The Heaven’s Gate cult was responsible for one of the most notorious and devastating mass suicides in history. The group’s founder, Marshall Applewhite along with a group of 38 followers, committed suicide together in 1997, claiming that they would transcend to the next level of evolution. They planned on being transported by the UFO that was accompanying the Hale-Bopp comet. They were found in the same all-black jumpsuits with white sneakers. They had ingested applesauce laced with Phenobarbital and drank vodka, and fell asleep with bags over their heads to make sure their fates were sealed.
This is all people really know about the group. For the most part, they only got substantial news recognition when they committed suicide, so people aren’t aware of much else. To be fair, unlike some of the more dubious cults, their belief system and practices were rather tame. Suicide did not factor into their doctrine until near the end of Applewhite’s life. The journey of how Marshall Applewhite formatted his religious beliefs alongside his partner, Bonnie Nettles, is fascinating. Cults are a mysterious phenomenon, and these 15 facts will take you deeper into the Heaven’s Gate cult than just the death toll that their eventual suicide accumulated.
15 The Founder
The founder of Heaven’s Gate was named Marshall Herff Applewhite. He was from Texas, and was a professor during the course of his career. He graduated from college in 1952, got married, and spent two years in the Army. All things considered, Applewhite was appearing to develop into a normal American man. Of course, this was before he decided to turn his likeness into the figurehead for an organization that would soon tell its followers to kill themselves so they could make it to the spaceship that was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. This came when he eventually met Bonnie Nettles, and together they formed the Heaven’s Gate cult on the basis of religious scripture and science fiction. Such cults and organizations have existed in the past, but theirs would go on to be known as one of the more deadly cults in American history.
14 Applewhite Was A Failed Artist
One of the commonalities that a lot of cult leaders have in common is their attempts to make their way in the arts. Marshall Applewhite was a strong singer, and impressed his peers with his deep baritone. This trait came through in his speaking voice as well, and this combined with his articulation made him a compelling speaker, garnering the interest of strangers quite easily. Applewhite tried his hand at acting in New York, but could never find any success in the industry. He reverted to teaching college at the University of Alabama, but the charisma never left him. Perhaps it is because they feel as though they were meant for something greater, but some of the more high-profile cult leaders tried and failed to make their mark on society through the arts.
13 The Breakdown
The creation of Marshall Applewhite as a cult leader and the Heaven’s Gate cult itself stemmed from his personal life experiences. Applewhite was having a rough go of it in the late 1960s. He was divorced from his wife and left his job. There were even reports that he was questioning his sexuality at the time. Many around him considered the fact that he might be having a nervous breakdown. He felt as though his life was bound for greatness, but he was lost along the path. It wasn’t until he met Bonnie Nettles that his life began to turn around. For better or worse (almost certainly the latter) they found solace in each other, and Applewhite began to adopt her ideas of the world as his own.
12 Bonnie Nettles
Bonnie Nettles lived in Houston almost her entire life. She was born into a religious family, and became a registered nurse. She got married to Joseph Nettles and had four children, but soon drifted away from her husband and her religion. She began to believe that she was being contacted by the dead, specifically a monk named Brother Francis. She claimed that he would tell her what to do, and Bonnie even held séances to contact other spirits. She believed heavily in prophecies, so when she was told that she would meet a mysterious man with a fair complexion, she thought it was her destiny when she stumbled upon Marshall Applewhite. It is unclear where the two met, but Applewhite wrote that she first saw him when he came to visit a friend in the hospital. There are conflicting reports, including reports from Nettle’s children who claim the two met in an acting class.
11 Developing A Belief System
The two free thinkers began to formulate their own belief system that was separate from religion but entwined in it at the same time. They perceived themselves as something special, and even claimed that they were the two witnesses that were spoken of in the Book of Revelations. They began their pilgrimage by going to churches and other religious groups to tell their story. They would tell anyone who would listen that they would be killed and transcend to an alien spacecraft for everyone else to see. They were seeking to contact aliens, and they believed that other religious groups would be open to their ideas. Of course, as can be expected, religious groups were hostile to their ideas and rejected the two, leaving them to blaze their own path and find their own followers who would believe their story.
10 The Crew
Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite combined their strange belief systems into something all on their own. They combined religious texts (namely the Book of Revelations) with science fiction theories and spiritual transcendence. Applewhite claimed that their meeting was foretold by aliens, and Nettles was of the mind to believe the same thing. The two went on the road to spread the word, and formed the organization that was originally called “The Crew.” Applewhite would indirectly mention in different forms that Jesus was to be reincarnated in Texas, which was an obvious reference to himself. The two began to recruit people who entertained their ideas for an “experiment.” They claimed that they spoke for extraterrestrial life, and that anyone who should participate would transcend to a higher evolutionary form. At this time, the two had about 80 followers.
9 The Disappearance
In 1975, all evidence of “The Crew” disappeared. They were beginning to garner media attention for their strange religion, so when the entirety of the group appeared to vanish into thin air, there was a lot of speculation as to what took place. What really happened was that Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite took The Crew off of the grid. They lived on the streets and begged for money while spreading their message. Just like Jesus and his followers, The Crew was told to disassociate with any worldly possessions and connections, and dedicate their life to attaining this higher evolutionary development that Nettles and Applewhite already claimed they had reached. They continued to recruit, and by the time they had resurfaced they had over a hundred followers across the country.
8 Why Join A Cult?
There are multiple reasons any individual may join a cult, but the circumstances surrounding the formation and recruitment into what would soon be known as Heaven’s Gate were perfect for this kind of belief system. A lot of those who followed Nettles and Applewhite were of the hippy variety, those who sought the truth of the universe and found that it lied somewhere outside organized religion. Those who were predisposed to religion, but thought that there was something more at play were vulnerable to the cult’s way of thinking, and when you take the strange beliefs and eventual mass suicide out of the equation, this alternative structure is not such a bad thing. A lot of people benefited from the communal understanding, even if it was misguided in the end. One of the reasons this cult was so successful was the sentiment of “free thinking” that was so prevalent at the time of its creation.
7 The Internet’s Role
The creation of the Heaven’s Gate cult occurred at exactly the right time for mass recruitment. It was formed in the era of free thinking and lasted until the internet age, when they were able to put their ideas on a webpage and recruit members from across the country with their doctrine. Nettles died from cancer in 1985, and Applewhite took it upon himself to revise some of the belief systems of their organization, making it more reclusive and bold in its predictions. They posted their views on their website, and people flocked from all over to follow. This is where the Hale-Bopp comet was first introduced to the group, and the rumors began that this was their ticket off the planet and into the higher level of evolution.
6 Membership Goals
The group was open to anyone who was over the age of 18 and able to make their own decisions. They wanted as little attachment to the material world as possible, and believed even sexual gratification and urges were in direct opposition of what they stood for. Several of the male members, including Applewhite, castrated themselves in Mexico to avoid any attachment to sexual needs. The group had virtually no money, and only walked around with enough money to buy some food if they needed it. They shared everything, as there was a communal nature among the cult that could be witnessed in many hippy communes across the country. Apart from the castration (which was reportedly voluntary), a lot of what the group was preaching was not inherently bad. It’s only until you look into the details of the belief system that troubles start to arise.
5 Religion and Spirituality
The belief system of Heaven’s Gate was rooted in spiritualism and, in part, hippy culture. They believed that the body was merely a vessel, or vehicle for consciousness. This belief was and still is held by many who lean hippy, but Heaven’s Gate also believed that the world was about to be destroyed, which drew from the Book of Revelations. They believed that they knew the secret to escape the doom, and that there was a paradise on another planet that was full of advanced life forms. This was the group’s version of heaven, where things like sexual attraction, food and death were of no consequence. They also believed that there was an evil force at work on Earth, hindering people from being able to transcend to the next level of evolution. They believed that people had to give up their worldly possessions; much like Jesus did to attain such a high state of mind. This is where the science fiction aspect picks up.
The group was heavily invested in the existence of extraterrestrials and how they affected life on earth. Applewhite wrote that what humans perceive as God was just a highly advanced life form that we cannot comprehend. Likewise, the evil forces at work were other highly advanced aliens, trying to snub out our evolution and get us to focus more on the human world. Their heaven was a physical place, instead of a spiritual one, that could theoretically be reached and measured in the physical world. The Heaven’s Gate cult also subscribed to the ancient alien belief, the belief that aliens visited ancient cultures and created humanity and civilization as we know it today. They felt that only those who joined Heaven’s Gate would be able to rejoin these aliens on the planet of pure bliss that awaited them. They eventually adopted the belief that the vehicle to take them there was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
3 How to Attain Higher Evolution
The foundation for the group’s beliefs was that there was a higher level that would eventually be entered if you subscribed to their ideology. They were generally against suicide for a long time, stating that natural death or death from persecution were the only ways a deceased soul would make it to the next level. They believed that a UFO would eventually pick them up, but had to plan for those that would die before it reached them (including Nettles herself). Applewhite also became worried that the group would be killed by the government after the deadly standoff with The Branch Davidians (a cult out of Texas). Finally, Applewhite changed the doctrine to include willful and dignified exit from the body; in other words, suicide.
2 Alan Hale Saw This Coming
In March of 1997, Marshall Applewhite made a recording in which he referenced the UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet, and that the group needed to kill themselves in order to be picked up and transported to the nest level of existence. He convinced 38 of his followers to take this journey with them, and police found the dead bodies in their California mansion days later. The event was highly publicized, and all that most people will remember about the group. Alan Hale, when told of the cult’s suicide in relation to the comet he helped to discover, denounced their actions and said that he had seen something like this coming. He stated that he told a colleague that there would likely be suicides in relation to the existence of the comet, and that people read such things as apocalyptic events. He urged for reason and science literacy to fight these types of things, but was saddened by the fact that he was not surprised by the group’s actions.
1 The Heaven’s Gate Cult Is Still Out There
The Heaven’s Gate cult did not end when its co-founder killed himself with 38 other individuals. Many who followed the teachings of the cult did not kill themselves, and the website is still being updated to this day. There is a large amount of literature on the website, including their official book and belief system. They still have faith in the Hale-Bopp comet, stating on their homepage that it is the, "marker we’ve been waiting for." They have videotapes and email addresses to contact representatives of the group, and while it’s unclear who is handling the website since the death of Applewhite, it is clear that there are still believers out there. .
Sources: Biography, Heavensgate