2017 marks twenty years since the Heaven's Gate incident and people are still fascinated with this group and the reason behind their decision to end their lives.
Heaven's Gate was an American UFO religious group that was founded in the 1970s. Most people consider the group to be a cult because of their divergent views and beliefs. The group grabbed the world’s attention in 1997 when 39 of its members committed group suicide in Santa Fe, California. They all died from a fatal dose of phenobarbital which they mixed into applesauce and washed down with vodka. Most of them also tied plastic bags over their heads to induce suffocation.
The reason that the leader and his group of devoted followers had committed suicide was truly bizarre. Marshall Applewhite, the founder of the group, believed that by taking their own lives they would be able to transcend their human bodies and teleport to an alien spacecraft. They believed that the spaceship would transport them to a literal heaven in the stars and that they would reach a higher form of existence. This was referred to as TELAH– The Evolutionary Level Above Human. Applewhite told them that the starship was following in the tail of the 1997 Hale-Bopp comet, which was visible to the naked eye that year from almost everywhere on earth.
Intrigued? Here 15 are more crazy things you probably didn’t know about this creepy suicidal cult...
15 Their Leader Believed He Was Jesus Christ
In creepy “initiation” videos (which you can still watch on YouTube) Applewhite told his followers that he believed that the same “spirit” that came in the form of Jesus Christ was alive in him. He said, “That mind that was in Jesus, what, that mind is in me? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. I must admit that I am here again. That I am here saying exactly the same thing that I said then.” He also acknowledges his “father” adding that his father was not a human being.
He not only believed that he was the “Present Representative” of Jesus Christ but he also told his followers that his “father” (i.e. God) had returned to Earth with him and occupied the “vessel” of his life partner (and co-founder of the group) Bonnie Nettles.
14 The Exit Videos
Now if you thought the Heaven's Gate initiation videos were creepy AF then hold on to your drinks, it’s about to get way weirder.
Before they died, Applewhite’s followers, who referred to themselves as the Heaven's Gate Away Team, made a number of “exit” videos. In these videos, they discuss the reasons they decided to give up their families and lives to follow Applewhite. Most of them seem calm, relaxed and happy but cult experts say that their behavior suggests that they were so brainwashed that they didn’t really understand that they were going to die. In the videos, they speak frankly about “what we are going to do”, a thinly veiled reference to their upcoming suicide.
These videos are intensely creepy when you realize that every single one of the people in them died by their own hand shortly afterward.
13 There Were Even More Victims
In May 1997 the bodies of two former members of Heaven’s Gate, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys, were discovered in a low-cost motel room. The scene looked much like the mass suicide event that had taken place just 2 months prior but with one difference– one of the men was still alive.
Both men were discovered lying face up, dressed in the trademark black clothing and purple shrouds but Humphreys was still clinging to life and paramedics were able to resuscitate him and take him to the hospital where he made a full recovery.
Cooke had been interviewed by The New York Times following the March 1997 suicides and has expressed remorse at having “missed out”, prophetically adding ''I am going to drop my shell one of these days," which of course hinted at his future suicide.
Charlie Humphreys may have survived one attempt, but it wasn’t enough to snap him out of the cult's brainwashing. He died by his own hand in February 1998 alone in the Arizona desert.
12 Heaven's Gate Connection To Star Trek
Among those who died at the Rancho Santa Fe mansion was a man named Thomas Nichols, the brother of Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols. Nichols played the character Uhura in the original TV series. Her family issued a statement following the suicides saying that Thomas had been a Heaven’s Gate follower for 11 years and that he had cut off all contact with his family. He left a final message in a group “exit” video saying, “"I'm the happiest person in the world.”
The group enjoyed the Star Trek show and often used iconography from the show in their designs– such as their website, which has a space themed background and the Heaven's Gate Away Team patches that they wore on their clothes. There are even accounts of the group recruiting new members at early Star Trek conventions.
11 They Didn’t All "Exit" Together
If you thought that all the members of the cult died together, then think again. The truth is far, far worse. Investigators believed that the suicides were carried out over a three-day period between the 24th and 26th of March and that they died in three groups. After each group died, the rest cleaned up after them. Fifteen members died on the first day, fifteen more the following day and nine on the final day. Applewhite, who was found alone in one of the master bedrooms, was the third last to die, followed by two women.
This just goes to show how charismatic Applewhite was– to keep the group calm enough to commit the act in shifts. Although no one can really tell us what those final days were actually like for the members of the cult.
10 How The 39 Bodies Were Discovered
The police were alerted to the mass suicide by Rio DiAngelo, a member of the cult who had left the house. Before they had died they had sent him a letter telling him that they had “left their vessels and moved on”. The letter had arrived a few days after the suicides but before he called the police he went to the house to see for himself.
This is what he had found: a total of 39 bodies, most of which had already begun to decompose producing a gag-inducing smell. Each one of the bodies was laid out face-up on a bed or mattress and 37 of them had a purple shroud over their face and shoulders. They were all dressed in black and wore matching Nike trainers. DiAngelo recorded the discovery on a hand-held video camera but didn’t share the video with police until 2002.
9 Some Male Members Underwent Voluntary Castration
In one of Applewhite’s videos, he speaks about heavenly “next level beings” (aliens) having the perfect shape and form. He describes them as being neither male nor female and being hairless, hence why many followers cut their hair very short or shaved it completely. They also wore plain clothes, little to no jewelry and no makeup as a way of showing their readiness for the “next” level.
Some of the cult members, including Applewhite, took it one step further. Not wearing make-up or shaving off your hair is one thing but in order to align themselves with the aliens they believed were going to fetch them, some male members even underwent voluntary castration. In one video a follower refers to this experience and said it made him feel free. Okay, then.
8 What Happened To The House They Died In?
In 1996 Applewhite and his followers rented a sprawling 9,000 square-foot residence in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The home, which they called “The Monastery”, cost a cool $7,000 a month, which they paid in cash from the proceeds of their website design company.
Now after they all died in the house, well, you can imagine that it was pretty hard to find new tenants. In fact, the owner ran into financial trouble and the residents, sick of all the media attention, clubbed together and bought the house. They paid $668,000 for the 7 bedroom mansion, less than half of its estimated $1.6 million value. They then bulldozed it and just to bring final closure, changed the name of the street as well.
7 They Believed God Was An Alien
The Heaven’s Gate beliefs touched on what we now call ancient alien hypothesis. They believed that the world was “seeded” by higher level beings (i.e. extraterrestrials). Further to this, they believed that the God that is referred to in the Bible is also one of his highly developed beings. On their archived website you can even see a rendering of what they thought these beings might look like.
But it gets weirder still. As well as believing in these heavenly aliens they also believed that there was a race of evil space aliens, which they called Luciferians. According to Applewhite, these aliens were using all kinds of trickery to misrepresent themselves as God on Earth and keep the human race from developing to the next level of existence. They believed that all other religions on Earth were following these evil space aliens instead of the real God.
6 TELAH - The Evolutionary Level Above Human
Central to the belief structure of Heaven’s Gate was the belief that the earth was about to be “recycled” and that the only way to survive this would be to leave. And the only way that people could leave was by giving up everything and following Marshall Applewhite. Only then could you become eligible for membership to TELAH - The Evolutionary Level Above Human.
We now know what this also meant– that the members also needed to commit suicide in order to shed their human form and so be able to hitch a ride on the TELAH spaceship that they believed was traveling in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet. They believed that the spaceship would take them to another world, a physical heaven where they would live in pure bliss.
5 The Members Weren’t Just Crazy Hippies
It’s easy to think that all the people who joined Heaven’s Gate were hippies or crazies. I mean how could any rationally thinking person believe what Applewhite was selling? The truth is none of his believers, who came from a number of different backgrounds and professions, were stupid. They may have been impressionable or open to suggestion but Marshall was such a brilliant manipulator that it was easy for him to get people to believe him. His charisma transformed his outlandish ideas into plausible theories and people followed him. All the way to the end.
The group even managed to convert people from far-left alternative religious backgrounds. One example was John Craig, an early recruit. At the time he joined Heaven’s Gate he was a respected Republican running for a place in the Colorado House of Representatives.
4 They Were One Of The First Cults To Use The Internet
Heaven’s Gate was one of the first cults to use the Internet to earn money and spread their ideology. The World Wide Web was still in its infancy during the early nineties but Marshall Applewhite saw its potential. The group earned money for themselves by doing website design for clients under the name Higher Source.
You can still visit their official website, which is a perfect example of nineties web design and cyberculture of the time. It’s pretty eerie to do so knowing that the page basically serves as the group's collective suicide note. Many people refer to Heaven’s Gate as one of the first examples of a cyber-sect as they used the web to communicate with their followers from all over the world.
3 They Were Around For Nearly 30 Years Before They Made Their "Exit"
Applewhite and Nettles met in 1972 and soon became friends. Nettles said that aliens had told her that someone would come into her life and help her carry out a divine assignment. In the early days, Applewhite and Nettles visited religious groups to spread their ideas but they were poorly received. At these meetings, they would introduce themselves as the “The UFO Two”, a reference to the two witnesses described in the book of Revelations in the Bible.
Throughout the 70s and 80s the group went through many name changes and their philosophy evolved. In the 90s Heaven’s Gate became reclusive, recruiting using the internet. The media reported on the group as early as 1975 but it wasn’t until the suicides in 1997 that the group really came into the spotlight. What a pity.
2 Their Leader Was Almost Certainly Suffering From Severe Mental Illness
Marshall Applewhite was a charming and charismatic man and when he was young he seemed to have the world at his feet. But failure changed him. After failing to get a singing career off the ground, being fired from his music teaching job and getting a divorce he sank into a deep depression. He was eventually hospitalized and this is where he met Bonnie Nettles. At the time she was a psychiatric nurse who helped treat him.
Looking at his prophecies, teachings, and videos some experts say that he could have been suffering from any number of serious mental conditions, for example; bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or histrionic personality disorder. Due to his claims that he was the son of God, it’s believed that he also suffered from megalomania. People with this disorder falsely believe that they are famous or powerful and often these delusions have supernatural or religious themes.
1 They Are Still Around
One of the creepiest things you need to know about Heaven’s Gate is that followers of the cult are still around– some 20 years after the mass suicide event. But just in case you’re wondering, no, they are not still accepting new members. On their homepage, a message reads "Hale-Bopp Brings Closure to Heaven's Gate". In the text below is an even creepier message, frozen in time: “You may even find your 'boarding pass' to leave with us during this brief 'window.'"
There is an email address on the site and as of 2016 messages to this email were still being answered by representatives of the TELAH foundation. There are two followers who still run the archived website and answer questions about the group. Truly spine chilling stuff.
Sources: heavensgate.com, wired.com, youtube.com, nytimes.com, articles.latimes.com, culteducation.com
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