authorities and media enabled the group to focus on Do and Ti's doctrine of helping members of the crew achieve a "higher evolutionary level" above human, to which they claimed to have already reached.
Applewhite and Nettles used a variety of aliases over the years, notably "Bo and Peep" and "Do and Ti". The group also had a variety of names—prior to the adoption of the name Heaven's Gate (and at the time Vallée studied the group), it was known as Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM). The group re-invented and renamed itself several times and had a variety of recruitment methods. Applewhite believed that he was directly related to Jesus, meaning he was an "Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human".
Indeed, Applewhite's writings, which combined aspects of Millennialism, Gnosticism, and science fiction, suggest he believed himself to be Jesus' successor and the "Present Representative" of Christ on Earth. In fact, Do and Ti actually taught early on, in the religious movement's early beginnings, that Do's bodily "vehicle" was inhabited by the same alien spirit which belonged to Jesus; likewise, Ti (Nettles) was presented as God the Father.
The crew used numerous methods of recruitment as they toured the United States in destitution, proclaiming the gospel of higher level metamorphosis, the deceit of humans by false-god spirits, envelopment with sunlight for meditative healing, and the divinity of the "UFO Two." Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, as their belief system developed around the cult of personalities, membership grew. Some sociologists agree that the popular movement of alternative religious experience and individualism found in collective spiritual experiences during that period helped contribute to the growth of the new religious movement. "Sheilaism," as it became known, was a way for people to merge their diverse religious backgrounds and coalesce around a shared, generalized faith, which followers of new religious sects like Applewhite's crew found a very appetizing alternative to traditional dogmas in Judaism, Catholicism and evangelical Christianity. Many of Applewhite and Nettle's crew hailed from these very diverse backgrounds; most of them are described by researchers as having been "longtime truth-seekers," or spiritual hippies who had long since believed in attempting to "find themselves" through spiritual means, combining faiths in a sort of cultural milieu well into the mid-80s. However, remarkably, many of those same researchers note that not all of Applewhite's crew were hippies recruited from far-left alternative religious backgrounds — in fact, one such recruit early on was John Craig, a respected Republican running for the Colorado House of Representatives at the time of joining in 1975. As recruit numbers grew in its pre-internet days, the clan of "UFO followers" all seemed to have in common a need for communal belonging in an alternative path to higher existence without the constraints of institutionalized faith.
However, it was not until the death of Nettles in 1985 and Applewhite's subsequent revision of the group's doctrines that the crew gained an eventual reputation as a "cyberculture" form of religious thought reform; by the mid-90s, the group had become reclusive, calling themselves by the mysterious business name "Higher Source," and began recruiting via uploaded internet content. Rumors began spreading throughout the group in the following years that the upcoming Comet Hale–Bopp housed the secret to their ultimate salvation and ascendance into the kingdom of heaven. These rumors continued through various video uploads onto the web page, which gained a mass following.
In 1996, members of Do's clan took their Internet recruitment and technical savviness to new levels in a large home they called "The Monastery," a 9,000-square-foot residence in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, California. The home would eventually be a gathering place for the group's final siren call and the "Closure to Heaven's Gate" that the return of Hale-Bopp comet signified, as the group's web page still reads to this day. As of 2017, two representatives still run the archived website and answer questions about the cult.
Heaven's Gate members believed the planet Earth was about to be "recycled" ("wiped clean, renewed, refurbished, and rejuvenated"), and the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately. While the group was against suicide, they defined "suicide" in their own context to mean "to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered" and believed their "human" bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey. In conversation, when referring to a person or a person's body, they routinely used the word "vehicle".
The members of the group added -ody to the first names they adopted in lieu of their original given names, which defines "children of the Next Level". This is mentioned in Applewhite's final video, Do's Final Exit, filmed March 19–20, 1997, just days prior to the suicides.
They believed "to be eligible for membership in the Next Level, humans would have to shed every attachment to the planet". This meant all members had to give up all human-like characteristics, such as their family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money, and possessions.
"The Evolutionary Level Above Human" (TELAH) was as a "physical, corporeal place", another world in our universe, where residents live in pure bliss and nourish themselves by absorbing pure sunlight. At the next level, beings do not engage in sexual intercourse, eating or dying, the things that make us "mammalian" here. Heaven's Gate believed that what the Bible calls God is actually a highly developed Extraterrestrial.
Members of Heaven's Gate believed that evil space aliens—called Luciferians—falsely represented themselves to Earthlings as "God" and conspired to keep humans from developing. Technically advanced humanoids, these aliens have spacecraft, space-time travel, telepathy, and increased longevity. They use holograms to fake miracles. Carnal beings with gender, they stopped training to achieve the Kingdom of God thousands of years ago. Heaven's Gate believed that all existing religions on Earth had been corrupted by these malevolent aliens.
Although these basic beliefs of the group stayed generally consistent over the years, "the details of their ideology were flexible enough to undergo modification over time." There are examples of the group's adding to or slightly changing their beliefs, such as: modifying the way one can enter the Next Level, changing the way they described themselves, placing more importance on the idea of Satan, and adding several other New Age concepts. One of these concepts was the belief of extraterrestrial walk-ins; when the group began, "Applewhite and Nettles taught their followers that they were extraterrestrial beings. However, after the notion of walk-ins became popular within the New Age subculture, the Two changed their tune and began describing themselves as extraterrestrial walk-ins." The idea of walk-ins is very similar to the concept of being possessed by spirits. A walk-in can be defined as "an entity who occupies a body that has been vacated by its original soul". Heaven's Gate came to believe an extraterrestrial walk-in is "a walk-in that is supposedly from another planet."
The concept of walk-ins aided Applewhite and Nettles in personally starting from what they considered to be clean slates. In this so-called clean slate, they were no longer considered by members of this Heaven's Gate group to be the people they had been prior to the start of the group, but had taken on a new life; this concept gave them a way to "erase their human personal histories as the histories of souls who formerly occupied the bodies of Applewhite and Nettles."
Another New Age belief Applewhite and Nettles adopted was the ancient astronaut hypothesis. The term "ancient astronauts" is used to refer to various forms of the concept that extraterrestrials visited this planet in the distant past. Applewhite and Nettles took part of this concept and taught it as the belief that "aliens planted the seeds of current humanity millions of years ago, and have to come to reap the harvest of their work in the form of spiritually evolved individuals who will join the ranks of flying saucer crews. Only a select few members of humanity will be chosen to advance to this transhuman state. The rest will be left to wallow in the spiritually poisoned atmosphere of a corrupt world." Only the individuals who chose to join Heaven's Gate, follow Applewhite and Nettle's belief system, and make the sacrifices required by membership would be allowed to escape human suffering.
According to Heaven's Gate, once the individual has perfected himself through the "process," there were four methods to enter or "graduate" to the next level:
Open only to adults over the age of eighteen, group members gave up their material possessions and lived a highly ascetic life devoid of many indulgences. The group was tightly knit and everything was shared communally. In public, members always carried only a five-dollar bill and one roll of quarters. Eight of the male members of the group, including Applewhite, voluntarily underwent castration in Mexico as an extreme means of maintaining the ascetic lifestyle.
The group earned revenues by offering professional website development for paying clients under the name Higher Source.
The cultural theorist Paul Virilio has described the group as a cybersect, due to its heavy reliance on computer mediated communication as a mode of communication prior to the group's collective suicide.
On March 19–20, 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself speaking of mass suicide and asserted "it was the only way to evacuate this Earth". After claiming that a spacecraft was trailing Comet Hale–Bopp, Applewhite persuaded 38 followers to commit suicide so that their souls could board the supposed craft. Applewhite believed that after their deaths, an unidentified flying object (UFO) would take their souls to another "level of existence above human", which he described as being both physical and spiritual. This and other UFO-related beliefs held by the group have led some observers to characterize the group as a type of UFO religion. In October 1996, the group purchased alien abduction insurance that would cover up to 50 members and would pay out $1 million per person (the policy covered abduction, impregnation, or death by aliens).
The group rented a 9,200-square-foot (850 m2) mansion, located near 18341 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria) in a gated community of upscale homes in the San Diego-area community of Rancho Santa Fe, from Sam Koutchesfahani, paying $7,000 per month in cash. Thirty-eight Heaven's Gate members, plus group leader Applewhite, were found dead in the home on March 26, 1997. In the heat of the California spring, many of the bodies had begun to decompose by the time they were discovered. The bodies were later cremated.
The members took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and washed down with vodka. Additionally, they secured plastic bags around their heads after ingesting the mix to induce asphyxiation. Authorities found the dead lying neatly in their own bunk beds, faces and torsos covered by a square purple cloth. Each member carried a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets: the five dollar bill was to cover vagrancy fines while members were out on jobs, while the quarters were to make phone calls. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Decades athletic shoes, and armband patches reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team" (one of many instances of the group's use of the Star Trek fictional universe's nomenclature). The adherents, between the ages of 26 and 72, are believed to have died in three groups over three successive days, with remaining participants cleaning up after each prior group's deaths. Fifteen members died on March 24, fifteen more on March 25, and nine on March 26. Leader Applewhite was the third to last member to die; two people remained after him and were the only ones found without bags over their heads. Among the dead was Thomas Nichols, brother of the actress Nichelle Nichols, who is best known for her role as Uhura in the original Star Trek television series.
Only one of the group's members, Rio DiAngelo/Richard Ford, did not kill himself. He videotaped the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe; however, the tape was not shown to police until 2002, five years after the event.
The mass death of the Heaven's Gate group was widely publicized in the media as an example of mass suicide. When the news broke of the suicides and their relation to Comet Hale–Bopp, the co-discoverer of the comet, Alan Hale, was drawn into the story. Hale's phone "never stopped ringing the entire day." Hale did not respond until the next day when he spoke at a press conference on the subject only after he had researched details of the incident. Speaking at the Second World Skeptics Congress in Heidelberg, Germany on July 24, 1998:
|“||Dr. Hale discussed the scientific significance and popular lore of comets and gave a personal account of his discovery. He then lambasted the combination of scientific illiteracy, willful delusions, a radio talk-show's deception about an imaginary spacecraft following the comet, and a cult's bizarre yearnings for ascending to another level of existence that led to the Heaven's Gate mass suicides.||”|
Hale said that well before Heaven's Gate, he had told a colleague:
|“||'We are probably going to have some suicides as a result of this comet.' The sad part is that I was really not surprised. Comets are lovely objects, but they don't have apocalyptic significance. We must use our minds, our reason.||”|
Two former members of Heaven's Gate, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys, later committed suicide in a similar manner. Humphreys survived a suicide pact with Cooke in May 1997, but ultimately killed himself in February 1998.
Known to the mainstream media (though largely ignored through the 1980s and 1990s), Heaven's Gate was better known in UFO circles as well as in a series of academic studies by sociologist Robert Balch. Coast to Coast AM host Art Bell featured Heaven's Gate and the "companion object" in the shadow of Hale-Bopp on several programs.
Heaven's Gate received coverage in Jacques Vallée's book Messengers of Deception (1979), in which Vallée described an unusual public meeting organized by the group. Vallée frequently expressed concerns within the book about contactee groups' authoritarian political and religious outlooks, and Heaven's Gate did not escape criticism.
Louis Theroux contacted the Heaven's Gate group while making a program for his BBC Two documentary series, Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, in early March 1997. In response to his e-mail, Theroux was told that Heaven's Gate could not take part in the documentary as "at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on."
According to material the group posted on its Internet site, the timing of the suicides were probably related to the arrival of the Hale–Bopp comet, which members seemed to regard as a cosmic emissary beckoning them to another world.
A former member of the Heaven's Gate cult was found dead today in a copycat suicide in a motel room near the scene of the group's mass suicide in San Diego County, and another former member was found unconscious in the same room, the authorities said.