Heaven's Gate was an American UFO religious millenarian cult based near San Diego, California. It was founded in 1974 and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985). On March 26, 1997, members of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group in a house in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. They had participated in a mass suicide; specifically, a coordinated series of ritual suicides, in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft following Comet Hale–Bopp.
Just before the mass suicide, the group's website was updated with the message: "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 relationship with one of his male 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 a hospital where she worked while he was visiting a sick friend there. It has been rumored that it was a psychiatric hospital, but Nettles was substituting for another nurse working with premature babies in the nursery.  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 19 and Nettles's 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 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 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. Do and Ti taught during 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, identifying themselves using the business name "Higher Source", and using their website to proselytize and recruit followers. 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.
Contemporary media coverage
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. 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 through a series of academic studies by sociologist Robert Balch.
In January 1994, the LA Weekly ran an article on the group, then known as "The Total Overcomers". Richard Ford, who would later play a key role in the 1997 group suicide, discovered Heaven's Gate through this article and eventually joined them, renaming himself Rio DiAngelo.
Coast to Coast AM host Art Bell featured the theory of the "companion object" in the shadow of Hale–Bopp on several programs, as early as November 1996; speculation has been raised as to whether his programs on the subject may have contributed to Heaven's Gate's group suicide months later.
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 because "at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on."
In October 1996, members of Ti's clan began renting a large home which they called "The Monastery," a 9,200 square feet (850 m2) mansion located near 18341 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria) in a gated community of upscale homes in Rancho Santa Fe, California. They paid $7,000 per month, in cash. In the same month, the group purchased alien abduction insurance that would cover up to fifty members and would pay out $1 million per person (the policy covered abduction, impregnation, or death by aliens).
On March 19–20, 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself in Do's Final Exit, speaking of mass suicide and asserted "it was the only way to evacuate this Earth." After asserting that a spacecraft was trailing Comet Hale–Bopp and that this event would represent the "Closure to Heaven's Gate," Applewhite persuaded 38 followers in The Monastery to prepare for ritual suicide so 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. Their preparations included each member videotaping a "farewell message" for themselves.
To kill themselves, members took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce or pudding and washed it down with vodka. Additionally, they secured plastic bags around their heads after ingesting the mix to induce asphyxiation. 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). Each member had on their person 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. Once dead, a living member would arrange the body by removing the plastic bag from the person's head. They then posed the body so that it lay neatly in their own bed, with faces and torsos covered by a square purple cloth.
The 39 adherents, 21 women and 18 men 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. The suicides occurred in groups of fifteen, fifteen, and nine, between approximately March 22 and March 26. 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. Leader Applewhite was the third to last member to die; two people remained after him and were the only ones who would be found with bags over their heads and not having purple cloths covering their top halves. Before the last of the suicides, similar sets of FedEx packages were sent to numerous Heaven's Gate affiliated (or formerly affiliated) individuals, and at least one media outlet, the BBC department responsible for Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, for which Heaven's Gate had earlier declined participation.
Among those in the list of recipients was Rio DiAngelo. The package DiAngelo received on the evening of March 25, as other packages sent had, contained two VHS videotapes, one with Do's Final Exit, and the other with the "farewell messages" of group followers. It also contained a letter, stating that among other things, "we have exited our vehicles, just as we entered them." Upon informing his boss of the contents of the packages, DiAngelo received a ride from him from Los Angeles to the Heaven's Gate home in Rancho Santa Fe so he could verify the letter. DiAngelo found a back door purposely left unlocked to allow access, and used a video camera to record what he found. After leaving the house, DiAngelo's boss, who had waited outside, encouraged him to make calls to authorities alerting them to his discovery.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department received an anonymous tip through the 911 system at 3:15 p.m. on March 26, suggesting they "check on the welfare of the residents". Days after the suicides, this caller was revealed to be DiAngelo.
A deputy who responded to the call by wearing a surgical mask and entering the home through a side door, found 10 bodies, and was nearly overcome by a "pungent odor"; in the heat of the California spring, many of the bodies had begun to decompose by the time they were discovered. The single deputy called for backup. After a cursory search of the home by two deputies found no one alive, both retreated until a search warrant could be procured. The 39 bodies were ultimately cremated.
The Heaven's Gate event was widely publicized in the media as an example of mass suicide. When 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." He did not respond until the next day, when he spoke on the subject at a press conference, but only after researching the details of the incident. Speaking at the Second World Skeptics Congress in Heidelberg, Germany on July 24, 1998:
Hale said that well before Heaven's Gate, he had told a colleague:
News of the 39 deaths in Rancho Santa Fe motivated the copycat suicide of a 58-year-old man living near Marysville, California. The man left a note dated March 27, which said, "I'm going on the spaceship with Hale–Bopp to be with those who have gone before me," and imitated some of the details of the Heaven's Gate suicides as they had been reported in the media up to that point. The man was found dead by a friend on March 31, and had no known connection with Heaven's Gate.
At least three former members of Heaven's Gate ultimately died by suicide themselves in the months after the mass suicide event. On May 6, 1997, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys attempted suicide in a hotel in a manner similar to those in the group had. Cooke died and Humphries survived this attempt. Another former member, James Pirkey Jr., died by suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound on May 11. Humphreys, who had survived his first suicide attempt, ultimately killed himself in Arizona in February 1998.
Travis Jeppesen's first novel, Victims (2003), was inspired in part by the Heaven's Gate group.
Two surviving members still maintain the group's website, although it has not been altered since the suicide event. The two do not identify themselves in interviews.
In July 2018, American rapper Lil Uzi Vert posted the cover art for his upcoming studio album Eternal Atake to his Instagram. The artwork incorporated a reworking of the Heaven's Gate "keyhole" logo. The group's two survivors threatened Lil Uzi Vert, who at the time used a picture of Marshall Applewhite as his Instagram avatar, with copyright infringement litigation.
The infamy caused by the mass suicides, limited availability and its sudden and unceremonious discontinuation has been cited as the reason why Nike Decades command such high resale value. One sellers have reportedly tried to sell them at $6600.
Heaven's Gate members believed the planet Earth would be "recycled" ("wiped clean, renewed, refurbished, and rejuvenated") before 2027 and the only chance for their consciousness (defined sometimes as soul or mind) to survive was to leave their human bodies at an appointed time. Initially the group had been told that they would be transported with their bodies on board a spacecraft that would come to Earth and take the crew to heaven, referred to as the "next level". When Bonnie Lou Nettles (Ti) died of cancer in 1985, it confounded Applewhite's doctrine because Nettles was allegedly chosen by the next level to be a messenger on Earth, yet her body died instead of leaving physically to outer space. The belief system was then refined to include the leaving of consciousness from the body as equivalent to leaving the Earth in a spacecraft.
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. Suicide, therefore, would be not allowing their consciousness to leave their human bodies to join the next level; remaining alive instead of participating in the group suicide was considered suicide of their consciousness. 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 that, "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." Over time Applewhite also refined his identity in the group to encourage the belief that the "walk in" that was inhabiting his body was the same that had done so to Jesus 2,000 years ago. Similar to Nestorianism this belief stated that the personage of Jesus and the spirit of Jesus were separable. This meant that Jesus was simply the name of the body of an ordinary man that held no sacred properties that was taken over by an incorporeal sacred entity to deliver "next level" information.
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 Earth 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.
Techniques to enter the next level
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:
- Physical pickup onto a TELAH spacecraft and transfer to a next level body aboard that craft. In this version, what Professor Zeller calls a "UFO" version of the "Rapture", an alien spacecraft would descend to Earth, collect Applewhite, Nettles, and their followers, and their human bodies would be transformed through biological and chemical processes to perfected beings. This and other UFO-related beliefs held by the group have led some observers to characterize the group as a type of UFO religion.
- Natural death, accidental death, or death from random violence. Here, the "graduating soul" leaves the human container for a perfected next-level body.
- Outside persecution that leads to death. After the deaths of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas and the events involving Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Applewhite was afraid the American government would murder the members of Heaven's Gate.
- Willful exit from the body in a dignified manner. Near the end, Applewhite had a revelation that they might have to abandon their human bodies and achieve the next level as Jesus had done. This occurred on March 22 and 23 when 39 members died by suicide and "graduated".
Open only to adults over the age of 18, group members gave up their possessions and lived a highly ascetic life devoid of many indulgences. The group was tightly knit and everything was communally shared. In public, each member of the group 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 its ascetic lifestyle. The group initially attempted castration by having one of the members perform the castration since she was a former nurse but this initial attempt was very unsuccessful and almost resulted in the patient dying. This initial failed castration caused at least one member to leave Heaven's Gate. Every castration that followed this initial one was done in a hospital
The group earned revenues by offering professional website development for paying clients under the business 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 its collective suicide.
In popular culture
In its first live episode following the mass suicide, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch where the cult members really did end up in space. It was followed by a commercial parody, featuring footage of the Nike-clad corpses. The ad was for Keds, marketed "for level headed Christians."
The sect is briefly and indirectly mentioned in the 1997 movie Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster, when after the receiving of a message from outer space located in the star Vega, CNN's journalist Natalie Allen (playing herself in a cameo) talks about its religious implications by "recent cult deaths near San Diego".
In the April 11, 1999 Family Guy episode "Chitty Chitty Death Bang", Meg Griffin is recruited into a cult similar to Heaven's Gate where the members wore matching tracksuits and shoes, lived together in a large house, and planned to die by mass suicide.
The English band Porcupine Tree referenced the cult in their 2000 song "Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled" which featured the cult leader's speech.
The song Propane Nightmares by Australian/British Drum and bass band Pendulum features many references to their mass suicide in the music video and the song itself.
The band Fall Out Boy has a song called "Heaven's Gate" on the 2018 album M A N I A.
Fizz from The Tweenies hates Heaven's Gate and the Tweenies even made an episode about them.