Heaven's Gate was an American UFO cult based in San Diego, California and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931-1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927-1985).1 On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult, all of whom had died by apparent suicide.2
The group's end coincided with the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.3
Heaven's Gate members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled (wiped clean, renewed, refurbished and rejuvenated), and that the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately. While the group was formally against suicide, they defined "suicide" in their own context to mean "to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered",4 and believed that their "human" bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey.
The group believed in several paths for a person to leave the Earth and survive before the "recycling", one of which was hating this world strongly enough: "It is also possible that part of our test of faith is our hating this world, even our flesh body, to the extent to be willing to leave it without any proof of the Next Level's existence".
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," that was filmed on March 19, 1997, just days prior to the suicides.
In the months prior to their deaths, Thurston-ody, Sylvie-ody, and Elaine-ody worked for Advanced Development Group (ADG), Inc. producing computer-based instruction for the US Army. Upon resigning from ADG, the three informed their supervisor that they had completed their mission. A few weeks later, they were dead.
According to Jacques Vallée in his 1979 book Messengers of Deception,5 the group began in the early 1970s when Marshall Applewhite was recovering from a heart attack during which he claimed to have had a near-death experience. He came to believe that he and his nurse, Bonnie Nettles, were "the Two", that is, the two witnesses spoken of in Book of Revelation 11:3 in the Holy Bible. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to run an inspirational bookstore, they began traveling around the country giving talks about their belief system. As with other New Age faiths67 they combined Christian doctrine (particularly the ideas of salvation and apocalypse) with the concept of evolutionary advancement and travel to other worlds and dimensions.
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. At the time Vallée studied the group, it was called HIM (Human Individual Metamorphosis). The group re-invented and re-named itself several times and had a variety of recruitment methods.89
The structure of Heaven's Gate could be compared to that of a medieval monastic order.10 Group members gave up their material possessions and lived a highly ascetic life devoid of many indulgences. The group was tightly knit and everything was shared communally. Seven of the male members of the group, including Applewhite, voluntarily underwent castration in Mexico as an extreme means of maintaining the ascetic lifestyle.11
Economist and Crisis Consultant to the scene, Randall Bell writes from his book, Strategy 360,12 "The mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, sat on three acres, and the 9,000 square-foot home had every amenity. The cult members rented the house; the lease specifically limited occupancy to just seven people. Everything in the house was labeled. Every light switch, electrical outlet, shelf, cupboard, jar and container had a small label stating exactly what it turned on or contained inside. A colleague suggested that Do wanted to create an environment where all the thinking was already done. At the same time, no cult member was allowed to be alone. Monitoring devices were everywhere. There was a bizarre amount of wiring throughout the house and even down the chimney. Even when cult members spoke on the phone, someone was there to monitor the conversation."
The group funded itself by offering professional website development for paying clients under the name Higher Source.13
Cultural theorist Paul Virilio has described the San Diego-based UFO religious group, Heaven's Gate as a cybersect, due to the group's heavy reliance on CMC as a mode of communication prior to the group's collective suicide.14
Suicide and Aftermath
Thirty-eight of the group members, plus Applewhite, the group's leader, were found dead in a rented mansion in the upscale San Diego community of Rancho Santa Fe, California, on March 26, 1997. Two former members of Heaven's Gate, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys, later died in copycat suicides. Humphreys had survived a suicide pact with Cooke in May 1997, but successfully committed suicide in February 1998.1516 The mass death of the Heaven's Gate group was widely publicised in the media as an example of cult suicide.17
The suicide was accomplished by ingestion of phenobarbital mixed with vodka, along with plastic bags secured around their heads to induce asphyxiation. They were found lying neatly in their own bunk beds, with their faces and torsos covered by a square, purple cloth. Each member carried a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike athletic shoes, and armband patches reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team." The suicides were conducted in shifts, and the remaining members of the group cleaned up after each prior group's death.18
Economist and Crisis Consultant Randall Bell was hired to consult on the economical impact to the property and surrounding homes. He notes in his book, Strategy 36019:
While the press never knew it, the cult had sent a suicide letter to the home's owner. The tone of the letter suggested that they were actually doing the owner a favor by creating a famous event that would make the house an invaluable shrine. In reality, after the house was cleared of the bodies and their belongings, significant physical damage remained, which amounted to well over $200,000. Looking for some kind of break, the home owner tried to appeal his property taxes, only to receive a letter in return from the San Diego Assessor's Office that rejected his appeal on the grounds that a mass suicide in his property did not qualify as a disaster. Eventually, he was forced to give the property back to the bank. The bank sold it at a deep discount to a nearby neighbor who promptly had the house bulldozed.
Media Coverage Prior to Suicide
Although not widely known to the mainstream media, Heaven's Gate was known in UFO circles as well as a series of academic studies by sociologist Robert Balch. They also received coverage in Jacques Vallée's Messengers of Deception, 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.20
In January 1994, the LA Weekly ran an article on the group, then known as The Total Overcomers.21 Through this article Rio DiAngelo, a surviving member of the group, discovered the group and eventually joined them. DiAngelo was the subject of LA Weekly's 2007 cover story on the group.22
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 as "at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on."23