Cults have always hovered out on the fringes of religion. There are always those for which established doctrines don’t answer all of the questions for us, or solve the many mysteries of the universe that taunt us. Sometimes these cults take a sharp right turn into bizarreness, embracing beliefs that many might find questionable at best, and it all gets quite a bit darker when there are deaths involved. Here we will take a look at a rather infamous UFO cult, which took things to the extreme to leave many dead and many unanswered questions behind.
The whole morass of weirdness all began with a rather unsual chance meeting. In 1972, a man by the name of Marshall Applewhite had found himself unemployed from his job as a teacher at the University of Thomas, in Houston, Texas, due to a dalliance with a male student, and was a little down on his luck, confused and aimless. One day he went to meet a sick friend at a hospital, where he met a nurse by the name of Bonnie Nettles, and whether this was a pick-up line or not, he told Nettles that he was convinced they had met in a past life. Far from put off by this, Nettles would take it even further into the weird when she said she had been told by extraterrestrials that they would meet, and that they had a divine mission together. It was basically love at first sight.
In the coming days, Applewhite would claim to have vivid dreams and visions, and Nettles took this as a sign of the prophecy that had been foretold to her by the aliens. The fact that Nettles was married at the time does not seem to have deterred her at all when she then embarked on a 6-month-long retreat with Applewhite, during which time they read extensively on theology, philosophy, and extraterrestrials, as well as praying and engaging in long bouts of intense meditation. Through their studies they became convinced that they were a higher level of humanity than others, and that they were actually the two witnesses spoken of in the Book of Revelation, who were described as prophets who died, were resurrected, and were taken up into heaven upon a cloud. Nettles and Applewhite had their own unique spin on all of this, in that they believed that the cloud spoken of in the Bible was actually an alien spaceship, and that they were destined to also die and be brought aboard to be whisked away by their extraterrestrial saviors in an event they called “The Demonstration.” In addition to this, they believed that God was in fact an advanced, super-evolved alien, that life had been seeded on Earth by these very same aliens, and that we were basically an extraterrestrial garden that would be harvested when the time was right.
Despite the raised eyebrows this all brought them from pretty much everyone, they were undeterred, and went about making plans to actually carry out their plan and try to contact these higher aliens. Their first step was to gather a group of followers, and they really went full stop with their bizarre claims to those who came to see them. Applewhite and Nettles told potential members that they were the spokespeople for aliens, who could take them away to a place far away in the cosmos basically associated with the Kingdom of Heaven. According to them, the Earth was set to be harvested and then basically reset, and that the only way to avoid being wiped out was to join the extraterrestrials aboard their ship and effectively be taken to “Heaven,” which they called “The Next Level,” where they would become perfected entities. Followers were told that if they embraced the group’s teachings, they would become eligible for this transport off Earth, to essentially become immortal. It seems to have been a good pitch, because they began to attract a decent following of believers, steadily accruing members, attracting a broad spectrum of ages and from different religious backgrounds and walks of life, including people in high positions such the Republican politician John Craig, who joined in 1975 as he was running for the Colorado House of Representatives.
Upon entering the group, followers were required to take on an extremely ascetic lifestyle. They gave up all earthly possessions and connections, including their money, jobs, and families, as well as eschewing their more human tendencies, such as sexuality and their very individuality. Many males, including Applewhite himself, intentionally had themselves castrated in order to escape the binds of sexuality. They believed that this was the only way to condition themselves for the arduous journey they would eventually make, and it was seen as essentially helping them to “graduate” to ever more perfected levels, with the final stage being to leave Earth entirely. Through all of this they believed that there were sinister entities on Earth that sought to deceive and mislead humans through the use of lies and advanced technology such as holograms, and that all other religions had fallen victim to these devious creatures. Over time, the group’s belief’s evolved and were refined to include several New Age concepts, such as the idea that aliens could inhabit human bodies similar to a spiritual “walk-in,” basically a type of possession, as well as astral travel and others. Applewhite and Nettles, who called each other aliases such as “Bo and Peep” and “Do and Ti,” also tweaked their own stories, later claiming that they were not merely the earthly representatives of the aliens, but actually harbored the souls of the extraterrestrials themselves, much in the same way they believed had happened to Jesus Christ. Indeed, Applewhite would begin to proclaim himself as an actual successor to Jesus.
In 1975, the group suddenly sort of vanished off the public radar, going underground, moving covertly across the country camping out and evading the media so effectively that it had seemed as if they had just vanished off the face of the earth. It was all part of their plan to reach a higher level of existence, and to more fully metamorphose into superior beings. Nettles would die in 1985, which spurred a few more changes in the doctrine they had been preaching. Up until that point they had believed that they would physically be brought up into space aboard a UFO, but when Nettles died of cancer and that obviously didn’t happen, it was changed to the idea that only the soul or consciousness was beamed aboard, leaving the empty vessel of the physical body behind. This worked well with the idea of spiritual walk-ins, and so the cult trudged on, later funding the operation partly through a website called “Higher Source,” and indeed the group was heavily involved in using computers and the Internet to spread their ideology and pull in money, leading to their reputation as a sort of “cybercult.”
In September of 1996, the group, which now called itself “Heaven’s Gate,” made its headquarters in a sprawling, 9,200 square feet (850 m2) mansion in the upscale area of Rancho Santa Fe, just outside of San Diego, California. They also began buying up “alien abduction insurance,” which not only surprisingly is a thing, but also cost them ludicrous amounts of money. It was at this time that the approaching Comet Hale–Bopp started to be seen as having some sort of deep significance for them, and was seen as a sign. They became increasingly convinced that in the trail of the comet was a spaceship that was coming to finally pick them up, and that this was the moment they had been dreaming of for over two decades. Applewhite convinced his followers that this was so, that they were being presented a chance to join the Next Level, but how were they to go ride aboard it? In Applewhite’s view it was simple, they just had to leave their corporeal forms behind and be beamed aboard as the comet passed.
Now suicide had long been against the cult’s beliefs, but Applewhite found a way to twist this around. In his mind, since their human bodies were only vessels for their alien souls, then by choosing not to join their brethren aboard the UFO was the real “suicide,” as it would be denying their best chance to evolve to the next stage. This rationale seems to have been perfectly logical and reasonable to his followers, because they then started making arrangements to go about carrying out a series of ritual suicides that would allow them to leave their physical vessels to join the comet’s spacecraft. The website would give the chilling last 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 members then videotaped farewells to the friends and family they had long ago abandoned in their twisted faith, and in March of 1997 began their final journey. A total of 39 members of the group dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, with armbands that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” and then took a concoction of an epilepsy medication called phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce or pudding, which they then washed down with vodka. They then wrapped plastic bags around their heads for good measure, and as each one died their body was placed in a bed. The entire ritual was carried out over three days, between approximately March 22 and March 26, with three different groups, with some staying behind to tend to the bodies and send out videotaped farewells. Applewhite was among the last to die, and in the end, only a handful of the members remained to tell the tale.
On March 26, 1997, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department would find the bodies and it immediately hit the media to shock the entire nation. It was one of the worst mass suicides in history, made all the more chilling by the cheerful, hopeful demeanors of the final taped farewells, which showed that they really believed what they were preaching. Bizarrely, there would follow more suicides, including three of the cult’s remaining members and a copy cat suicide carried out by a 58-year-old man with no known connection to the cult, who left behind a note reading, “I’m going on the spaceship with Hale–Bopp to be with those who have gone before me.” The news was all so shocking and tragic, that even the co-discoverer of the comet, Alan Hale, spoke out to admonish what had happened and the belief systems and cultish techniques of isolation and indoctrination that had led to it. Despite the shockwaves of horror and revulsion the mass suicide caused, unbelievably the Heaven’s Gate website remained operational, run by two of the group’s surviving members.
The tale of the Heaven’s Gate cult is a bizarre, terrifying, and yet at times fascinating look into the belief system that cults can use to enslave the minds of their followers. That such a large group of perfectly sane individuals can be so absorbed into an aberrant belief system and truly embrace it to the point that they happily give their own lives is chilling at best. In the end 39 people are dead by their own choosing, looking to join the aliens they so desperately took as being real, and whether they really did find their ultimate goal or not, they leave a legacy of an ominous UFO cult, strangeness, and a dark peek into the human mind that will probably never be fully understood for most of us.