Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles founded Heaven's Gate, which was a cult that "combined Christian and some Theosophical doctrines with beliefs in UFO's [and] extraterrestrials" (Wessinger 2000, p. 233). Applewhite and Nettles went by many aliases during their time together. They went by Guinea and Pig, Bo and Peep, Ti and Do, and collectively they were referred to as the "Two." Applewhite and Nettles met at a hospital where Nettles worked in 1972. After the meeting, the two became close friends and Applewhite felt that he had met the "platonic helper he had longed for all his life" (Balch 1995, p. 142). Although they met in 1972, the cult really did not form until they began attracting followers in 1975.
The psychiatrist Marc Galanter argues that Applewhite and Nettles may have suffered from "the psychiatric syndrome of folie à deux, in which one partner draws the other into a shared system of delusion" (Galanter 1999, p. 178). They believed that they had come from the Next Level (i.e., heaven) to find individuals who would dedicate themselves to preparing for the spaceship that would take them there (Balch 1995). Their belief that they were from the Next Level is evidenced by both their assertions that they were the two witnesses referred to in Revelation 11 who had risen from the dead after being killed for spreading the word of God, and their belief that Applewhite was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ incarnate, and Nettles was the Heavenly Father.
Applewhite and Nettles believed that evil space aliens called Luciferians had kept people tied to the human level, and therefore incapable of moving to the Next Level. Because Applewhite and Nettles were from the Next Level only they could provide the insight needed to prepare their followers, which made the followers extremely dependent upon their leadership. The process of preparing for the Next Level involved giving up all human attachments and was called the "human individual metamorphis" (Balch 1995, p. 143). Some of the human attachments that cult members were expected to give up included family, friends, sexual relationships, and gender.
Sociologists Robert Balch and David Taylor and religious scholar Catherine Wessinger have noted that the members led a very regimented, monastic lifestyle within the cult. First, platonic male-female partnerships were formed, so each member could develop an "awareness of the human qualities each person had to overcome" (Balch and Taylor 1977, p. 842). Second, group members wore uniforms that were designed to conceal their human form in general and, in particular, their gender. Third, Balch notes that the cult had a number of rules and guidelines that "discouraged contact with the outside world" (e.g., do not contact parents or friends), "eliminate[d] old habits and identities" (e.g., no jewelry, no drugs), and "prevent[ed] the formation of interpersonal attachments within the group" (e.g., no sexual relationships) (Balch 1995, p. 149). Additionally, seven members, including Applewhite, had themselves castrated in order to control their sexual urges. Fourth, Applewhite and Nettles had group members engage in a series of activities or rituals that kept them busy for nearly all parts of the day. For example, Balch outlines an activity called "a tone," where group members were to keep themselves focused on a tone produced from a tuning fork at all times while doing other activities. The idea was to keep the group members focused on the Next Level, while ignoring human thoughts.
Many scholars provide commentary on the Heaven's Gate mindset. Marc Galanter points out that although the ideas that Applewhite and Nettles proposed are delusional and unreasonable, many of these concepts taken in isolation are relatively accepted by mainstream society. Balch and Taylor report that most of the people who joined Heaven's Gate accepted many of these ideas in isolation and were particularly intrigued by the way that Applewhite and Nettles had combined them. Moreover, Wessinger reports that those who left the cult still believed its ideas, but could not "adhere to the monastic discipline" (Wessinger 2000, p. 237).
In 1997 the Heaven's Gate members were living in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, where the group had been earning a living as web page designers. Applewhite became convinced that Nettles, who had died of cancer in 1985, was piloting a spaceship in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet to take them to the Next Level. However, they could not go in their human form, so they committed suicide to shed their "physical containers" (Lewis 1998, p. 2).
The suicide began on March 22, 1997. On day one, fifteen members ate applesauce or pudding laced with Phenobarbital and drank vodka, and then other members helped fasten plastic bags around their heads to asphyxiate them. After their deaths, the plastic bags were removed and they were covered with a purple shroud. On the second day, the process was repeated for another fifteen members, followed by another seven members. Finally, the mass suicide was completed when the last two members killed themselves (Wessinger 2000).
In total there were thirty-nine people (20 women and 19 men) who committed suicide. The group members ranged in age from their twenties to age seventy-two. When the bodies were discovered, they were all dressed in black and covered with a purple shroud. On their left shoulders group members had a patch that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team," which was an apparent reference to the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Additionally, "Each person had a $5 bill and quarters in the front shirt pocket" (Wessinger 2000, p. 231).
Differences from Other Forms of Cult Violence
Wessinger notes that Heaven's Gate was different from other cults that have decided to commit violence (e.g., Solar Temple, Jonestown) in that there were no children involved. Heaven's Gate members believed that only adults were prepared to make the decision about whether or not to go to the Next Level.
In Jonestown, Guyana, it is unclear how many people committed suicide versus how many people were murdered. In the Solar Temple cult, primarily a European cult, a number of the members were killed if it was felt that they were too weak to make the decision to kill themselves (Wessinger, 2000). However, Wessinger (2000) argues that there are several lines of evidence that suggest the members of Heaven's Gate were highly committed to voluntarily taking their own lives. First, the highly coordinated suicide (i.e., a farewell tape, preparation of the bodies) suggests that this was a well-thought-out plan. Second, the suicide took several days, yet no one tried to escape, unlike Jonestown where some members hid or escaped into the jungle. Moreover, two group members of Heaven's Gate who did not commit suicide in March later killed themselves in a similar ritualistic manner.
See also: Cult Deaths; Jonestown; Waco
Balch, Robert W. "Waiting for the Ships: Disillusionment and the Revitalization of Faith in Bo and Peep's UFO Cult." In James R. Lewis ed., The Gods Have Landed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Balch, Robert W., and David Taylor. "Seekers and Saucers: The Role of the Cultic Milieu in Joining a UFO Cult." American Behavioral Scientist 20 (1977):839–860.
Galanter, Marc. "The Millennium Approaches." In Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Lewis, James R. "Introduction." Cults in America. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.
DENNIS D. STEWART CHERYL B. STEWART
"Heaven's Gate." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/heavens-gate
"Heaven's Gate." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/heavens-gate
Heaven's Gate is the popular name given to a small UFO contactee group that gained international notoriety in March of 1997 when 39 of its members committed suicide in an effort to ascend to a higher level of consciousness. The group had been in the news in the 1970s when the founders, Marshall Herff Applewhite (1931-1997) and Bonnie Lu Truesdale Nettles (1924-1985), had made a widely reported tour across the United States in their initial recruitment drive to gather people in the expectation that they would soon be taken from Earth in a flying saucer. However, they had dropped out of sight for several years and their continued existence through the mid-1990s remained known to a relative few.
Heaven's Gate appears to have been born on the minds of Applewhite and Nettles in the years following their meeting in March of 1972. They operated a metaphysical center called the Know Place in Houston, Texas, for a while during which time Nettles, who was quite knowledgeable of occult lore, introduced Applewhite to theosophy. They closed the center at the end of the year and left Houston for the West Coast in January of 1973. As they began to speculate on their role in life, they concluded that they were the Two Witnesses mentioned in the biblical Book of Revelation, chapter 11, who would appear at the endtime and be murdered and then resurrected. This self-understanding would be the source of the names by which they would be popularly known, "The Two" and " Bo and Peep. " They believed that the Earth was about to undergo a renovation and that their job would be to locate a select few who would be taken off the Earth to The Level Above the Human (T.E.L.A.H.) in a flying saucer.
In 1975 and 1976, the group recruited more than one hundred people, mostly young adults, but ceased to recruit more as of April 21, 1976. During this period Applewhite and Nettles were the subject of intense media coverage and one book. They then turned inward and began to train the members of the group in the disciplines that would prepare them to transcend their earthly situation. They were quite mobile for several years but then settled in Texas where they remained through the 1980s. The group's number slowly dwindled, and Nettles died of cancer in 1985.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the group began new efforts at recruitment by producing a video that was shown on community access television. Then in 1993 it ran an ad in USA Today with a "Final Offer." In 1994, Applewhite introduced the idea that transcending the earthly situation might come by way of suicide. The group was on the move again, this time making its way westward. Members finally settled in Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb of San Diego, California. By now their numbers had dwindled to fewer than 50 people.
During the time in Rancho Santa Fe, the group searched for a new home, in a land that would be more hospitable to their monastic lifestyle. They had developed an ordered life that resembled that of a monastic group with its disciplines of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Some of the men had been castrated as a means of quelling their sexual urges.
The beginning of the end came early in 1997 when a new comet was spotted and rumors were circulated that something was following it as it approached. The group began to think that the spaceship, piloted by Nettles, was on the way. As the Hale-Bopp Comet reached the point in its orbit closest to Earth, which happened to coincide with the spring equinox, the 39 remaining members of the group, including Apple-white, committed suicide. Their bodies were found on March 26, 1997. The group was dressed in black shirts and pants and Nike sneakers. Each member was lying in a bunk bed with a purple cloth over him/her. They had died over a three-day period.
Fifteen died the first day, 15 the second, and the last nine on the third. Of these, eight had been relatively new recruits who had joined in the early 1990s. A month later one additional member, Wayne Cooke, committed suicide. Another member, Chuck Humphrey, spent a year trying to make sure that accurate information about the group was made available and archived, and then in February of 1998, he joined his colleagues in death. He set up a website that is still available (as of June 2000) in several mirror sites on the Internet. It contains the major book published by the group, How and When "Heaven's Gate" May Be Entered.
Of several groups that have experienced multiple violent deaths among its members, Heaven's Gate is unique in that all who died appeared to have been consenting adults who had thought out their act of suicide. Since its end, the group has become an important topic of study for those interested in new religions and violence.
Heaven's Gate. http://www5.zdnet.com/yil/higher/heavensgate/index.html. June 14, 2000.
Hewes, Hayden, and Brad Steiger. UFO Missionaries Extraordinary. New York: Pocket Books, 1976. Rev. ed. as: Inside Heaven's Gate; The UFO Cult Leaders Tell Their Story in Their Own Words. New York Signet, 1997.
Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.
"Heaven's Gate." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/heavens-gate
"Heaven's Gate." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/heavens-gate