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The Twisted Saga of Heaven’s Gate

Life is something that we experience until we no longer do so. Depending on your personal beliefs, death is either a state of never-ending lights-out or the start of a new and endless adventure. But, what about  reanimation and resurrection?

Someone who was convinced that dying and coming back – in some form, at least – would be a wholly positive experience was a controversial character named Marshall Herff Applewhite, Jr.

Marshall looked entirely trustworthy and not at all insane

Marshall looked entirely trustworthy and not at all insane

A native of Texas, Applewhite gained infamy in 1997 when he convinced thirty-eight of his followers in the so-called Heaven’s Gate cult to take their own lives – chiefly because doing so would see them return in reanimated, immortal form. But before we get to death, reanimation and immortality, let’s see what it was that led to that terrible tragedy.

From a very young age Applewhite’s life was dominated by religious teachings: his father was a minister who lectured to, and thundered at, his meek followers. It was made clear to Applewhite that he was expected to do likewise. Exhibiting a high degree of youthful rebellion, however, Applewhite did not.

Instead he joined the U.S. Army. After leaving the military (which involved him spending a lot of time at the White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico), Applewhite’s life went in a very different direction: he became a music teacher.

He could not, however, shake off altogether that religious programming he received as a child and took a job with Houston, Texas’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. But, demonstrating that he was not quite so saintly after all, in 1974, he was arrested for credit-card fraud. It was also in the 1970s that Applewhite met the love of his life: Bonnie Nettles.

From then on, the devoted pair began to more and move delve into the world of cultish, crackpot activity: they established the Total Overcomers Anonymous group that assured its followers benevolent aliens were out there, ready and willing to help all those that pledged allegiance to the TOA. And many did exactly that. It was a group that eventually mutated into the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult. All of which brings us up to March 1997.

Three weeks into the month, Applewhite started brainwashing his duped clan into believing that if they killed themselves they would all reanimate – in some angelic dimension far different to, and far away from, our own earthly realm.

Since the comet Hale-Bopp was just around the corner, so to speak, Applewhite even weaved that into his story. There was, he said, a huge UFO flying right behind the comet, and when death came for the group it would transfer them to that same UFO and new and undead lives elsewhere.

His loyal followers eagerly swallowed every word. To their eternal cost, they eagerly swallowed something else, too: highly potent amounts of Phenobarbital and vodka. In no time at all, almost forty people were dead, all thanks to the words of Applewhite.

The second-worst PR issue Nike has dealt with

The second-worst PR issue Nike has dealt with

Aliens did not call upon the members of the Heaven’s Gate group. No UFO was ever detected behind Hale-Bopp. And the dead did not rise from the floor of the Heaven’s Gate abode, which was situated at Rancho Santa Fe, California, and where one and all took their lives.

Their bodies stayed exactly where they were until the authorities took them to the morgue for autopsy.

There is a major lesson to be learned here: don’t base your life around the claims of a man who tells you that knocking back large amounts of Phenobarbital and vodka will ensure your reanimation and immortality. It won’t.

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Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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