Who were Heaven’s Gate?
Applewhite’s family could understand how the man they knew – a friendly, happy, caring Christian and devoted husband and father of two – could walk away from everything to found a cult. But that’s what Marshall Applewhite did.
And not just any cult. Heaven’s Gate was strange even among the bizarre New Age beliefs that were popularized in the 1970s — a time when a generation of free spirits were leaving the conventional behind to find themselves.
For one, Heaven’s Gate was the first cult to go hi-tech. It had a website before most traditional businesses did, and its beliefs were meticulously spacey, involving aliens, UFOs, and talk of ascension to the “next level.” Visitors to the website were not quite sure if what they were reading was a joke or not.
The cult borrowed much from Christianity, as Applewhite claimed to be able to save his followers from Lucifer. (Applewhite, luckily, was the reincarnation of Jesus.) It was a combination that provoked laughter and ridicule more often than it converted — but somehow, it did convert.
The birth of Heaven’s Gate
Marshall Applewhite, son of a Presbyterian minister, was born in 1931 in Texas. Known for his musical talents, he developed an interest in opera and attempted to become an actor.
His dreams didn’t work out so he pursued music careers at universities instead, acting as a music professor in Houston. In 1970, he was allegedly fired from his job as a music professor at Houston’s University of St. Thomas — because of an alleged affair with one of his male students.
Though Applewhite and his wife were already divorced by that point, he apparently struggled with the loss of his job and may have even had a nervous breakdown. A couple years later, he met Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year-old nurse with a strong interest in biblical prophecy as well as a few lesser-known spiritual beliefs.
While the true story of how Applewhite met Nettles remains murky, Applewhite’s sister maintains that he entered a Houston hospital with heart trouble and that Nettles was one of the nurses who treated him. Apparently, Nettles convinced Applewhite that he had a purpose — and that God had saved him for a reason.
Alternative reports say Applewhite had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital where he met Nettles. And Applewhite himself would say that he was simply visiting a friend in the hospital when he encountered Nettles.
Regardless of how they met, Applewhite would later recall that he felt he had known Nettles for along time and ultimately concluded they had met in a past life. Nettle’s story was a bit different. She said their meeting had been foretold to her by extraterrestrials.
By 1973, Marshall and Nettles were convinced that they were the two witnesses described in the biblical Book of Revelation, that they were gifted higher-level minds than other people, and that they would prepare the way for the kingdom of heaven. They wrote a pamphlet describing how Jesus had been reincarnated as a Texas, implying that Applewhite was Jesus. Before long, UFOs were added into the mix.
Applewhite and Nettles began to call themselves Bo and Peep, Him and her, and Do and Ti. Sometimes they even went by Winnie and Pooh or Tiddly and Wink. Theirs was a platonic, sexless partnership — in keeping with the ascetic life they would come to encourage among their followers.
Heaven’s Gate recruits followers
Applewhite and Nettles wasted no time advertising their new cult — despite how disorganized it was at first. Before they gave presentations, they would distribute posters that often promoted a bizarre mix of conspiracy theory, science fiction, and proselytization.
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.
And yet, these invitations were undeniably eye-catching. The word “UFOs” would often appear in big letters at the top, with a disclaimer at the bottom: “Not a discussion of UFO sightings or phenomena.”
The posters usually claimed,
“Two individuals say they were sent from the level above human, and will return to that level in a space ship (UFO) within the next few months.”
At the bottom, it gave the date, time and place as Sep. 14, 2 p.m. at the Bayshore Inn in Waldport, Ore.
In 1975, Bo and Peep received national attention after they gave a successful presentation in Oregon. In this presentation and others like it, Applewhite and Nettles promoted Heaven’s Gate — then called Human Individual Metamorphosis or Total Overcomers Anonymous — with the promise that a spaceship would come and whisk the cult members away to salvation.
But first, they had to renounce sex, drugs, and earthly possessions — and in some cases they needed to renounce their own families. Only then could they be elevated to a new world and a better life known as TELAH, The Evolutionary Level Above Human.
An estimated 200 people attended the Oregon event. While many in town thought it was laughable at first, at least a couple dozen people were interested enough to follow up with the cult — saying goodbye to their loved ones in the process.
Through this grassroots approach, the founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult were able to convince people to leave their homes and earthly belongings behind to follow the groups for about two decades. The cult members didn’t have a real home, and many of them maintained their anonymity.
That night on the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite reported that the group had disappeared, in one of the 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.
As the group moved across the country, they recruited others into the religion. 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.
Life inside Heaven’s Gate
It was a radical move, but for some, the choice encompassed the spirit of the decade — many were giving up the conventional lives they had started and seeking new spiritual answers to old questions. As with most cults, they left their families behind. Applewhite told initiates in a videotaped introduction:
“Parents do not possess the offspring they have. It’s a very evil thing for them to think they’re theirs, that they are products of theirs, property of theirs.”
As if abandoning their families and all their money wasn’t enough, members were also expected to follow incredibly strict rules — including “no sex, no human-level relationships, no socializing.” A few members — including Applewhite — took this to the extreme by undergoing castration.
Along with dressing largely alike, the followers were expected to be in sync about even the most mundane things. Survivor Michael Conyers said,
“Everything was designed to be… an exact duplicate. You were not to come up with, ‘Well I’m going to make the pancakes this big.’ There was a mixture, a size, how long you cooked it one side, how much the burner was on, how many a person got, how the syrup was poured on it. Everything.”
Michael Conyers, an early recruit, said that the appeal of Applewhite’s and Nettles’s message was in how they were “talking to my Christian heritage, but in a modern updated way.” For example, Heaven’s Gate apparently taught that Mary was impregnated by being taken up in a spacecraft. Conyers explained,
“Now as unbelievable as that sounds, that was an answer that was better than just plain virgin birth. It was technical, it had physicality to it.”
The problem was that the cult was operating on a clock. Followers believed that if they stayed on earth long enough, they would face “recycling” — the destruction of the earth as the planet was wiped clean.
At first, Nettles and Applewhite were convinced it wouldn’t come to that. After all, a spaceship run by TELAH beings was supposed to arrive for them before the apocalypse.
The death of Bonnie Nettles
Fate, however, threw a wrench in their plans when Bonnie Nettles died from cancer in 1985. Her death was a severe blow to Applewhite, not only emotionally, but also philosophically. Nettles’s death had the potential to call into question a number of the cult’s teachings. Perhaps, most pressingly, why did she die before the TELAH beings came to pick them up?
It was then that Applewhite began to rely very heavily on one particular strain of the cult’s beliefs: Human bodies were merely vessels, or “vehicles,” that were carrying them on their journey and could be abandoned when they were ready to ascend to the next level.
Nettles, Applewhite said, had left her body and returned to her home among TELAH beings. But he apparently still had work to do on this plane of existence, and would finish out their project and guide the cult members to meet her.
It was a subtle but important shift in the cult’s ideology — and it would have far-reaching and dangerous consequences.
The Mass Suicide
Members of Heaven’s Gate believed that suicide was wrong — but their definition of “suicide” was far different from the traditional one. They believed that the true meaning of suicide was turning against the next level when it was being offered to them. Tragically, this fatal “offer” was made in March 1997.
It’s not clear exactly where Applewhite got the idea that there was a UFO trailing behind Hale–Bopp, the brilliant comet whose forthcoming appearance was being forecast by an excited press.
Some blame Art Bell, the conspiracy theorist and radio host behind the popular program Coast to Coast AM, for publicizing the delusion that there was a “companion object” in the shadow of Hale-Bopp. But it’s hard to see how Bell could have anticipated what an increasingly worn and frazzled Applewhite would do with it.
Applewhite saw Bell’s revelation as a sign. He recorded himself saying the comet and UFO were “the only way to evacuate this Earth.” The spaceship that followed in the wake of Hale–Bopp was the flight the Heaven’s Gate members had been waiting for. It was coming to take them to the higher place they were seeking.
And it was coming just in time. If they waited any longer, Applewhite was convinced that the Earth was going to be recycled, wiped clean, with them still on it.
The 39 active Heaven’s Gate cult members had already used the money they had made from a variety of online enterprises — mostly designing web pages — to rent a 9,200 square foot mansion at 18341 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria) in Racho Sante Fe near San Diego. And they decided this gorgeous mansion would be the place where they left their “vehicles.” They paid $7,000 per month and called the home “The Monastery”.
The crew had a final celebratory meal the weekend before the mass suicide. They went to a restaurant where they all ordered the same thing, identical turkey pot pies. The waiter asked where they were from. One member replied, “from the car.”
On March 19–20, 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself in Do’s Final Exit, speaking of mass suicide and “the only way to evacuate this Earth”. Beginning on about March 22 or March 23, over the course of a couple days, the 39 cult members ate applesauce or pudding that had been laced with a heavy dose of barbiturates. Some washed it down with vodka to increase the drug’s potency.
They did it group by group, placing bags over their heads to ensure asphyxiation, and then waited for death.
Those later in the lineup cleaned up any mess made by the first groups and laid the bodies out neatly, covering them with purple shrouds. All 39, 21 women and 18 men between the ages of 26 and 72, were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, and brand new black-and-white Nike Decades athletic shoes.
Applewhite was the 37th to die, leaving behind only two others to prepare his corpse and, alone in a house full of bodies, take their own lives.
At the same time, and ex-member, Rio DiAngelo received a package on the evening of March 25. It 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.
Caller: Yes, I need to report an anonymous tip, who do I talk to?
Sherriff’s Department: Okay, this is regarding what?
Caller: This is regarding a mass suicide, and I can give you the address …
After the authorities were alerted (they later found the caller to be DiAngelo(), they found 39 people lying neatly in bunk beds and other resting places, dressed in identical black tracksuits and Nike sneakers and covered in purple shrouds. Their matching armbands read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”